I’ve been watching The Bachelorette since long before I had my first real kiss. I’ve been watching since before I was even asked on a date and definitely before I understood that people would factor my race into whether or not I’d make a suitable partner for them. (Growing up, I didn’t realize people thought that because I’m Indian I’d be promised to a man in India and would be “shipped off” to marry him after high school, assuming that I wasn’t allowed to date and was not a romantic being. Seriously. People thought that.)
As someone who now produces reality television, I’ll be honest: It’s “fake.” But what did you expect? This wouldn’t be happening if we didn’t set up lights and cameras—a “story” for you, our viewing public. The contestants are chosen strategically. Their job titles are cleverly “altered” to change our impression of them. The order in which they exit the limo the first night is planned and is shown to cater to who the producers believe has the highest chance of compatibility with the Bachelor/ette. Who do they believe will take the cake? Who is their villain? Who will America fall in love with? Every single second, action, and motion has been curated for us to watch and scrutinize because, like the contestants, we can be played. But when it comes to the Bachelor franchise, I also believe the participants on the show believe it is real—that they are there for the chance to fall in love.
FiveThirtyEight published a study analyzing thirty-three combined seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette from top to bottom, revealing a science behind when someone goes on a date and how it measures up to them receiving a rose—or a ring. I would’ve thought Nate Silver had better things to do, but it really is genius: They’re analyzing a science to what these contestants believe is a form of choice, chance, and destiny. Cue the release of doves!
Despite this behind-the-scenes knowledge, out of habit, I can’t quit watching The Bachelor. I know how the sausage is made, and I get to watch everyone around me eat it. It’s like joining a sorority: You know the shit people say about you, but you can’t shake the feeling that these are your people. But also like a sorority, the Bachelor franchise has never been known for its diversity. If you aren’t White, Southern, or Midwestern and very Christian, it’s tough to identify with a typical Bachelor contestant.
In scripted television, we create stories from scratch and have control over the narrative. It scratches the itch for those of us who want to see ourselves in what we watch. It feels safe to incorporate diversity on our own terms, when it’s comfortable for those who aren’t used to it. But real people? It’s a lot of responsibility not to have complete control over the messaging, so why not go with the “safe bet”? The White bet.
Every season on The Bachelor, some melanin-blessed faces are cast to make people think you care about “representation,” but somehow they find their way out of the Bachelor mansion pretty quickly. In fact, when a POC would make it past the second or third week, a lot of speculation would begin that the producers were KEEPING the contestant there. Ain’t no way our lead Whiteboy/Whitegirl in question could like them, right? It’s not like they could be suitable marriage material or you could really bring them home to your family. Many contestants of color have seen their way out of the house with great fanfare, showcasing an “impropriety” that wouldn’t make them suitable to stay in the show any longer. That reputation will continue to follow these people everywhere. It’s really that easy to be made a fool of in this fishbowl.
The Bachelor or Bachelorette had always been White . . . until this year. I started to think it was amazing how they keep finding young, beautiful pharmaceutical reps and software salesmen, and they were all just . . . White. You could have sheets of paper exiting those limos, and no one would blink an eye. White is safe. White is normal. But in January 2017, during the twenty-first season of The Bachelor, a thirty-one-year-old African-American lawyer from Dallas named Rachel Lindsay stepped out of the limo first (remember the plan??) in a red dress. She was charming, funny, and knew what she wanted. She wasn’t here to play around like some of these twenty-four-year-old girls with fake tans—and that got her noticed by everyone. She quickly became one of Bachelor Nick’s favorites, winning his “first impression rose,” going on several one-on-one dates, and leading many fans to think she would win the final prize: Happily Ever After.
Then, before her elimination on the show, to the great confusion of the audience, it was announced that she would be the next Bachelorette. The excuse from the network, which came two weeks after the announcement despite the initial and quick questioning, was that they wanted additional time to cast Rachel’s men. They wanted to get the word out there: “We have an eligible Black woman looking for her prince.” America took that to mean: “So you want to cast non-White people?” Leading up to the premiere, we were dropped hints that this season of contestants would be the most well-educated and diverse group ever to be on one season of The Bachelor/ette.
When the announcement was made, the conversation wasn’t about the fan base, excited to start believing in their next lead; it was all about race. Surprise, surprise. I sat through an Access Hollywood segment that asked if more Black people would start watching the show because of Rachel, as the majority of the Bachelor audience is White. Their expert, Nina Parker, said no. Her reasoning, generalized: “This show is still about White People Problems. There’s nothing for us here.” I couldn’t argue. Part of the appeal I find in the show is that it’s hilarious to watch all of these “White People Problems” thrive and get treated like the real problems we have in our country and in our world. In fact, I always suggest to newcomers to watch as if it were an episode of 30 Rock. It’s ridiculous, but the characters don’t think they’re acting ridiculous at all.
As much as we wanted the walls of division to fall with gusto, the America where we like people like us was manifesting itself in this false TV world.
While the season went on, there was a steady flow of drama. To many, I’m sure having men of various backgrounds, education levels, and ages attempt to date Rachel started as a good thing (the theory is that audiences become comfortable with something the more they’re exposed to it), yet it almost opened up the floodgates to more scrutiny. We had racial tensions on the show between Lee and a couple other men of color in the house. This all took place before Lee’s history of racially discriminatory tweets came to light, which he had to answer for, and even that was like pulling teeth.
On the night of the premiere, I tweeted this out:
I'm just waiting for all the white guys to befriend the white guys and the minorities to befriend the minorities #TheBachelorette
— Anjali Desai (@anj4prez) May 23, 2017
Think back to a time when you were at a mixer or corporate training event where people didn’t know each other. Speaking from experience, slowly but surely all the Black and Brown faces start to gravitate toward one another, as do the White faces. Already on the first night of this show, when there were thirty men clamoring into a mansion in Agoura Hills ready to compete for the same woman with free-flowing alcohol and nothing else to focus on, you could see those groups starting to form. As much as we wanted the walls of division to fall with gusto, the America where we like people like us was manifesting itself in this false TV world. We had several moments of Rachel alluding to the racial pressure of her position, saying, “I know what people will say about me.” And they did say it, and they wouldn’t stop. Critics from both sides going at her, ABC, this process, and there was nothing she could do about it.
Ultimately, it was a beautiful thing to see so many men of color—real, living, breathing men—all at once in a primetime slot on a major network. It was exciting to watch them tell their stories—to see doctors and lawyers, men who came from nothing, single fathers, and military veterans. It’s not every day you see an unscripted representation of a man of color that way. But we weren’t here for them, really; they were just a darling bonus. We were here for Rachel. We were here to see a real-life Black woman in the driver’s seat. And it was an honor for her. Like so many Black men or women in power who are chosen to mirror the person of color whose hand so rarely gets called on, she had to be perfect, didn’t she?
Rachel is Southern and petite with Michelle Obama arms, legs for days, and a winning smile. She’s elegant in a dress and can play foosball with the dudes. She comes from a wholesome, Christian family born and raised in Dallas, Texas (go Cowboys!). Her parents are still married, and her father is a well-respected federal judge. He even has his own Wikipedia page. Rachel is a trial litigator; she dated Kevin Durant in college. KEVIN DURANT! OF BASKETBALL FAME! (What is basketball fame?)
Honestly, what more could you want?! Apparently a lot.
It doesn’t take a fool to see that Rachel was a sublime leading lady, but that didn’t stop people from criticizing her choices and questioning her judgment, at times saying she was settling for her final choice, that it was so “obvious” from her personality, and despite the many men of color in the cast, she was going to end up with a White guy. This woman we fell in love with just a few months earlier, the woman we trusted and were so excited to see in a position of power, was quickly brought back down to Earth.
Now, The Bachelorette having concluded last month, there is another person to add to the show’s college diversity brochure: Bryan Abasolo, a thirty-seven-year-old Latino Colombian chiropractor, Rachel’s final rose. They are now engaged and making paid appearances at Lord & Taylor, trying to move on from all of the judgment passed on both of these previously normal people.
The haven I once called Bachelor has become like every other thing I am bombarded with: images of who we should be and a reinforcement of what we aren’t. You’re not skinny; you’re not even “curvy but still skinny.” You’re not toned; you’re not pale. Your features are too ethnic; you’re “not white but not tan enough” (this is a thing I’m catching onto). Bottom line: The best-self version of you is not going to be “best” enough. I have a hard enough time finding value in the way the dating and social landscape of 2017 is shaping up to be, and to see the representation of a woman of color so highly scrutinized makes me feel less hopeful—not about finding “love” or whatever but about if people will truly see me for my worth. If we can trivialize and put on blast this incredible woman, how will we slowly start to treat people we see every day? If someone is not us, does that make them lesser?
I used to try to imagine myself as a Bachelor contestant. I have no doubt many women who watch the show do this. But before I could even visualize it, my brain would dissect why someone like me would never be up there on the screen “getting the chance of a lifetime.” We give it so much weight in our lives, this idea that you can have a fairy tale that’s real. But who does the fairy tale apply to? Who gets a chance at the ball, at the gown, at the glass slipper? Why don’t I deserve an opportunity like this? And it’s because I’d never seen someone try to come out unscathed—someone who wasn’t White, who wasn’t a size two, who wasn’t demure and unapologetic. In fact, I had never really seen that person anywhere on screen come out on top . . . and win.
And while we cling to this tragic weird world where nothing means anything but we still must all stand for something, we must remember that in this chaos it has all been controlled.
So we got Rachel, and she was everything. She really did check every box. We couldn’t ask any more of her, but the criticism still came. She’s too Black. Not Black enough. Too eloquent and polished. Not real and polished enough. You can be quick to say, “Oh, what a great thing. The first Black Bachelorette! Oh, this is progress. This season is what America really looks like.” No—the backlash and thunderstorm of criticism is what America truly looks like. And while we cling to this tragic weird world where nothing means anything but we still must all stand for something, we must remember that in this chaos it has all been controlled. Nothing gets put in front of our eyes on TV without having been pulled, prodded, kneaded, produced, manipulated, and scrutinized by the people at the top who are largely made up of powerful White men you’ll never see or meet.
So just remember that this “victory” we can look back on, smile about, and claim as one for our team wasn’t a mistake or a happy accident.
We were allowed to have this.