The Bachelor Finale Brings To Light Systemic Issues Within The Show
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The unscripted dating series "The Bachelor" wrapped up last night. And for the first time in the show's 19 years on ABC, there was a Black bachelor, Matt James. But spoiler alert in case you weren't watching - there was also a historic breakup as James revealed he had ended his relationship with the winner, Rachael Kirkconnell. Pictures had surfaced on social media of Kirkconnell, who is white, showing her in 2018 attending a ball celebrating the Antebellum South. Here's James talking about his decision on the show's "After The Final Rose" ceremony Monday.
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MATT JAMES: Rachael might not understand what it means to be Black in America. There's a lot of work that needs to be done. I have to take a step back and allow her to put in that work.
KELLY: And that moment was the culmination of weeks of controversy over race on the show. Here to talk about it all, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.
KELLY: So I got to ask, what happened? - 'cause this was supposed to be the season that "The Bachelor" showed all its critics who'd been arguing the show isn't diverse enough, like, we got this. And instead, there was - this wasn't even the first of the race-centered controversies. And it all ends in a breakup.
DEGGANS: Yeah. I think the show messed up by not fully appreciating what it means to be Black on "The Bachelor." So I'll give you the backstory. So on Monday, viewers saw a two-hour season finale filmed way in advance, where Matt James chooses Rachael Kirkconnell to be his girlfriend, with an eye towards becoming his fiancee.
DEGGANS: But long before last night's finale aired, these allegations about past racist behavior by Kirkconnell had surfaced, including these photos of her attending this antebellum ball that celebrated the end of the old - an era of the old South when Black people were enslaved before the Civil War. So ABC aired an hour-long show after the season finale on Monday called "After The Final Rose," where James and Kirkconnell had this really uncomfortable reunion. She apologized. She said she didn't understand the antebellum's party's racist roots. But the question remains why the show didn't vet Kirkconnell better in the first place and why host Chris Harrison tried to defend her when the story first emerged.
KELLY: Right. And speaking of Chris Harrison, who's been the longtime host of "The Bachelor," he did not host this "After The Final Rose" special third hour. What happened there?
DEGGANS: Yeah. So when the picture of Kirkconnell initially appeared, Chris Harrison did this TV interview where he criticized the, quote, "woke police" for coming after her, and that caused enough of a firestorm that he wound up saying he was going to step back from his hosting job for a while. And that opened up the opportunity for Emmanuel.
And - now, he wrote a book and hosts a webcast called "Uncomfortable Conversations With A Black Man." And I think he did a good job leading the kind of substantive conversation about race that "The Bachelor" should have had a long time ago. He got James to open up about the pressure he faced as the show's first Black male star. He pushed him to talk to Kirkconnell about how her ignorance hurt him. I do wish he would have asked James why he didn't talk with Kirkconnell during the season about what it would mean for her to date a biracial man who self-identifies as Black. And I also wondered why he decided not to help her learn more after the scandal broke.
KELLY: Yeah, that would have been an interesting conversation to watch. Real quick, Eric, in the few seconds we have left, is "The Bachelor" going to fix this? What are you watching for in future seasons?
DEGGANS: I don't know if it's possible for a show this manipulative and exploitive to completely solve its issues. They need better vetting of contestants for racist issues. They need more transparency about why producers make the choices they make. And most importantly, they need to accept how centered this show is on white culture and white contestants and change it, lessen the extra burden that people of color face when they try to compete on the show.
KELLY: All right. Thank you, Eric.
DEGGANS: Thank you.
KELLY: That's NPR's Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.