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The Purely Accidental Lessons Of The First Black 'Bachelorette'

Feb 14, 2017
Originally published on February 14, 2017 10:21 pm

It is a truth universally acknowledged that parsing the broader implications of The Bachelor/Bachelorette can feel an awful lot like examining the semiotics of mashed potato flakes. But can we not also agree that the fact that a narrative is ridiculous and phony doesn't mean it isn't both reflective of and influential upon the culture out of which it grows?

We learned on Monday night that attorney Rachel Lindsay will, in the 34th season of the combined Bachelor/ette franchise, become the first black person at the center of a season. This is, in part, her reward for making it most of the way to the top of a heap that, according to the show's eternally dopey narrative, was built by current Bachelor Nick Viall, a dude so devoid of charm that I once called him a "churl" in a headline. (In fairness, some people like Nick, or else he wouldn't be The Bachelor. I do not truck with these people.)

The persistent whiteness of Bachelorons (my chosen term to encompass both Bachelors and Bachelorettes) is in part a result of the same dynamics that affect much of the rest of television. But this show has had an extra challenge that seems to have that particularly difficult to change even once network executives started to acknowledge it. (The only Bacheloron who wasn't identified as white until now was Juan Pablo Galavis, an American-born Venezuelan soccer player and — unrelated to that, of course — kind of a toolbag, to put it in fancy critical terms.)

In short, they alternate Bachelors and Bachelorettes, and each Bacheloron is chosen from the previous season's almost-winners. Not always the runner-up, but generally somebody from the top few finishers. Rachel is not Nick's chosen one, but she got close, and that's why she was in the running for Bachelorette. So in a sense, inside this narrative, each Bacheloron has given a stamp of approval to the next by at least bringing them close to the end of the season. Rachel will do the same with the next Bacheloron — and we'll get back to that.

When the Bacheloron is white and most of the candidates are white, what this means is this: If you're a black candidate, you can be chosen, but first, you have to impress a white Bacheloron and convince that person to, for many weeks in a row, pick you. You cannot go forward without their say-so, because of longstanding structural rules about allocating power that they themselves have followed successfully in order to become powerful in the first place. You have to figure out how to navigate not only their evaluation of your qualities as a person, but also their largely mysterious "gut feelings" and "instincts" and ideas about "compatibility" and "fit" and so forth. Only by navigating that white Bacheloron's decision-making correctly can you, as a black candidate, obtain power yourself by being chosen. So to succeed in this structure as a black person, you have to click — in some hard-to-define way for which nobody is accountable — with a white person who gets to say yes or no to you. That person's approval is the only path.

Now go back and replace "Bacheloron" with "boss" and "chosen" with "promoted," and you'll see that they may have accidentally set up a really freaky metaphor for the way structural racism can sometimes work without anybody setting out to do it. They consider this system, by the way, to be utterly race-neutral. But in practice, in actual undeniable fact, it has been a story almost entirely of a white person picking the next white person, and of that white person then picking another white person, and everybody shrugging and saying, "I just went with my gut! It was love!"

And that's why the fact that they chose Rachel to be the Bachelorette is much less interesting to me than this question: Whom will they offer her as candidates?

If the reason candidates of color were quite few in number until relatively recently was that the Bachelorons were white and the show had Certain Unspoken Ideas About Compatibility, that should mean Rachel should get mostly — not exclusively, but mostly — black men to choose from. (I am in no way endorsing those C.U.I.A.C., by the way; I am merely positing them as one of the ways the show could choose to try to explain its past casting decisions.) And if that happens, and if the show is right about compatibility (again, I don't think it is), then Rachel might well choose mostly black men at the top of her list. So maybe then you get a black Bachelor. And then maybe another black Bachelorette.

If that doesn't happen, then the story they've been telling is, in some way, wrong, or at least incomplete.

Before you come at me to explain that you've seen UnREAL and all of this is phony, let me stress this: for the purposes of this argument, it doesn't matter. Consider it a manufactured narrative, and you come out at exactly the same place: the show has put itself in an intriguing bind by building into its story structure both a longstanding lean against interracial dating and a story where being chosen by this season's hero is key to being next season's hero. This link between each season and the next has created a way for the centrality of white leads to perpetuate itself, without anyone who set up the whole one-goofus-leads-to-another system having ever needed to have that motive. The motives were undoubtedly ratings, familiarity, and audience loyalty; they probably wouldn't care if the lead were a head of lettuce on a broomstick as long as people watched. (Which they might.) (And let's be honest: some past Bachelors weren't far from that anyway, BRAD.) But it doesn't matter — the effect was the same.

So yes, it's interesting to see Rachel chosen as the Bachelorette. But watch for her list of suitors. Because that's where you'll get the hint about what the real rules are.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

OK, so we don't always talk about reality TV on this show, like who's going to be the next bachelor or bachelorette. But today, we are going to talk about it. The dating show "The Bachelor" and its sister show, "The Bachelorette," have been roundly criticized for years over a lack of diversity.

But last night, it was announced that an attorney from Texas named Rachel Lindsay will be the next bachelorette. And she's black. Here to talk about this is NPR pop culture correspondent Linda Holmes. Hey.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Hi, Kelly.

MCEVERS: OK, so how is it that a show like this went on for 15 years and 33 seasons and never cast a black person as a lead before now?

HOLMES: It's kind of amazing, isn't it?

MCEVERS: Yeah.

HOLMES: So when the show first started, they would just kind of, like, pick somebody. Like, he's a doctor. He's a prince. He's the - he's a relative of the Firestone Tire people. And they would just pick someone.

MCEVERS: Of course.

HOLMES: But as the show "matured," quote, unquote, and they started to alternate bachelors and bachelorettes, they started using, like, a runner-up from the previous season as the main bachelor or bachelorette on the new season. So you had this kind of perpetuating cycle where they would have a white bachelor. They would give him mostly white women to date. And so whoever he didn't pick would also be a white woman because they cast a small number of black women and other women of color as candidates in the first place. And the ones they did cast were often gone fairly quickly.

So for the most part, what that resulted in was a lot of white people who picked other white people. And there was one guy who was an American-born Venezuelan soccer player named Juan Pablo. But for the most part, it has been, you know, white leads, season in and season out.

MCEVERS: OK, so has diversity, though, been an ongoing issue for the show?

HOLMES: Absolutely it has. Not only have they been criticized for it quite a lot, but in 2012, there was actually a lawsuit that was filed by a couple of black men who had applied for the show and not gotten on it, claiming that it was in violation of discrimination laws. Now, that lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but the issue never really went away.

And as a matter of fact, last summer when the entertainment president of ABC talked to the television critics at their annual meeting, she talked about - her name is Channing Dungey, and she talked about the fact that she was trying to introduce more diversity into the show by diversifying that pool of people that the bachelor or the bachelorette has to pick from in the first place, which is basically what they did. They had more black women in the cast when this guy they currently have, Nick, was picking. And one of them was Rachel, who isn't the "winner," quote, unquote, again. But she's the next bachelorette.

MCEVERS: Does this come up on other reality shows, or is this the one that's particularly prone to a lack of diversity?

HOLMES: Well, there are other shows. If you look at shows like "Survivor," they have, you know, kind of changed over time. I think some of them do a better job than they used to at having a broader group of people. There are actually some shows - I always single out "America's Next Top Model," believe it or not, as a show that in a lot of ways was ahead of scripted shows in bringing in a variety of folks. They had a transgender woman on "America's Next Top Model" before, you know, you saw very many on scripted TV.

MCEVERS: I mean does this really matter for "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette," or I mean is this like way long past the point of embarrassing at this point?

HOLMES: Well, it is past the point of embarrassing to me. But what's interesting about a show like this is it always does tell you certain things about the culture that it exists in and how the entertainment industry is working. So the fact that they have finally, you know, gotten to this point might say something. But I think, boy, least they could do is, you know - perhaps the only way to describe it.

MCEVERS: NPR pop culture correspondent Linda Holmes, thank you.

HOLMES: Thanks, Kelly.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON SONG, "SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.