This season on Lifetime’s UnREAL there will be a Black bachelor: something that has yet to happen on ABC’s The Bachelor (the show on which UnREAL’s show-within-the show Everlasting is based). ABC has been called out on this issue by no less than Oprah Winfrey, and the Washington Post has referred to the show as “embarrassingly white.” For anyone in Reality, however, this perpetual pastiness is hardly surprising. While the days of a small-b-bachelor are finally upon us, what UnREAL is proposing will nevah, evah* happen on The Bachelor with a capital-B. The network wouldn’t have it.
*No, not Tay Tay. All Saints, natch.
The subject of race comes up often in Reality production, probably a whole a lot more often than it does in other lines of non-race-related work. As UnREAL‘s Executive Producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro says, referring to her experience as a Reality producer, “I’ve heard appalling things about race all the time.”
There’re those charming network calls on which you’re informed that there’s a limit of one Black character an episode, no, never mind, a “light-skinned Latina” is enough; or that a particular cast-member (or should we say soon-to-be-ex-cast member) is too “ghetto” for the show; or that time a company pitched a show about a Black Hip Hop couple moving into an old money White community (oh, the LOLZ!).
The argument against casting Black characters is usually that the audience i.e. the target audience for that broadcaster–assuming that broadcaster isn’t VH1, BET or, these days, WE–isn’t ready for Black characters. Naturally the network execs themselves are super liberal (“just to be clear!”), they are merely at the mercy of their racist demographic. The assumption is that White audience members won’t be sufficiently invested in Black cast members, and certainly not a Black lead (as in the case of a show like The Bachelor), to keep watching.
Given these circumstances, casting a Black Bachelor would require these four things:
1. Locating a Black Bachelor who is White enough for a White audience (the Obama of Bachelors, if you will). This palatable fellow cannot be “too ghetto,” “too ethnic,” or too much of a “player” (if you get the code).
AN ASIDE: Some Black cast members, having seemingly absorbed the version of Blackness that is “acceptable” to a White audience, will often (somewhat disconcertingly) assume the veneer of Blackness that they assume (correctly) appeals to Whites, at least in the minds of the network execs. Such cast members will be perfectly ordinary in their everyday interactions (i.e. funny, edgy, smart, or not, AKA human) but will then shift into a facsimile of “acceptable” Blackness (i.e. smiley, happy, Southern) the moment camera rolls.
2. Ensuring that the White Bachelorettes aren’t going to freak the fuck out when the Bachelor is revealed as Black. (This means telegraphing to potential cast members in the casting process that the Bachelor may not be White, and weeding out obvious racists.)
While UnREAL‘s Showrunner Quinn will likely deliberately cast some racist White chicks to provoke racially-charged shenanigans, the fact is that the REAL Bachelor is way too committed to the fairy-tale tone to blow shit up with the realities of race and racism.
3. Figuring out how many White women you cast versus Black women. Do you cast it demographically, based on the American population as a whole? Or do you cast it favoring a slightly higher percentage of Black women? But if you have more Black than White women, will the White viewers lose interest? So many variables!
4. Determining the race of the woman the Bachelor would end up with. Because this truly is the rub of the issue: the specter of mixed race couples that still unsettles so many folks.
Whites, in particular, would prefer to believe everything is peachy because the Civil War (and they, personally, aren’t racist)… but the fact is, the Civil War was yesterday, and shit like this could have gotten you lynched not that long ago, and arrested in the U.S.A. until 1967. (Whites haven’t even begun to have a conversation about racism, and their own complicity in it, in any meaningful way.)
So if you’re a producer in the field, which way do you influence the Bachelor: towards a Black woman, or towards a White Woman? Or do you split the difference and settle on an Asian woman or a Latina (not White but not Black either- it’s a racial compromise!)?
Make no mistake, these would be the discussions they’d be having. But it would never get to that point. Any attempt to pitch a Black Bachelor to the network (a pitch which has, no doubt, been made) would be met with, “Is America really ready for a mixed race wedding?” Right answer: no.
In fact, it’s impossible to tell if America is or isn’t “ready” for a Black Bachelor or a mixed race Bachelor wedding, since most of the country is committed to not talking about race at all. That commitment is mirrored on Reality TV. Unless it’s being played for yucks (look at them hillbillies!) any examination of race is deemed too uncomfortable or too complicated to be entertaining.
Which is, of course, horseshit: “Uncomfortable” is reality’s metier, and complicated just means we need to think.
The producers of UnREAL face a not-dissimilar dilemma in discussing race on their show, as Executive Producer Shapiro has acknowledged. UnREAL has social critical elements but remains, fundamentally, a Soap Opera; providing a nuanced take on issues of racism while remaining sudsy will be quite the balancing act.