A Bachelorette F***ing in a Windmill
Matthew H. Brittingham / Emory University
Season 15 of ABC’s reality TV show The Bachelorette (2003-present) had an interesting scene late in the season: bachelorette Hannah Brown of Tuscaloosa, AL and contestant Luke Parker of Gainesville, GA had a very intense discussion about sex, faith, and the Fantasy Suite. The Fantasy Suite is a luxurious room where the bachelor or bachelorette, if they so desire, can become intimate with contestants. It is a staple of the show when the number of contestants has been cut to the last few. Luke, a kind of villain character on the show who took Hannah to his hometown church in one scene, sat with Hannah over dinner and appeared to call into question the consistency of Hannah’s beliefs, if she were to invite contestants into the Fantasy Suite. Hannah, also a professing Christian, took offense, “you’re judging me and feel like you have the right to when you don’t at this point… guess what, sex might be a sin outside of marriage, but pride is a sin too. I feel like this is a pride thing… I’m a grown woman and can make my own decisions.” Luke again and again tried to backtrack, but his own foot had moved past his mouth and was already entering his stomach. She rejected the idea that, in her words, “you would not think of me as a woman of faith like I am.” Right before pushing Luke into the limousine and basically off the show, she said something that caused a public stir, “I have had sex… and Jesus still loves me.” She then followed this statement by saying that she has already had sex with another contestant on the show… in a windmill no less. In an interspliced interview, she turned to the camera and said “I didn’t just go to the Fantasy Suite, I f***ed in a windmill. And guess what, we did it a second time,” winking at the camera after this last line. The whole situation and conversation between Hannah and Luke was awkward and clearly Luke did not want to leave the show—he tried to convince her to hear him out multiple times.
The exchange immediately spilled onto social media and occupied the news for the next several weeks. There were earlier signs that Hannah was clearly a Christian while also not being a holier-than-thou stereotype of a Christian. In the first episode of the show the viewer sees Hannah pray to God for strength before meeting the bachelors. Later in the first episode, after it is revealed that one of the bachelors has a girlfriend back at home, we hear Hannah dropping bleeped out words left and right. In the exchange with Luke above, we hear the same—talking about how Jesus loves her moments before discussing f***ing in a windmill. For the Bachelor/Bachelorette series in particular, this was new territory. In a broader sense, however, religion has been present on reality TV since its near-beginning, and it continues to be a force. There was little new about that part of the spectacle. As some scholars who have written about religion and reality TV would say, it was a classic moment of where “Reality television turns intimate moments of prayer, confession, ecstasy and sin into spectacle” (Einstein, Winston, and Madden p. 8).
Everybody wanted to participate in the spectacle as Hannah’s sexuality and its connection to Christian piety or impiety, depending on one’s perspective, brought forth boos and cheers. It was a media rose ceremony of sorts. Conversations about Hannah’s faith and position on sex before marriage ranged from The American Conservative to Fox News to The Daily Beast to NPR, with all the types of responses one could imagine. She was supported and attacked in all the normal venues for these kinds of conversations as well — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. In an interview with People Hannah talked about how “soul-crushing” it was to hear some people say that she “misrepresent being a Christian.” Instead, she affirmed that she “can be a woman of faith and also be sex-positive.” Today reported, quoting Hannah, that “In fact, as ‘an imperfect human, who is yes, also a Christian,’ she believes she’s a good representation of the redemptive nature of her faith.” In an NPR interview, Hannah stated, “It’s tough, because my faith is really important to me, and I do know the Bible, and I do know what it says, and I still stand by what I said. But a lot of people will try to sway what it actually means.” In this same interview, she talked about her background and why the conversation with Luke really irked her:
And I used to carry a lot of shame because I had had sex before. And in that moment, [being questioned by Luke P.], I felt like I was right back in church, just feeling like I was not enough. And that’s what I meant. Well you know what, I have had sex, but, like, I know my relationship with the Lord, I know that he forgives me. He loves me. And I’m not alone in that.
Along with many, many interviews with other media outlets, Hannah posted her own Instagram response to the vile slut-shaming comments she received. The Instagram post likewise became a place where her defenders could rally around her cause.
The media depiction of Hannah’s Christianity and sexuality, as well as her self-portrayal, is notable given trends in American Christianity. Having felt judged and having carried shame in a church she once attended, she framed herself, and was also framed by media commentators, as a “sex-positive” Christian. Certainly, in terms of shame, sex, and church, heavy criticism has been poured on conservative Christian purity culture, a culture with which Hannah appears to be at odds. Hannah, rather, framed her sense of spirituality as a personal relationship with God, a relationship that, in her words, contrasted with once “just feeling like I was not enough” in church. The contrast of shame/sex-positive is still in some ways a reinscription of old fuddy-duddy stereotypes about certain Christians, as if conservative Christians are sex-negative or don’t like having sex (for example, see: Williams 2013). Actually, scholar Kelsy Burke (2016) has shown that conservative Christians love talking about sexual pleasure, placed within certain boundaries of course. On the other hand, Burke’s research does indeed show the opposite too: there are negative Christian messages about sexual pleasure from religious leaders who seek to define the boundaries of who should be doing what, where, and with whom. In American Christianity, these constantly negotiated boundaries have complex histories, both on the more conservative and more liberal side of the bed.
In her self-representation, Hannah further tapped into longstanding religious rhetoric of potential transgression and imperfection. She called herself a person who had “slipped” and “wasn’t perfect,” despite her positive relationship with God. Luke actually tapped into the same rhetoric when he responded to what happened between Hannah and himself. He wrote on Instagram, “our conversations and our beliefs led me to believe we were on the same page about sex… As for my time on the show I made mistakes and no I’m not perfect (crazy right) I didn’t totally behave as the man I want to be and I did not represent Christ the way I thought I was prepared to and that has broken me.” [The feud over sex and religion was ongoing too…]. The representation of Christians with two different views of sex is not necessarily new, but it is interesting in light of how Hannah and various media outlets were able to frame the clash in terms of a devout Christian who is “sex-positive” and on a not yet completed faith journey. The spectacle of Hannah and Luke’s conversation might leave a little to be desired for viewers who want a more definitive position from the bachelorette heroine, whichever way that may be. Regardless, the rhetorical work allowed many viewers to treat Hannah sympathetically, even if they did not totally agree with her. It is this small taste of cloudiness surrounding the fairly well manicured reality TV world that provides just enough titillation and just enough distance from completion to keep viewers coming back. This is not perhaps what critic Michael Warner called “‘the agony’ of ‘choosing between the orgasm and religion” (cited in Burke, p. 3), rather it is the tense agony of having a bit of both without being completely satisfied.
Kelsy Burke, Christians Under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2016.
Mara Einstein, Katherine Madden, Diane Winston (eds.). Religion and Reality TV: Faith in Late Capitalism. New York: Routledge, 2018.
Daniel K. Williams, “Sex and the Evangelicals: Gender Issues, the Sexual Revolution, and Abortion in the 1960s,” in American Evangelicals and the 1960s, Axel R. Schäfer (ed.). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013.