Critiquing The Bachelor Franchise

Trigger warning: racism, heteronormativity, bullying, harassment, toxic environments, stereotypes, sexuality, etc.

Well, we have almost reached the end of Season 25 of The Bachelor, and man… there is A LOT to unpack. Apart from being a monumental season with the first Black Bachelor, there has been so much controversy surrounding this past season that I have been wanting to address. This post will primarily look at the past season and what has occurred there, but will also look at some recent seasons of The Bachelorette and Bachelor In Paradise to examine how The Bachelor Franchise continues to perpetuate a white, heteronormative narrative that is exclusionary, damaging, and toxic. We’ll also discuss potential ways for the Franchise to move forward and look a bit different in the future. I’ll be focusing on three key aspects here: sexuality and heteronormativity, bullying and toxicity, and racism. Full disclosure, this is a lot to discuss and some of this content may be triggering. Please proceed at your own risk and take breaks to take care of yourself if you need to.

First, what in the world do I mean by The Bachelor Franchise?

The Bachelor Franchise is what I use to refer to the reality TV series The Bachelor and it’s spinoffs, The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise (BIP). I think they also had another one called The Bachelor Winter Games, but it’s not currently running and I never watched it, so we will be focusing on the other three for our purposes. The Bachelor Franchise is one of the most successful reality TV series, with millions of viewers turning in to watch each season. I remember watching bits and pieces of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette when I was in high school. My parents would be watching it and not let me look at the TV during *intense* displays of PDA or one of many make-out scenes (I had very strict parents, obvs.). I stopped watching the franchise for a long time and just got back into it a couple of years ago, diving head-first into Colton’s season of The Bachelor in 2019. Why I chose this season to start with, I truly don’t know – perhaps it was because I was in my last year of school at the time and needed some source of stress release. From there, I watched Bachelor In Paradise in 2019 for the first time, which was a new and interesting experience. I then watched Hannah’s season of The Bachelorette, Peter’s season of The Bachelor, Clare/Tayshia’s season of The Bachelorette, and most recently Matt’s season of The Bachelor – whose finale is premiering tomorrow night. So, there are many seasons of the franchise that I haven’t watched (only 3 out of 25 Bachelor seasons, 2 out of 16 Bachelorette seasons, and 1 out of 6 BIP seasons). However, in the seasons I have watched recently, I began to notice some disturbing patterns that have continued to escalate and really come to the forefront in these last couple of seasons. Let’s dive in to what some of those issues are.

Heteronormativity in the franchise

I want to start off by focusing on the heteronormativity that is so prevalent in the franchise. For those who are not familiar with the term, heteronormativity in a very general sense means that the ‘normal’ form of sexuality is seen as heterosexuality, or a relationship between a man and a woman. (For more about heteronormativity, see here). What re-instates heteronormativity more than a show whose entire purpose is to set up a man and woman to get married and start a family? This focus of the show is traditional, conservative, re-inscribes ideals of the normative family and also re-affirms the dominance of heterosexual relationships. That is… all until Demi Burnett came along in the most recent season of Bachelor in Paradise (BIP).

When I watched the last season of BIP, it was the first time I had seen this version of the show and I didn’t fully understand how it worked. One of the main reasons I chose to watch it was that many of the women from Colton’s season of The Bachelor were on BIP, and I wanted to see where their journeys took them next. One of them was Demi Burnett. For those that are unfamiliar with the format of BIP, it is much different than the traditional Bachelor/Bachelorette format, where there is one lead and multiple people of the opposite sex who are competing for their attention and ultimate love (once again, reinforcing heteronormativity). In BIP, there are a range of both males and females with a lot more opportunity to mingle and talk to multiple people rather than just one. All of the contestants have already been on at least one season of The Bachelor/Bachelorette, so they are already familiar with the format of the show. I actually really enjoyed this format and found it to be a lot more realistic than having 25 women dating the same man, or vice versa. To me, this format seemed to subvert some of the heteronormative tendencies on the show, such as a focus on setting up a man and woman to get married and start a family, and allowed instead more freedom to pursue romantic partnerships with more than one person without necessarily having to end with a proposal. I believe it was this freedom of expression and exploration that allowed something really incredible to happen: the first same-sex relationship on the franchise.

Demi Burnett’s presence on this season was revolutionary for this very reason. She came out as bisexual on the show and revealed she had previously been involved with a woman (Kristian) before joining BIP, and couldn’t stop thinking about her. BIP airing this footage was in and of itself amazing. But then, they did something even more incredible: they invited Kristian to join Demi on the show and allow them to explore their love story together, on national television. This marked the first time a same-sex couple had ever been seen on the franchise, and allowed to really explore where their love could take them. I was honestly astonished that a franchise so rooted in perpetuating heteronormativity was providing the space for this to occur! The season ended with Demi getting engaged to Kristen, and though they are no longer together, it was a monumental moment for so many reasons. Celebrating same-sex love, Demi’s bisexuality, and love in all forms is what the show should be about, not focused solely on restrictive forms of heteronormativity. I was so surprisingly pleased that a show like The Bachelor would share this story, and I was so grateful to Demi for sharing this experience, inspiring what I’m sure was countless people throughout the world. It was an incredible moment, and I truly thought this would be a turning point for The Bachelor Franchise in addressing their heteronormativity of the past, and allowing for more flexibility of sexualities and relationships in the future.

Unfortunately, that was not the case. That did not happen, not even a little bit. We went straight back to reinforcing heterosexual relationships, destined for marriage and children, and primarily white relationships. Though the two most recent seasons of The Bachelor Franchise have included more diverse casts and BIPOC leads, which I will discuss in more detail shortly, the premise of the show still remains and entrenches white heteronormativity. With that being said, we have not seen another season of BIP since Demi was on the show, so perhaps BIP will allow for more space to explore these options in a less restrictive setting. I do hope that The Bachelor Franchise will revamp its goals and allow for these explorations and possibilities in the future. The show should be celebrating all sexualities, as what happened on Demi’s season of BIP, and I hope we will see more of that in the future.

Bullying and Toxicity in the franchise

Ah, bullying. We all know The Bachelor franchise is well known for the drama that the show provides. It is a reality TV show, after all. However, there is a distinct line between creating senseless drama for viewer’s entertainment and straight up bullying, especially when that bullying has racial undertones. Nowhere has this bullying been more apparent than in this past season of The Bachelor.

I was so excited to finally watch the first Black lead of The Bachelor, and see Matt’s love story unfold. Unfortunately, this story was largely overshadowed by the bullying occurring within the house among the women this season. So much screen time was devoted to showing this bullying, that we did not get to see Matt enjoying his journey in this pivotal role. It made it very difficult to root for him and his relationships as we barely got to see those grow. It’s also not a coincidence that the majority of the bullying taking place in the house was by white women, often directed to women of colour. I will be unpacking more of the racism in the franchise shortly, but many of it is exposed through the bullying antics that have taken place in the house. Among others, a few notable examples of bullying that occurred this past season include: calling Sarah Trott attention-seeking for having uncertainties about being on the show due to a family concern, attacking the new women that arrived a few weeks into the season, and starting a senseless rumour claiming that one of the new women was an escort (more details via Decider). This doesn’t include the countless microaggressions, dismissals, outright aggression, and forms of erasure that were directed towards the women of colour on this season. All of these examples are horrifying, painful experiences, many of which have a lasting impact and do not end when the show is over. Having to deal with these types of bullying on a regular basis creates a culture of toxicity that is left relatively unchecked, though I will say that Matt handled these situations extremely well and stopped the bullying as soon as he was made aware of it. Though last week it finally felt like we were starting to see some more depth and positivity among the women this season, it’s unfortunate that it took us this far in the season to get to this point. The fact that bullying occurred in the first place and that so much screen time was dedicated to it on this past season has been very disheartening.

Another aspect that I’ve really noticed this season in particular is how rampant the bullying is not only on the show, amongst the people on it, but off the show as well, in the countless comments of people online making remarks about the show. The majority of these comments shared online are incredibly negative, often racist, and attack specific individuals on the show. These comments have led to many of those who have been on the show feeling like they need to defend themselves against those who aggressively target them with hate, and in some cases, may even de-activate their social media accounts, as recently demonstrated by Rachel Lindsay. The fact that bullying is so extreme within this franchise, even with those who are not directly involved and are mere spectators of the franchise, is absolutely insane to me.

I think this is one of the biggest problems of showing rampant bullying occurring on the show: it makes everyone involved, especially those who watch the show, think that it is okay to engage in these kinds of practices. When bullying is racially motivated, this is even more dangerous for viewers who may not be able to recognize that. This is particularly problematic for younger generations who may be watching the show and seeking to model the behaviour that they see. Allowing bullying to continue unchecked fuels a hostile and toxic environment on the show, and causes many who watch the show to want to further engage with these behaviours through their own forms of bullying online. Bachelor Nation is massive, as I mentioned earlier there are millions of fans across the country and the world, and continuing to showcase these toxic environments is dangerous. With such a large fanbase comes a lot of power, and a lot of responsibility. I believe the franchise has a responsibility to focus on the love stories that we are actually here to see, rather than perpetuating a toxic environment through unchecked bullying that is often racially motivated. I also believe those in Bachelor Nation have a responsibility to dismiss these toxic practices, hold the franchise accountable, and check themselves when they may be engaging in bullying and harassment of contestants.

Racism in the franchise

This brings me to my next point: racism in the franchise. Racism has long been a problem in the franchise. The franchise continues to perpetuate white heteronormativity by casting predominantly or all-white casts, and white leads, for the past twenty years that it has been on air. There have only been two Black Bachelorettes to date (out of 16 seasons), and Matt was the first Black Bachelor in 25 seasons. In addition, the cast has typically been mostly white, though the past two seasons have taken some big steps forward in the diversity of people participating in the show. A more specific breakdown of the history of these aspects of the franchise are on @bachdiversity Instagram. Another great resource that shows some statistical evidence about leads and cast members over the past few seasons is on @bachelordata Instagram.

It is great to see the recent changes in representation in the cast and leads. However, changing the makeup of the cast is only one step in the process of confronting the racism in the franchise. I have already mentioned much of the racially-motivated bullying that occurs within contestants and by many viewers of the show. It is not helpful to increase the representation in the cast if they are constantly met with aggression, microaggressions, and outright bullying by racist cast members. Not creating a safe space is damaging for BIPOC who participate in the franchise, and many may be left feeling at best unwelcome, and at worst attacked. One example is the recent controversy surrounding Rachel Kirkconnell, Chris Harrison, and Rachel Lindsay. Though I will not discuss this in detail as it has been documented extensively by the media, this is an example of the prevalence of racism within the franchise and the damage it can cause.

Furthermore, these dynamics extend to the behind the scenes staff and producers as well. The controversy surrounding Chris Harrison is one example of this, but beyond having staff members also sharing racist remarks, microaggressions, and more, it is essential to have representation behind the scenes and in the leadership of the franchise. The franchise cannot be expected to accurately represent the love stories of BIPOC unless they have BIPOC members within the franchise at all levels, and particularly at the highest levels. I believe Matt’s season is an excellent example of this: we did not get to see as much of Matt’s love story as we would have liked, and though much of that can be attributed to the bullying taking place on the season (much of which was also racially-motivated), I believe some of that can also be attributed to the lack of representation behind the scenes and with the leadership. I believe these dynamics also played a role in some of the conversations we have seen take place throughout the season, including the recent conversation that Matt had with his dad, which played into racist stereotypes of the absentee Black father. Showing this deeply emotional conversation without much context was unnecessary and further fed stereotypes and polarity in this season. As Rachel Lindsay mentioned, such conversations show that the franchise doesn’t know how to protect people of colour, but only how to exploit them.

Having a racially diverse cast and BIPOC leads is absolutely essentially representation and we need more of it. However, you can’t have this representation while also having racist contestants, racially-motivated bullying, a lack of representation behind the scenes, and lack of representation in the leadership of the franchise. Most importantly, no one can move forward without the acknowledgment of this racism, accountability, and taking true action to make changes from the inside out.

What’s Next for the franchise?

The finale of Matt’s season of The Bachelor airs tomorrow night, and it will be interesting to see how the season wraps up. Due to the recent controversies of these seasons, Chris has temporarily stepped back from his position as host and Bachelor nation seems more divided than ever. I am hopeful that the After The Final Rose episode may address some of these dynamics. Yet, I don’t think the solution to move forward lies in removing one person from their position; rather, the entire community needs to take accountability for their actions (including those who watch the show and are engaging in racist remarks, not just those on the show) and work towards education and real anti-racism work. This work cannot happen without acknowledgement, accountability, and a clear plan to make changes moving forward. I believe some good steps have been taken in the diversity of the cast and leads, and seeing so many people speak out about these issues, but there are clearly still many aspects that need to be addressed. I believe the behind the scenes crew and leadership also needs more representation of BIPOC voices and stories. Continuing to diversify these audiences and allowing possibilities for different stories to take place – spanning various races and sexualities – would be great to see.

Until many of these adjustments are made, I think I will need to take a step back from watching the franchise. I do think many people will follow suit until Bachelor Nation fully addresses their racism, toxic bullying, and heteronormativity. Though some may argue that it is a reality show and is created purely for entertainment, I would disagree. I believe a reality show can still provide entertainment while also encouraging hard conversations, showcasing the stories and voices that span various races and sexualities, and denouncing bullying and harassment in all forms. Even further, I would argue that the media we engage with has a responsibility to make a safe space for all people to engage in without facing racism and bullying. The drama that draws many people to the show can still happen without these aspects, and more importantly, the show can focus on the love stories rather than the drama – and isn’t that what we are all here for anyway? To support love? Now that’s a series I can get behind: supporting love in all of its forms. That is something I hope the franchise will move towards in the future. ❤

Do you have any thoughts about The Bachelor Franchise or Bachelor Nation that you would like to share? Let me know in the comments!

Sources:

@bachdiversity on Instagram

@bachelordata on Instagram

Bachelor in Paradise, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bachelor_in_Paradise_(American_TV_series)

Demi and Kristian, Bachelor in Paradise’s first LGBTQ couple, confirm breakup, via CBS News: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/demi-and-kristian-bachelor-in-paradises-first-lgbtq-couple-confirm-breakup/

Demi Burnett, Bachelor in Paradise Cast, via ABC: https://abc.com/shows/bachelor-in-paradise/cast/demi-burnett

Does ‘The Bachelor’ Have a Bullying Problem? Via Decider: https://decider.com/2021/02/01/the-bachelor-bullying-problem/

Rachel Lindsay Deletes Her Instagram After ‘Harassment’ From Bachelor Nation, via ET Online: https://www.etonline.com/rachel-lindsay-deletes-her-instagram-after-harassment-from-bachelor-nation-161328

The Bachelor, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bachelor_(American_TV_series)

The Bachelorette, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bachelorette

The Bachelor Acknowledges ‘Lack of Representation of People of Color’: ‘We Will Do Better’ via People: https://people.com/tv/the-bachelor-admits-to-lack-of-representation-of-people-of-color-on-franchise/

The Bachelor Finally Cast a Black Man. But Racism in the Franchise Has Overshadowed His Season, via Time: https://time.com/5926330/the-bachelor-diversity-matt-james/

‘The Bachelor’ has a race problem. A diverse cast isn’t going to fix that. Via Insider: https://www.insider.com/bachelor-racist-chris-harrison-rachael-kirkconnell-2021-2

The Controversy Around Matt James’ Bachelor Season, Explained, via Bustle: https://www.bustle.com/entertainment/the-bachelor-rachael-kirkconnell-chris-harrison-controversy-explained

TV Ratings: ‘The Bachelor’ Finale Draws 4-Year High 8.5 Million Viewers, via Variety: https://variety.com/2020/tv/news/the-bachelor-finale-4-year-high-tv-ratings-1203530130/

What Is Heteronormativity – And How Does It Apply to Your Feminism? Here Are 4 Examples, via Everyday Feminism: https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/what-is-heteronormativity/

Why Rachel Lindsay Is “So Disturbed” After Matt James’ Conversation With His Dad on The Bachelor, via E Online: https://www.eonline.com/ca/news/1246284/why-rachel-lindsay-is-so-disturbed-after-matt-james-conversation-with-his-dad-on-the-bachelor


2 thoughts on “Critiquing The Bachelor Franchise

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