There are few more unifying spectacles than that of someone who seems terrible making a conspicuous fool of himself on television. This week, audiences — and seconds later, Twitter — lit up as Luke P., the villain of this season of reality dating show “The Bachelorette,” was finally sent packing by his self-avowed true love, Hannah Brown.
Luke P.’s final speech, followed by his refusal to leave when Brown asked him to, prompted an outcry of disgust from many viewers who had already identified his behavior as problematic. Brown’s eventual dismissal of Luke P. became the most satisfying moment of the ostensibly “romantic” program. But as is so often the case with confrontational, contradictory reality television, that collective triumph may have come at a bleak price.
The basic premise of “The Bachelorette” is that a group of bachelors compete over many weeks for the affections of one woman — the bachelorette. In the final episode, one of the two bachelors left standing is expected to propose.
Luke P., one of this season’s male contestants — and a self-avowed staunch Christian — was dismayed to learn on Monday night’s episode that Brown was not a virgin. For context, he’s not either. But like many hypocritical men who confuse obedience and fidelity, after hearing that she’d slept with other contestants, Luke P. protested: “I can understand a slip-up, but with all of them?”
Ignoring Brown’s assertions that she was free to do as she chose, he added: “I don’t even care about you saying that you have clarity on this. I still feel like… you don’t.”
Brown, undeterred, shot back: “I have had sex, and Jesus still loves me.”
Though the power balance between Brown and Luke P. was corrected in the end, many viewers noted that Luke P.’s behavior throughout the show was consistent with that of a “gaslighter” — a nonclinical term for someone who twists another person’s perception of reality to their own advantage. “In gaslighting, the perpetrator is trying to delegitimize the victim’s thoughts and beliefs about what’s happening,” Charlotte Armitage, a media psychologist told me.
While the audience may have caught on more quickly, examples of Luke P.’s manipulative behavior were peppered throughout the season long in advance of Brown losing patience with him.
In the second episode, he used a talent contest to declare to Brown that he loved her — in lieu of performing an actual talent. Such dramatic bursts of affection so early on are sometimes called “love bombing.” These are gestures intended to captivate targets and persuade them that what they’re experiencing is true, undeniable romance, when in fact they are just part of the journey toward gaining control over them.
As the series progressed, Luke P. regularly argued with Brown about her recollection of their previous conversations. His interpretation of events was always skewed, concluding in every instance that Brown — or another of the contestants — was wrong, and he the innocent victim.
“What I’m seeing is a very unstable man,” Armitage said to me. “He’s developed manipulative tactics to get his needs met. I don’t think he recognizes how manipulative he is.”
Whether this is the case or not, the audience consensus has been that Luke P. is awful, and Brown’s handling of the situation has been rightly applauded. But does that make broadcasting it on national TV a good idea? I put it to Armitage that this could normalize a dangerous form of emotional manipulation.
“I don’t think that it does,” Armitage said. “I think that in this situation, the way it’s been dealt with and edited makes it clear that his behavior has been identified as inappropriate. And Hannah handled it really well and stood her ground and got rid of him.”
Brown asserted herself admirably in Monday’s episode, and this might serve as a useful example for viewers in a similar position. But up until that point, Luke P. was free to exercise his destructive habits and play out misogynist tropes — which many men like him consider acceptable.
As is so often the case on reality television, though some progressive ground was gained, the question remains as to whether the unpleasant experiences of a few people on screen are acceptable collateral damage for the “learning moments” of their audience.
Brown ended the last episode on an empowered high. But she still stands to be awarded as a prize to whichever of the remaining bachelors makes it to the last hurdle. Reality television is awash with contradictions. “The Bachelorette” boasts more than most.