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Casting its first Asian American lead is a step in improving diversity for ‘The Bachelor’ franchise, Northeastern experts say

“Representation is not only the face on the screen,” said Steve Granelli, a Northeastern professor and pop culture expert, on the popular series.

Jenn Tran on the set of "The Bachelorette" facing another man.
Jenn Tran’s season of “The Bachelorette” begins on July 8. Tran is the first Asian American lead of the franchise. Photo by Disney/John Fleenor

As exciting as the finale of “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette” can be, what keeps Bachelor Nation fans on their toes at the end of a season is the announcement of a new lead. The popular dating reality show usually casts fan favorite contestants from the previous season to lead the upcoming one.

This March, fans found out Jenn Tran, a 26-year-old studying to be a physician assistant, would be the lead of the 21st season of “The Bachelorette” after competing for Joey Graziadei’s heart on the previous season of “The Bachelor.” She also is the first Asian American lead in the franchise’s history.

The Bachelor franchise — which includes the eponymous “Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette” and spinoffs like “The Golden Bachelor”is not known for its diversity. It did not have a person of color as the lead until attorney Rachel Lindsay led “The Bachelorette” in 2017. (Lindsay has since criticized the franchise for its mishandling of race and diversity issues.)

Among other concerns, the franchise has been criticized for casting contestants who have a history of making racist statements (including one who appeared on Lindsay’s season) and for perpetuating negative stereotypes. The show got heat during Graziadei’s season when it tagged another Asian American contestant instead of Tran in a post on its Instagram account.

While this latest casting decision does not change the past, it’s a step in the right direction, said Laurel Ahnert, an assistant teaching professor of communications at Northeastern University.

“Placing someone in the role as the desirable lead is important in terms of representation for visibility,” added Ahnert, whose work focuses on documentary films. 

The Bachelor franchise is not alone in this issue, said Steve Granelli, an associate teaching professor of communications study at Northeastern and pop culture expert. Other dating reality shows like “The Perfect Match” and “Love is Blind” have been criticized for their lack of diversity when it comes to race and body types.

“The kind of shows that have become network standard (like The Bachelor) took a long time to catch up to the standard (when it comes to diversity) that smaller shows were able to embrace much earlier on,” Granelli said. 

By casting a lead who is Asian American, Granelli said the franchise is a small step closer to better diversity. But it’s not enough to simply cast someone in a lead role; it matters how people are portrayed on screen.

“Representation is not only the face on the screen, but in comparison with all the other faces on that screen,” Granelli said. “Are they all presented in the same way? Or are they presented in a way that one is being othered?”

A huge part of the show is the lead learning more about contestants — including how their backgrounds might differ. Granelli said there’s a way to talk about and present racial and ethnic differences on the show without “otherizing” contestants of color. 

Part of this is avoiding the “zoo” approach, which is an intercultural communications term that describes presenting new information on someone as something to be learned from, Granelli said, and focusing on what truly makes up a person’s personality. 

“Everybody’s background is different,” Granelli said. “Each one of us, we have different aspects of religion, of culture, of our family structure that make up who we are. Let’s highlight all of those things. And for somebody, if it’s more culture than family structure (that make up who they are), then we’re going to spend time talking about it and that’s OK.

“But it’s not ‘Well, I don’t know to what degree your culture is a big part of who you are, but because your culture is different from mine, that’s all we’re going to talk about moving forward. That’s stereotyping. That’s boiling an individual down to a single identity category which is what we teach everyone not to do.”

While the franchise has made some missteps, even in its latest season, it also has made progress in taking this approach. 

In Graziadei’s season, viewers saw a taste of contestant Rachel Nance’s Filipino culture on her hometown date (when contestants bring the leads to their home to meet their families). Graziadei met Nance’s family over a traditional feast featuring a roast pig. Producers also showed Nance educating Graziadei on how to do a mano, a Filipino gesture of respect toward elders.

But Nance’s cultural background is just one part of her storyline on the show. She spent a previous date with Graziadei showing off her flamenco skills and talking about her career in nursing and what it means to her.

In order for the franchise to continue in the right direction, Ahnert says people of color need to be making decisions behind the scenes as well.

“Visibility alone is not enough. Visibility doesn’t necessarily equal power,” Ahnert said. “People tend to focus on what we see in front of us on the screen, but that’s the end product. There’s so much that goes into the series before we get to the point where we see it and if we don’t have a lot of diversity in the writers’ room or behind the camera, then we’re going to keep falling into these traps, because people might not be maliciously replicating very old stereotypes.”