'The Bachelorette' May Have A Black Star, But It's Still Set In A White World

May 23, 2017
Originally published on May 23, 2017 6:41 pm

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.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Our TV critic says you need to know about this season of "The Bachelorette." For the first time, a black woman is the star of ABC's dating show. And here's why Eric Deggans says last night's episode was important, even if you don't like reality TV.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: As a TV critic, I've spent years complaining about how "The Bachelorette" and its parent show, "The Bachelor," present romance as a contrived, materialistic, princess fantasy. The focus on physical attributes over most everything else for both men and women has always bothered me.

So why did I find it so important to see Rachel Lindsay, the first black "Bachelorette," doing stuff like this?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BACHELORETTE")

RACHEL LINDSAY: I haven't even started this journey and I've gotten so much support from people.

You're so sweet. Thank you so much. I mean it.

Like, I feel like I'm supposed to right here, right now, in this place.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And don't sleep with all of them. (Laughter).

LINDSAY: Oh, never.

DEGGANS: Part of the show's princess fantasy involves building up the star as an archetype of beauty. She's shown being smart and personable, an all-American woman ready to pick from a bunch of guys who look like they just stepped out of an Abercrombie and Fitch ad. And this time, for the first time, that woman is black.

Check out how the guys vying for her attention, known as suitors, describer her.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BACHELORETTE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: She looks gorgeous.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, my God.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Like, the TV does not do justice.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Her justice.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Like, oh, my God. That dress was killing it, too.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yo (ph), oh, my God. That dress.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: She's wicked hot, man.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: And smart, too.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: And smart, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: It's quite a combo.

DEGGANS: Lindsay had to sort through 31 different suitors in the first episode. Previous recent editions only featured about 25 or 26 guys. About 11 of them were black men and only a few Asian-American and Hispanic guys. But given how much white men have dominated past shows, I wondered if producers offered up more guys so they could have more diversity while maintaining lots of white men in the mix to retain an audience used to seeing mostly white people.

Many of the types of guys Lindsay met in Monday's show fit into easy categories. There was the overconfident guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BACHELORETTE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: I have that confidence in that it's going to be her and I, and that's exactly what it's going to be. I'm No. 1 seed in the bracket for Rachel's heart, right here, the champion.

DEGGANS: Yeah, he probably won't last long. And there was the guy with an annoying, loud catchphrase.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BACHELORETTE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: (Shouting) Whamoo (ph).

DEGGANS: Yes. He said it about 15 times during Monday's episode. Spoiler alert - he was among the 23 guys Lindsay passed through to the next round. I guess he was just too telegenic to send home early. There was even a guy who showed up with baked goods.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BACHELORETTE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: As you can see, I have this brownie right here.

LINDSAY: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: I just want to let you know the blacker the brownie, the sweeter the dude.

LINDSAY: (Laughter) Very cute.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: That's very cute, right?

LINDSAY: Very nice to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Same. Take care.

DEGGANS: But aside from that awkward joke, what the show didn't talk about much directly was race. And for some, that might be a great development, highlighting the universality of everyone's experience in a way that seems colorblind. Lindsay, who's already said publicly she ends this season by getting engaged, has downplayed the idea that race was much of a factor for her.

But "The Bachelorette" and "The Bachelor" have always glorified an ideal culture that is upper-middle-class and white. And it has rarely articulated or addressed that, in the same way we often avoid similar discussions in the general culture.

I was probably expecting too much to hope that "The Bachelorette" might change its basic messaging on culture, class and race in its very first episode with a black woman at the center. But I hope we eventually get to see a show that doesn't just paper over people's differences or mostly show black people assimilating into a predominantly white world because the real value of diversity in television is widening that world to include a range of experiences and cultures on equal footing. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE BACHELOR" TV THEME) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.