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In A Season Highlighting Diversity, 'The Bachelor' Lands In Controversy Around Race

<em>Bachelor </em>host Chris Harrison, above right, has temporarily stepped away from the show following controversial remarks involving race. The franchise's current season features Matt James, top left, as the show's first male Black lead.
Craig Sjodin
ABC via Getty Images
Bachelor host Chris Harrison, above right, has temporarily stepped away from the show following controversial remarks involving race. The franchise's current season features Matt James, top left, as the show's first male Black lead.

Controversy has once again come to The Bachelor.

For almost 20 years, the franchise's producers have churned out love stories at a nearly break-neck pace on the show and its spinoffs, The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise. The franchise's record on diversity, however, has been notably slow. In 2012, two Black men who had auditioned for the show filed an unsuccessful class-action lawsuit against it for racial discrimination. It took 15 years for the franchise to announce a Black lead, Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay in 2017.

Fans and contestants alike hoped that the casting of Matt James last year as the first black man to star in The Bachelor would represent a shift for the show. However, despite starting this season with the most diverse cast in the franchise's history, the show is again facing criticism around race.

Earlier this month, photos emerged of contestant Rachael Kirkconnell wearing an antebellum-style plantation dress at an "Old-South'' party in 2018. Other photos allegedly show her wearing Native American clothing as a costume.

Kirckconnell issued an apology, saying "my ignorance was racist," but the controversy was further exacerbated when host Chris Harrison sat down with Lindsay for an interview with Extra. During the interview, Harrison condemned the "woke police" and defended Kirkconnell.

"These girls got dressed up and went to a party and had a great time; they were 18 years old. Now, does that make it okay? I don't know, Rachael, you tell me," Harrison said. His remarks were met with condemnation from many former contestants. He has since apologized and announced that he will temporarily be stepping away from the show.

To Brandy Monk-Payton, a media and Black cultural studies scholar at Fordham University, the show's most recent controversy is anything but surprising.

"The franchise has been critiqued at the level of diversity, equity and inclusion for at least a decade," she tells Michel Martin in an interview on All Things Considered.

According to Monk-Payton — who previously wrote about Lindsay's role as the first Black Bachelorette — the franchise's problem with diversity is tied to a reluctance to make substantial production changes.

"I think that the franchise in general courts diversity. It goes to great lengths to promote itself as being more inclusive and equitable. They hire consultants, for example, but it does not fundamentally commit to a kind of long standing change in front of and behind the camera," she says.

When asked about diversity on The Bachelor in 2011, series creator Mike Fleisssaidin an interview with Entertainment Weekly that people of color simply didn't audition for the show.

"We really tried, but sometimes we feel guilty of tokenism. Oh, we have to wedge African-American chicks in there! We always want to cast for ethnic diversity, it's just that for whatever reason, they don't come forward. I wish they would," Fleiss said.

Monk-Payton argues that the franchise's penchant for drama helps lay the groundwork for continuous controversy.

"I also think that there is a little bit of a sense that there will be controversial characters and these cast members will express themselves or have behavior that will be on camera. And you can get a money shot. Like you can get, you know, a sort of dramatic scene. You can get a reveal or an exposure that is highly lucrative for the entire franchise in terms of audience attention," she says.

On the question of whether the show exploits stereotypes, Monk-Payton believes that The Bachelor's traditional goal of engagement inhibits its ability to challenge negative attitudes or views.

"I want to put it into the context of it being a reality show. It attempts to have claims on certain forms of authenticity and truth that other fictional shows don't. And so I think that it has tried to critique various stereotypical ideas around Black womanhood, femininity and masculinity. But there's a way in which when it's placed in this very conventional, traditional, hetero-normative idea of marriage, that it becomes incredibly hard to get out of those frameworks that are really constricting." she says.

Monk-Payton, like many fans of color, has watched the show for years, despite the fact that she doesn't see herself represented in its content. But she knows why she'll continue to tune in.

"I mean, as a Black woman who considers herself to be part of The Bachelor Nation fandom, I've actually always had an ambivalent relationship to the franchise and its overwhelming whiteness. It is historically never spoken to me in terms of its representation of romance. And not only that, but also who gets to be an object of desire. And there is still something, however contrived, about the kind of fantasy of being romanced in a spectacular way that allures and also endures."

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