Television

Can The Bachelor Be Saved?

A Slate Live panel debates whether Matt is a weird kisser, and more.

In the lead-up to the finale of The Bachelor’s 21st season, culture critics Mariah Smith, Rachelle Hampton, Brian Moylan, and Amy Kaufman gathered for a Slate Live discussion of the season, which has been marked by a controversy that resulted in the temporary (for now) removal of the series’ longtime host, Chris Harrison. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Mariah Smith: What did you all think of these past couple of episodes?

Brian Moylan: I thought that the Women Tell All was crazy. I just couldn’t believe that it was basically a bunch of white women complaining that the internet was mean to them after they were mean to women of color. It all just seemed nuts to me that Victoria is on there talking to Ryan and equating her pain with being made fun of on the internet with her calling Ryan a hoe and a slut and whatever else she said about her. I’ve watched a lot of Real Housewives reunions in my day, and this seemed like the most acrimonious room I have ever witnessed on reality television.

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Mariah Smith: I will say this was one of the most contentious episodes of Women Tell All that I’ve seen in quite some time, because I think these women on this season are truly evil. Like they’re mean girls and I’ve never seen a group of women on TV that straight up mean.

Amy Kaufman: Yeah, it’s interesting. I felt like the only person I felt a little bit of sympathy for was, oh my gosh, I can’t even remember her name, the blonde girl who called the other girl an escort.

Rachelle Hampton: Anna?

Smith: You felt sympathy for her?

Kaufman: I somehow actually bought her remorse just because it actually from the second it was on the show, she’s felt bad about it for a long time. I don’t know. They all suck.

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Hampton: They do all suck. The fact that they were all coming after Katie and they were like, “This house wasn’t toxic until you said it was toxic.” And it’s like, that’s not how toxicity works.

Smith: What do we think of Matt as our bachelor?

Kaufman: My feeling is that it really sucks that all of this stuff in Bachelor world is happening during his season. It’s hard to separate from the fact that he’s just not really a good bachelor no matter what, he’s just bland. I don’t care how hot someone is. He cannot hold an interesting convo. I would not want to be on that show. So when they’re talking about how great he is, I really don’t buy in more than ever, because I’m just like, why do you want to be with him other than he’s hot? I don’t understand. I really felt that this year. I don’t know, do you guys think he’s one of the most boring bachelors ever?

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Hampton: Yes.

Smith: I would have to say that there were more boring bachelors to me, like let’s just take a Colton for instance, he has minimal personality. In addition to him, I would say Peter, but my biggest issue is Matt is our first Black bachelor. We need more personality than just being a pilot and having sex in a windmill. My biggest issue is with Tayshia’s season, she was open to the men bringing in issues that were happening in the outside world like the very real race war that we’re a part of, and Matt seems to shy away from that a little bit more. And it’s not to say that he has to touch on these very heavy topics, but he doesn’t really have much below the surface to touch on when he’s having conversations with these women, which is where I find the biggest issue. And also that his eyes are always open where he kisses. That is just creepy.

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Moylan: I also hate the way he kisses. It’s like he’s trying to put his mouth over their mouth.

Kaufman: Yes.

Moylan: My other thing that I hate about Matt is he always says, “First of all, thank you for sharing that with me.” Anytime anybody says anything, he’s, “First of all, thank you for sharing that with me.” It’s like he’s a kindergarten teacher. It seemed like he was trying to be too nurturing to everybody at the expense of his being at all interesting.

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Smith: Are we holding Matt to a higher standard because he’s the first Black bachelor? There have been tons of boring men in the past who have held this position, so it’s nice that they got another boring man who just happens to be Black—because we deserve that too. We deserve to be boring on television. But especially as an outsider, he was not a part of Bachelor Nation before finding his footing, that’s difficult for him to blend both of those truths together.

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Hampton: I think he just handled the show poorly, which was also part of why I didn’t like him. He didn’t necessarily handle situations the best way that he could have. Like the Sarah situation where he went up to comfort her at the beginning of somebody else’s date is something that if you were on the other side of that, you probably wouldn’t have done that. You would have picked different time to have that conversation. I feel like he kept making those missteps, which again, aren’t necessarily his fault because he was chosen without having ever been on the show. But combined with his boringness and just how bad he was at managing the women in the house. I was just like, this is not fun to watch.

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Smith: Well, what do we think of the come-to-Jesus moment, the reckoning that’s happening with the Bachelor Nation now, considering the Rachel antebellum parties and the Chris Harrison’s very unfortunate turn on Extra that has made him now step down, but what do we think about all of that and how it relates to Bachelor Nation?

Hampton: They drove Rachel Lindsay off Instagram. She’s been the target of so much because of that Chris Harrison interview. They’re blaming her for this situation versus him being dumb. What’s wild about it is not only him saying that but he’s been media trained for so long. At the very least if they’re going to be racist, you should be media trained enough to know not what to say in a situation like that. And so the fact that he said that and it’s Rachel Lindsay who’s being bullied off of social media shows what Bachelor Nation actually cares about.

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Kaufman: Yeah. I totally agree with you. And also in terms of just the viewing experience, I’ve already been less and less interested in The Bachelor as the seasons go by. And a lot of that does have to do with the outside controversies that the franchise has faced, like starting from Bachelor in Paradise Corrine and Demario here with the questionable sexual harassment and assault that they just never really addressed. The outside scandal has so eclipsed the viewing experience for me. It’s like, why am I fighting to watch a show that’s so shitty to so many people?

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Smith: As a newcomer, Brian, how do you feel about it?

Moylan: I think the show really cultivated a racially insensitive fan base for a long time. But I also think that on a greater level, it’s what a lot of America is going through right now where we know that there are problems with racial inequality. We’re trying to do something to fix it but a lot of people aren’t equipped to do it correctly and are making mistakes along the way. And unfortunately, the people who are often paying for those mistakes are the same people who people are trying to help by changing things. I’m glad that The Bachelor is taking steps to fix itself, but it doesn’t matter if you have a very diverse cast, you have a Black bachelor, you have a Black bachelorette, if you’re not going to empower these people and support them to really make the change that needs to happen and to keep them safe from people who are going to be assholes to them.

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Smith: Do you think Rachel Lindsay’s recent stance on the Chris Harrison issue is valid?

Kaufman: Yes. What’s the argument against it?

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Smith: I don’t think there is an argument against it because she condemned racism and that’s what we all should be doing or aspire to do.

Moylan: I do think it’s unfortunate that we keep laying teaching people not to be racist at the feet of Black people. It’s not Rachel’s Lindsay’s job to teach Bachelor Nation and Chris Harrison not to be racist. It’s their job to figure out how to not be racist themselves.

Hampton: Especially after how badly Rachel Lindsay was treated on her season, the shit that she put up with from the Bachelor producers, for her to have to turn around and then do unpaid labor to teach them not be racist is crazy. There’s literally no reason for this to be happening. She should very happily be off doing her own thing. But she keeps getting dragged into this to come and teach Chris Harrison who made, again, an unforced error on his part defending Rachel. He could have been very easily been like, it was a mistake and she made a mistake and she’s acknowledging that mistake. But for him to be like, “It didn’t mean the same thing in 2018.” The Confederacy’s been over since like 1868.

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Smith: We see how stunted The Bachelor is with race and sexuality, but it’s an odd juxtaposition against Katie coming into the mansion with the vibrator. How do we think The Bachelor got to that point with all of its hush-hushness around sex and sexuality? Where do we think that came from?

Kaufman: It’s always been this weird dichotomy of they really love to make someone so sexual or so chaste. Like you remember Caitlin came onto Chris Soules and said like, “I want you to plow my field,” as her getting out of the limo exit line or something. It’s always, oh my goodness, this woman’s leading with her sexuality or, she’s very respectful and wants to set a good example for her children. There’s no in between, which makes sense because on The Bachelor, the polarities are what make drama, but it’s frustrating to see it play out that way.

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Hampton: I was remembering Raven from Nick Viall’s season who I think said she had never had an orgasm before. They always used to have one woman who hasn’t had some sex experience. Like Heather hadn’t been kissed on Colton’s season. There’s always at least one person who hasn’t done X thing, which is their only conversation about sex for the entire season. Everyone else’s sexuality is cordoned off, but this one person is like the sexual comedic relief for the entire season.

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Moylan: That’s like an eighth grade view of sexuality where it’s obsessed with it, but also can’t talk about it. And so it’s like they want to show you all the dirty noises from the Fantasy Suite, but it’s like also we can’t talk about that stuff. So it’s like, oh, Katie’s vibrator is such a big deal, but also keep it all inside. It’s so strange. Either just admit to all of it and accept it or I don’t know, just admit to all of it.

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Smith: Yeah. Amy, in your studies of The Bachelor/Bachelorette, do you know what behind the scenes of production is like?

Kaufman: The first night I think is infamously really long. It’s not even a night. They’ll get there at like 8:00 PM and it’s not over till like five or six in the morning and sometimes we even have them come back the next day in their outfits to film the ITMs and stuff. But I think the most controversial thing that people latched onto when my book came out a few years ago was just the level of coaching that the producers give to the women. And I think Brian, you were asking earlier, is Victoria a plant? Is she a producer plant? I don’t know what you mean by plant?  Does she follow a script or whatever? No, but a lot of contestants I interviewed were like, “I went in and I very quickly could tell the narrative they were going to lean into. Like I was the villain or I was the virgin and so I was like, I might as well lean into this myself because if I don’t participate in it, then it’s completely out of my control.”

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Smith: I feel like the overproducing is so popular and synonymous with The Bachelor. We have the show UnReal that shows the traumas surrounding being overly produced, which is loosely based on The Bachelor/Bachelorette. Probably not so loosely based. But it is shocking to see just how produced and overly done they handle these contestants.

Kaufman: I already felt like you were batshit insane to go on The Bachelor because you always think you can control the narrative and then you come out having reputational harm a lot of times. And we’ve seen increasingly this year, a lot of contestants being open about mental health and how they had suffered because of bullying or because of just the change in being on a TV show and then going back to your real life is jarring, of course. So that alone, I feel like, why would you want go on the show? And now the way that we are seeing them treat contestants of color and clearly showing they don’t have a support network for them and sometimes are infiltrating the cast with apparently racist people, it’s like, who’s going to go on this show? I don’t understand. There’s no sell to me anymore.

Moylan: And I talked about this in my book about The Real Housewives. They have to keep these women coming back season after season so they can only produce them so much. Whereas like on The Bachelor, they can just burn through people and they don’t give a shit, what happens to them, what reputational harm they might do, which seems a little gross to me.

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