‘The Bachelor’ Can’t Right Its Racist History With One Black Lead
Matt James becoming the first black Bachelor is a start, but let’s not forget that this show’s race problems extend further than the absence of black Bachelors and Bachelorettes.
The saying “Better late than never, I guess” has never felt so apt. After 18 years and 25 seasons, The Bachelor has finally announced the first black lead for its flagship series, Matt James. It’s a positive, if long overdue sign that the franchise is beginning to take its race problem seriously. But as longtime fans of the franchise well know, it’ll take more than one black lead to make amends for this franchise’s past failures on race.
That The Bachelor is only now announcing its first Black lead, amid widespread Black Lives Matter protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans by police, is ironic, given the fact that the show almost had a Black Bachelor this year. Mike Johnson, a frontrunner during Hannah Brown’s season, was a top candidate for the role—but producers snubbed him, choosing instead the shockingly uncharismatic walking train wreck Peter Weber. (Hannah Brown, ironically, has spent the past few weeks apologizing for using the N-word while singing a song on Instagram Live.)
The Matt James announcement, made on Friday’s Good Morning America, comes after Rachel Lindsay, the first Black Bachelorette, threatened to cut ties with the Bachelor-verse should producers fail to name a Black Bachelor for the upcoming season. She and several other candidates signed a Change.org petition calling for a Black lead in Season 25.
In an interview with Variety, ABC unscripted exec Rob Mills swore Lindsay’s ultimatum had nothing to do with the decision—but hinted that even the show’s producers know that significant work lies ahead.
Mills noted that James was initially cast for Clare Crawley’s season of The Bachelorette, which has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. According to Mills, James has been on producers’ radar for the Bachelor slot for some time. “We could have made this announcement earlier or later,” Mills told Variety. “Certainly no one is blind to what is happening in the world, so hopefully this announcement serves as a bit of optimism during a time that we can really use this.”
“But I don’t want this to look like we’re patting ourselves on the back or taking a victory lap,” Mills added. “We don’t want this, in any way, to seem like a cure-all and seem like, ‘Hey! Look what we did here!’ We know this is a few grains of sand in a very big hourglass. It’s taken a while to get where we are and we will continue to go further, and I acknowledge it may not be enough. In the last few years, I believe it’s gotten better and with the announcement of Matt, I hope it keeps getting better. We are very excited about Matt.”
As Rachel Lindsay’s season of The Bachelorette, which used a racist contestant as a source of drama, proved, the Bachelor franchise’s racial pitfalls don’t stop with its casting. Contestant Lee Garrett’s racist tweets surfaced early on during the season, and as fans later saw, producers chose to allow Garrett to pick fights with a black contestant, Kenny King, labeling him “aggressive,” without providing Lindsay any clarity as to what was going on behind her back. This is common practice for the franchise, which often forces Bachelors and Bachelorettes to sort out inter-contestant drama on their own—but it placed Lindsay in a uniquely compromising and potentially dangerous position. What could have happened, for instance, if she’d somehow chosen Lee Garrett in the end?
And then there’s the viewership dip that occurred during Lindsay’s season. “I found it incredibly disturbing in a Trumpish kind of way,” series creator Mike Fleiss told the New York Times in 2018. “How else are you going to explain the fact that she’s down in the ratings, when—black or white—she was an unbelievable Bachelorette? It revealed something about our fans.”
Lindsay chose and eventually married contestant Bryan Abasolo, so at least her Bachelorette tenure had a happy ending. But the show’s failings on race extend further than that.
Garrett is not the only contestant whose racist social media behavior has somehow eluded the show’s screening process; before The Bachelorette Season 14 even aired, fans discovered that contestant Garrett Yrigoyen had liked a series of disturbing and racist social media posts, including one that mocked undocumented immigrants. Bachelorette Becca Kufrin chose him as her winner, and stood by him even after the season aired and she learned about the controversy. Just this week she addressed a pro-police Instagram post from Yrigoyen, which she called “tone deaf.” And then there’s Victoria Fuller from this year’s Bachelor, who fans quickly discovered had modeled for a fish conservation campaign that used the slogan “White Lives Matter.”
To its credit, this year’s season of The Bachelor did also provide a platform for contestants to address the online harassment they’d received during its “Women Tell All” special—which included specific discussion of racist bullying from fans, which also featured a guest appearance from Lindsay.
Consider also how quickly non-white contestants, particularly black contestants, have historically been eliminated from The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. As Mills noted, recent seasons appear to have improved—somewhat—but the fact remains that the show’s white Bachelors and Bachelorettes almost exclusively choose white winners in the end. The show even faced a discrimination lawsuit in 2012, which was ultimately dismissed. And in perhaps the best summation of the show’s issues, its TV parody, Lifetime’s UnREAL, cast a black lead before The Bachelor itself ever did.
Reflecting her experience on The Bachelor Season 10 in 2006 in a first-person essay for Vox, Lindsay Smith recalled being assured she would not be the cycle’s only black contestant—only to arrive and find out that she was. “I was there to serve as the token black woman for entertainment purposes,” she wrote, “and was never taken seriously as a candidate.” On the first night, Smith said producers told her that a white contestant had been badmouthing her and calling her a “bitch” behind her back—which turned out to be a lie. “I was offered, and drank, copious amounts of alcohol—which only made that emotional reaction worse,” she wrote. “As the night went on, it became more and more clear to me that the producers were intentionally creating an environment where I would feel uncomfortable due to my race.”
“I left the series disgusted,” Smith continued. “When the show aired, I remember watching myself within the contours of a highly edited storyline—reduced to the stereotype of a hysterical woman. It was a jarring and shameful experience.” The show declined to comment at the time.
All of this explains why Lindsay and others have been taking The Bachelor to task—and why Lindsay insists the show needs to go further than simply casting a black Bachelor. “I was hoping when I came on to be a trailblazer for that and to increase diversity in the audience that watches it,” she told Good Morning America Friday. “But in the last three years, there really haven’t been changes made.”
“I want producers of color,” Lindsay continued. “I’d like for them to cast leads that are interested in dating outside of their race that aren’t just getting their first-time experience [with interracial dating] on national TV. I need the acknowledgment of that. Not putting a band-aid over the situation and just saying, ‘Here, we’re going to put this here. Are you happy now?’”