Dr Jodes unravels the idea of selflessness in romance, and why the romantic love has been such a powerful fantasy for heterosexual women.
Here we are again, pals! We’re down to six contenders – five blondes, one brunette – for the heart of Dr Matt Bachie. Everyone is deep in their feels, and shit has well and truly got real, in that (diegetically, at least) every single one of them is seriously considering what a life with him might look like.
Because of this, I want to expand on something I mentioned in my recap of last night’s episode and which reared its head back in Episode 7, that episode where the women were forced to rank each other by qualities they possessed. In said episode, Matt was asked what quality he values most highly in a partner, and he replied ‘selflessness’.
I don’t think I’ve been subtle about the fact that I quite like Matt (his enormous PE teacher energy aside), but this? oh no no no no I do not like this at all.
Why? Power, basically.
Let’s back up and take a broad look at the history of relationships. (NB: for any students of any humanities or social sciences disciplines reading, being this general is not good historical practice. Do as I say, not as I do in my Bachie recaps.) Loosely speaking, in the West, for many hundreds of years, women functioned as objects in a patriarchal economy. The most important bonds, societally speaking, were homosocial bonds – ie bonds between men. Women functioned as ways to strengthen these bonds – eg ‘hey, marry my daughter, and that means we can team up’. What women actually wanted to do, what they thought, what they felt, was more or less irrelevant.
(NB2: a lot of this is theoretical and discursive rather than practical, and was affected by many different axes, eg race, class. See previous NB about how sweeping generalisations are bad and you should not put them in your essays, students.)
As we moved into the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, where companionate marriage – ie marriage for romantic love – became a social ideal, and especially as we moved into the twentieth century and women started to enjoy more autonomy, particularly financial autonomy, there were necessary discursive shifts. If a woman is an independent and autonomous agent, rather than an object in a homosocial relationship between men, then what she wants becomes more important. What Anthony Giddens calls the ‘pure relationship’ becomes much more possible: ‘a relationship of sexual and emotional equality, which is explosive in its connotations for pre-existing forms of gender power’ (1992, 1).
This is one of the reasons why romantic love has been such a powerful cultural fantasy for heterosexual women in particular: narratively, love offers a chance for a woman to have what she wants respected. If a man loves you, even if you exist in a patriarchal system which doesn’t especially want you to be independent or autonomous, then the chances of you having your wishes and needs valued are much higher. Love gives the historically disempowered woman a chance to claim power, not by defeating the systemic patriarchy but by overwhelming the lone patriarch. As Catherine Roach puts it, the ‘fantasy here is that patriarchy ends, yet patriarchy continues, and you get a good man to love; that is, you now have the alpha-king for your own, as you have fought and vanquished him on the battlefield of love’ (2010, 11, emphasis in original).
Even though we are as a society doing a lot better now at realising that women are people, we’re still haunted by the spectre of previous discourses on relationships. This is particularly true of heterosexual relationships, where we tend to assume that the woman will set her needs aside for the benefit of the man. Think, for instance, of how often this plays out around issues of work and parental leave. It’s assumed that the woman will take on the brunt of the labour of parenting, leaving the man to be the breadwinner and pursue career success. His goals as an individual are prioritised, while any goals she had are subsumed into the family and the communal. There’s a reason that we often view mothers as the most selfless people of all: in our cultural imagination, they set aside everything, sacrifice everything, for the sake of their families.
(NB3: none of this is to say that there aren’t families that follow this model – breadwinner father, family-focused mother – that aren’t very happy. There are many. I’m speaking here in big picture discursive terms, rather than in specific practical ones.)
Perhaps it is just because I am a very selfish person myself (as I recently admitted in a major Australian newspaper) that Matt saying he valued ‘selflessness’ raised my hackles, but I don’t think it is. This ideal of the selfless woman – one who’ll set aside the specifics of what she wants to fit into what he wants – is one with a whole lot of pernicious history behind it, and it’s not a history that’s been particularly good or kind to women. This is something that famous feminist critic Adrienne Rich talked about in ‘When The Dead Awaken’:
The choice still seemed to be between ‘love’ – womanly, maternal love, altruistic love – a love defined and ruled by the weight of an entire culture; and egotism – a force directed by men into creation, achievement, ambition, often at the expense of others, but justifiably so. For weren’t they men, and wasn’t that their destiny as womanly, selfless love was ours? We know now that the alternatives are false ones – that the word ‘love’ is itself in need of re-vision (1979, 46-47).
One thing I liked about last night’s episode was that Snezana and Laura really put some pressure on this idea that the women should automatically conform to Matt’s narrative of what the future should look like. When Abbie was like, ‘look, I’m 23, but I like Matt so much I’d do basically anything to be with him,’ they were like, ‘oh dear, yikes’. And when Chelsie and especially Helena were like, ‘look, this is where I am right now, it’s not ideally what Matt wants but I’m not going to shift my boundaries just to suit him,’ they valued that highly.
What I’m getting at here is something I already articulated last night, but I want to say it more forcefully. Be selfish in romantic relationships. Wanting the other person is not enough if it requires sacrificing everything else you want. Maintain your boundaries. Be the protagonist in your own story, and don’t just sidestep into someone else’s. If we’re ever going to get close to Giddens’ idea of the pure relationship, then this particular narrative about women being selfless in order to get a good man is one of the first narratives we need to unravel.
Also, let me call you out for a second, Space Bachie. Next time you say you’re looking for a selfless partner, really think about what the implications of that are, bro.
Some more pressure is put on Matt’s narrative of what he wants his future to look like tonight, so without further ado: let’s get into the recap.
Last night, there was a dangling thread about Helena’s inability to express her feelings for Matt. I criticised it for not being followed through, but it gets picked up again tonight, because it’s time for Helena’s second date.
Said date begins with Matt enthusiastically monologuing to Helena about the car he’s driving. I know this is product placement, but personally, I can’t think of anything less romantic than hearing a man monologue to me about a car. Whenever my brothers talk about cars in my vicinity, all I hear are sad trombone sounds.
…oh wait, maybe I can think of something less romantic than the car monologue. ‘Come on, Helena, let’s put together a timeline of our next ten years together!’ Matt cheerfully announces.
Reminder: they have been on two dates and he currently has five other girlfriends.
Helena hasn’t had a lot of screen time this season, but you know what? I’ve seen enough of her to know I really like her. ‘Oh shitttttttttttt, this is a lot,’ she says, and books it.
I cannot overstate what a deeply sensible response this is. Can you imagine how you would feel if you turned up for your second date with someone and they asked you to plan out the next ten years? I have enough trouble when my workplace asks me to write a three-year plan, and I’m 100% invested in my career. Helena’s known Matt for approximately five minutes.
‘It’s just a lot of pressure, you know?’ she confesses to a producer.
I have my fingers crossed that eventually, this is going to lead to a payoff where Helena ditches Matt. I like Matt fine, but I think it’s good for a Bachie to get dumped every now and then. Keeps them honest.
That payoff is not going to come now, however. Instead of a Couch of Wine and Intimate Conversation, Helena and Matt meet back up at a bathtub in front of an enormous projection of the moon. ‘I really want to spend time with you,’ Matt tells Helena earnestly. ‘I’m sorry if I freaked you out before.’
‘I could see myself falling in love with you,’ Helena replies, and they kiss in their fake moonlit bathtub (thankfully not filled with chocolate), and she gets a rose.
Kiss watch: on like Donkey Kong.
Brief tangent: I’m so interested in how the phrase ‘I want to spend time with you’ operates as a stand-in for emotional confession. Obviously, there are restrictions placed on the emotional confessions the Bach can make, but this might be the closest they can get: expressing feeling in terms of time. It says something about the entanglement of emotion and temporality I need to think through, but it reminds me of a line from Lauren Berlant I quoted a few recaps ago: ‘the form of love is an intention – not a compulsion – to repeat being attached’ (2008, 15).
Next, it’s group date time. And this is a lesson in why drafting is important, because this is very clearly an early draft of a date that did not get thought the whole way through. Here is what I think went on in the writers’ room.
WRITER ONE: hey, isn’t there some bullshit in Fifty Shades about an inner goddess? How can we turn that into a date?
WRITER TWO: I think we should do a date with a drag queen!
WRITER FOUR: ¿por que no los tres?
Basically, this is an art class, directed by a drag queen, where Matt and his six girlfriends all have to paint portraits of their ‘inner queens’. Perhaps this was explained slightly better to them, but conceptually and narratively, I feel like this needed a little bit of finessing.
However, I might be being quite unfair here, because a couple of narratives develop considerably during this painting date:
- Relations between Elly and Abbie sour further when Abbie plonks herself next to Matt and they spend basically the whole time flirting. ‘I need some alone time with Matt so I can tell him about Abbie!’ Elly fumes.
- Chelsie has a crisis of confidence. Nominally, this is over not being good at art, but when the drag queen takes her aside for a chat, she starts crying. Because of the emotional abuse she suffered in her previous relationship (which she told Matt about a few episodes ago), she’s perpetually worried that she’s not good enough.
And…you guys. I know Chelsie hasn’t had a massive amount of screen time compared to Elly and Abbie, but I am just all in on her and Matt, the most beautiful nerds in the country. The self portrait of her inner queen she ultimately paints is not artistically wonderful, but it represents different parts of her personality. She’s included glitter for her brain, and mathematical integrals for her ears, and Matt’s eyes just light up, and oh god please let them end up together, they are such pretty sexy dorks.
She gets the one-on-one time with Matt after the group date and it’s very sweet. ‘You’ve expressed some concerns about your self-worth a few times,’ he says to her. ‘Are you all right?’
‘I’ve healed,’ Chelsie replies. ‘I’m just a little worried about getting knocked down again. But I can absolutely see myself having a future with you, and falling in love with you.’
And they pashed, and she got a rose, and even though there was a slight implication that he was trying to work out whether she was too ‘broken’ to date that I didn’t love, I’m just so invested in these two. They seem entirely perfect for each other. (Also: there’s that temporal concern again! ‘I could see a future with you’ is another one of those amazing emotional sentences that is actually about time.)
Kiss watch: glasses-fogging pash.
The narrative thread about Elly and Abbie gets picked up again at the cocktail party. Honestly, this seems like some mountain/molehill stuff, because the drama here is real Night One kind of stuff. Basically, Elly is annoyed that Abbie manipulated the date card away from her last night, and then when Abbie grabs Matt first at the cocktail party – after Elly had specifically bagsed him! – she gets even more annoyed, so she – gasp! – interrupts their chat and asks if she can talk to him herself.
Of course, Matt is like, ‘yep, let’s chat, Elly!’ and then Elly manages to fall into a classic Bachie trap: talking about another woman rather than yourself. ‘I just don’t think Abbie’s here for the right reasons,’ she tells Matt. ‘And I don’t she’s mature enough to be with you in the long run.’
‘Are you?’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ she replies (reminder: she is 24 and Abbie is 23).
Afterwards, Elly confronts Abbie. ‘I just wish you’d have put me first,’ she tells her.
‘I get that,’ Abbie tells her. ‘It’s just that Matt was right in front of me when he came out, so I just… grabbed him.’
‘Why would I send him to her when she and I are in direct competition for him?’ Abbie tells the camera, rolling her eyes.
Honestly, if Abbie weren’t 23 – and if I weren’t all in on Matt and Chelsie, sexy nerds in love – I might be pulling for Abbie to win this thing. I love her assertiveness and articulateness, and she and Matt genuinely seem to have chemistry, and didn’t I just say you should be selfish when it comes to establishing a relationship? Sometimes she’s a little yikes-y in this department (cf. all the things she said to Snezana and Laura in yesterday’s episode), but other times, she just does whatever the fuck she wants.
(She’s still 23, though. And Matt and Chelsie are still sexy nerds who belong together.)
By shit-talking Abbie, I’m fairly sure that Elly has stepped into the narrative shoes left vacant by Monique and Sogand, and, like them, this will probably ultimately cause her own downfall. However, she clearly had enough of an impact for Matt to narratively punish Abbie by giving her the final rose at the rose ceremony.
Tonight, we say goodbye to Kristen, who had one very good date with Matt but never really did much else, if we set aside the problematic orientalism of her first episode debut. ‘Who do you think Matt will end up with?’ the producer asks her in the limo on the way out.
‘Emma,’ she replies immediately. ‘Or Elly.’
‘And if it’s Abbie?’
‘Jesus Christ,’ Kristen mutters.
Next week, it looks like Elly and Abbie are seriously going to get into it at a cocktail party. Fingers crossed that while that happens, Matt and Chelsie are off elsewhere being adorable nerds in love.
Sneaky end-of-recap reminder: if you’re in Melbourne this weekend, you can catch me at a couple of events! I’ll be at YA Litfest at Whitehorse Manningham Libraries on Saturday 7 September, and moderating the Melbourne Writers’ Festival panel Romance as Resistance on Sunday 8 September.
The show airs on Channel 10. You can catch up on previous episodes via TenPlay.