As a TV critic who keeps an eye on social issues, I've long been critical of ABC's The Bachelor and The Bachelorette franchises. They urge viewers to believe completely contrived events are somehow spontaneous. They also support an unhealthy princess fantasy in which romance is conflated with an upper-middle class wonderland filled with reality TV fame and luxury resort getaways.
So why do I find it so important that The Bachelorette is welcoming its first black woman as a star this season? The answer came as I watched Rachel Lindsay navigate what turned out to be a pretty typical Bachelorette debut episode, which aired Monday night. The show hit all the expected notes: a quick review of how she was rejected by Nick Viall in the last Bachelor season, a hasty reminder of her background as an attorney and a turn into the new life she was hoping for at the end of the Bachelorette "journey."
But part of the show's princess fantasy involves building up its bachelorette as an archetype of beauty: a smart, personable, all-American woman who a bevy of Abercrombie & Fitch model lookalikes would fight over.
And this time — for the first time — that woman is black.
It's worth noting that until relatively recently people of color — especially black people — have often been shut out of any significant representation on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. In 2012, two black men sued the show for racial discrimination (a legal effort that ultimately failed) and a different black woman (dentist and model Misee Harris) conducted a futile campaign to be chosen as a bachelorette just a few years ago. Occasionally, the show has presented moments where black contestants have struggled, but for the most part it has ignored or papered over its blind spots on race.
So it was with a mixture of trepidation and anticipation that I watched Lindsay meet 31 suitors in hopes that one would turn out to be Mr. Right. (And one did: Lindsay told NPR and other media outlets that she got engaged at the end of this season, which was filmed in advance).
Previous recent iterations of The Bachelorette have only featured about 25 or 26 "suitors," so it was odd to see so many guys on Lindsay's season. And even though the field of men was the most diverse in franchise history, there were still only 11 black men in the running.
Given how previous shows have been dominated by white suitors, I thought there might have been even more people of color presented (and if they wanted to more closely reflect the population, Hispanic guys were severely underrepresented). My suspicion is that ABC was worried about having enough white guys in the mix for their mostly white audience, while making sure there was also lots of racial diversity onscreen.
The pattern of Monday's episode was familiar. Lindsay met the guys and each one was a "type." There was DeMario, the overconfident one who brought Lindsay plane tickets and a plan to elope in Las Vegas together; Bryan, the suave one who spoke to her in Spanish and won a rose for best first impression; and Lucas, the crazy one who kept shouting an outlandish catchphrase and caused all sorts of drama when he was picked last among the 23 men chosen to move ahead — as if producers would let such a great pot-stirrer head home after just one episode.
Hopping out of limousines to meet her for the first time, some of the guys resorted to gimmicks that felt a bit contrived: breaking a block of ice with a sledgehammer (breaking the ice — get it?), bringing a creepy mannequin as a conversation starter, walking up with a marching band and, of course, Lucas with his frat-guy-at-a-kegger obnoxiousness and mini-bullhorn.
Also as usual, there wasn't much acknowledgement of the elephant in the room. Though host Chris Harrison began the episode by saying, "Let's take a look at the bachelorette everybody's talking about," he never really said why people were talking about her. One of the black men noted how diverse the pool of suitors was and there was an awkward moment where the episode ended with several suitors freestyle rapping. (Really, Bachelorette?)
For some, that may be a great development; a way to emphasize the universality of everyone's experience. But The Bachelor and The Bachelorette franchises have always glorified an ideal culture that is both upper-middle class and very white. Even among the 23 men left, just eight are black, so the contestant pool will be still dominated by white men. And in the preview scenes flashed at the episode's end, it seems they'll be enjoying the typical array of luxury resorts and getaway experiences — places and activities that rarely include other black people.
From the show's perspective, this was likely a home run: They presented a diverse field of contestants and a black bachelorette without upsetting the bedrock formula that makes this "reality TV" soap opera successful. (According to previews, we can look forward to one suitor's surprise girlfriend bursting onto the show and ramping up the drama).
But for those of us hoping to see some of the show's basic messaging about culture, class and race changed, it was a disappointment. True diversity isn't just about expecting black people to assimilate into a mostly white world; it's about widening that world to reflect the experiences of everyone in it. With any luck, maybe they'll get around to that before this season is over.