When sociologists look back through the annals of television at Rachel Lindsay’s season of The Bachelorette — which comes to an end this Monday, August 7 — they will get a closer look at America’s collective anxiety about race and culture.
Will they find it odd that Rachel, the first black Bachelorette in history, has two white best friends? Or that several of her relatives are in interracial relationships? Will they be as shocked as I was that Peter, a white contestant who has made it to the final rounds, has two black best friends — because of course, he does. Surely they’ll note that the last black man in the contest is a walking inner-city cliche — he’s from war-torn Baltimore, has had little contact with his father, and was raised by the women in his family, who must have done a good job or else he’d be dead or in jail.
Or will they struggle with the same question I struggle with as we wrap this season’s journey? Are the producers and editors of this show some kind of geniuses highlighting the absurdity of our culture and its race and class differences? Or are they craven monsters who know that we’ll eat up whatever stereotypes and canned narratives they feed us?
The introduction of the first black lead — male or female — was big news in Bachelor Nation this past winter. I suspect it has as much to do with viewers wishing to see themselves as cool as the denizens of the Beyhive. Or being able to say that the show is not racist. Or classist, or ageist, or sexist (that’s another article). Or maybe it’s about absolving viewers from the guilt and shame they feel when they tell anyone they watch the show.
JK! Ain’t nobody thinking about race in Bachelor Nation! The guilt and shame comes from admitting you watch a show that glorifies outdated and insulting notions of love, romance, and human relationships.
The cast of The Bachelorette’s 13th season, with Rachel Lindsay front and center, the show’s first black female lead. Photo from ABC.com
EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE
Rachel, the star of this season of The Bachelorette, is everything you’d expect a black woman on television to be. She’s smart, sassy, and beautiful — but not too beautiful! — and she’s got a take-no-shit attitude, which she exhibits with a head and neck snap whenever necessary. For those members of Bachelor Nation who have never actually met a black woman, she is exactly as they have been taught.
As an avid watcher of The Bachelor(ette) series — and this season in particular — it’s precisely here where the show begins to give away our secrets. Is Rachel what viewers are taught to appreciate? Or is it deeper than that? Is Rachel channeling how she was taught by movies and television exactly how black women should act?
The Bachelor(ette) has never been one to shy away from playing into stereotypes. The majority of the contrived trips, events, challenges, and games are usually held steady by a solid base of racism and stereotypical output from the ancillary human staff (a/k/a props).
I’ve only been watching for a couple of years now — that’s six seasons in Bachelor Nation years — but from what I’ve picked up, I can tell you that: All Japanese people love sumo, and all sumo wrestlers are fat. But very wise. All people from Spain love to serenade you. Actually, all Latin people — be they from the southern Americas or Spain — love to sing to you. Nordic folk are really, really, really proud of their Viking heritage Texans are proud folk. Correction: anyone from “real America” — the South, the Midwest, the Bible Belt — are proud, good, honest, folk. Jamaicans all have dreadlocks. And they all love to drink and dole out wisdom. All little Mexican boys want to grow up to be mariachi musicians. Oh, and all little Mexican boys can sing. And on this season, we learn that, yes, all black people can play basketball, dance, and rap.
The end of last season’s Bachelor saw the beginning of this season’s tomfoolery. That night, which in Bachelor Nation parlance, was an historic event. We met four men who would become Rachel’s suitors. One of them danced with her. One flirted with a little play on once you go black you never go back. One of them was a smooth-talking tall dude with extra swagger — even by reality television standards. And one of them told her she smelled good and wrapped her in his arms so she could be “more comfortable.”
Two were African-American and two were white — and by white I mean “television white guy” white. Guess which one of them danced with Rachel? The rest shouldn’t be hard to sort out — just tap into your reptilian racist/stereotype part of your brain and fill in the blanks.
CHECKING OFF THE BOXES
But cynicism aside, I was psyched. There was the first black lead and a promise of more blackness to come. I had to watch. Just a few weeks into Trump’s America, I was positive that this season would not be part of Making America Great Again! I also knew the fact that there would be more black, and perhaps even brown faces, than usual on a reality show that did not center around hip hop. Or Atlanta. Or hip hop in Atlanta.
The cast did not disappoint. At the start of the season, close to half of the contestants were people of color. ABC and Disney made sure they could check off as many boxes as possible. African American, check! Latino, check! Asian, double check!, Southeast Asian, check! Immigrant, check!
Bachelor Nation’s greatest currency is tropes and stereotypes. On The Bachelorette specifically, bros — and all their tropes — rule everything around me. Diversifying the contestant pool this season probably also meant having to tone down the overall bro content. Unlike previous years, there would be no marine bros, no professional bodybuilder bros, no sales and marketing bros, and no straight-up bro bros.
Watching bros go through the journey to love makes for surreal television. The staged conversations — the bread and butter of reality TV — feel extra forced when they are being delivered by someone minutes away from a roid-rage episode.
This brings me to why this season was so riveting, and why I watched it so intently. Bro culture borrows heavily from urban culture. When you tone down the bro-rometer, you’re able to see that a little clearer. Add people of color — specifically black men — to the mix, and what was once surreal becomes grotesque. The show has often featured scenes in which the contestants are asked to rap, and yet it was extremely unnerving to me to watch the black guys start a cypher, on more than one occasion, that featured white guys trying to freestyle. It’s quite the spectacle to watch black guys playing white guys playing black guys, while the white guys simultaneously try their hardest to avoid bringing up anything remotely related to race. But, y’know, show they’re cool. And can rap.
Rachel takes Anthony shopping on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. On a horse.
AND THE HORSE HE RODE IN ON
Of course, the journey to find love on The Bachelorette, with all its stupid games and staged contests, has always been a journey that involves “stepping out of your comfort zone” and “letting your guard down.” But what does that look like when people of color, who are living in 2017 America, are the focus?
Sometimes it’s awkward rapping, and sometimes it’s even weirder. In an episode early in the season, Rachel took Anthony, a tall, bald, strikingly handsome-in-the-Old-Spice-commercial-sort-of-way suitor, on one of the show’s weekly lavish one-on-one dates.
As you probably know, the weekly dates between the Bachelorette and her suitors are typically rooted in activities based on cultural stereotypes — pretending to be Sumo wrestlers in Japan; crushing grapes barefoot to be made into French wine; scooping chicken poop in the American Heartland; outsized consumerist fantasies; private dinners in thousand year-old European churches; jewelry shopping for $10,000 watches; private helicopter rides to secluded islands; or some combination thereof. It’s always, of course, designed to get the suitors to let their guard down.
On this date, Rachel takes Anthony shopping in Beverly Hills. It’s Bachelor Nation, so of course, he cannot just strut into the store — that’s not crazy enough. Nope, someone somewhere thought, he has to do it on a horse. So a black man rides a horse into a store on Beverly Hills. This was very difficult for me to watch.
Outside of Bachelor Nation, people of color cannot shop peacefully at most department stores. Nevermind that the harassment of black men by law enforcement is a never-ending reality. Nevermind the messy history of black men in the expanding west. Nevermind that historically, first officially and then unofficially, Beverly Hills and other gaudy strip malls for rich people were off limits to people of color. Nevermind all that. Our dude is on a horse in the store and everyone has to pretend this is normal. The clerks and salespeople just take it in stride. If that brother was not on a horse on national television, that scene, I would be willing to bet, would play out a lot differently. Just ask Oprah.
Week after week, with every episode, I could not stop thinking about the world inside Bachelor Nation and how it differed from the real world. I found myself wishing that the brothers on the show could just stay in Bachelor Nation where they would be safe. Where the worst thing that could happen is a hangover, or getting injured while playing volleyball because you’re too drunk, or being dumped by a woman dating 30 other guys at the same time. In Bachelor Nation, a brother could go over to Iceland and play authentic Viking games and not have to worry about history or context.
But for most of us watching, we can’t exactly put it away. Particularly people of color, we do not have the option of leaving it all behind. We cannot just go without cellphones, email, being cut off from friends and family, and pretending the pressures and obstacles of the outside world don’t exist. We cannot afford to leave our jobs for six months to jet around the world to find true love. A good portion of Americans can’t even afford to take an afternoon off for a doctor’s appointment. We know that outside of Bachelor Nation, if a black man walks into a store in Beverly Hills, with or without a horse, things might turn out a lot differently.
BUT THEN IT CAME UP
The one time the show did allow anyone to broach the subject of race was in an episode three weeks ago. One contestant, a white guy from Nashville named Lee, was constantly egging on professional wrestler Kenny, a black dude from Las Vegas. Let’s call this episode the “Race Episode.”
Lee’s harassment of Kenny presented Kenny with plenty of opportunities to declare that he “did not want to revert to [his] old self again.” He’d remind Lee, and us, that he’d “come a long way from that dude.”
Putting aside whether real-life Kenny really has had to overcome some demons, do we really need one more African-American male character trying to overcome a dark past? Yes, apparently we need a couple of those. Oh, and please throw in a philandering player who gets “caught red-handed” (with a white girl no less), and a black guy who has never dated women of color.
While we’re integrating, let’s make sure to throw in that one trope in American entertainment stating that Asian men can never be sex symbols or objects of desire by turning the one Asian character, Iggy, into Rachel’s best friend who fills her in on what’s up at Bachelor mansion. Iggy tells her all the gossip and drama. When the other guys find out — and the contestants always find out who gossips — they call him a “bitch” and a “loser.”
Back to the “Race Episode.” For whatever reason, Lee keeps telling the other contestants that Kenny is “aggressive.” Again, due to the magic of editing — the life force of all reality shows — we have no way of knowing whether this is true. But what we do know, as one African-American contestant tells Lee, is that labeling black men as aggressive has historically not ended well for black men.
“There is a longstanding history in this country of regarding black men in America as ‘aggressive’ to justify a lot of other things,” Will tells Lee. Lee thinks about that for a minute. Squints his eyes at Will and says, “So he’s the guy who gets mad and plays the race card to justify everything he does, because he can’t control himself.” Lee concludes the scene by telling Will he simply cannot respect that in a man. Lee had the final word.
HOW DID WE GET HERE, ANYWAY?
How do smart, involved, conscious and woke people consume some of the most toxic entertainment available? How is it that I know more than one professor, more than one engineer, more than one social worker, who watches this junk?
For a while, I thought I was immune. My wife, a progressive artist and someone I consider to be one of the smartest, most socially conscious people I know, consumes her fair share of The Bachelor and Bachelorette. (I’ve outed her now, so I might need a place to stay now that this is published.)
One night, years ago, I heard sobbing coming from her laptop. Rather than tease her or make a holier-than-thou comment, I sat down next to her.
“What the hell is going on?”
“He is being dumped.”
“Well he — we — thought he was a strong contender.”
“Why is she dumping him?”
“She … I mean … well, it’s never really clear beyond they don’t have chemistry, but he’s kind of a dick anyway.”
I watched. And the more I watched, the more it occurred to me that The Bachelor was like a modern telenovela, the same ones I loved growing up. But it’s better! Humans — real people — are signing up to do this. They were volunteering to discard their current realities in exchange for having their lives turned into a novela. My mind was blown. Bread and Circus; end of days; revelations; the doomsday clock ticked one more time towards midnight. I was hooked from that moment on.
Thirteen seasons in, the contestants on The Bachelor and Bachelorette know the ins and outs, the coded language, the expectations and the rules, that come with saying yes to that telenovela rose. To enter the world of Bachelor Nation is to enter a world of alternative facts. In this world, diamonds are every girl’s best friend and every man is visibly working his way toward a sixpack. Meatheads, douchebags, and bros are indistinguishable. They all sport that I just got out of bed messy hair look, to match their I could grow a beard if I wanted to stubble. Dilettantes, airheads, and bimbos are still a thing in this world. Family is everything, and you are going to love them when you meet them, and I just know they will love you! Oh, and Dad still makes most of the decisions — including whether or not you have permission to marry his daughter.
As critic Amanda Hess put it in a recent piece in the New York Times, this is a world where we want a person who dates over two dozen strangers to “end with a ring on a finger, not a dramatic finale where two beautiful people in formalwear plan to continue seeing each other and just … see where it goes.” In this world, white is simply the color of the bachelorette’s gown and black is the color of the bachelor’s suit. The colors carry no more significance than that.
Fifty years from now, when we are dedicating whatever is left of our academic institutions, academia will dedicate many resources to explaining why people would volunteer for this. They might even make the apt comparison between the contestants in Bachelor Nation and the gladiators of Rome. I think there are many similarities there, but one major difference. The gladiator’s exit from the arena was often expedited by death, and that was the end. The people who are signing up for this, thanks to the powers of the Internet where nothing ever dies, are voluntarily signing up for a lifetime of gossip in the C-list celebrity lane.
TO WATCH OR NOT TO WATCH
As I’ve watched this season unfold, there is a sadness mixed in with my wonderment. It’s not all fun and games when it’s people of color exchanging their humility for the next rose. There are normal high and lows for those of us who watch the show, times when you’re ashamed of yourself and disgusted with humanity — it happens several times a season. But Rachel’s season was the first time I felt bad for the contestants themselves. I could no longer laugh at them. I did not want to.
There’s no reason to expect that a show that still holds onto outdated gender roles and cultural stereotypes would suddenly become progressive, but I’m still disappointed by the way that race was — or more specifically was not — handled. Several times, I had the impression that either one of the men or Rachel herself wanted to face the elephant in the room, but we never saw it. Was that all edited out? Was it there at all?
The Bachelorette is all about “finding love” and “being there for the right reasons.” But in real life, people talk about their hopes and dreams and struggles when they’re first getting to know one another. This conversation includes race.
To me, that’s a missed opportunity. What better way to talk about race than through the lens of finding love?