Outrage. Grief. Anger. Sorrow.
With those words, the Walt Disney Co.’s top executives were determined to send a clear message after the killing of George Floyd and other unarmed Black men, which sparked massive nationwide protests last summer: Racial justice at Disney would be a top objective.
In a May 30 memo to employees, Disney Chief Executive Robert Chapek, Executive Chairman Bob Iger and Chief Diversity Officer Latondra Newton resolved to "use our compassion, our creative ideas and our collective sense of humanity to ensure we are fostering a culture that acknowledges our people's feelings and their pain."
Openness and dialogue would be prioritized: "We intend to focus our efforts and resources to compassionately and constructively talk about these matters openly and honestly as we seek solutions. We intend to keep the conversation going, not just today, but for as long as it takes to bring about real change."
Less than two weeks later, "real change" came to "The Bachelor," one of the most valuable franchises on the Disney-owned ABC — and one whose history has long been clouded by its handling of race. After years of resistance by the show's producers against casting a Black “Bachelor,” including a contentious legal battle, commercial real-estate agent Matt James was announced as the show's first Black leading man.
The news was thrilling for a legion of fans, particularly Black members of the "Bachelor Nation" fan base who had lobbied for years for a Black “Bachelor.” Adding to their excitement were James' costars — a diverse group of beautiful women all hoping to be his bride-to-be.
"I was really excited to see Matt and how his journey of love would unfold," said Ashley Tabron, a high school teacher in North Carolina who started watching the show in 2017 when Rachel Lindsay made history as the first Black “Bachelorette.” "I thought he was a good guy. I was also impressed by how diverse the cast of women were — there were a lot more Black or women of color than ever before, and I was excited to see their stories."
But a fairy-tale ending to James' quest for true love is unlikely in Monday's season finale, with James poised to choose between graphic designer Rachael Kirkconnell and elementary school teacher Michelle Young when he offers "the final rose."
Instead, "The Bachelor" is in crisis mode, caught up in a firestorm involving racism, online abuse and questions about the future of besieged "Bachelor" host Chris Harrison, who has relinquished his role in the "After the Final Rose" special to author and former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho. (The season proper was filmed months ago.)
The dark side of "Bachelor Nation" has also reemerged amid the fallout, after Lindsay — who has faced bullying from fans before — was attacked online with racial slurs after a contentious TV interview with Harrison about racist allegations circling Kirkconnell.
Recent episodes have featured James eliminating several women of color vying for his affections and falling for Kirkconnell, unaware that she had been photographed at an antebellum South-themed party in 2018 and that she had "liked" racially insensitive social media posts.
James himself has also been swept up in the upheaval, writing in a recent Instagram post that the controversy is reflective of a larger issue "that the franchise has fallen short of addressing adequately for years."
As the furor crests heading into the finale, neither Disney nor ABC has commented publicly on the matter, despite leadership's less than year-old pledge to be open about racial issues. The subject was not raised during this week's Disney shareholder meeting. Neither Disney nor ABC responded to requests for comment from The Times.
In an email to The Times, Warner Bros. Television, which produces the series, said the controversies will be addressed in the "After the Final Rose" special. But with the exception of a single Twitter post from executive producers calling for a halt to the online harassment of Lindsay, Harrison has been the face and voice of the franchise throughout the firestorm.
The cone of near-silence has prompted many who are upset at the current season of "The Bachelor" to accuse Disney of hypocrisy, saying the company made a public relations maneuver with James' casting that has horribly backfired.
"This season has been a huge fail," said Justine Kay, who cohosts "The Bachelor"-themed podcast "2 Black Girls, 1 Rose" with best friend Natasha Scott. "If they had not shoved Matt as quickly as they did into the light as their only answer, this wouldn't be as big of a conversation. But they set this up. Disney, who owns ABC, said: 'We promise to do better.' If you don't want to put in the money, the research, the time, then just don't do it."
Added Scott: "They're patting themselves on the back for having a historic season, but they don't want to deal with anything that comes with that in terms of Blackness and what it means to be a Black man in 2021. They completely avoided that responsibility."
Jennifer Pozner, author of “Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV," said she was not surprised by the controversy: "Racism and misogyny have been baked into the DNA of 'The Bachelor' from the very first episode. Empty promises about compassion does nothing to address systemic forms of discrimination in casting, development and story narrative."
Disney executives have not always stayed on the sidelines during uproars over racist or offensive behavior. Last month, Gina Carano of the Disney+ series "The Mandalorian" was fired by Lucasfilm after her "abhorrent" social media posts. Asked about the ouster at this week's shareholder meeting, Chapek said the company was standing for "values that are universal," including respect, decency, integrity and inclusion.
After "Roseanne" star Roseanne Barr posted racist tweets in 2018, she was quickly fired and her top-rated comedy canceled. Iger, who was CEO at the time, wrote in his memoir that it was his decision to fire the actress.
"The Bachelor" has been one of ABC's most lucrative and consistent performers during its 18-year run, but it has taken a ratings hit this season. The last "Bachelor" season, with star Peter Weber, averaged 7.8 million total viewers going into the finale, while the current season with James is averaging 6.4 million total viewers, according to ABC.
Tabron said her expectations that the season would be inclusive and progressive have been dashed: "I want to be able to enjoy 'The Bachelor. I want it to be lighthearted, and I want a good love story. But it's getting harder to justify watching it. I wish they had lived up to the promise they made, because they had everything there to make it the season it could have been. I didn't expect it to be this bad. They missed several opportunities to make the representation meaningful."
It remains unclear how the franchise will address a number of issues, whether in the finale or "After the Final Rose": How did Kirkconnell, with her well-documented past, pass the vetting process for a season featuring the first Black “Bachelor,” especially with the series' casting coming under scrutiny in multiple previous seasons? Why hasn't Harrison been held accountable, or even publicly reprimanded, by his bosses? And what steps will producers now take to correct the franchise's escalating "race problem"?
Myah Genung, who started watching "The Bachelor" as a teenager and is part of a Facebook group dedicated to the franchise, said: "At this point, the franchise has to decide what it's going to be and who they are going to be for. Going back to the status quo would be terrible."
Though the racist images in Kirkconnell's past had been known within fan circles from the start of the season, the furor erupted Feb. 9 during an interview on "Extra" in which Lindsay questioned Harrison about Kirkconnell's delay in addressing the situation. Harrison defended Kirkconnell, saying "this judge-jury-executioner thing is tearing this girl's life apart."
Harrison also suggested that attending a party celebrating the South’s racist, slave-owning past wasn't defined as socially unacceptable when Kirkconnell was photographed at the event in 2018. When pressed on Kirkconnell's silence, Harrison shot back, "When is the time, and who is Rachel Lindsay and who is Chris Harrison and who is whatever woke police is out there? I hear this all the time... ‘I think he should, I think she should.’ Who the hell are you? Who are you that you demand this?”
Kirkconnell later apologized, saying her actions were "not acceptable or OK in any sense. I was ignorant, but my ignorance was racist,” but she has not yet explained her motives for wanting to be on a season with the first Black “Bachelor.” Producers of the show have also not explained her casting.
Harrison has since issued three apologies for his comments in the "Extra" interview. His departure from "After the Final Rose" has ignited a fierce debate on social media about whether he should leave the show permanently.
The apologies concluded last week on ABC's "Good Morning America" with host Michael Strahan, when Harrison again showed remorse but added that he would be returning to the show. After the segment, Strahan was bluntly dismissive of Harrison, calling his comments "a surface apology."
"There's no excuse for casting racists," said Pozner, who is also the author of the upcoming graphic novel "Breaking (the) News." "Everyone has a Twitter account. The producers can go back and read these things. But the series has consistently cast racists as dating options. They feel that's good drama. This is not a franchise that has good intentions and should not be given the benefit of the doubt."
She pointed to Lindsay's season of "The Bachelorette," on which one of her suitors was Lee Garrett, who had posted racist tweets before he was on the show.
Genung said the debate that's taken over James' season is a microcosm of racial tensions in America.
"Bachelor Nation is divided into two camps — fire Chris Harrison or keep Chris Harrison," Genung said. "It feels reminiscent of the MAGA crowd. They feel ownership over the country the way certain fans feel ownership over the franchise. Those fans see these Black and brown voices trying to come in and change things, and there's a rejection of that change.”
The show's producers have also been called out for not being serious about making changes. A coalition of women of color on the current season posted a statement to Instagram last month saying they were “deeply disappointed” about “this historic season that was meant to represent change."
Though James' season started with more contestants of color than before it, the narrative that emerged among the women over the course of the episodes focused on white cast members, particularly "Queen" Victoria Larson, who was presented as the season's "mean girl," and Katie Thurston, who is rumored to be the next “Bachelorette.”
Kay and Scott of the "2 Black Girls, 1 Rose" podcast said they weren't surprised that diversity did not greatly alter the tried-and-true direction of the series. Kay said, "They have a formula of, as we say, being 'the whitest show on earth,' and that works. Added Scott: "They tried to apply that formula to Matt James' season, and it's not working out."
Many of the critics say "The Bachelor's" difficulties go beyond Harrison, putting much of the blame on executive producer Mike Fleiss, the creator of the franchise.
Some have even questioned James' casting. Cultural identity scholar Anita Thomas, who is executive vice president and provost of St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., said producers may have made a mistake by selecting the biracial James, who was raised by his white single mother and does not solely identify as an African American, as the series' first Black lead.
"We have someone from that background, but it's simply that superficial token," Thomas said. "They are multiracial. It's not like they picked someone whose primary identity is as an African American and who brings that cultural representation to the show."
Though the specific set of factors that led the first Black “Bachelor's” season to unravel is subject to debate, a number of close observers agree that any serious reevaulation of the franchise's troubled relationship to race will require more than waiting for the latest storm to pass. On "Higher Learning," a podcast she cohosts, Lindsay advised the franchise to "take a break" and "get the train back on the track" before filming the next season of "The Bachelorette."
With effort and attention, Thomas said, "The Bachelor" can become more progressive and sensitive to race: "It will take a lot of work to get there. It will take time and some real, in-depth analysis and honesty on all parts — the participants, the producers and certainly from Chris himself."
Times staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.