Colton Underwood, the titular leading man on the 23rd season of The Bachelor, came out as gay on Good Morning America on Wednesday, stunning Bachelor Nation, as our sorry lot refer to ourselves. He’s also reportedly “weeks” into filming a Netflix reality show about his coming out; Gus Kenworthy will appear. Most fans have received the news with shock, but speaking as the gay son of a Southern pastor, my reaction was a little different: I am in fact completely unsurprised that a conservative Catholic former NFL player would go on a nationally televised heterosexual dating show simply to convince himself he’s straight. And now that I’ve rewatched parts of his season, I’m starting to wonder how we never noticed in the first place.
What a season it was. Colton’s narrative from the beginning of his Bachelordom—and in his stint on Becca’s season of The Bachelorette—centered on his virginity. It was a constant talking point that cropped up in conversations with all of the women he pursued, and even became a way for the show to sell itself. Chris Harrison, the series’ longtime host, teased the season by saying that viewers were in for a dramatic season because Colton “just might lose something along the way.”
Yikes! Indeed, Underwood’s virginity was used by ABC to hook the wide swath of conservative viewers that continues to drive the show’s high ratings, and producers framed his sexual inexperience as a noble quality, rather than a signal that something was a little off. Yes, there are plenty of perfectly normal virginal men in their late 20s, but not many who parlay an NFL gig into a berth in the reality swamp, and The Bachelor—which has long had deeply weird issues with sex—couldn’t get enough. If it all made you a little queasy then, it’s downright hard to watch now, when it’s so clear Underwood became convinced virginity was a way to sell his heterosexuality even to himself. Sometimes the things we say loudest are the things we’re lying about the most, and who among us once-closeted homosexuals hasn’t vocally proclaimed his heterosexuality in front of an entire summer theater program in high school? Underwood simply did his version with 30 women—and, uh, several million viewers.
If you also choose to revisit Underwood’s season, as much of the internet seemed to today, the constant “virgin” refrain won’t be the only time you wince. In the first episode, as Underwood greeted Demi, the first woman to step out of the limo—who herself would go on to be the first-ever queer Bachelor contestant when she came out as bisexual on Bachelor in Paradise—he looked at her pale-yellow gown and said, “love that color.” Every time a woman hugs him in the intro, it looks like a counselor saying goodbye to a camper. The same night, he tells the camera that he is dating six times more women than he’d ever dated in his entire life. He is convincing there.
In Episode 2, Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman appear for a Moth-style performance night, where all the women on the date will share important “firsts” in their lives, like a first kiss or a first breakup—something to reveal a truth about themselves to their potential future husband. And of course, the first person to take the stage before the ladies start sharing is Underwood, who opens with the line, “For most of my adult life, I had a secret.” Oof. He continues, “For many years, I allowed this to be a burden on my life, and it was unnecessary. But for the first time, I told the truth about”—wait for it—”my virginity.”
Later in that same episode, Billy Eichner pops up in what has now become a much-circulated clip in which he jokes, “You may be the first gay bachelor,” a would-be wacky gag lobbed at the hetero marriage industrial complex that is The Bachelor’s entire premise, but the look of bewilderment on Underwood’s face and his inability to respond coherently shows just how thin his veneer had worn. He looks like a boy caught looking at shirtless pics of dudes in his sister’s CosmoGirl for definitely not-gay reasons.
As the season goes on, Underwood tells one of the women, “I accidentally ended up a virgin,” repeating his rote refrain about getting too wrapped up in religion, and later his football career, to ever have time for a significant woman in his life. At another point, he spends an evening making out with a woman in his bed only for their final shot together to be of him getting her to help him make it again. Speaking of kissing, a handful of women from his season claimed on Bachelor in Paradise—which seemed mean then and seems absolutely brutal now—that he was the worst kiss they’d ever had. You can, um, see this in action whenever he plants one on these poor women, as he does distressingly often.
Taken as a whole, these scenes now play like heterosexual theater, an artificial performance of what Underwood presumes women wanted to hear and do. He wasn’t falling in love with any of the women he pursued. He was falling in love with the idea he’d created in his head of the straight life he thought he was supposed to have. Been there! Except the part about auditioning beards on national television.
Late in the season, the breaking point comes with Underwood’s infamous “fence jump,” and let me tell you—it hits differently now. After contestant Cassie chose to leave the show, even though he begged her to stay, he stormed away, pushing a cameraman out of the way and leaping a fence to flee the production location so quickly that Chris Harrison and company fully lost track of him. It turns out he wasn’t just furious a woman has spurned his advances—he was terrified the charade was falling down.
The episode was also a darker warning, as many have been quick to point out as congratulations have flowed to Underwood today. By the season’s end, Cassie had returned, and the two ended up together for a year. That eventually ended in a restraining order on Underwood sought by Cassie after he kept appearing unannounced, harassing her, and put a tracker on her car. The truth of what was going on somehow makes this even more harrowing. (He apologized to Cassie through Robin Roberts on Good Morning America, and said the impasse between the couple led him to a dark, possibly suicidal place.)
What to do with all of this? For one thing, I sincerely hope Underwood never watches his season again—it would have to be like the worst possible example of revisiting old home movies and thinking, “How did no one notice? How did I think no one noticed?” But I’d posit this whole ordeal is most brutal for The Bachelor. After the interview, the show released a supportive statement, and Harrison said he’s “proud” of Colton: “Happy to see you stand up and openly live your truth,” he mimed publicly. In truth, there is approximately zero chance the producers on this show are actually happy that Underwood has delivered another blow to the series’ retrograde, fictitious gloss on American courtship. Everyone knows that The Bachelor is a farce, but it keeps finding new lows to surprise and horrify us.
As for Underwood, I’m certainly not going to pull a Dan Levy and claim that another cis white athlete’s coming out will “undoubtedly” save lives, but his decision certainly saved himself, and that’s the most important thing honesty like this can do. I am happy he’s able to embrace the deep joy and relief that coming out can bring. But I have to admit that the sinister machinery Underwood wrapped himself in—to say nothing of his actual legal troubles—as he came to this moment makes me a little skeptical about what’s to come now.