This Season on the bachelor: drama like never before... actually

Meredith Hutchinson

I have always thought of my obsession with watching The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, or really any part of the Bachelor franchise as a guilty pleasure. As much of a fan as I am, I would never begin to argue that these shows offer anything more than some hot drama, attractive people, an opportunity to find a new celeb couple to follow on instagram and be jealous of. Past that, I’ve never seen much substance in any season. But this season dealt with something totally different. 

 

When I had heard Matt James would be the next Bachelor, I was more excited for any season than I’d ever been. My sister and I had already been big fans of Tyler Cameron, former Bachelorette contestant and bff of Matt James. We followed them closely during quarantine, when the two besties would post all of the stupid, funny things that they did together. 

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The franchise made more of a conscious effort to select a diverse cast. This season featured a deaf woman, a woman from Puerto Rico, Ethiopia, and overall just more racial and ethnic diversity. Many contestants had real conversations about their family lives, and Matt opened up about growing up in a single-parent household with a dad that left when he was very young. Such diversity made the season feel more meaningful and realer, as the conversations were overall less superficial than in previous seasons.

 

The end of the season took a sharp turn away from this celebration of diversity. Matt James ended up falling for Rachael Kirkconnell, a 24-year old from Cummings, Georgia. In the last episode, he told her that he wasn't ready for a proposal, but he wanted to continue developing his relationship with her. So happy ending, right? 

 

Nope. 

Here’s a brief summary of the controversy:

 

In early February, two  months after the series finished filming but a little over a month before the last episode was set to air, a photo of Rachael Kirkconnell, who at that point in the show was considered a frontrunner, emerged on the Internet. The photos included her at an Old South antebellum themed fraternity formal in 2018. After this photo began circulating, others started sharing racist posts that she had liked on instagram. Everything began cascading downard before the end of the show had even aired. Soon after the photos came out, Rachel Lindsay, former Bachelorette and first ever black Bachelorette, organized an interview with Chris Harrison, longtime host of Bachelor Nation shows, to hear his thoughts on the matter. Unfortunately, he gravely mishandled the situation. His comments came off as defending Rachel’s actions, saying that “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, you tell me Rachel.” He persistently argued that in 2018, we looked at things through a different lens than in 2021, certainly implying that this was, to some extent, excusable. After his controversial remarks which resulted in backlash from fans, he stepped down from his position as the host for an indefinite amount of time, a position which he has held since the show’s debut in 2002.

 

Now, fast forward to the last episode, After the Final Rose, which was filmed on March 5th and aired on March 15th, about a month after the Rachel Kirkconnell controversy. First of all, there’s no Chris Harrison, which was just bizarre. But Chris Harrison’s resignation could’ve been the most positive thing for this episode. The franchise asked Emmanuel Acho, former NFL star and author of book and video series Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, to be the host. Had Chris Harrison sat down with Rachael to discuss her actions, it would have felt significantly less meaningful. Two white people talking about the work they need to do on national television, while great that they’re both acknowledging it, feels fundamentally wrong. It’s easy to sit down with someone with the same level of privilege as you to discuss race as it feels like there is less at stake. There isn’t anyone in the conversation actually affected by whether or not your word to “put in the work” is genuine. Rachel could have talked with Chris Harrison and they both could have pledged a commitment to be actively anti racist, and all would’ve been fine. However,  Rachel sitting down with Emmanuel Acho, a man whose life and ancestors' lives have been dictated by their race, promises a much more authentic realization on Rachel’s part for who her actions hurt. 

Acho handled this interview with immense grace. His experience in navigating conversations about race in a way that doesn’t side-step anything really shone through. He presented questions to Rachael in a productive, genuine way. You could see that for him, this was an opportunity to show the world how productive conversations about race can be had. Another important takeaway from this was when he noted the difference between racially insensitive and racist. Acho notes his caution in calling Rachael racist, and continues to refer to her actions as racially insensitive. Someone who partakes in active racism, racist actions with malicious intent, is racist.

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Passive racism, doing things that one ignorantly believes aren’t racist, is where most microaggressions come from. The majority of people aren't active racists, but many partake in passive racism without even realizing it, such as Rachael did.

Although I don’t want to dedicate much time to discussing Rachael, I think it’s worth noting that she did speak well during the interview. When offered the opportunity by Acho to “place blame” for her ignorance, such as her upbringing, living in the South, etc, she chose to own up to her ignorance and acknowledge that one can easily see why such a party is problematic if they just think about it and what it celebrates. Now, can we say for certain that Rachael is going to put in the work to become anti-racist and educate herself? Not at all. On national television, you say what you can to make yourself look good. But when you already have death threats and have pretty much been cancelled, there’s not much face left to save. So, I guess the best part of me wants to believe it was genuine.

After the controversy, other BIPOC contestants from Matt’ season opened up on their social media, standing with Rachel Lindsay and denouncing the franchise’s history of racism as well as Chris Harrison’s comments.  Michelle Young, a finalist on Matt James’s season and future Bachelorette, released a statement pointing out that 25 women who identify as BIPOC were cast in this season, and she reiterated Rachel Lindsay’s messages about how the franchise needs to not tokenize their BIPOC contestants, but rather respect their experiences and uplift them. As I sat in my dorm room watching this episode on a lovely stay-in-place Friday night, I saw a glimmer of hope for Bachelor Nation.  I guess I’m just hopeful that the recent wave of dedication among white people to be actively anti-racist has actually reached wide corners of society, not just the instagram feeds of liberal college students. I’m hopeful that 40-year-old mom superfans from hardcore red counties maybe learned a little something from this season about the pain that history carries. I’m hopeful that this season marked a turn in Bachelor Nation. 

 

For so long, the show failed to represent a diverse love story, failing to cast a black bachelor for the role from 2002 until now. Everything was filtered to just be a classic television love story between two white people. Maybe this is the start of something new in Bachelor Nation; maybe now instead of being a substanceless guilty pleasure, it can actually serve as a place for people to see themselves positively represented in a hopelessly romantic love story, as so much of our current media still fails to do.