Having spent the majority of my career working in the hallowed halls of glossy magazines, I knew firsthand that the state of racial representation in the Australian media was, to put it mildly, not great.
When six of the final stalwarts of the Australian monthly magazine industry were shuttered in a mass closure by my former employer this June, I saw a lot of rose-tinted glass applied to the dissection of those magazines’ legacy. People were quick to blame Covid-19, the changing nature of technology and a general lack of viability for printed content. Few eulogies critiqued the limited cultural scope of those titles’ output.
A quick numbers crunch showed that those magazines, among them InStyle, Harper’s Bazaar and Women’s Health, featured only 16 non-white cover stars across 148 covers in a two-year period. Only six of those covers featured non-white Australians, meaning that – in a proudly diverse country where 24% of the population is Indigenous or non-European – less than 4% of covers featured an Indigenous or non-European Australian. Is it any surprise that younger readers switched to Instagram where, by the now-deceased Elle’s own account, the most-followed fashion bloggers in Australia are far more reflective of the country’s diversity, with 30% being non-white?
The fate of those magazines lingered over my experience watching The Bachelor Australia this year. I had a vague sense that the franchise was particularly white and blonde, but it turns out the numbers echoed print media’s quite consistently. Of the 113 contestants to appear in the last two years of The Bachelor, Bachelor in Paradise and The Bachelorette, 95 were white. All but one “Bachelor” or “Bachelorette” in the shows’ seven-year history have been white, and with the exception of Indigenous Australian youth worker Brooke Blurton, the final three contestants have been white in all 13 seasons.
The 2020 season of The Bachelor seems to be faring no better. Pakistani Australian contestant Areeba Emmanuel – one of the few women of colour appearing on this season – has been cast as a laughable caricature of a Bachelor “villain”. While the male contestants for the latest season of The Bachelorette have not yet been revealed, the fact the bachelorettes in question are not one but two white, blonde women this year (sisters Elly and Becky Miles) leaves me with low expectations. To me it seems The Bachelor franchise is halfway down a cul-de-sac that magazines crashed into headfirst. They still have time to make a strategic U-turn.
It’s overly simplistic and factually inaccurate to suggest that print media could have been salvaged by diversity alone. Expecting a millennial generation raised on free digital content to pay the equivalent of a Netflix subscription each month for a single 60-page magazine was always a round-peg, square-hole situation. Many major publishing houses were perilously slow to adapt to a changing, digital-first landscape. But it is worth noting that Vogue and Marie Claire, the two remaining glossy heavyweights in Australia, are both far more diverse than their now-closed contemporaries. Marie Claire has featured five non-white cover stars in the last two years (20% of covers), and 29% of Vogue’s covers featured women of colour in the same period.
Vogue has proven the commercial viability of diverse media in the UK, too, under the leadership of editor Edward Enninful, who has featured 29 non-white women on his covers in less than three years. In 2018, when British print media saw circulation drop by 6% among fashion and lifestyle publications, Vogue actually increased in circulation, by 1.1%. Enninful’s collaboration with Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, on the 2019 September issue, featuring a diverse lineup of 15 activists, was the fastest-selling in the magazine’s 104-year history, Enninful stated on Instagram.
The premiere of Locklan “Locky” Gilbert’s season earlier this month was reportedly the lowest rated The Bachelor premiere since 2014. Social media monitoring website CrowdTangle shows that monthly interactions with The Bachelor Australia’s Facebook account have declined from 172,992 in August 2019 to 78,432 in August 2020.
Niranga Amarasinghe, a Sri Lankan Australian contestant in The Bachelorette and The Bachelor in Paradise, took to Instagram Stories to suggest that more diversity may help boost those numbers – it certainly worked for The Bachelor’s competitors. The pandemic’s most prominent reality dating mega-shows, Too Hot To Handle and Love Is Blind, featured 28% and 40% non-white contestants respectively.
In a moment of mass anxiety, the world is in desperate need of the frothy distraction The Bachelor so masterfully creates. Many of us want it to exist. But as we watch a long overdue global reckoning on the topic of race, it is hard to see past the series’ inability to engage in meaningful inclusivity without feeling a little … gross.
From a purely cynical standpoint, it seems likely that overlooking a quarter of the Australian population may be an unwise commercial move. The shows’ tired attempts at manufactured drama could be bolstered by storylines exploring the conflicts that arise when different cultural attitudes toward sex, dating and marriage butt heads (the popular but controversial Netflix series Indian Matchmaking, released in July, demonstrated an appetite for this).
Above all, The Bachelor has a responsibility to create a fantasy that we feel good indulging in. I am bored by a series that represents love as being the exclusive domain of the white, thin, cisgender and heterosexual – just as I’m sure the readers of print media became bored by a publisher that saw beauty through that same limited lens.
If my experience in magazines taught me anything, it’s that the ramifications of The Bachelor’s inability to reflect its audience won’t cause an immediate backlash. The show will just slowly lose relevance and fade into obscurity.
Channel 10 should treat their lukewarm seasonal ratings as a warning sign for things to come. The time for change was 13 seasons ago – they need to adapt now or risk facing a similar fate to their printed counterparts.