"The Bachelor" producers admit failing Black leads but plan to rectify issues for "The Bachelorette"

Producers said they let down Matt James: "We did not protect him as we should have"

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published June 27, 2024 3:55PM (EDT)

The Bachelor (ABC)
The Bachelor (ABC)

In a twist of events, "The Bachelor" franchise's producers are taking accountability for how the flagship ABC dating reality television show has handed racism that former contestants and leads have faced in the past.

Executive producer Claire Freeland said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times published Wednesday, “It’s hard to say out loud, that people of color didn’t see themselves represented, that they did not see ‘The Bachelor’ franchise as a safe place.” 

Freeland added, “[The franchise] didn’t have a Black lead in this franchise for 15 years, and that’s inexcusable. It created a vicious cycle, and it’s taken a lot of work to get back to a place where we feel at least we’re working for the positive.”

"The Bachelor's" glaring diversity and race issues came to a head in 2020 after casting the first Black Bachelor in Matt James. During the season, photo of front-runner Rachel Kirkconnell leaked, showing that in 2018 she had participated in an antebellum-themed party, which many saw as glorifying the period of slavery in the South. The backlash was swift. Then long-time host Chris Harrison was interviewed by "Extra" reporter and former Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay about the photo, in which his response was criticized as minimizing its racist implications. Harrison was then later fired.

Despite the franchise's missteps in 2020, producers had continually insisted it had evolved. But that was called into question earlier this year when at the Television Critics Association press tour, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans asked the franchise’s bosses, “Why does the show find it so difficult to handle race issues?” 

Freeland attempted to answer by addressing where the franchise is now instead of the past. But Deggans pressed, “That doesn’t really answer the question. Why has ‘The Bachelor’ struggled to deal with race, particularly when Black people are the stars of the show?”

Freeland, Bennett Graebner and Jason Ehrlich did not answer his follow-up question. Deggans responded, “I guess we have our answer.”

“I’m going to be really frank — we let Matt down,” Graebner said in the LA Times story. “That season went wrong on so many levels. We did not protect him as we should have. The finale of that season was the darkest day I’ve had on this franchise. Here was this great Black man, and we should have been celebrating his love story. Instead, what we saw was a man burdened and overwhelmed by issues of racism. It was really sad for me personally.”

The producers have said that it is a “priority” to cast a Black Bachelor again. While they did not share specific details and whether the issues during James' season would be rectified, LA Times reported.

Graebner continued that production “didn’t have the same resources then that we have now.”

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As a new season of "The Bachelorette" will premiere on July 8, the franchise welcomes its first Asian-American lead in Jenn Tran, a Vietnamese-American woman. Already, producers are hoping to head off the problems that they faced with Matt James' season. Two licensed therapists are on set, and one is a therapist of color. They've also stated that they have hired a diversity and inclusion consultant who is available to producers and cast members.

However, despite the historic casting, there has been a lack of Asian-Americans in Tran's cast of suitors. Producers acknowledged the lack of Asian representation in the franchise. 

“That’s on us. We didn’t do what we needed to do. Our hope is that they will see Jenn and realize this is a safe space. We’re not saying it will solve and fix everything. But it is a step,” Freeland said.

This season Freeland said Tran doesn't shy away from discussing pressing issues the show usually avoids: race and faith. “We had extensive discussions with Jenn prior to filming. She is proud of her Vietnamese culture, and she wanted to know if she could speak about that. We told her we wanted her to be her most authentic self.”

By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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