Each year, The Bachelor franchise finds its way into reality TV drama. 2021, however, felt different. From the very start of Matt James’ season, something felt dark. The producers treated contestant Victoria Larson as a silly and harmless villain instead of someone who used her privilege as a white woman to insult contestants of colour and facilitate their elimination (she called one Black contestant a “ho,” among many other offensive things). One contestant was (wrongly) labeled as a sex worker, leading to a lifetime of harmful rumours and exploitative “news” stories. ABC gave Larson the humongous platform that is a visit to flagship morning show Good Morning America to defend herself and downplay her behaviour; the contestant whose reputation The Bachelor actually endangered with its escort gossiping was given no such opportunity.
Then the world found out about season “winner” Rachael Kirkconnell’s many photos at an Old South Day “themed” party in 2018. The Bachelor’s leading contestant had celebrated the culture of the Antebellum South, a society built on slavery, just two years before competing for the love of the franchise’s first Black Bachelor. Host Chris Harrison took it upon himself to vehemently defend Kirkconnell, putting himself in even more hot water than Kirkconnell herself. Harrison revealed himself to be the kind of person who was happier to criticize the “woke police,” as he repeatedly said in an interview with first Black Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay, than white supremacist parties. As a final indignity, racist trolls attacked Lindsay for Harrison’s mistakes, pushing her off of social media for a short period of time. Harrison eventually agreed to step away from the franchise to educate himself; he has since hired a high-powered lawyer to defend his right to The Bachelor involvement.
As proof that the toxicity of The Bachelor is not limited to the series itself, Bachelor Nation members came out against popular franchise blogger and spoiler-generator Steve Carbone — aka “Reality Steve” — in the spring. Demi Burnett detailed “unwanted and unprompted sexual advance” from Carbone. Kristina Schulman called his actions “degrading.” Carbone has since apologized over the accusations publicly and, according to himself, privately.
All together, it’s an upsetting and grim time to cover Bachelor Nation. Yet, Monday night’s The Bachelorette premiere starts the cycle all over again as Katie Thurston starts her own journey for love. It would be simple for us to ignore this development after the past few months. Refinery29’s senior TV Ariana Romero and senior editor Kelsea Stahler aren’t taking the easy way out.
Kelsea Stahler: Ari, this show has put us both through the wringer over the last few months. Why do you think it’s worth coming back to it this time around?
Ariana Romero: Covering the show this year has been difficult. As you know, I was basically vibrating with anger after every Bachelor episode — long before the Rachael Kirkconnell controversy even happened. Matt’s season was mean from the jump, in a way that really minimized the woman of colour the series publicized so much. But, it feels like it’s my duty as a TV critic — and a rare woman of colour TV critic — to notice these issues and bring them to light, particularly for a series that gets so much softball, candy-coated coverage.
One of the central pillars of my job is to meet viewers where they are, offer context on something they already love, and start difficult conversations some fans may not be thinking about just yet. The Bachelor franchise is a phenomenon and a culture unto itself. Ignoring that — especially since our work has helped build the series to where it is today — would feel like the coward’s way out. So, I’m in it for the long haul, with a magnifying glass in hand for whatever crises may (inevitably) arise. It’s how I’ve always dealt with the show.
Do you feel the same as the person assigning dozens of stories about the show per season? Does any of it really feel fun for you anymore?
KS: I’ve always felt a bit of a push and pull covering this show, so this is something a lot of my friends have been asking me — especially those who’ve said they’re done with the series. I’ve repeatedly asked myself why I was so willing to cover it knowing its complicated and problematic history. It helped that, by covering it from outside of the Bachelor machine, you can ask the right questions and push back on the series’ narratives. But even when I’ve questioned covering and thus giving a larger voice to everything that comes with Bachelor Nation, it was always possible to understand, as you said, meeting people where they are. That made it possible to find the fun among the tougher conversations; the joy of covering a behemoth like this is getting into every nook and cranny, every bright spot and every disappointment. It’s basically the MCU of reality television.
But that fun really, really disappeared last season when it became clear on night one that Matt’s season was ruthlessly mean, and even clearer later on how deeply rooted the problems with the series are, from behind the scenes to the host himself. I was ready to approach this season with a no-nonsense, zero fun plan. How can we possibly giggle along with anything after last season? But part of committing to dealing with this show and dissecting the ways it is and isn’t addressing its systematic issues, is celebrating when it actually does something right and manages to be the fun escape it’s supposed to be.
We’ve privately talked about some of the more fun moments from tonight’s premiere, but you are often the person taking the show to task on major issues. What sorts of questions are you hoping to answer as we make our way through this season?
AR: This season feels like a transition, since it went into production so soon after the problems illuminated by the Rachael-turned-Chris Harrison controversy (I’m not going to call it “drama” since that word is too fun for a thoroughly serious situation). I hope to see some changes in tone here, along with this summer’s Bachelor in Paradise, the franchise’s biggest lightning rod. Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe stepping in to host in place of Chris is a step in the right direction, but what happens beyond this season? And, could Tayshia, a Black and Latinx biracial woman, really not have hosted on her own? Jojo Fletcher certainly was allowed to last year when Chris was unavailable.
Beyond the cosmetic change of a host, we need to see more in terms of how contestants of colour are covered by the show. Will their on-screen time statistics improve? Or will they continue to be used as window dressing for the show as white suitors and suitresses get the limelight? An important avenue towards improvement is the knowledge that more producers of colour are being hired and supported. If the show continues to fail in these arenas, I’ll be talking about it; if it improves, I’ll be the first one to celebrate. That’s why I’m so excited about all of Andrew Spencer’s silly fun in Katie’s premiere.
Is there anything you hope to see as we look forward into Katie’s season, Paradise, and Michelle Young’s fall Bachelorette, which will likely be the best litmus test for any possible long-term growth? I’m already feeling uneasy about the rumours David Spade — a straight white man in his mid-50s — is set to host Paradise.
KS: I think the biggest change I want to see is the abolishment of the band-aid fix. Every time we’ve called this series out, it’s done something that felt huge, and then continued with business as usual. The recent rumour about David Spade certainly fits into that category. My hope is that the powers that be hear us when we say, Thanks for not bringing Chris back, but here’s why Spade doesn’t work for us either, and actually make the pivot. It can’t just be just, Oh, well, it’s mostly Wells Adams and Sarah Hyland hosting anyway.
When they say they are hiring more producers of colour and that they will be supported, audiences need to actually see the fruits of that promise on screen, whether or not they know what’s happening behind the scenes. And I hope, somewhat foolishly, that by the time we get to Michelle’s season, the franchise has been so transformed for the better, that we can just enjoy watching her love story, plain and simple.