It’s become a running joke: At the beginning of each show within The Bachelor franchise, host Chris Harrison undoubtedly says, “Get ready for the most dramatic season of The Bachelor yet.” On some level, Harrison’s declaration makes sense—we don’t watch reality television because we’re hoping to see storylines that resemble our everyday lives. We get sucked into the drama, develop attachments to the relationships formed onscreen, and call out behaviors that we’d never do if we were ever in these contestants’ shoes. Though we’re generally aware that reality TV shows are scripted, we’re so enmeshed in social-media sites and dating apps that it’s easy to believe the lie that maybe, just maybe, this season will give us “something real.”
The Bachelor franchise has a cult following that’s lasted through 23 seasons of the original series, 14 seasons of The Bachelorette, and spinoffs ranging from Bachelor in Paradise to The Bachelor Winter Games. It’s a year-round experience, and social media helps viewers feel as if we’re a part of the lives of all of the contestants. Hannah Brown, the Bachelorette on Season 15, is seemingly taking the franchise in a more progressive direction. Brown, a white pageant queen from Alabama, goes through a sort of transformation in the trailer announcing her season.
At the start of the promotional trailer, Brown wears a very Disney princess-worthy blue gown, a sash reading “beauty queen,” and a bedazzled crown. As it continues, she removes the skirt of her dress to reveal a jumpsuit and tosses her sash and crown to the ground. The words “Think again” are imposed over the screen as a cover of “You Don’t Own Me” plays. It’s as close to a feminist statement as the franchise is going to get, and yet the series plays it safe as, in every other way. Brown checks the typical Bachelorette boxes: she’s white, thin, blond, and straight. But this season’s issues suggest that, though the people behind-the-scenes may have been able to pull of a quick, teasingly empowering promo video, they ultimately don’t have what it takes to maintain that same energy throughout the season.
While all reality TV shows deserve to be critiqued, The Bachelor franchise especially concerns me because time and time again, it’s revealed that the franchise’s producers are clueless about how they represent women, including women of color, on the series. While Brown’s season has been filled with red flags, from clearly abusive contestants to slut-shaming, this isn’t the first time they’ve failed women on The Bachelorette and the franchise at large. Instead, it’s shown that it’s willing to toss women into the flames of abuse for bigger ratings—has it even earned the right to attempt to tell their stories if it won’t protect them?
Here are some of the most galling moments in recent Bachelorette history, prompted by Brown’s recent and especially painful season.
1. Luke Parker’s behavior throughout Season 15.
Concerned viewers have been pointing out red flags from the moment Luke Parker (known as Luke P.) joined the current season of The Bachelorette. By the second episode, Parker claimed that he was falling in love with Brown, which isn’t normal behavior, even on a show as unpredictable as The Bachelorette. He also consistently ignores Brown’s requests for space away from him, gaslights her, slut-shames her and becomes cruel and judgmental when she goes on other dates, despite it being the literal crux of the show. When other male contestants told Parker that he’s treating Brown poorly, he blew up and accused them of being jealous. Yet, The Bachelorette hasn’t sent Parker packing (in the most recent episode he’s out, but the trailer for the next episode makes it clear that he’s not gone for good), though they keep displaying his troubling behavior week after week.
2. Chris Harrison called Luke P. a “villain” instead of being alarmed by his behavior.
Most decent people wouldn’t feel great about forcing a woman to continue dating a “villain,” but Harrison has no real qualms with how this dynamic is playing out. “We’ve never had a season where a villain—if you want to call Luke that—has such a prominent role, where they really dominate the landscape and storyline for so long,” he told Entertainment Tonight in June 2019. “Hannah likes Luke P., and the more he gets beat on and she gets beat on, the more defensive and angry she gets.” Reducing his abusive behavior to just a TV ploy speaks to the franchise’s willingness to sell out its female protagonists for ratings.
3. When Dean Unglert used “I’m ready to go Black and never come back” as his opening line in Season 13.
Rachel Lindsay was the first Black Bachelorette, and Unglert thought it was appropriate to tell her that he was ready to “go Black.” His outlandish comment wasn’t treated like a racist microaggression; no other contestant called him out, and he made it to week eight. The offensiveness of his opening line was never acknowledged onscreen (though Lindsay and Unglert engaged in some back-and-forth comments about it on social media). It could have been a teachable moment for Unglert and some viewers, but instead, the producers let it slide.
4. The Bachelorette’s obsession with pitting Rachel Lindsay against a literal racist.
Lee Garrett, who constantly called Black people aggressive in Season 13, was undeniably racist. Throughout the season, Garrett poked and prodded at Kenny King, an extremely sweet and lovable contestant—because he was Black. Garrett attempted to gaslight King time and again, tried to paint him as violent to Lindsay, and even accused King of physically harming him. Instead of immediately removing Garrett from the show, especially when his racist tweets were uncovered, producers appeared to encourage Lindsay to keep him on.
5. Apparently, The Bachelor’s creator is still shocked about its viewers being racist.
Mike Fleiss, who created The Bachelor and still serves as a producer, told the New York Times in January 2018 that he’s surprised that ratings dipped when Lindsay was the Bachelorette. “I found it incredibly disturbing in a Trumpish kind of way,” he said. “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.” How do you create a show that prioritizes white people for over 15 years without realizing that decision would build a base of white viewers who want to see white couples?
6. The franchise mishandled an alleged sexual assault.
Corinne Olympios, a contestant on Season 21 of The Bachelor, later joined the fourth season of Bachelor in Paradise. During filming, there was “drama” between Olympios and fellow contestant DeMario Jackson. While the full story has never been revealed, we do know that whatever took place shut down filming for two weeks. When the show resumed, there were new rules, including limiting Bachelor in Paradise contestants to two drinks per hour and making contestants sign a consent form before engaging in any sexual encounters. It has always disturbed me that the show still aired as though nothing happened between Olympios and Jackson. It clearly had an impact on Olympios, who told Entertainment Tonight a year following the incident, “I think it was the hardest year of my life.” Though producers implemented specific changes, there’s still something extremely twisted about choosing to air the season.
I don’t expect The Bachelor and its spinoffs to be bastions of feminist relationships that re-examine power dynamics and re-think whitewashed, heteroromantic versions of love. But given the show’s embrace of a pseudo, watered-down version of feminism, especially with Brown’s season, it has to at least ensure that its bachelorettes are safe. Hannah Brown going from wearing a dress to wearing a jumpsuit and Rachel Lindsay being cast as the first Black Bachelorette isn’t enough to undo all of the harm this franchise has caused. And if these shows are going to act like these women hold real power, it needs to give it to them—for real.
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