Mild spoilers ahead.
Early on in Monday’s episode of Bachelor in Paradise, Ashley Iaconetti gave one of the show’s many, many confessional interviews. There wasn’t much for her to confess, though, since Ashley is not big on hiding her feelings: For her, she said, being in Mexico with her ex and his new girlfriend has been extremely un-fun. “This has actually turned into my greatest nightmare,” Ashley told the show’s camera, “and every day, the nightmare gets darker and darker. I’m getting to the point where I’m looking at the undertow over there, and thinking how desirable it would be to just let myself go into it.”
Casual talk of suicide: This is standard-issue stuff for a show that toys with big themes—violence, villainy, the perpetual mysteries of Love—and then, for the most part, brushes them aside so as to depict its contestants making out in its “rose palapa.” The glibness is also typical, however, for a show that treats its contestants as “tropes” as often as it treats them as “people”: Ashley is, per the longstanding convention of reality TV, “the crazy one.” Of course she’d blithely imply ending it all in the undertow.
Bachelor in Paradise, even more than its fellow shows in the Bachelor franchise, has perfected a style you might call deus-ex-camera: It bestows upon its production staff—producers and editors—a kind of narrative omnipotence. Editors in particular serve, within the show’s universe, as godlike arbiters of contestants’ fates via their assignments of recognizable identities. There’s the clown edit (Hayley and Emily, whose occupations the show lists, unironically, as “Twin,” and who enjoy swapping outfits to fool their fellow contestants). There’s the nerd edit (Evan—occupation: Erectile Dysfunction Specialist—eating a banana). There is, of course, the villain edit. But there is also a sub-category of villain in the show’s tropic taxonomy. Bachelor in Paradise, recently, has emphasized, via Lace but particularly via Ashley … the crazy edit.
The crazy edit is at this point the stuff of reality-TV cliché: It emphasizes overreactions. And dramatic reversals of emotion. It involves tears, a lot of them, often wiped away from under the eyes so as not to disrupt the tear-haver’s eye makeup. It invokes, at its peak, protestations of “I swear I’m not crazy.”
It hardly needs saying, but the crazy edit will almost always be given to a woman.
Ashley has been, throughout her many appearances on the shows of the Bachelor franchise, particularly ripe for that particular edit. As a character, she’s repeatedly and reliably served as a tearful agent of chaos—a gif just waiting to be made. There Ashley was, crying and chaos-ing, on Chris’s season of The Bachelor. There she was, doing the same thing, on the first season of Bachelor in Paradise. (“This is not paradise, I’m having an awful time right now,” was Ashley’s confession in that case, her declaration of non-fun managing at once to echo and to foreshadow the other appearances she’d make in the franchise.)
Monday’s Bachelor in Paradise, though, took things a step further. The episode didn’t stop merely at making Ashley seem over-emotional and under-stable; it also went ahead and mocked her for all of that. The show the crazy edit it had bestowed on Ashley ... and made fun of it.
And so, directly after Ashley hinted at suicide? She changed the subject of her “confession.” Tearing up anew, Ashley admitted, “A couple months ago, my dog died, and she’s like my best friend.” She continued, through her tears: “But I know she went to heaven, because all dogs do, and even though Lucy’s ashes are in a jar in my house, I know that the spirit of my dog Lucy is going to help me on this journey.”
Yes. The whole thing had the feel of that Office episode in which Pam gets drunk and admits that “I feel God in this Chili’s tonight”: It was absurd in its very pretense toward seriousness.
The absurdity was increased when Ashley capped off her tearful remembrance of Lucy, the departed canine, by raising her hands to her chest in a gesture of prayer. “Lucy,” Ashley prayed, as vaguely church-like music swelled around her, “please let some guy that I actually will have some sort of instant chemistry and connection with walk in that door, because I’m really scared that I am going to completely lose my mind.”
With that, the episode cut away from Ashley to show a montage of the dogs of “Paradise”: strays lounging on the beach, frolicking in the water, running on a dock. And then: The episode’s editors superimposed over a sun-streaked cloud an image of “Lucy,” hovering in doggy divinity above the ocean.
This is the kind of nothing-is-sacred ridiculousness you’d expect from a show that has been referred to, by its own host, as “truly a train wreck.” The Bachelor franchise is infamous for the way it encourages its various dramas and melodramas to transpire—with the help of, among other things, lots of boredom and lots of booze. (That is precisely the thing that UnREAL, one of whose original showrunners was previously a producer on The Bachelor, so darkly satirizes in its plot lines.) Monday’s Ashley-praying-to-her-jarred-dog moment served, or attempted to serve, as a gesture of determined lightheartedness on the part of the show’s powers that be: Yes, the show insisted, one of our characters implied that she was thinking about suicide and also said she was scared of losing her mind. But really, don’t worry about her! She’s fine! This is fake! It’s all just a big joke!
And of course it is, in part, just a big joke; Bachelor in Paradise is, like any reality show will be, a hall of mirrors. And Ashley, certainly, is the one giving these interviews in the first place; she is the one who is praying to her deceased dog on national television. She is complicit in her own performative “crazy.”
Even more complicit, though, are the invisible production staff—themselves agents of chaos—who saw fit to make “Ashley” synonymous with “crazy.” The crazy edit, for all its quirky Photoshopping, is pernicious precisely because it is the kind of thing you wouldn’t see applied to a man: It taps into longstanding, highly gendered ideas about women and emotion and mental health. The crazy edit takes the threat of violence posed by male villains (see: the Meat Chad menace) and turns it into a different kind of threat—of “hysteria,” of the social destruction that can be wrought when women reject their historical mandates toward complacency and compromise. Bachelor in Paradise, with its fake lashes and off-the-shoulder tops and poolside Chuck Taylors, is very much the product of mid-2016; in this broader sense, though, there is also something extremely Victorian about it. Here is a show that is in its way equating “having feelings” with “being crazy.”
How Ashley’s story will resolve itself in all this remains to be seen; soon after her tearful prayer to her dog, Wells—“a guy that I actually will have some sort of instant chemistry and connection with”—was introduced to Paradise by the show’s god-producers. Wells immediately asked Ashley out; they had a good date. Perhaps, the show is suggesting, even finding oneself the subject of a crazy edit has its rewards. Still, as Ashley put it of the “nightmare” she’d been living before the show’s producers saw fit to save her from herself: “I mean, I feel like it’s, like, demoralizing.”