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Racism Controversy Rocks 'Bachelor' Nation

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This season of racial activism and awareness has finally come to one of TV's most popular reality shows, "The Bachelor." For nearly 20 years, the reality dating show has attracted millions of viewers who tune in to find out whether that season's eligible bachelor or bachelorette will find love with one of the other insanely attractive people selected for their perusal.

But diversity, or even racial sensitivity, has never been a strong suit of the franchise. In 2012, two would-be Black male contestants filed a discrimination suit against the show unsuccessfully. The first Black lead came five years after that, bachelorette Rachel Lindsey, and it has emerged that a number of contestants have made racially offensive social media posts.

This season, Matt James made history as the show's first Black bachelor and started out with the most diverse cast in the show's history. But the season has been rocked again by a controversy around race, and this time, it prompted longtime host Chris Harrison to step aside, at least temporarily.

Now, is this on par with other upheavals over race right now? No. But we figure that something that commands the attention of 5 million people every week deserves some of ours, so we called professor Brandy Monk-Payton to talk this over. She's a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University. And we found her because of a paper she wrote titled "Introducing The First Black Bachelorette: Race, Diversity, And Courting Without Commitment." And she's with us now.

Welcome, professor Monk-Payton. Thanks so much for joining us.

BRANDY MONK-PAYTON: Happy to be here. Thank you for having me.

M MARTIN: So, first, can we see if we can summarize the current controversy and try to explain what's at issue? I'm thinking here about people who don't watch the show kind of religiously, or perhaps not at all. Like, what - as briefly as you can, like, what happened?

MONK-PAYTON: So I should say there have always been controversial cast members within Bachelor Nation. And in more recent years, with participants who are increasingly more online, you're bound to discover past social media content - so images and posts that reflect problematic and offensive views related to race and gender and sexuality. So this is just the latest case.

For those who are not familiar, a contestant, Rachael Kirkconnell, on the current season of "The Bachelor" with Matt James, a biracial man as bachelor. Kirkconnell was exposed, I suppose, as having photos of her taken at an antebellum plantation-themed ball. And I think that she also dressed up as a Native American.

And Chris Harrison, the host, is in a controversy because he was interviewed by the first Black bachelorette, Rachel Lindsey, and seemed quite defensive about the entire issue. And so that's how it started. And it has led to Harrison stepping away from the show, specifically stepping away from the live after the final rose ceremony.

M MARTIN: So, you know, this is so fascinating - first of all, the fact that you use that term Bachelor Nation. So what I take from that - it isn't just a show anymore. It's like a whole - what? - ecosystem. Who's in Bachelor Nation? Is it, like, everybody who watched the show, who was a part of it? What does that mean?

MONK-PAYTON: It is an entire ecosystem that has been cultivated since the show has been on - for almost 20 - you know, almost 20 years. And so I think that it is - makes - it is made up of the fans. It's made up of the various participants across seasons and also across the different programs within the franchise - so "The Bachelor," "Bachelorette," "Bachelor In Paradise." And so all of these participants and fans create this entire network that has now been deemed Bachelor Nation.

M MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, though, I found the sort of the comments in response to the whole - this controversy so interesting. Several of the previous Black women contestants reported that they felt that they were set up to play into kind of racist stereotypes about Black women or that they were targeted for racist attacks by the audience and that the network didn't do anything to help them or defend them or help them sort of deal with it.

And this isn't the first time that a white contestant has had these racist social media posts. I was just wondering, like, why is race such a third rail on this show?

MONK-PAYTON: I think that it really starts with the fact that the introduction of the first Black bachelorette, Rachel Lindsay, was a long time coming. And the franchise has been critiqued at the level of diversity, equity and inclusion for at least a decade. And I think that the franchise in general courts diversity, right? It goes to great lengths to promote itself as being more inclusive and equitable. They hire consultants, for example. But it does not fundamentally commit to a kind of long-standing change in front of and behind the camera.

M MARTIN: What do you make of the fact that these people with these kind of racist posts kind of keep popping up on the show? I mean, it's my understanding that the vetting process for this is fairly extensive. I mean, all kinds of personal questions are asked. Is it a situation where the people who do the vetting just don't care? Like, it doesn't really, you know, resonate with them as being important. Or is it something else? Maybe it's about the pool itself - that these kinds of attitudes and beliefs are just more prevalent than a lot of people would like to believe that they are.

MONK-PAYTON: It's an interesting question. I think that it's both, and I'm very cynical about this. And so I believe that the vetting process is what they say it is. I believe that they do vet contestants. But I also think that there is a little bit of a sense that there will be controversial characters, and these cast members will express themselves or have behavior that will be on camera, and you can get a money shot, right? Like, you can get, you know, a sort of dramatic scene. You can get a reveal or an exposure that is highly lucrative for the entire franchise in terms of audience attention.

M MARTIN: It seems clear that a number of people in the audience are pushing - including former contestants - are pushing that "Bachelor" franchise to kind of do better. But at the end of the day, do they explode stereotypes, or do they perpetuate them? I mean, on the one hand, there are lots of shows on television where interracial relationships are not this - a big deal.

I mean, excuse me, Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court decision that - you know, that struck down barriers to interracial marriage was more than 50 years ago. And there are a number of shows on television where interracial relationships is not, like, a huge deal. I mean, look at - you know, there's, gosh, "Grey's Anatomy." I mean, how long has that been on? And so at the end of the day, I mean, do you think that "The Bachelor" - does it explode stereotypes, or does it just perpetuate them?

MONK-PAYTON: It's a good question. And I do think that it perpetuates particular negative images in some ways. But I also - you know, I want to put it into the context of it being a reality show. And so it attempts to have claims on certain forms of authenticity and, you know, truth that other fictional shows don't.

And so I think that it has tried to, you know, critique various stereotypical ideas around Black womanhood, femininity and masculinity. But there's a way in which when it's placed in this very conventional, traditional, heteronormative right idea of marriage, that it becomes incredibly hard to, you know, get out of that, get out of those frameworks that are really constricting.

M MARTIN: Why do you like it? You know, you've made it clear you're a fan. You like it. So why do you like it, if you don't mind my asking?

MONK-PAYTON: It's fascinating. I mean, as a Black woman who considers herself to be part of the Bachelor Nation fandom, I think I've actually always had an ambivalent relationship to the franchise and its overwhelming whiteness. It has historically never spoken to me in terms of its representation of romance - and not only that, but also who gets to be an object of desire. And there is still something, however contrived, about the kind of fantasy of being romanced in a spectacular way that allures and also endures.

M MARTIN: That was professor Brandy Monk-Payton from Fordham University. We're talking about the uproar at Bachelor Nation.

And professor Monk-Payton, thanks so much for talking to us.

MONK-PAYTON: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.