The 25th season of the hit reality show “The Bachelor” promised to be historic with Matt James, 29, named the franchise’s first Black bachelor. But the season ended in controversy, brought on by its “winner,” the host and production choices that have sparked ire among viewers.
But many of the Black women who watch the show, like Mikayla Bartholomew, say they could see these issues coming from a mile away.
Bartholomew, 26, watched the series intermittently with her mother growing up. Now she and Victoria Price, both actresses, host a podcast, “The Blckchellorettes,” which they launched in January, a few weeks into James’ season. Their show served as means to grapple with Blackness, activism and the franchise on a season that was supposed to spur change.
“For some reason, ‘The Bachelor’ and its whiteness seems like a very good mirror for how we engage with one another in society and how white people in power, or those who have access to platforms and privilege, engage with disenfranchised folks,” Bartholomew said.
Rachael Kirkconnell received the final rose from James, but before the finale aired, 2018 photos of Kirkconnell, who is white, surfaced on social media featuring her, then an undergrad at Georgia College and State University, dressed up for an antebellum-themed ball. TikTok users also compiled evidence of her mimicking Native Americans in costume and liking social media posts supportive of former President Donald Trump.
Then, when discussing the photos with former “Bachelorette” Rachel Lindsay during an interview on “Extra,” longtime “Bachelor” host Chris Harrison downplayed the controversy. Harrison’s statement that “there’s a big difference” between 2018 and 2021 sparked its own controversy. Emmanuel Acho, a former NFL player and host of the series “Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man,” replaced Harrison for the “After the Final Rose” special.
While Kirkconnell was the last woman standing, the uproar surrounding her racist behavior and the franchise’s poor response ultimately led to a breakup with James.
Kirkconnell issued an apology on social media in February, saying that at the time she didn’t realize the racial implications of her actions but that she should not be excused for that. “Racial progress and unity are impossible without (white) accountability, and I deserve to be held accountable for my actions,” she wrote. “I will never grow unless I recognize what I have done is wrong. I don’t think one apology means that I deserve your forgiveness, but rather I hope I can earn your forgiveness through my future actions.
Through all this, Bartholomew and Price followed along, documenting the on-screen and off-screen antics. Price, 28, began watching the series with “The Bachelorette” starring Emily Maynard in 2012. She started the application for James’ season, but she didn’t finish the video portion. She said she sensed that the timing wasn’t right, with the pandemic — and that the odds would not be in her favor.
“I’m a dark-skinned Black girl with a ‘fro,” Price said. “I’ve never seen that on the show, and I put that in my little application. We’ve seen a lot of light-skinned women, mixed-race women and racially ambiguous women. I am clearly a Black woman with dark skin. I have never seen myself represented on that show.”
In a June open letter, former casting producer Jazzy Collins said that after Lindsay’s season of “The Bachelorette,” casting went back to the “status quo”: choosing predominantly white contestants or Black women who were “ethnically ambiguous,” wore weaves, had chemically straightened hair and weren’t “too Black.”
This season’s final three “Bachelor” contestants were Bri Springs, whose mother is of Persian descent and whose father is Black; Michelle Young, whose mother is white and whose father is Black; and Kirkconnell.
In the season premiere, James, whose mother is white and father is Nigerian, and who identifies as Black, spoke with Harrison about the insurmountable pressure of being “the first.” James said, “You’ve got people who are cheering for you to find love. You’ve got people who are cheering for you to end up with a specific person, a specific person of a specific race.”
Price said when she saw James’ speech, she interpreted his admission that he wouldn’t cater to those outer expectations. While the cast was touted as the franchise’s most racially diverse, James’ outlook should have been taken into more serious consideration to avoid having “all these Black women come on the show expecting” him “to be different because the franchise’s painting you as different.”
Questions arose from Black viewers surrounding the palatable Blackness that appeases a white audience and whether James was not-so-subtly hinting that he would give the final rose to a white woman. Thoughhe said he found such assumptions “frustrating” in a “Bachelor Happy Hour” podcast, ultimately, Kirkconnell won the rose.
To Bartholomew — who studied gender, sexuality and women’s studies at Virginia Commonwealth University — James choosing Kirkconnell illustrated the ways Black women “fall to the bottom of the social hierarchy. We just have found we’re not the ones that are desired, so engaging in relationships is often about finding someone that you’re compatible with. Whereas, for Black men, there’s an assimilation to power that they’re seeking.”
This social order goes back centuries, says sociologist Cheryl Judice of Northwestern University, who studies interracial relationships and marriages.
“That goes back to the times when Black women were brought to this country,” Judice said. “It was the white woman who was the personification of everything desirable and feminine, and it was the Black woman that will never be her equals.”
Data shows James is no anomaly. According to the Pew Research Center, among Black newlyweds, 24 percent of Black men have a spouse of a different race or ethnicity as opposed to 12 percent of Black women.
For season 25 contestant Chelsea Vaughn, though she said she is “personally more attracted to Black men,” she doesn’t rule anyone out — and is very aware of colorism.
“It does trickle into every aspect of life,” Vaughn, 28, said. “Colorism definitely has a hand in trickling into some of the insecurities that I have around dating.”
Vaughn has posted several comical TikToks about her “Bachelor” experience, recalling how she wanted a one-on-one date with James but was often assigned to group dates. She said she does not feel as though James slighted her, nor did she interpret his conversation with Harrison as ruling out Black women.
However, she certainly noticed, week after week, when a Black woman who was not light-skinned went home. Bachelor Data, a fan account that tracks show-related statistics, found that women of color were not given airtime proportionate to how many of them were in the cast. Vaughn said the data maps to her own experience on the show.
“I definitely don’t think the airtime was fair and even,” Vaughn said. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily just because of race or because of the storylines with the drama, because it did happen to be that most of the drama was surrounding white women. I’m probably the Black woman that got the most airtime that is not a mixed woman.”
Judice, the sociologist, said the media “for the longest time has only been comfortable with depictions of Black people that fit certain categories.”
The producers of “The Bachelor” did not respond to requests for comment.
Vaughn said she didn’t feel as though she was pigeonholed into a specific type of role, per se. Podcast hosts Bartholomew and Price said that when Black women were depicted on the show, it was often a “vehicle for the white stories” or as a comedic trope.
“I knew I wasn’t looking at ‘The Bachelor’ or the first Black ‘Bachelor’ season for a Black love story,” Bartholomew said.
A Black love story “is something that we don’t often get to see on the show and within this franchise,” Price said.
“The Blckchellorettes” Instagram page went viral after Bartholomew posted a video in response to Harrison’s sit-down with Lindsay. They’ve received backlash from white “Bachelor” fans disregarding these issues or threatening her with slurs.
“People on our colorism posts have been acting like we made up colorism,” Price said, “but people don’t understand that that is a real, deep-seated struggle.”
Though Price wants to hold out for hope, both she and Bartholomew know it’ll take more than performative diversity to really bring about historic change. For them, that means hiring more than one producer of color; having an equity, justice and representation consultant; confronting anti-Blackness head-on; and much more.
Vaughn hopes not only for concrete change, but that Black female viewers don’t give up on the show.
“I definitely hope there’s space for a Black love story,” Vaughn said. “If there were some Black women that have not watched the show previously, I hope that they don’t take this as an indication that this show is just not for them or it’s been tainted for them from this season. And I hope that the franchise does the work that it needs to do to push forward and to be better.”