Arts, Culture, and Entertainment

Colton Underwood coming out represents a larger conversation

Experts talk about how to balance Underwood’s authentic self and his past behavior

“I am proud to be gay,” former lead of “The Bachelor” Colton Underwood told “Good Morning America’s” Robin Roberts.

On April 14, Underwood sat down with Roberts and spoke his truth. He revealed throughout the past year he has run away from and has hated himself for a long time before coming to terms with who he is, and who he loves.

The audience’s response to Underwood’s interview was swift. Many on social media were happy Underwood is now able to live his authentic truth, while many others criticized GMA for giving Underwood a platform when he is known for stalking and harassing his ex, Cassie Randolph.

This dichotomy presented a larger conversation within popular culture: how to reckon aspects of celebrities while holding them accountable for their actions.

Underwood was a contestant on the popular ABC franchise “The Bachelorette” in 2018 before making an appearance on “Bachelor in Paradise” and then becoming “The Bachelor” lead in 2019.

During his stint as “The Bachelor,” he didn’t leave the show with a proposal but he and his final contestant, Randolph, did date for over a year. In May of 2020, the two announced their split.

It was no easy breakup. During “The Bachelor: The Greatest Seasons - Ever,” host Chris Harrison asked Randolph about the split. Randolph did not reveal much, calling the split a sensitive subject and an emotional subject to talk about publicly.

Despite Randolph not revealing any public details about their breakup, Underwood and Randolph began a series of Instagram story wars. Underwood claimed Randolph broke their agreement of not discussing the breakup in public. To which, Randolph posted that she remained vague during the “Bachelor” interview for a reason and simply wanted to give back to the franchise that gave her so many opportunities.

In September, Randolph filed for a restraining order against Underwood for allegedly harassing and stalking her.

Randolph accused Underwood of sending alarming text messages, placing a tracking device on her car and using fake phone numbers to text her friends and family. She stated her brother even saw Underwood in an alley by her bedroom one morning at 2 a.m.

In November, Randolph and Underwood came to a private agreement and the restraining order against Underwood was dropped.

Despite the agreement, many were upset when speaking about Randolph to Robin Roberts, Underwood nor GMA went into much detail about the accusations against Underwood.

Roberts referred to the restraining order, while Underwood said, “I would like to say sorry for how things ended. I messed up, I made a lot of bad choices,” and said he was in love with Randolph during their relationship.

“It’s hard for me to articulate exactly what my emotions were and going through that relationship with her was, because I obviously had an internal fight going on,” Underwood said. “I would just say I’m sorry, from the bottom of my heart.”

To some, this wasn’t enough. Dustin Kidd, a sociology professor at Temple University with expertise in popular culture, said while there was the statement and apology in the interview from Underwood, it wasn’t exactly clarified what the apology was for.

“It does gloss over the accusations of aggressive and stalking behaviors towards his ex, Cassie Randolph. There needs to be some kind of reckoning for those behaviors,” Kidd said.

And the backlash was warranted, Kidd said, “People are sort of reminding GMA that you can’t gloss over these issues.”

Many commented saying this interview presented a great dichotomy. There’s no reason why we can’t be happy for Underwood and still hold him accountable for his actions, said David Schmid, a professor of English at the University of Buffalo with expertise in popular culture and celebrities. But, that’s not exactly what we’re seeing.

“The facts, that the coming out making more headlines than the harassment story is just an indication, that Me Too is very, very fragile,” he said, referring to the social movement against sexual abuse and harassment. “We obviously still live in a sexist, patriarchal society. And that’s something that needs to be constantly reiterated and constantly sort of brought to people’s attention.”

Kidd said this intersection is a grey area but people are allowed to feel both happy and yet not celebratory towards Underwood’s past.

Part of the problem for Schmid is that shows like GMA are not calling celebrities out. And Colton’s interview continues a practice of celebrities being interviewed without acknowledging or reckoning past behaviors.

“As a culture, we tend to have a difficult time, often sort of examining our own history,” he said. “Especially when it comes to celebrities. We’re almost sort of tempted to say, oh, let’s just let bygones be bygones.”

Following the interview, news broke Underwood is working with Netflix on a new dating series, which was reported by Variety. The industry publication said the show is currently in production. This announcement led some to question whether Underwood was being authentic in his announcement or whether it was contrived before news of his show either leaked or was released.

While Kidd thinks Underwood is being authentic in announcing being gay, “The authenticity is compromised by the fact that the GMA interview was followed by this Netflix series,” he said. “Certainly, I think the GMA interview is a way of getting ahead of any press that the Netflix series might start to garner as it’s being filmed.”

The Netflix deal makes Underwood’s coming out seem like a commodity that he is able to market, sell and make a profit off of, Kidd said.

Following the news, a petition was started urging Netflix to cancel the show. “Regardless of his sexuality, Colton should not be given a platform as a result of his abusive, manipulative, and dangerous behavior,” the petition reads. It currently has over 29,000 signatures and is still counting.

Yet, Schmid thinks Underwood’s interview was only a PR move, “I think it was obviously a publicity stunt.”

He explained Underwood’s brand is his image and that he has to remain visible.

“I don’t really think anyone has any grounds for sort of criticizing someone like Colton Underwood for sort of seizing this opportunity. But it’s easier sometimes to criticize people for doing that than it is to take a look at ourselves and ask ourselves why we, as a culture, keep enabling this kind of behavior,” Schmid said.

Neither Underwood nor Netflix have commented on the news of the show.

Answers to this dichotomy the interview presents remain difficult.

“The first one is that Colton Underwood has now come out. Isn’t that wonderful? He’s living his true self. This is a great moment,” said Schmid. “At the same time, there’s the Colton Underwood, the harasser, the stalker, and the media still hasn’t sort of come up with a very persuasive or convincing way to sort of talk about both of those things at the same time.”

To Kidd, Underwood could have gone about the news in a different way, allowing for more authenticity and more acknowledgment of his past.

“We’re happy for you that you came out,” Kidd said. “You still need to take accountability for your past actions and actually own them and learn from them and talk about them.”