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The Bachelor’s messy, uneven, and long-overdue reckoning with racism, explained

Recent controversy has forced host Chris Harrison to step back from the franchise and sparked a broader conversation about its problems with race.

ABC’s “The Bachelorette” - Season 16
Chris Harrison, the longtime host of The Bachelorette, is at the center of its latest controversy.
Getty Images/ABC
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

The Bachelor franchise — after years of casting racist contestants and refusing to confront its problems with representation — is finally facing a cultural reckoning over these very issues.

The current season of the long-running reality TV series, which features the show’s first Black Bachelor, Matt James, was supposed to mark a long-overdue step forward. But in recent weeks, the controversy that has consumed it speaks to how much more The Bachelor (and its sister series The Bachelorette) still has to do to address its handling of race.

Those issues have come to a head in the latest backlash against the franchise, which involves a contestant, Rachael Kirkconnell, and longtime host Chris Harrison. Kirkconnell has been criticized for her past social media activity, which includes “liking” a photo of friends standing in front of a Confederate flag, as well as for her behavior when she was in college, which included attending an “Old South” antebellum-themed party. Harrison, meanwhile, is under fire because he defended Kirkconnell and accused the “woke police” of going after her during a February interview with Rachel Lindsay, who in 2017 became the first Black Bachelorette.

That interview, and Harrison’s tone throughout it, have raised questions about his role as the face of the franchise, and prompted renewed scrutiny of deeper issues within the Bachelor world as a whole. (Harrison has apologized repeatedly for his actions, as has Kirkconnell.)

ABC Entertainment and Warner Horizon announced on March 12 that Harrison would not be back to host the upcoming season of The Bachelorette, and that former Bachelorette leads Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe would be “supporting” the show instead. It’s not yet clear whether Harrison could potentially return for other seasons down the line, something he’s previously said he’d like to do.

The franchise’s statement also noted that it supports Harrison as he does the “work” needed to reflect on his actions, and that it plans to diversify its production team. “As we continue the dialogue around achieving greater equity and inclusion within ‘The Bachelor’ franchise, we are dedicated to improving the BIPOC representation of our crew, including among the executive producer ranks,” the statement said.

The Bachelor’s issues around race are well-documented and long-established. Last year, in the wake of national protests about racism and police killings of Black Americans, the franchise encountered significant backlash over how white its casting has been for nearly two decades, leading to the announcement of James as its next lead. At the time, Lindsay — and many others — warned that such acts were important, but far from enough to combat The Bachelor’s systemic failings, which included a lack of diversity within its production staff and frequently discriminatory storylines for contestants of color.

“This announcement, without any further commitments regarding diversity, sweepingly brushes deeper issues under the rug,” Lindsay wrote in a series of tweets when James’s casting was announced. “Until we see action to address the systemic racism within the franchise, the casting news today is equivalent to the trend of posting a black box on your social media account without other steps taken to dismantle the systems of injustice.”

Her comments highlighted how The Bachelor’s efforts only began to acknowledge a much larger problem that is now overwhelming the show.

The Bachelor’s implosion over race, briefly explained

The current season of The Bachelor, its 25th, premiered on January 4 and is the second one to be filmed during the pandemic. Set at the Nemacolin Resort in Pennsylvania, it centers on Matt James, a commercial real estate broker, and began with 32 women vying for his affections.

The landmark nature of James’s casting, as well as the diverse casting of the broader contestant pool for his season, were signs of progress for the franchise, but the controversy that’s been happening offscreen reveals the long road ahead. To viewers watching the show in a vacuum, it’s possible that nothing would seem amiss. The most recent episode, which aired March 8, saw James take three women on overnight “fantasy suite” dates before naming his last two finalists. For these dates, Harrison was present to guide James and the women every step of the way.

In the real world, with only the season finale left to air, The Bachelor is navigating intense scrutiny. That’s because one of those two finalists (and, spoiler alert, the season’s predicted winner) is Kirkconnell, whose racist past actions did not appear to emerge publicly until filming on the season was complete.

Kirkconnell is a 24-year-old graphic designer from Georgia who quickly became a frontrunner when season 25 premiered, as she and James appeared to hit it off early on. As the season progressed, some viewers turned their attention to her past social media activity, discovering that she had “liked” a photo containing the Confederate flag and that she had attended an “Old South” antebellum-themed party as a college student in 2018. Concerns were raised — but the controversy didn’t really blow up until Harrison decided to do an interview about them in February.

In a combative conversation with Lindsay on Extra, Harrison came to the defense of Kirkconnell, accusing the “woke police” of attacking her and arguing that norms had changed since her time in college.

“Rachel, is it a good look in 2018 or is it not a good look in 2021?” Harrison asked regarding Kirkconnell’s attendance at the “Old South” party.

“It’s not a good look, ever, because she’s celebrating the Old South. If I went to that party, what would I represent at that party?” Lindsay replied.

“The woke police is out there and this poor girl, Rachel, who has just been thrown to the lions, I don’t know how you’re equipped when you’ve never done this before, to be woke enough, to be eloquent enough, to be ready to handle this,” Harrison said, in an apparent call to extend empathy to Kirkconnell as she responded to the criticism.

The interview itself garnered significant backlash, with viewers calling out both Harrison’s defense of Kirkconnell and the aggressive and at times condescending tone in which he delivered it. “During that conversation, he talked over me and at me. During that conversation, his privilege was on display,” Lindsay later said on her podcast for the Ringer, Higher Learning. “He wasn’t trying to hear it, he was just trying to be heard.”

Harrison has since apologized, though it remains unclear just how much he’s wrestled with the substance of his comments. “I made a mistake and I own it,” he said during an interview with Michael Strahan on Good Morning America. “I believe that mistake doesn’t reflect who I am or what I stand for. I am committed to the progress not just for myself but also for the franchise.” (Lindsay has said she accepts Harrison’s apology, something she felt she needed to do so people could move forward.)

For now, Harrison has stepped back from his role as host of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, and the franchise announced on March 12 that he will not be hosting the next season of The Bachelorette. Its official statement, however, leaves open the possibility that Harrison could return in the future. “I plan to be back and I want to be back,” Harrison said during the Good Morning America interview.

Meanwhile, the entire debacle has been complicated by the fact that as it has unfolded, The Bachelor has continued to air as it normally would, with few onscreen hints of the offscreen turmoil. The most apparent acknowledgment of the controversy has been a note added to the season’s “Women Tell All” special, which aired on March 1, signaling that the special was filmed with Harrison as the host in early February, prior to his now-infamous interview.

The result has been a somewhat jarring viewing experience as The Bachelor continues to portray the so-called “journey” to find love as it typically does, with both Harrison and Kirkconnell featuring prominently as the show approaches its finale.

Notably, Harrison will not appear on this season’s “After the Final Rose” special. “After the Final Rose” is by now a familiar coda to each Bachelor season, and usually centers on Harrison conducting postmortem interviews with the Bachelor, his chosen partner, and assorted other contestants about what has transpired in their lives since the conclusion of filming. The special is customarily live and takes place immediately after the finale airs. Because Harrison has stepped back from the franchise, season 25’s “After the Final Rose” special will be hosted by former football player and author Emmanuel Acho, who also hosts a YouTube series called “Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man.”

Harrison’s actions, in particular, have gotten so much attention because he’s viewed as synonymous with the franchise, given his role as the show’s host since its debut in 2002. His statements, in effect, also feel emblematic of the show’s willingness to avoid tough conversations about race, while giving those who’ve engaged in racist behavior the benefit of the doubt.

Kirkconnell, meanwhile, has also issued an apology for her past actions, emphasizing the need to hold herself accountable for them no matter when they took place. “They are not acceptable or okay in any sense,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “I was ignorant, but my ignorance was racist.”

James, too, has noted how “heartbreaking” and “devastating” the entire conversation has been. “As Black people and allies immediately knew and understood, it was a clear reflection of a much larger issue that The Bachelor franchise has fallen short on addressing adequately for years,” he wrote in an Instagram post on February 22. Many of Kirkconnell’s fellow contestants from the current season also released a statement denouncing racism and expressing their support for Lindsay.

“Twenty-five women who identify as BIPOC were cast on this historic season that was meant to represent change,” they wrote. “We are deeply disappointed and want to make it clear that we denounce any defense of racism.”

As the contestants noted, their cast was historic, and included more Black, Indigenous, and other contestants of color than the Bachelor franchise has featured in the past. Such diversity has been significant in changing how the show highlights contestants of color, as well as the perspectives that it has featured, though the recent controversy indicates how such changes, made without consideration of larger systemic problems, can fall short.

“The addition of more people who identify as BIPOC has opened up the conversation on race, community and who we are as people,” the men from the most recent season of The Bachelorette wrote in a similar statement. Notably, during that season, which aired in fall 2020, contestant Ivan Hall and Bachelorette Tayshia Adams had one of the most frank and moving conversations about racism and police brutality that the franchise has ever aired.

Casting and representation are only two of the many steps the Bachelor franchise still has to take to address and resolve its problems. The amount of screen time that the franchise gives contestants of color on the show is still uneven, and its recurring unwillingness to speak out about the behavior of its contestants and racism remains a major issue.

The controversy has directed renewed attention toward The Bachelor’s deeper problem with race

“I am tired of having to be the Black person to speak out against things that are done to Black people. It should be the franchise,” Lindsay previously said on the Bachelor Happy Hour podcast she cohosts. “They are silent when they should be standing up for your Black contestants, and it makes it seem as though you are complicit with this behavior.”

And as Business Insider’s Libby Torres recently wrote, the limitations of The Bachelor’s efforts so far have been exposed by the ongoing controversy:

Rather than taking a step back and examining their casting practices and complicity in upholding white supremacy, “The Bachelor” seems more comfortable putting a few BIPOC in front of the camera and calling it a day, without offering them adequate support or even ensuring that filming will provide safe spaces against racism. (For example, producers continuously feature cast members who later become embroiled in racist controversies.)

As a result, the Kirkconnell/Harrison firestorm has predictably spurred a much larger discussion about The Bachelor’s longstanding problems with racism, forcing the show to confront an issue that’s cropped up again and again throughout its 18-year history.

Kirkconnell is not the only contestant to face scrutiny for past social media activity. Lee Garrett, a contestant on Lindsay’s season of The Bachelorette in 2017, was called out for posting multiple racist tweets. Garrett Yrigoyen, the winner of season 14 of The Bachelorette in 2018, was slammed for “liking” posts that made fun of immigrants and Parkland school shooting survivors. And Hannah Brown, the lead of The Bachelorette’s 15th season in 2019, was criticized for saying the n-word while singing in an Instagram Live last year. (All three have since apologized.)

As an indication of how systemic such issues are within Bachelor Nation (as the show and its larger fandom are known), this year’s fallout has spawned a nesting doll of controversies: Taylor Nolan, a former Bachelor contestant who spoke out in support of Lindsay, has since been critiqued for her own past social media posts, which she’s apologized for and described as part of her personal growth process. Brown, too, has been called out for deleting a photo of herself at an event wearing Southern belle attire. At one point, Lindsay faced so much harassment for speaking out against Harrison’s interview comments that she had to deactivate her Instagram account, which she’s since restarted. (The Bachelor released a statement calling the harassment directed at Lindsay “inexcusable.”)

All of these controversies have happened amid repeated calls for more diverse casting throughout the franchise: As NPR’s Eric Deggans notes, The Bachelor only cast its first nonwhite lead, Juan Pablo Galavis, in 2014. Before that, in 2012, the franchise actually faced a class-action lawsuit led by Nathaniel Claybrooks and Christopher Johnson, two Black men, who sued the series, alleging discriminatory casting practices.

And even though The Bachelor has made some important strides in improving representation on the series, it’s still faced blowback for how it’s portrayed contestants of color — including tokenizing them or perpetuating tropes as part of their storylines.

During Lindsay’s season, for instance, she critiqued the program for amplifying an “Angry Black Female” trope in the way that it handled her finale. And just this week, the show drew criticism for airing a traumatic reunion between James and his estranged father, a segment some saw as amplifying stereotypes. “If you know anything about stereotypes that are assigned to particular races — here, the Black race — you know that absentee fathers is a stereotype,” Lindsay said in an episode of the Bachelor Party podcast. And though James’s season featured a much more diverse cast than usual, a screen time analysis conducted by a longtime fan who runs the Instagram account @BachelorData found that white contestants still received more time, at least in the first seven episodes.

There’s now just one episode left in season 25, plus the live “After the Final Rose” special to follow. And with Kirkconnell projected to be the likely winner, big questions loom about how the franchise will handle such an outcome as the recent controversy and the show fully collide.

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