Perhaps no television show has received as much criticism in the wake of more calls for diversity on television screens as ABC’s The Bachelor franchise, an immensely popular reality show where attractive singles compete for the hand of the lead. As the franchise approaches 23 combined seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, it faces increasing pressure to cast more men and women of color. Even though ABC has casted more racially diverse contestants in recent years, they are often eliminated within the first few episodes, making the dominant white definition of sexual attractiveness painfully obvious.
A handful of Asian American women have appeared on the show since its start, but their portrayals have been extremely problematic. Two forms of betrayal to the Asian American community become obvious as Asian American women compete — the first one occurs when producers erase a contestant’s Asianness to make audiences more receptive to the romantic connection between them and a white male lead and the second occurs when a contestant uses her race in an attempt to appear sexually attractive, reinforcing harmful stereotypes.
Asian American women are typically eliminated early in the show because they cannot compete with white women, who are seen as more ideal long-term romantic partners. Cambodian-American contestant Channy Choch competed for a shot at dating Bachelor Jake Pavelka in 2010. Choch told producers that while Pavelka is a “nice guy,” he needed a little bit of “Cambodian fever.” After she introduced herself to Pavelka, Choch took his hands and said something to him in Khmer. Pavelka, who seemed unsure about how to respond, replied, “That’s pretty.” Choch, elated at his validation, then told him that she had said, “You can land your plane on my landing strip any time you want.” She was eliminated that night.
This interaction is interesting because it is unlikely that Choch would have said something sexual to Pavelka in Khmer without the urging of a producer behind the camera. However, as soon as she did that, she cast herself in the stereotype of the “sexual, exotic Asian woman,” effectively eliminating herself as a possible long-term romantic partner and perpetuating the myth of sexual fetishization that haunts Asian American women (Chou, 19). Choch’s actions show that she has internalized the belief that Asian women are sexual and exotic, a narrative created and perpetuated by “white habitus,” a “racialized uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates whites’ racial tastes, perceptions, feelings and emotions and their views on racial matters” (Chou, 8). Because the idea of sexy, exotic Asian women has been normalized for her, she betrayed other Asian American women by accepting the producers’ suggestions to play up her sexuality. Cambodian-American YouTube commenters immediately distanced themselves from her, criticizing her pronunciation of Khmer and her naughty translation, rather than identifying and supporting her. In this case, Choch used her Cambodian heritage in a way that was inexcusable to Asian Americans because it magnified a distasteful stereotype, betraying Asian American women.
On the other side, biracial Asian American women have been quite successful over multiple seasons of The Bachelor because their “exotic” Asianness is sexually desirable, while their whiteness ensures that they embodied hegemonic femininity (Chou, 11).
In 20 seasons of The Bachelor, there have been two biracial Asian American “winners” – Tessa Horst, who is Chinese-American, and Catherine Giudici, who is Filipina-American. A handful of biracial Asian American women have also made it into the last few episodes of the series, including Sharleen Joynt, who is Chinese-Canadian, and Caila Quinn, who is Filipina-American. Nearly all of these women faced exotic stereotypes from the man they were pursuing romantically and the production team. Horst’s ex commented about how “mutts are the most exotic and beautiful” after they broke off their engagement, Joynt’s season lead continuously referred to her as “worldly” the first night they met, and Quinn’s season lead repeatedly called her “sexy,” a phrase he didn’t use to describe other women.
At the same time, the women’s whiteness allows their suitors and the production team to ignore their Asian heritage whenever it was inconvenient to acknowledge. When Bachelor Sean Lowe visited Giudici’s Filipino-American family during “hometown dates,” he made traditional Filipino food with her mother, leading Giudici to say that “he fit in perfectly with [her] family.” But besides that one quick clip, Giudici’s Filipina heritage was not discussed on air because the producers needed her to stay relatable to white viewers. Lowe chose her at the end of the season, so her “normal” edit was also a result of making sure the audience saw her as romantically compatible with Lowe, a white man.
A similar thing happened to Quinn, who competed on the latest season of The Bachelor. When she brought Bachelor Ben Higgins to Ohio to meet her family, producers tried to address her Filipina heritage without compromising her whiteness. Over the dinner table, Quinn’s white father clumsily told Higgins, who had never met any Filipinos, that being married to a Filipina woman was a “very special” and “fun” experience because it “opened up the entire Filipino community,” a surface-level glossing-over of the profoundly complex experience of an interracial marriage. Quinn was eliminated the next episode.
Watching producers remove biracial Asian American contestants’ Asianness as much as possible is also a betrayal to the greater Asian American community. Like how Bow discusses in her book, the contestants’ perceived willingness to give up their Asianness speaks to the fraught intersection between race and sexuality (Bow, 3). Biracial contestants are also able to set aside their Asianness because of their physical appearance. For them, Asian Americanness is something that they can choose to claim and not necessarily assigned to them. When put in a position to have to choose between acknowledging their Asian heritage or appear as romantically and sexually attractive as possible, most women chose leave their race out. They cannot be blamed – Asian femininity has been presented by hegemony as something sexually desirable but not necessarily something sought in a long-term relationship. But when that femininity is combined with whiteness, biracial women become ultimate marriage material – submissive and exotic while also white – in a further perpetuation of the hegemonic perceptions of sexual and romantic desirability.