The Long-Deferred Racial Reckoning of ‘The Bachelor’

Viewers of the TV show respond to the rampant racism in the franchise and its deeper problems with representation

April 1, 2021

Expand diversity, implement significant changes and reflect all the world’s beautiful love stories — these are some of the promises made by the producers of “The Bachelor” to expand diversity. Attempting to deliver, two Black leads — Tayshia Adams, Season 16 of “The Bachelorette,” and Matt James, the first Black Bachelor 25 seasons after the show’s inception — were cast in the last year. 

Yet, despite these actions, the franchise has once again found itself in a racial controversy. 

Season 25 winner Rachael Kirkconnell was accused of bullying women for expressing interest in Black men, liking racially insensitive posts on Instagram, including one with confederate flags in the background, dressing up in a stereotypical Mexican costume for Halloween, and attending an Antebellum themed-plantation ball in college. 

Kirkconnell confronted the grave accusations on her Instagram, but not before the show’s host and face of the franchise, Chris Harrison, passionately and enthusiastically defended Kirkconnell’s actions in an Extra TV interview with Rachel Lindsay, the franchise’s first Black Bachelorette. 

“I thought that Chris Harrison was unnecessarily defensive towards Rachel Lindsay and her valid questions surrounding the franchise’s problems with race.” Brandy Monk-Payton, professor of media and Black cultural studies

In the interview, Harrison, the executive producer of the series who has been indifferent about contestants’ well-being and safety, referred to Kirkconnell as a “poor girl” and that audiences interested in accountability were the “woke police.” 

However, racism within the culture of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” stretches far further than the Kirkconnell controversy. Fordham professors and students have even designated their research and expertise to unpacking the misogynist, racist and xenophobic undertones of episodes and the overall environment of the show.

Interview Reactions

Brandy Monk-Payton is a Rose Hill professor of media and Black cultural studies specializing in the history and theory of African American media representation and cultural production. In an interview with NPR, Monk-Payton said she felt that Harrison’s tone and actions toward Lindsay were defensive and unreflective of the franchise’s diversity, inclusion and equity mission. 

“I thought that Chris Harrison was unnecessarily defensive towards Rachel Lindsay and her valid questions surrounding the franchise’s problems with race. He did not seem to listen to Lindsay, the first Black Bachelorette, who relayed specific grievances related to diversity, equity and inclusion in Bachelor Nation. Instead, he wielded the language of ‘wokeness’ to undermine Lindsay’s critique,” Monk-Payton told The Observer. 

Clare Duffy, Fordham College at Rose Hill ’21, recently completed her senior thesis on race and Bachelor Nation, the term coined for the show’s fanbase, and Duffy was stunned by the lack of restraint Harrison showed when expressing his thoughts on the controversy, considering that the interview was a public appearance. 

I was unsurprised by his comments, but shocked that he would share them so brazenly on a public platform. Through my research and comments from people of color in Bachelor Nation, it was clear to me that Chris Harrison held bigoted views and was not a huge proponent of diversifying the franchise,” Duffy said. “He had previously spoken about how the show would lose viewers if it was further diversified because they wouldn’t be showing people that viewers want to watch.” 

“I did not expect for the incident to receive national media attention and for certain members of Bachelor Nation to speak out, as they are typically silent on issues like this.” Clare Duffy, FCRH ’21

‘The Bachelor’ Controversy Garners National Attention

Duffy was surprised by the national media attention the controversy had garnered. 

I did not expect for the incident to receive national media attention and for certain members of Bachelor Nation to speak out, as they are typically silent on issues like this. The unionization of the past two casts to all post a joint statement also spoke to the gravity of the situation,” she said.

Mainstream media’s coverage of the controversy led Harrison to temporarily step down to “do the work” of learning about racial issues, check and unlearn his racial biases, and work toward becoming actively anti-racist. This is often done by reading and listening to works by Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), though Harrison did not specify the steps he was planning to take. 

The show’s “After the Final Rose” special in which the lead, winner and runner-up reflect on their time on the show and update viewers on their relationship status, will be hosted by former NFL linebacker and author Emmanuel Acho, who wrote and hosts “Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man.”

Former Bachelorettes Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristow (Season 11) will replace Harrison on Season 17 of its sister series “The Bachelorette.”

The Systemic Racial Issues of ‘The Bachelor’

However, the franchise’s racial mishandling runs deeper than the recent contentions. As Duffy explained, the show’s mismanagement is widespread.

Duffy’s thesis focused on how interracial relationships are presented in “The Bachelor.”

“I think what distinguishes this controversy is that it is happening in the aftermath of the summer of 2020 and global protests against anti-Black racism.” Brandy Monk-Payton

She focused on several controversies, including those in Rachel Lindsay’s season and the studio’s decision to cast Matt James as the next Bachelor. “I examined how Rachel Lindsay’s decision to choose a white-passing Latinx man was heavily scrutinized and briefly touched on the use of racial stereotyping in her season. I also wrote about how the sexual assault allegations against Jackson that were eventually proven false showed the implicit biases of production against black contestants, particularly when they choose to engage in an interracial relationship,” she said. 

The show has had its racist contestants (and winners) in the past, but the Black Lives Matter protests this past year and calls for increased representation in the media materialized into more diverse contestants and leads.

I think what distinguishes this controversy is that it is happening in the aftermath of the summer of 2020 and global protests against anti-Black racism. The entertainment industry took great pains to showcase its solidarity with Black Lives Matter. It has empowered former BIPOC contestants as well as fans of color to speak out in an unprecedented way,” Monk-Payton said. 

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While the shows have made efforts to diversify their casts, they fall flat. Two of the seasons in which Black leads were cast centered the drama on white contestants and framed Black contestants negatively by employing stereotypical portrayals. Lindsay has been outspoken about issues within her season following its airing. 

Lindsay’s statement shows how choosing her to become the first Black bachelorette felt very performative. The show casted a racist on her season, neglected to sufficiently diversify production, and employed racial stereotypes against her and the men of color on her season. Lindsay rightfully believed that casting her as bachelorette was simply checking a box for executives who were largely out of touch with the concerns of people of color,” Duffy said. 

The screen time during James’ season was dominated by white women, despite the historically diverse contestants. “Matt’s season focused on the white female contestants, despite an incredibly multicultural cast with diversity consultants assisting them in the production of this historic season,” Monk-Payton said.

“These instances show how the show oftentimes celebrates white contestants cutting down contestants of color.” Clare Duffy

“Much of the drama on this season was white women attacking women of color (Victoria stealing Catalina’s crown, Anna spreading a rumor that Brittany is a sex worker). These instances show how the show oftentimes celebrates white contestants cutting down contestants of color,” Duffy similarly said.

This season is no outlier, however — the franchise has a long history of employing microaggressions and painting its BIPOC contestants as villainous, aggressive and abrasive, and its white women as coy and virtuous.

“Female Latinx and Black contestants like Bibiana Julian and Onyeka Ehie have been portrayed as dramatic and fiery, as the franchise lazily stereotypes them. On the other hand, white women like Rachael Kirkconnell are portrayed as soft-spoken, innocent women. When hearing other contestants describe Kirkconnell, it is clear that she was an energetic, talkative young woman who did not have the bland personality production gave her,” Duffy said. 

The Audience’s Impact

The show’s primary demographic — white, southern and Christian — maintains a grip on the franchise as Lindsay’s season ratings were lower compared to past ones

Harrison and Mike Fleiss, the show’s executive producer, are visibly aware of their demographic, fearing that more diverse changes will lead to these audiences abandoning them. As opposed to updating the format of the show to make it more interesting or diversifying the cast to attract different types of viewers, the producers of “The Bachelor” will opt to scapegoat increased diversity as a reason for declining viewership. 

“I do think that over the next few years The Bachelor’s ratings will continue to go down, whether it be from the conservative faction of the audience leaving, network television continuing to lose popularity, or fans growing tired of a show that has maintained the same structure for over twenty years. No matter the reason for the decline, I believe that the creators of the show will blame increased diversity for a lack of interest in the show,” Duffy said. 

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A Step in the Right Direction

Ultimately, the Bachelor Diversity Campaign, massive public pressure to fire Harrison and demands for a BIPOC bachelorette demonstrate a shift in audience composition and what the future of the franchise holds. During the finale of James’ season, the first-ever back-to-back seasons of “The Bachelorette” were announced, starring Katie Thurston and Michelle Young, the third Black Bachelorette.

Harrison should probably retire. It is clear that he does not know how to meet the moment in terms of calls for diversity, equity and inclusion. Alongside producers, he frames audience understanding of contestants and storylines as host. He has an immense amount of power and influence on the direction of the show behind-the-scenes,” Monk-Payton said.

Monk-Payton also recommended hiring producers and editors of color and believed that Harrison stepping down from the franchise was a step in the right direction.

“Fans who are speaking out through the Bachelor Diversity social media campaign are really trying to hold the franchise accountable. There is much work to be such as hiring producers and editors of color. Importantly, I think that Chris Harrison stepping away from the ‘After the Final Rose’ live special as well as from hosting duties for the upcoming season of ‘The Bachelorette’ are necessary moves so that the franchise can take time to reflect on how to move forward,” she said.

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About the Contributors

Insiya Gandhi (she/her), FCLC ’24, is a news editor at The Observer. She is a sociology major and a political science minor. Her most fulfilling moments at The Observer have been developing and strengthening relationships with fellow editors and writers. In her spare time, she can be found chatting, walking (aimlessly but briskly), listening to Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” and raiding her mom’s closet.

NICOLE PERKINS, Former Fun & Games Editor

Nicole Perkins, FCLC ‘22, is the fun and games editor at The Observer. She is currently majoring in political science and visual arts. When she is not desperately trying to finish the NYT mini crossword, you can find her taking photos, walking around downtown Manhattan, or trying out a new recipe while making an absolute mess in her kitchen.

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