The Highs and Lows of the Bachelor Franchise

The past few seasons of the hit reality television show, “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” have proven to be monumental, yet controversial. For those unfamiliar with the show, let me explain. 

The show revolves around one man (or woman) on their journey to find love, with roughly 30 contestants looking to be “the one”. Each week the Bachelor or Bachelorette will take people on dates, which can include one-on-one dates or group dates. At the end of each week, there is a rose ceremony, in which the Bachelor or Bachelorette hands out roses to the people they want to continue to date. Those who do not receive a rose are sent home. There is also “Bachelor in Paradise” which is another show in the franchise where roughly 20 women and 20 men live at a resort in Mexico. It is an even playing field and everyone has an equal chance to find a fiancé. 

This franchise has always had its fair share of criticism. For example, the show has always been critiqued for using people’s vulnerabilities and pasts to create drama in order to boost ratings. In nearly all of the franchise’s existence, the show has centered around white heterosexual relationships. It has continuously left marginalized groups of people out of the conversation. 

The Bachelorette strip dodgeball Photo by ABC / Craig Sjodin

This began to change in the latest season of “Bachelor in Paradise” which aired in the summer of 2019. Contestant Demi Burnett became close to another male contestant but confessed to him that she had dated someone before the show and was still in love with them. That person turned out to be new to “Bachelor” fans, and that person was Kristian Haggerty. Burnett discussed her reservations about moving on with the show to host Chris Harrison, and confessed she still loved and missed Haggerty. Harrison then brought Haggerty to Mexico, reuniting her with Burnett, and making Bachelor Nation history in the process. 

Burnett and Haggerty were the first same-sex couple to ever appear on the show. Harrison invited Haggerty to stay in paradise and explore her relationship with Burnett. She accepted, and so, “Bachelor in Paradise” viewers got to see the first-ever same-sex couple on the show's 20-year history. The couple continued to break down barriers when Burnett proposed at the end of their season. They became the first same-sex couple to ever appear on the show, and subsequentially, get engaged. Burnett and Haggerty were not only monumental for the franchise, but for the viewers and LGBTQ+ community. 

They were the first representation of a same-sex couple. Both were candid about their struggles with accepting their sexualities, and even accepting a relationship with each other, and these confessions resonated with viewers around the world. An August 2019 article from The Washington Post detailed some public responses from the episode. People from all around the world were tweeting about the event, and one even read, “Hi this is happening on a mainstream American reality TV dating show NOT EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD IS A GARBAGE FIRE #bachelorinparadise” and was accompanied by a GIF of Burnett and Haggerty embracing each other. 

As someone who is part of the LGBTQ+ community and is a viewer of the franchise, the episode was monumental for me as well. The struggles Burnett described not only coming to terms with her sexuality but being open about who she loves and her relationships resonated deeply. The engagement sadly ended in October 2019, and while I was sad to hear the news of their split, I will never forget what it felt like to see a part of me represented on one of the most-watched television shows in America.

ABC/Craig Sjodin

While Burnett and Haggerty made good-hearted history on “Bachelor in Paradise”, the latest season of “The Bachelor” also had its share of history-making, but in a much more dark and truth-revealing way. 

To start, Matt James was the first African-American Bachelor in the show's history. From the beginning of his season, contestant Rachael Kirkconnell seemed like the perfect woman for James. Their love story continued to blossom, and Kirkconnell went on to win the season, and the girl James loved most. 

For viewers, it seemed like Kirkconnell and James were going to have the happy ending that they had always dreamed of. But photos of Kirkconnell at an Antebellum themed plantation party in college surfaced online along with other racially insensitive content Kirkconnell took part in. 

A People magazine article detailed the scandal. Initially, James had hoped the claims were rumors, but when he found out they were not, his trust was shaken and their new-found relationship hung in the balance. In an interview regarding the resurfaced photos, host Chris Harrison did not condemn Kirkconnell’s actions and went as far as to say, “You’re 100 percent right in 2021. That was not the case in 2018,” Harrison said, adding that he was “not defending Rachael. I just know that I don't know, 50 million people did that in 2018...That was a type of party that a lot of people went to.” Harrison faced intense public backlash. After this backlash, Harrison announced his apology and said he was going to step down from hosting the show. 

ABC/Craig Sjodin

The controversy continued to pick up steam, and Kirkconnell publicly apologized and owned up to her actions. The re-surfaced photos brought an end to Kirkconnell’s relationship with James. 

In an interview with The Bill Simmons Podcast, James stated, “The tough thing is having to explain to America why those pictures are problematic to me...You hear people harping on forgiveness and I forgave her when she told me. That doesn't mean I’m not disappointed and that I don't want her to do better…I don't think that anyone’s irredeemable.”

Bachelor Nation has been forever changed by James and Kirkconnell. The show has pledged to do better by creating more spaces for BIPOC on “The Bachelor” franchise as they plan to give more representation to marginalized communities.

In the midst of all of this, Bachelor Nation announced their new Bachelorettes. Michelle Young, who will be only the third Black woman to be Bachelorette, and Katie Thurston. Thurston’s journey will premiere in summer 2021, and Young’s will premiere in fall 2021.

ABC/Craig Sjodin