Every Rose Has Its Thorn: Disability Representation on The Bachelor
Editor’s Note: This article was co-written by Access Living Senior Attorney (and Bachelor enthusiast) Mary Rosenberg and Ashley Eisenmenger, Access Living’s Public Relations Coordinator (and Bachelor “historian”). Both Mary and Ashley identify as having disabilities.
**This article contains spoilers for Season 25 of The Bachelor**
Hollywood’s portrayal of disability has been far from great. Most recently, the casting of a neuro-typical actress to play an autistic character in Sia’s film Music, highlights Hollywood’s need to authentically cast roles that portray disabled characters. The overwhelmingly ableist portrayals of people with disabilities in film are matched by the ableist views and problematic storylines of reality stars with disabilities. Documentaries like Framing Brittany Spears have danced around the notion of disability, but fall short when it comes to calling it what it is and acknowledging its role in the situation.
This week alone, millions of viewers watched The Bachelor’s Matt James send home Abigail, the franchise’s first deaf contestant. On the first episode of this season, Abigail received the first-impression rose from Matt – often a sign that the contestant will be a finalist in the competition. (For non-Bachelor aficionados, here’s a captioned clip from the show that illustrates the importance of the first impression rose.) However, after that, Matt showed little interest in Abigail.
From the moment Abigail discloses her deafness to Matt when they first meet, every conversation that aired between the two of them centered on her disability. In episode one, they have a conversation about Abigail and her sister growing up deaf. Matt proceeds to give her the first impression rose and tells her she’s a “fighter.” This narrative is problematic for a variety of reasons, but one that stands out in particular is Matt’s direct correlation of disability to hardship. The gesture feels rooted in the ableist idea that disability is something that has to be overcome and isn’t a natural part of life. It sends the message that Matt doesn’t give the rose to Abigail because he likes her and wants to get to know her better – he does it out of pity and because production liked the optics around the deaf girl getting the rose.
Several episodes later, Abigail gets some time with Matt and she explains that her biological father left her family after she and her sister got cochlear implants. She also tells Matt that there is a high likelihood her children will be deaf. In response, Matt tells the camera he finds her “courageous” for being vulnerable. Again, the show reinforces an all-too-common idea that disability is “bad” or that a person is “less than” because they have a disability. Abigail is “courageous” because should Matt choose her, he’s taking on the “burden” of having a deaf partner and possibly deaf children.
After that – not much happens for Abigail, or if it does, it isn’t known to viewers. Abigail is the only contestant to make it to episode 7 without having a one-on-one date. There are several scenes of her telling other contestants she feels “defeated” that she doesn’t get time with Matt. One other contestant gets a second one-on-one date this week instead of Abigail getting her first. Abigail confronts Matt, and he finally admits that he doesn’t see a future with her and sends her home.
Matt didn’t need to choose Abigail at the end, or even have her be a front runner for The Bachelor to have a successful story arc with a contestant with a disability. Rather, if The Bachelor had aired Abigail talking about anything besides her disability, or if Matt had singled her out because of his interest, rather than how “inspirational” she is, it would go a long way towards better disability representation on TV. While more representation is a great step for The Bachelor franchise, hopefully in future seasons the fact that a contestant has a disability will not be the only fact we learn about them.