Entertainment

People of Color Deserve Both Representation and Escapism. ‘The Bachelor’ Failed to Deliver Either

If you’ve ever been asked why you love The Bachelor so much, your answer is probably something along the lines of “it’s amazing escapism.” And I’m with you. At its best, the show’s ability to perfectly straddle reality and fantasy is zone-out gold. For me—and, I imagine, many of you—that escapism isn’t just entertaining, it can also feel like a much-needed mental health coping strategy.

But if you’re one of the many, many people who has never felt represented by the show, you’ve probably had to shut off that little voice inside your head that says, Why doesn’t anyone’s lived experience look like mine? before you can fully enter the world of roses and date cards.

And then season 25 came along with a beautiful promise. The franchise had chosen its first Black bachelor, Matt James, and picked a crew of contestants who were more diverse than ever before. For people of color, the show finally seemed poised to give us that elusive combination of representation and escapism that we deserve (and, quite frankly, have almost never received in entertainment programming).

How do you slip into a reality show when you know the subculture around it is so unequipped to handle diversity in a way that feels respectful?

Except…when the season finally arrived in early January, the show—and the drama that surrounded it—became an ugly, stressful mess.

Sure, there was the whole pandemic thing. (It’s hard to escape figuratively when you’re watching people who are unable to escape physically.) But there were also (accurate!) spoilers that claimed Matt gave his final rose to Rachael Kirkconnell—who, the internet uncovered, had engaged in racist behavior before coming on the show—and the Chris Harrison/Rachel Lindsay interview heard round the world, in which he defended Rachael’s actions.

I couldn’t get lost in Matt’s love story because it was so overshadowed by the toxicity, offscreen controversy, and, of course, the Queen Victoria of it all. Compared to all that, Matt’s arc was so thin—and that contrast felt really stark when it was juxtaposed with how deeply the show fleshed out, say, Sarah, a white contestant who left so early in the game.

People of color have never had as easy access to escapism, and that’s especially true in this whole Bachelor mess. The notion that minorities don’t have the same access to formal mental health care—in many cases due to cultural barriers—is nothing new. But it’s time we talk about how, for people of color, those real-life day-to-day coping strategies, like getting totally sucked into a mediocre reality TV show, are also so much harder to come by.

How can you relax when you’re the only person cringing at a racially insensitive joke? How do you fully enjoy a romantic comedy without wondering why diverse love stories are rarely in the frame? How do you let loose during a night out when you see other minorities being turned away at the door? How do you attain mental clarity during an outdoor run when the threat of profiling follows your footsteps? How do you slip into a reality show when you know the subculture around it is so unequipped to handle diversity in a way that feels respectful?

I couldn’t get lost in the Matt’s love story because it was so overshadowed by the drama, toxicity, and offscreen controversy.

I spoke to Aaliyah Nurideen, LSW, a mental health expert and longtime Bachelor fan who agrees that when it comes to day-to-day mental health coping strategies, people of color have a harder time finding those avenues for escapism. “We have culturally, as Black and people of color, wanted escapism through media,” Nurideen says. “I absolutely believe it is hard when you try to get the escapism through that form of media and you can’t see yourself, something you can relate to. We do have a hard time escaping.”

Which brings me to one of the the main problems of season 25 . The ABC infrastructure hasn’t done much to reveal who Matt James is underneath the label he carries as the first Black bachelor. During last night’s finale, we got to learn more about him, but it all came too late. It just made me wonder: Why did it feel like we had missed out on so much of Matt, his story, his humanity, and his connections throughout the season?

That’s not to say the show didn’t attempt to do Matt justice or give audiences a deeper look at America’s bachelor—it just wasn’t handled with the right sensitivity. During last week’s episode, producers brought out Matt’s father for an uncomfortably intimate conversation. Many viewers, including Matt and the franchise’s first Black bachelorette, Rachel Lindsay, spoke out about the problematic nature of that conversation.

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This is why so many people haven’t been able to fully escape into the Bachelor world. Instead, we’re caught up in how it’s unfolding, even without the horribly offensive offscreen controversy that tainted this particular season.

What’s harder for minority viewers to reconcile: a total lack of representation—or representation done wrong?

I’ve spent most of my life consuming media products while swallowing that icky understanding that none of their creators considered people who look like me. For so long, I’ve wanted visible representation, but it’s abundantly clear that outward representation isn’t enough. We also need to put people of color behind the scenes, in production, casting, and decision-making roles. We need to listen to their perspectives and value their input.

People of color, like Matt James and many of the women who appeared on his season, deserve not only to have their stories told but also told in the same way everyone else’s are framed. They’re not tokens or symbols, and they deserve better.

And as minority audience members, we deserve to see content that both reflects and serves us well. If the people behind the camera want to keep our attention, they better put in the work.

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