Is "The Bachelor" franchise even salvageable now that Chris Harrison exited as host for good?

Harrison leaving as host is a start, but his issues are just one thorny rose among the show's bouquet of such roses

Published June 8, 2021 5:00PM (EDT)

Chris Harrison        (ABC)
Chris Harrison (ABC)

After months of speculation, on Tuesday, "Bachelor" producers officially announced long-time host Chris Harrison is permanently exiting the franchise. Harrison's exit after 19 years of hosting one of the most equal-parts beloved and hated reality shows in the world follows an incident earlier this year, in which Harrison adamantly defended the past, racist actions of former "Bachelor" contestant and Season 25 winner Rachael Kirkconnell.

Yet, it's worth asking whether Harrison's exit is even enough at this point, and whether the "Bachelor" franchise, steeped in decades of white, cis, heteronormativity, is even salvageable. The incident with Harrison is just the tip of the iceberg, or to use the "Bachelor" parlance, a thorny rose among a bouquet of such roses over the years.

For those who didn't follow the drama with Matt James' season — the first season with a Black, biracial male lead — back in February, Kirkconnell was exposed for attending an antebellum-themed sorority event in 2018. Kirkconnell herself denounced her attendance, and even insisted that no one defend her, but Harrison couldn't help himself. In a heated and cringe-inducing argument with Rachel Lindsay, the first Black "Bachelorette" from 2017, on her podcast, Harrison decried the "woke police" and told Lindsay that Kirkconnell's attendance at the party was perfectly fine by the standards of 2018.

"Is it a good look in 2018 or is it not a good look in 2021, because there's a big difference," Harrison said. He added, "These girls got dressed and went to a party and had a great time. They were 18 years old. Does that make it okay? I don't know, Rachel, you tell me . . . but where is this lens we're holding up and was that lens available and were we all looking through it in 2018?"

Harrison also spoke at length about his sympathy for Kirkconnell: "This poor girl Rachael, who has just been thrown to the lions — I don't how you are equipped when you have never done this before to be woke enough, to be eloquent enough, to be ready to handle this," he said, "I'm not sure why we're so ready to throw this poor woman in the river." 

Sure, being exposed for past racist behavior might have put Kirkconnell in an uncomfortable situation — but rather than throwing her "in the river," as Harrison put it, the call-out provided Kirkconnell the chance to work on herself, and learn about the very active, persistent forces of racism in which she had participated, intentionally or not.

An example of how this can provide for real-life reflection and learning is the recent controversy with "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" star Ellie Kemper having attended – and been crowned queen of a racist, sexist ball when she was 19. The actress apologized, owned up to her ignorance but also acknowledged the privilege that allowed her to benefit off of such harmful practices. Therefore, if Harrison wanted to feel sorry for or center anyone's experience in the debacle – rather than a white woman who had participated in a racist tradition – he could have instead focused his energy on supporting those who remain oppressed by white supremacy to this day.

What followed the scandal was an "After the Final Rose," post-season finale episode designed with obvious and deliberate caution for fragile white audiences, to whom the franchise has always catered. More time was spent discussing the supposed difference between behavior that is "racial," whatever that even means, and behavior that is "racist," than actual, candid introspection about the franchise's enduring participation in white supremacy. 

And, of course, it's not even the years of nearly all-white casting of contestants and leads, until Lindsay in 2017, Tayshia Adams in 2020, and Matt James this year. The more recent casting selections certainly wouldn't have happened but for a widespread, anti-racist reckoning in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others, last year. These are realities the "Bachelor" franchise never had any intention of considering or wading into when it was created; even now, it's only vaguely scratched the surface of these issues because it became profitable and brand-saving to do so. 

Ultimately, no matter who is cast and who leads, the show will live up to its design as escapism for white people, who are privileged with the ability to escape at all, and sink into a television show about love and picturesque dates and fantasy destinations, in an enclosed, picture-perfect snow globe of a world. In this snow globe, racism, misogyny, police violence, poverty, bigotry, and the everyday brutality of the real world simply don't exist — because the white audience to whom the show is catered is able to believe such a world can exist. The rest of us know better.

The Season 25 "After the Final Rose" episode perfectly captures the hollowness of the franchise's recent attempts at an anti-racist remodeling job that remains designed for the white gaze. The special episode spent more time talking about the importance of forgiving racist white people than addressing structural racism, or the policies that uphold and enforce white supremacy, which go beyond a couple white individuals being problematic. The episode also treated anti-racist struggle as peace and singing kumbaya around a campfire, shielding its audiences from the everyday nature of racist violence, from the truth about why riots happen, from the exploitation inherent to making Black people like Lindsay, James, or Adams perform the labor of educating white people about racism, all while keeping white people comfortable.

"I don't want to hear, 'America doesn't want to see it,'" Lindsay said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter last year. "That's been the problem with the Bachelor franchise — you keep doing what you think America wants to see and that's why we haven't seen people of color as leads. We've got to stop that cycle. I don't care if it makes America uncomfortable. It's our current reality."

These are problems that one person — Chris Harrison — departing can't fix. They're problems that can't be fixed with casting and recasting, or scripted, peacemaking conversations with problematic white people. They're problems that can only begin to be fixed by meaningfully challenging its white audience, by making them uncomfortable, by pulling back the curtain on how love can't happen in a vacuum from the real world and all its racist, classist, sexist, bigoted ugliness. To do so would be to blow up the entire franchise — and maybe that's what we need.

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

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