bachelor nation

The Bachelor Wasn’t Built to Handle Racism

Photo: Craig Sjodin/ABC

Since its 2002 debut, The Bachelor has been a show about white people finding love. It was never meant to be revolutionary; instead, it’s a well-produced, better-vetted take on the modern-day reality show. And it works. White people like to watch other white people fall in love, especially in a universe that doesn’t make them face anything messier, like sexism or racism or the discrimination inherent in a world where everyone is happy, rich, skinny, and white. For better or worse, The Bachelor has perfected this utopia for the sort of white person who might ask why we can’t all just get along. This messaging, which was once unspoken, has only become louder in recent years as the franchise attempts to face its race problem. In venturing to remedy critiques that the show is racist — which have exploded during the latest season, starring Black, biracial lead Matt JamesThe Bachelor has instead only made its own stumblings more audible.

The Bachelor’s attempts to challenge its whiteness began in earnest in 2017 when Rachel Lindsay became the first Black Bachelorette. At first, this was exciting. Lindsay herself was enthusiastic, telling Good Morning America, “Even though I’m an African American woman, it’s not different from any other Bachelorette.” It swiftly became clear that this was not, in fact, true. Though Lindsay may have entered the series doe-eyed and hopeful like any other lead, she left with a clear understanding that being a Black face on a historically white show is groundbreaking in ways that sometimes hurt. Despite facing anti-Blackness from her own contestants and Bachelor Nation alike, Lindsay bravely took it upon herself to be the franchise’s voice of anti-racism. She became the equivalent of the show’s Black Friend, proof that The Bachelor simply couldn’t be racist.

Three years later, as anti-Blackness was discussed on a national scale following the murder of George Floyd by police and the subsequent protests, the matters of the outside world entered the enclosed universe of The Bachelorette. Tayshia Adams, the season-16 lead, welcomed it. Adams, who is Black and Latina, spent a one-on-one date with Ivan Hall, who is Black and Filipino, having an emotional conversation about Black Lives Matter and ongoing police brutality. Adams was able to do this because of the path Lindsay paved, and she took it with grace. But that didn’t mean everyone else wanted to walk down that path alongside them.

It was the season-25 arrival of Matt James, the first Black, biracial Bachelor, that fully exposed the cracks in the franchises’s new anti-racist facade. James is still sorting through his racial identity, which is fair, but difficult to do on national television in the midst of an ongoing conversation about Blackness. And, as the season progressed, his clearly favored contestant, Rachael Kirkconnell, who is white, had her racist past brought to light when photos of her at an Old South antebellum-themed party in 2018 surfaced on social media. This resulted in an explosion of years’ worth of racial tension that brought to life one simple fact: Maybe The Bachelor wasn’t a show that just accidentally didn’t think about Black people for 20 years. Maybe it was one that really and truly never wanted anything to do with Black people in the first place.

This became all too clear when longtime host Chris Harrison got into an argument with Lindsay during an Extra interview, decrying the “woke police” and defending Kirkconnell by saying we’re unfairly judging her through a 2021 “lens,” as if her actions would have been above reproach in 2018. The Bachelor may now be a show with Black leads, but it’s still not a show that cares about Black people.

As The Bachelor’s leads get more progressive than the show and its audience, race feels less like a “squeaky wheel” and more like a massive, grating tension. That tension has had a permanent impact on the perception of the franchise and the experiences of those within it. Lindsay briefly left Instagram due to the influx of racist bullying from viewers who stood with Kirkconnell and wanted Lindsay to shut up, and contestants have spent the last two months picking sides in the franchise’s “fight” against racism. After defending Kirkconnell, Harrison stepped down from hosting The Bachelor (but remains its executive producer), and Bachelor Nation is split, with an entirely separate Reddit thread created for “intersectional discussion” given the way that the main thread — echoing Harrison — complained about the show’s increasing “wokeness.” And last night’s finale ended with James breaking up with Kirkconnell, realizing that she “might not understand what it means to be Black in America.” The conversation about what the series can, should, and will do about racist contestants and viewers remains fraught.

No matter what the spinoff, The Bachelor has a specific narrative: Give audiences someone relatively easy to root for and give them a little bit of drama (but nothing too real), and keep those views on the up and up. It’s a show where life, and love, are easy. Meet a bunch of strangers, find your one and only, and live your happiest life. Anything too “complicated” doesn’t fit into the Bachelor universe, and the inherent racism of our largest pop-culture franchises is nothing if not complicated.

But, ultimately, love isn’t easy, interracial love even less so; nor is race, or racism, or the profound history of anti-Blackness in this country. Pop-culture franchises like The Bachelor may want to be able to skim the surface on race, but it’s impossible to merely skim something that warps everything it touches. As such, the series has become a prime example of what happens when a product shaped by the white gaze tries to give itself an “update” without truly reckoning with its roots.

In a November 2020 interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Lindsay explained, “I don’t want to hear, ‘America doesn’t want to see it.’ … That’s been the problem with the Bachelor franchise — you keep doing what you think America wants to see and that’s why we haven’t seen people of color as leads. We’ve got to stop that cycle. I don’t care if it makes America uncomfortable. It’s our current reality.”

If the franchise wants to continue to attempt to diversify its hosts and to try to escape its own overwhelming whiteness (and that of its audience), it has to face the fact that people are more intricate than curated dates, color-blind dating, and fairy-tale weddings. You can’t just pin a rose on racism and try to make it pretty. It’s never going to be anything but hideous.

The Bachelor Wasn’t Built to Handle Racism