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Arts & Culture, Reviews

“The Bachelor”: the politics of desire

How the off-screen “Bachelor” drama revealed more about love than the show ever could

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2021

If "The Bachelor”’ is about love, then "The Bachelor”’ is also about politics

Matt James, the first Black man to lead the dating show “The Bachelor,” started the 25th season with a record number of contestant applications and love from the dedicated #BachelorNation. The fantasy was cut short, however, when pictures of contestant Rachael Kirkconnell at an “antebellum-themed party” in 2018 surfaced. 

Alongside the photos came a flurry of other accusations and screenshots, from a TikTok claiming Kirkconnell used to bully girls in high school for “liking Black guys” to various pro-Trump likes on Kirkconnells’ social media accounts. Kirkconnell was the obvious favorite, and the social media firestorm took place while the show was airing and after filming had wrapped. Viewers watched with anger as Kirkconnell progressed each week, leading up to her winning the final rose this past Monday in the season finale.

When the photos and rumors began circulating, James was hesitant to condemn his (then secret) girlfriend. Chris Harrison, the longtime host and face of the “Bachelor” franchise, went so far as to defend Kirkconnell in an interview with the first Black Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay, stating, “These girls got dressed up and went to a party and had a great time. They were 18 years old. Now, does that make it okay? I don’t know, Rachel, you tell me.” After the interview aired, Harrison announced he would be taking leave from all future “Bachelor” tapings for the foreseeable future. A month after the original images had surfaced, before she was publicly announced the winner, Kirkconnell apologized. 

That brings us to the finale. James sent his second pick, Michelle Young, home early in the episode, clearing the way for a Kirkconnell victory. After the end of the finale, the traditional “After the Final Rose” episode aired, where the Bachelor and his final two contestants meet again face-to-face. Due to Harrison’s departure, this year’s episode was hosted by Emmanuel Acho, who stated that “if we can talk openly and honestly, we can take steps toward mutual understanding and healing.” James revealed that he broke up with Kirkconnell following her apology, saying that she “might not understand what it means to be Black in America.”

It’s not surprising that “The Bachelor,” a show first and foremost about love, would be the setting for such a catastrophe. There are few things as political as our desire: what we want and why. The show tries to obscure this fact, as Acho says, “Let’s not forget what this show is about, which is love and romance.” But love is — or at least should be — an uncomfortable conversation. Who we love and why we love is as political as it is magical. If the “Bachelor” is about love, the “Bachelor” is about politics.

In a 2018 article for the London Review of Books, Amia Srinivasan writes that through the tides of third and fourth wave feminism, sex has become detached from its political ties in favor of an effusive “sex positivity”: “What matters (with sex now) is not what conditions give rise to the dynamics of supply and demand — why some people need to sell their labour while others buy it — but only that both buyer and seller have agreed to the transfer.” Srinivasan isn’t arguing that consent shouldn’t matter when discussing sex, but rather that by reducing sex down to a matter of consent, by insisting that desire is organic and therefore incontestable, society has depoliticized the expressly political issue of sex. In other words, feminism has taken “The Bachelor” to a falsely apolitical approach to desire in recent years.

Neil Lane, the famous jeweler who appears in every finale of the “Bachelor” franchise to offer sage advice, says to a very confused Matt the day before he chooses Kirkconnell: “Whatever you feel is the right feeling.” But is this true? 

Srinivasan would argue that it isn’t, and Kirkconnell’s fall from grace would suggest she’s right. We love and fall out of love with people for very political reasons. Matt’s quick infatuation with Kirkconnell, resultant of the fact that society deems her attractive, is therefore political (he admitted he was falling for her by the fifth episode). And her racist past is exactly why he falls out of love with her (though he maintains, like any good Bachelor or Bachelorette, that those feelings can’t “disappear”). Matt’s feelings are what led him astray; he fell for the wrong person, politically. 

So, the game of love is a political one, which is why the show and its 12-episode, game-show-like format have seen such success. “The Bachelor” is a romantic election with unbelievably good-looking candidates and remarkably vapid talking points. Up until now, it had successfully packaged love as an otherworldly experience through its use of violins, shots of wide eyes and moments of teary heartbreak. But this recent scandal broke open its glossy facade. 

At the end of the “After the Final Rose” episode, two new Bachelorettes were announced: Michelle Young and Katie Thurston. Young would be the third Black Bachelorette. 

Rachel Lindsay, the first Black person to lead the franchise, announced she would be leaving her “Bachelor” branded podcast and all other “Bachelor”-adjacent ventures once her contract is up. “I can’t take it anymore,” she said on her podcast, referring to Harrison’s defense of Kirkconnell and continued racist harassment online that she’s received. 

Ultimately, it remains hard to tell if “The Bachelor” has really learned its lesson, even after its political missteps have cost the show a distinguished alum, a successful couple and its original host. But its mission — to document naturally occurring love on a heavily produced reality TV show — doesn’t look like it will be able to withstand the social movements of the past two years without some serious acclimation. 

It turns out, then, that just like accepting or rejecting a rose is a political decision, so is falling in love. 

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