The Bachelor’s Reckoning with Race

Rather than my usual episode recap, I’m going to recap and comment on the stunning events of last week that culminated in Chris Harrison taking a leave of absence from The Bachelor franchise. It was the lens through which I was watching tonight’s episode, anyway.

I watch these shows with intentional blindness to the casts’ real-life news so that it doesn’t impact my view of them during the show. I fastidiously try hard to avoid spoilers. I accept the breakups of the engaged couples as inevitable rather than news I need to read about. The only Bachelor related social media I follow are @Bachelordata on Instagram (because I love data); Ali Fedotowsky on Facebook (because she’s still impossibly cute); and ex-Bachelor cast member Sharleen Joynt on Twitter (because she has a brilliant blog with behind the scenes knowledge on the franchise). However, Rachael-gate was impossible to ignore.

The problem began when news of Rachael’s social media history started to surface. If you’re interested simply type “Rachael” – you probably won’t even need her last name – into your Google search and you’ll get inundated with stuff. But what set off the firestorm was this TikTok:

Once public reaction became national news, Chris Harrison felt compelled to speak on the subject. That he did so during a season is a big enough deal. But he ended up making the problem worse in a disastrous interview with Rachel Lindsay on Extra.

Although he makes some fair points – especially about the influence of social media – I and apparently LOTS of others had problems with his condescending and confrontational tone not to mention an utter lack of sensitivity to the issues surrounding Rachael. I agree with Sharleen Joynt in her blog that “he spends 13 minutes talking over, gaslighting, and mansplaining to Rachel” and “asserts what is and isn’t racist behavior.” You may feel differently than me as many of Chris’ fans have taken up for him. In any case, he decided he needed to apologize and step away from the show for a while.

As to Rachael, I hate that I’ll be watching her with a bias I won’t have for other women in Nemacolin. I hate that my enjoyment of the show is going to be impacted by her. I do know she has apologized for “truths that have come to light” and saying, “I was ignorant, but my ignorance was racist.” She sounds contrite and sincere which ultimately will be judged by her future actions. 

The casting of Rachel Lindsay as The Bachelorette and now Matt James as The Bachelor was supposed to be the franchise’s answer to the criticism of its historical lack of diversity. To be fair, The Bachelor franchise is hardly the only entertainment medium that has had this problem. But my point here is not to broadly discuss systemic racism in the entertainment industry. My intent is to focus specifically on The Bachelor franchise in two areas as it relates to Rachael-gate.

First, what the %$^# is their vetting process? This is a show whose brand is entrusted to the people they cast in the shows. Rachael is not the only person who has come to the show with problematic views on race. In her case, she was exposed by a TikTok post someone put together from Rachael’s social media. Did the show’s producers not look at her social media posts? Or did they look and decide there was nothing to see there? If it’s the first, that’s a stunning level of incompetence for a show with a long history of casting. If it’s the latter, their views on race are incredibly naive or incredibly insensitive. Or both.

This is NOT just a question of whether you or I agree on what is racially problematic. It’s also about ABC making a business decision that answers a very simple question about each cast member: Will we be OK with the impact to our brand and our business if what can be known about this person becomes known not only to our viewers but potentially news organizations reporting this information? I’ve raised this topic before regarding the show outside of the race issue. I not only don’t want to be “entertained” by racists, I don’t want to be entertained by sexual abusers or physically violent people, either. Do your job and keep bad people off the show. 

My second problem relates to diversity. Diversity is easy. It’s just a math problem – “X% of our workforce is (fill in the race blank). Y% of our workforce is (fill in the gender blank).” The harder work is in attaining equity and inclusion when there is diversity. And here The Bachelor franchise may have a bias issue around the subject of race that’s more than how long it took to cast people of color as the leads. I hear that bias loud and clear in Chris Harrison’s interview with Rachel Lindsay.

The Bachelor took it as a point of understandable pride in casting the most racially diverse show in its history. In their June 2020 “The Bachelor Executive Producers Commit to Diversity” statement, they wrote: “We are taking positive steps to expand diversity in our cast, in our staff and most importantly, in the relationships we show on television [emphasis mine]. So how are they doing in that commitment?

The fabulous people at @bachelordata have tracked this season’s screen time down to the second. In terms of casting, people of color make up 66% of the contestants. So the producers definitely diversified the cast. But they are failing badly in terms of equity and inclusion, i.e. who they’re showing us on television. Despite being at a two-to-one disadvantage in cast members, white girls have received 17% MORE screen time this season than the women of color! And in spite of that clear disadvantage in cast members, white girls make up the top SIX in terms of time on the screen! Is unconscious bias to blame?

Exhibit A of this is that the show spent basically an entire episode plus a cliffhanger plus the cliffhanger’s resolution at the start of another episode on a white girl WHO WASN’T EVEN PART OF THE CAST!! White mini-van Heather (the irony of that double-entendre is delicious) came and went in the middle of the season and will have received more screen time than 13 of the women of color in the cast. As Marvin Gaye sings in Inner City Blues, “Oh, make me wanna holler/And throw up both my hands.” So yes, the producers solved the math problem by giving us a very diverse cast. BUT THEY CHOSE NOT TO SHOW THEM!

All of this said, it seems to me that Chris Harrison, as the most visible face of The Bachelor franchise, has been made a sacrificial lamb to cover the sins of the executive producer team. While he is not blameless in this matter, he is far from the only cause of this firestorm. I resent that he’s being forced to bear the burden of a corporate fail as if everything is OK now. There is much broader culpability that needs to be addressed.

This season has been a grind and now it’s gotten worse. Perhaps it’s not possible for a reality show based in unreality to handle actual reality. Maybe that’s a bridge too far.

P.S. Sharleen Joynt speculates that the reason Chris Harrison was so quick to address Rachael-gate is that she is the winner. I have seen NO spoilers. But I agree with her. Which means this could get a lot messier. So now we are all on a cliffhanger that was not planned by the evil genius producers. Maybe that’s their karma in a day of racial reckoning.

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