Will You Accept This Rose? Colorblindness, Mixedness and Racism in Bachelor Nation
Fifty years ago fewer than one percent of marriages in the United States were interracial or interethnic while today the U.S. Census indicates that the number is ten percent (though another conversation could be had on how “interracial” is defined). The mixed-race demographic (those who report identifying with two or more races) is the fastest growing racial demographic. We have seen interraciality and mixedness appear on the major screens: commercials (e.g. Cheerios), movies and television (e.g. Bridgerton), and even on the political stage (e.g. Vice President Harris). This diversity trend is also apparent on major reality television shows, including the twenty year and still running franchise of The Bachelor. The hit show just recently had its first Black Bachelorette and Bachelor along with a more intentional cast of racially diverse contestants. And, although the show was hoping to increase ratings and improve its image through diversity efforts, in actual reality what resulted was a racism scandal that reverberated throughout popular culture.
Welcome to Bachelor Nation
The Bachelor franchise, known among its adoring fans as Bachelor Nation, was created by Mike Fleiss and debuted with the show The Bachelor (2002) and The Bachelorette (2003). These main productions have been centered around the plot of 25-30 contestants all vying for the same person while the now former host Chris Harrison, who is White, guided both the contestants and viewers every step of the way. Each week the bachelor/ette takes chosen contestants out on dates, either one-on-one or in groups, often based around some ridiculous activity such as racing tractors, bungee jumping, and visiting a fake wake. Yet during these activities contestants have to prove they are sincerely there for love and desire a life-long committed relationship. At the end of each week the bachelor(ette) gives a rose to the contestants that s/he wishes to progress. After six to nine weeks, there is a Final Rose Ceremony, where the bachelor/ette chooses from two final contestants and (usually) proposes. The finale of the 2021 season with Bachelor Matt James had 6.07 million viewers and among the 18-49 demographic was the top show of the night. The Bachelor franchise has become a popular culture phenomenon with significant spin-offs, media coverage, blogs, social media sites, websites, and merchandise devoted to the show.
The Cocktail Party
The Bachelor/ette is historically a very White show with a White audience. In 2012, two Black men who had auditioned for the show filed a lawsuit against The Bachelor, claiming that the show discriminates against people of color both in choosing the primary bachelor/ette and in choosing the people he or she will have to choose from. The judge dismissed the case citing the First Amendment yet did not dispute the validity of the claims that “the show was in fact outright refusing to cast people of color, in part to avoid ‘controversy over interracial dating.” Since then, the show has made efforts to feature a more racially diverse cast. Yet, still, in 41 seasons, there have been three White/Latinx leads, including Juan Pablo Galavais in 2014 (Venezuelan), Peter Weber in 2020 (White/Cuban), and Clare Crawley in 2020 (White/Mexican), and only three Black/ Black-Biracial people have been cast in the starring role, including Bachelorettes Rachel Lindsay in 2017 (African American) and Tayshia Adams in 2020 (Black/Mexican) and most recently Bachelor Matt James in 2021 (Black/White). In response to the public outcry over the killing of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests, Karey Burke, the president of ABC Entertainment, cast Matt James and stated. “We know we have a responsibility to make sure the love stories we’re seeing onscreen are representative of the world we live in and we are proudly in service to our audience.” Moreover, the women from James’ cast is the most inclusive of BIPOC women in the show’s history, and for the first time White women were the minority, not surprising when there is a Black Bachelor contestant.
Here for the Wrong Reasons
While Bachelor Nation has made inroads on the racial diversity of its cast, the show uses a colorblind framework by not addressing any of the racial tensions, racial conflicts, or just racism in society. The issues that people of color have to navigate in dating White people and living in a racist society are overlooked. There are two distinct interconnected patterns: White contestants who publicly have problematic racial views, and BIPOC cast members, including leads, who are forced to manage race and racism delicately. To the first point, the show has integrated the cast but continues to have White contestants who clearly have either racist views or, at the very least, a troubled understanding of race and racism. For example, White contestant Garrett Yrigoyen who won on White Bachelorette Becca Kufrin’s season was found to have “liked” many social media posts that mocked Black protests, immigration, transgender issues, and school shootings. Likewise White contestant Lee Garrett on Rachel Lindsay’s season (first Black Bachelorette), had several racist Twitter posts. This fallout leads to the second point: BIPOC contestants and leads are forced to try to fall in love in a hyper-racialized climate that doesn’t allow them to compete in a healthy space. Numerous contestants of color have been cast only to be voted out in the first week or two, and they faced stereotypes such as the “fiery Latina,” “the aggressive Black woman or man,” and the “docile Asian woman or man.” Virtually all BIPOC contestants are forced to navigate implicit or explicit racist statements and behaviors.
The Most Dramatic Conclusion
The show’s colorblind approach and track record of willfully ignoring racism inevitably led to a “dramatic conclusion” during the first Black Bachelor’s season with lead Matt James. The show started off well with a successful James smiling his way through a racially diverse cast, but toward the final weeks, social media began buzzing with news that contestant and finalist White-Latina Rachael Kirkconnell, had posed in antebellum dress for a sorority party. This revelation was the catalyst for a series of fallouts: Matt James’ discussion on interracial dating, a heated interview between former Black Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay and former White host Chris Harrison, and the departure of Harrison.
Before the fallout, the Bachelor did highlight race with James in tailored ways: the significance of how the race of the woman he chose would be perceived; a conversation with his absent Black father; and discussions about race with the Black women contestants. Yet, only in response to racism accusations against Kirkconnell, does James, on the last episode, tearfully address the realities of being a Black man who is interracially dating. The biggest moment, however, occurred between Rachel Lindsay and Chris Harrison. In the interview on the topic of Kirkconnell’s social media posts, Harrison defends the innocence of and pleads forgiveness for Kirkconnell while also disrespectfully dismissing Lindsay’s attempts to explain to him the reality of anti-Blackness and its effects on Black communities. This debate was covered by major media outlets (NPR, WaPo, NBC, CNN) and ultimately led to the expulsion of Harrison, who had been at the helm of the show for its entirety. As a “reality” show where in actuality everything is scripted, or at least selectively chosen, it’s important to reveal how Bachelor Nation carefully and strategically (tries to) manage race.
After the Final Rose
The complex racial dynamics we have seen play out in the Bachelor franchise mirrors what happens in popular culture representations more broadly. While there is so much we could unpack, we identify here how racial identities are manipulated, racial stereotypes are reproduced, and racism is left unchecked. First, race is reduced to culture via an emphasis on food, dance, and other hyper consumable “ethnic markers.” Second, White people never have to confront their racial identity because their Whiteness is rendered invisible, but BIPOC people have their racial identity used to further racialized stereotypes. Third, attempts at racial diversification often manifest in controlling opportunities for interracial dating and casting people with light(er) skin-tones, people with respectability politics, and/or people of mixed-race descent. Claiming a show is diverse by simply inserting BIPOC participants rather than making substantive changes is akin to White people who say “I can’t be racist I have a Black friend.” While the Bachelor franchise replaced Harrison and has promised to “continue the dialogue around achieving greater equity and inclusion within The Bachelor franchise….improving the BIPOC representation of our crew, including among the executive producer ranks….effecting fundamental change so that our franchise is a celebration of love that is reflective of our world, ” a similar proclamation has been made before so these words ring hollow. The lesson here is that producers of popular culture want BIPOC people on their shows for ratings while refusing to address and challenge racism; until this changes, the question of “will you accept this rose” is riddled with racism.
Erica Chito Childs is Chair and Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. hephzibah strmic-pawl is Associate Professor of Sociology at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York and Pedagogy Editor at Sociology of Race and Ethnicity. Chito Childs studies interracial sex and marriage, mixedness and media/popular culture. strmic-pawl studies mixedness, multiraciality, and the pedagogy of race and racism.