Reality Check: The Bachelor’s Racial Reckoning
After 25 seasons on the air, ABC’s The Bachelor may have finally seen its “most dramatic season” yet.
With millions of viewers tuning in for their weekly dose of drama and romance, The Bachelor remains one of the longest-running reality dating TV shows on air. Formerly hosted by Chris Harrison, the series follows a single Bachelor who attempts to find a wife from a pool of women in under 10 weeks. As the show progresses, the Bachelor goes on lavish dates, eliminating candidates until the season culminates in a marriage proposal to his final selection.
The current season of The Bachelor features Matt James, a 29-year-old real estate broker from New York City. Groundbreakingly, James’ season is the first to feature a Black lead and a cast made up of a majority of women of color. Unlike the leads from prior seasons, James has never been featured on any Bachelor franchise show. James’ season has been riddled with petty drama and bullying among the women. Worse, racist controversies involving James’ final pick, Rachael Kirkconnell, and then-host Harrison have recently come to light.
A front-runner since the beginning, Kirkconnell was the only white contestant remaining of James’ top four women. Given her skyrocketing social media fame since the season began, fans of the show have uncovered pictures of Kirkconnell attending an Old South Antebellum-themed sorority party in 2018. Antebellum parties pay homage to the Confederacy and the pre-Civil War period. Kirkconnell has also been accused of cultural appropriation, donning an Indigenous peoples costume, and liking Instagram posts of friends posing with the Confederate flag.
Despite mounting pressure from viewers since the controversy surfaced, Kirkconnell remained silent on social media for six weeks. During her silence, Harrison came to her defense in a public interview with Rachel Lindsay. Lindsay was the first Black woman to star in The Bachelorette and has been an outspoken advocate for greater diversity within the franchise since her 2017 season. Harrison and Lindsay discussed the photos of Kirkconnell attending the Antebellum-themed party. While Lindsay said it was “not a good look,” Harrison made excuses for her actions: “Is it not a good look in 2018 or is it not a good look in 2021? I’m not defending Rachael, I just know that 50 million people did [similar things] in 2018.” As Lindsay responded to Harrison’s questionable comments by discussing her lived experience as a Black woman, Harrison continued to speak over her throughout the rest of the interview. Lindsay pointed out that Kirkconnell had had over six weeks to address the controversy, but Harrison fired back: “Who is Rachel Lindsay and who is Chris Harrison and who is whatever “woke police” person out there, who are you [to tell her to speak out]?” Not only did Harrison make excuses for Kirkconnell’s history of racism, but he belittled Lindsay and viewers of colors who took offense to the situation. Kirkconnell has since released a public apology and a statement of commitment to anti-racism, but only time will tell if her words will be followed by actionable steps.
Harrison faced public outrage after his racially charged comments, culminating in a petition calling for his removal as the host of The Bachelor. He has since released a public apology and announced his temporary leave as host. Though he remains optimistic about returning, ABC announced that Harrison will not be hosting the upcoming season of The Bachelorette, and it remains unclear whether he will eventually return as host or not.
This is not the first time The Bachelor has found itself in hot water due to allegations of racism. James’ season was intended to mark a turning point in The Bachelor franchise, featuring the first Black Bachelor and most diverse cast yet. Before his debut, the show was incredibly white. Only white or white-passing men had been selected as leads for 24 seasons, and the diversity amongst the contestants left even more to be desired. Between 2009 and 2015, only four of about 25 contestants, on average, were women of color. Even then, those contestants were tokens and often eliminated early on in the season, if not during the first episode. In response to the show’s continued lack of diversity, a class-action lawsuit was filed against ABC in 2012, after the 2011 seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette featured zero contestants of color. The lawsuit argued that ABC’s casting practices violated racial discrimination laws by favoring white applicants, but the case was dismissed shortly after. In the years following the lawsuit, the show had hardly seen changes to the number of contestants of color until James’ season. Because The Bachelor is predicated on the fantasy of finding a perfect soulmate, the show sends a damaging message about who is more deserving of attraction and love when only white people are represented.
Furthermore, Kirkconnell is not the first contestant from the franchise with a history of bigotry. Most recently, two contestants from the 2018 season of The Bachelorette, including the season’s winner, came under fire for writing and liking racist content on social media. Senior Sonia Groeneveld, who took a course focused on the show at the Experimental College in Fall 2017, said, “The show keeps failing to screen their contestants. [Kirkconnell’s] Instagram was public and had [these pictures]. I’m sure the show’s production saw her Instagram and they were like, ‘That’s fine,’ and still put her on the season.”
The announcement of James as the first Black Bachelor came shortly after the murder of George Floyd and worldwide Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020. Many, including Lindsay, have expressed discontent with the convenient timing of the first Black Bachelor being announced shortly after demands for greater diversity within the franchise during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. Junior Amma Agyei said, “After 20-something seasons, this is the first Black Bachelor? Isn’t that mad suspicious? After the Black Lives Matter movement, they are trying to show they’re allies. They want more POC to watch. It is a strategy to improve their ratings and reviews because they’re going to have white people watching, Black people watching, and other races too.” Furthermore, many found the choice of James surprising. Senior Bennett Fleming-Wood, who was in the same class as Groeneveld, said, “[The show’s decisions] show a lack of understanding or care about what anti-racism work actually looks like. They went out of their way to select a Black man to be lead, completely circumventing the typical methods of picking someone. Then they do absolutely nothing to support him, and instead put him in a dangerous situation” by allowing someone with a history of racism to appear on the show. Especially because he is an outsider to the franchise, the choice of James as the lead appears tokenizing. Agyei said, “I feel like he’s the typical Black person that American society likes. They think other Black people are ghetto, loud, angry, and they pick someone who’s Black, but ‘acceptable’ to American society,” especially since James is biracial.
Though the show has taken clear steps to become more diverse, its history of racism and continued problematic decisions raise difficult questions for viewers. Groeneveld said, “It’s hard, because for us, how can we as people who obviously want to support anti-racism still enjoy watching a show that has so clearly not stood by their Black leads and not stood by POC involved in the show?” The show’s continued prioritization of viewership at the expense of the well-being of its cast members of color poses serious issues for the future of the franchise as it attempts to cater to its varying audiences. As junior Margaret Cook put it, “The show tries to walk this fine line between appealing to a more conservative fanbase and appealing to a more liberal fan base. They’re trying to appeal to both sides, but really should be condemning some of [these controversies]. The show has been very white and heteronormative; I definitely think they could be doing more.” It is particularly disappointing, but not necessarily surprising, that a season that finally highlights people of color and their stories has been overshadowed by harmful white ignorance.