Entertainment

'The Bachelor' Romanticizes Toxic Behavior, and It Has Dangerous Outcomes

Cassie Randolph's restraining order against Colton Underwood requires us to reexamine how the series romanticizes abusive behavior.
Alex Zaragoza
Brooklyn, United States
September 21, 2020, 2:00pm
Bachelor Colton Underwood Stalking Cassie Randolph
Credit: Phillip Faraone / Getty

Colton Underwood's 2019 season of The Bachelor seemed like it would have an unconventional ending from the get-go. A boyish runner-up from Becca Kufrin's season of The Bachelorette, Underwood, now 28, was introverted, emotional, and, as host Chris Harrison pointed out many times, a virgin; producers framed him as a Nice Guy who kept coming in last. So when Underwood broke convention and ended his season not by proposing, but by jumping a fence and fleeing from the set after getting dumped by Cassie Randolph, one of his final four picks, producers relished the dramatic moment. When Underwood went after Randolph despite her insistence that she couldn't give him the fairy tale ending he deserved and the two ended up beginning a relationship regardless, the show stamped his season a success story, albeit one that didn't end with a Neil Lane ring.

Producers may have relished Underwood's melodramatic behavior on the show, but they probably didn't foresee how his relationship with Randolph would proceed—and eventually end again—once the cameras stopped rolling.

On September 11, Randolph, 25, filed a restraining order against Underwood, whom she claimed has been "stalking and harassing" her since their breakup this past spring, alleging that the behavior of the ex-Bachelor (now her ex-boyfriend) took a dark turn after the show, leading to obsessive harassment and stalking. Per the restraining order, Randolph claims that Underwood “sent her unsettling text messages, repeatedly called her, and placed a tracking device on her vehicle,” as well as lurked outside her apartment in Los Angeles and her parents' house in Huntington Beach, Calif. On one occasion, Randolph's brother and friends caught the former Bachelor standing outside her bedroom window at her parents' home at 2 a.m. And according to court documents, Underwood also incessantly called or texted Randolph's friends and family; sent messages to Randolph from different phone numbers, some making it evident he was following her; and claimed he was also being harassed by a stranger over text, only to admit he'd been sending the messages to himself. Reports surfaced this week that the court granted Randolph's request, and as a result, Underwood has been ordered to stay at least 100 yards away from Randolph's home, car, and work, as well as her parent's home.

The evidence is deeply concerning, but looking back at Underwood's time on The Bachelor and beyond, there have long been signs of his volatile and obsessive behavior. And the series' treatment of his reactive conduct as romantic sweeping gestures has only served to perpetuate abusive relationship standards.

When the former football player—who has also dated Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman and Pretty Little Liars actress Lucy Hale—jumped a fence and disappeared for two hours following Randolph's decision to leave the show, he became one of the franchise's most infamous Bachelors. Touted as one of the most dramatic moments in the show's history, the incident took place after Randolph admitted she was confused, wasn't "in love" with him and wanted to end their relationship, as Underwood grew more and more visibly upset. Once she'd left the Portuguese hotel where the crew was shooting, a furious Underwood pushed a camera out of his way, threw a piece of recording equipment, ripped off his microphone, and then scaled the fence and ran off into the night. The scene was teased ad nauseam leading up to the season and throughout, with seemingly endless replays of Underwood's impressive leap, as well as Harrison marveling, "He just jumped the fucking fence," and producers waving flashlights, searching for their leading man in the dark Portuguese countryside.

After the fence incident (and the public rejection), Underwood immediately quit the show, tearfully telling Harrison, "Every time I put myself out there, I get fucking rejected," though he later assured Harrison that he believed Randolph really loved him. He was going to fight for her, he told producers, and he flew to California to reunite with Randolph. He refused to take no for an answer, and eventually convinced Randolph to date him without the engagement that usually comes at the end of each season.

As their relationship developed off-camera, Underwood went on to write a memoir and vehemently criticized producers in various interviews, accusing them of interfering in his and Randolph's relationship. During one interview on a 2019 episode of NPR's This American Life, he said that he believed producers flew Randolph's dad out to Portugal to convince her to break up with him.

"I was thinking I just got screwed," Underwood told This American Life producer Emanuele Berry. "I was thinking that that wasn't her doing… If I feel like my relationship's going to be messed with or toyed with at all, I'm going to be done. Especially at this point, I've completely fallen in love… I mean, I had nothing to lose at that point besides the girl and the woman that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with."

After their breakup in May, Underwood had less flattering things to say about Randolph, first criticizing her appearance on the special The Bachelor: The Greatest Seasons Ever, where she addressed the breakup and admitted to being worried about upsetting him. He then appeared on the Reality Steve podcast to say he warned Randolph about going on the show and to double down on his anger toward producers. "You have Chris Harrison pointing questions saying, 'I sense you don't want to make Colton mad', or 'you're afraid you're going to upset Colton,'" he told reality television blogger Reality Steve. "It's like, 'No, Chris. I literally talked to her the morning of that interview. We're good.' Stop worrying about me or painting me to be this controlling or angry person. I'm not angry. If there's anybody I'm upset about or upset with, it's you guys." He admitted on the podcast to distancing himself from the franchise for mental health reasons.

Underwood's anger might be warranted, given the notoriously manipulative behavior of reality television show producers. But knowing what we know now, and looking back at the red flags Underwood exhibited on the show and in public, it's pretty clear that there has been a pattern of alarming behavior on his part as well. And while Underwood is wholly accountable for his off-camera behavior, producers do deserve criticism when it comes to their framing and enabling of the relationship, which has clearly ended in toxicity.

During the reunion for Underwood's season, Harrison gushed to the then-couple, "Now you know he jumped a fence for you and ran away… but apparently he ran into your arms." While she first appears uncomfortable discussing the fence jump, Randolph responds, "I'm glad that he did, too. I feel like the luckiest girl." Producers spun the bright red flag that was Underwood's on-camera outburst into a gesture of passion. That positive reinforcement for his off-the-wall action may have seemed justifiable at the time, but reads differently after hearing that Underwood continued pushing boundaries—tracking Randolph's car and bombarding her with harassing texts. What should we make of those behaviors if we're supposed to believe they're a sign of his undying love?

"This is what the producers want," said Maureen Curtis, the vice president of the Criminal Justice Program at Safe Horizon, a victim's assistance program. "They don't want just benign, everyday relationships. They want to see actions that are going to get them good ratings. So it wouldn't surprise me that producers would encourage behavior like this. And maybe they didn't realize where it would lead to."

Curtis has worked with countless stalking victims in her 35-year career, and she told VICE that the behavior laid out in the court documents—as well as Underwood's regular blaming of producers, Randolph, and others, for his actions—is "classic stalker behavior" and "common behavior in abusive relationships." "It's not taking responsibility for their own actions, for their own behavior, that potentially lead to the end of the relationship," she said.

Curtis explained that a high percentage of stalking behavior occurs where there was an intimate relationship, and often that behavior was occurring during the relationship as well. The problem is exacerbated by our society's romanticization of this type of toxic fixation and jealousy, which is dismissed as 'lovers' quarrels' or shows of affection. This portrayal creates real-life danger for stalking victims, who are often blamed for their abusive partner's behavior. One look at Underwood's Instagram comments shows many of his fans defending and supporting his behavior, even with clear evidence of his harassment of Randolph.

"People around [victims] are not taking it seriously, including sometimes the criminal justice system," said Curtis. "It's only in the past 10 years that stalking has become a crime and recognized as criminal behavior, but it's still one of the most underreported crimes."

From reality TV to rom-coms, the media's portrayal of stalking behavior in relationships is treated as romantic time and time again. This disturbing pattern is especially excused for male characters, and is intrinsically rooted in the misogynistic notion that women should be "won over." Take Crazy, Stupid Love, in which a kid who won't stop pestering his older babysitter is supposed to be a cute joke, even if he has 'future creep' written all over him. Or, there's Think Like a Man, which is practically a guide to being a patriarchal shithead that women must accept. Even a modicum of critical observation can reveal these tropes to be coercive, manipulative, or abusive

"As a society, we often support and sometimes condone what is abusive behavior and romanticize it, and equate it with love," said Curtis.

Rosara Torrisi, a sex and relationship therapist and the director of the Long Island Institute of Sex Therapy, agrees. "Since the advent of storytelling, there's been a media influence on the way we think of as a good relationship," she told VICE. "But in terms of this kind of behavior, we really truly have romanticized obsessive, manipulative, power control types of relationships and behaviors…[people get] lured into a relationship with somebody like that, but then at some point when they're trying to realize where did that turn into [something bad] they can maybe then recognize the danger of it…The idea that dating and relationships, and the communication, the hearts and love and passion and sex and pleasure, is a game is also problematic."

Torrisi explained that the cat-and-mouse aspect of dating shows like The Bachelor, in which the titular character often wavers between wanting to be with someone and not, "can be really confusing." Producer interference only makes this process worse, and in Underwood's view, was to blame for keeping him from Randolph. While Randolph initially seemed uncertain about Underwood (with or without producer meddling), the producers' actions likely fueled her confusion, and the context of meeting on a reality show clearly damaged the relationship from the get-go.

"That's, in a way, the purpose of a restraining order," said Torrisi. "It's like, This is real. I'm not just like making TV and I'm not getting a bunch of likes and sponsorships on Instagram. I really want you to leave me alone. And hopefully this will help with that."

Contestants go through a psychological screening and background process before appearing on the show, but there have been enough instances of troubling behavior from contestants over the years to suggest that those handling such an important task have done so irresponsibly, so much so that critics and viewers now continuously criticize how unethical those choices have often proven. On Jojo Fletcher's season of The Bachelorette, she contended with belligerent, meat-chomping Chad Johnson, who routinely antagonized his rivals for Fletcher's affections, even threatening physical violence and ripping one contestant's shirt after an uncomfortable joke. Last year, Johnson, who made the jump from reality TV to a porn career, tracked down Fletcher's and her now-fiancé Jordan Rogers' house and had sex with a woman outside of their home in a car, filming the entire disturbing incident. He wrote in an Instagram post, "I always told Jordan I’d find him… So I went to his house and I video’d exactly what happened for my website. Now every time Jordan and JoJo step foot inside their house they’ll think of me." The series has often glorified—or at least sought ratings from—an unhealthy and imbalanced power dynamic between the lead and contestants, encouraging competition between parties as long as it makes good television. Hell, encouraging anything as long as it makes good television.

Producers and the network are placing contestants in danger by not just inviting people onto the show who exhibit threatening behavior, but keeping them on and playing up that behavior for drama. Those on the receiving end of their aggression may feel uncomfortable or fearful, but producers and viewers reward them with adoration or notoriety.

Underwood has spoken openly about his mental health issues. There's plenty of evidence within the texts sent to Randolph that he's dealing with overwhelming emotional turmoil. "For people who aren't just kind of people out to hurt people," said Torrisi, "this often comes from a place of confusion and despair, wanting the other person to understand them… but it wouldn't be her job to help him find the closure to help him him through his stages of recognizing this is what's happening, my relationship with the person is ending."

"Once [an action] crosses that line where it's now abusive behavior, that person needs to take responsibility for what they're doing, and as a society [we need to as well], and a producer also needs to take some responsibility," added Curtis. "I think that's why it's bigger than the producers. It's really all of us in society, we need to look at ourselves and how we probably play into this."

Alex Zaragoza is a senior staff writer at VICE.