I began writing this post before the events at Charlottesville and had intended to publish it the following week. However, after Charlottesville my mind was possessed of a fiery fury that I couldn’t shake and what I’d written earlier seemed inadequate and irrelevant.
Quite likely it remains both of the above, but I believe that some of the issues this piece raises, that are borne of my knowledge of the reality industry in particular and television in general, do have some bearing on the national conversation that we are (or should be but maybe still aren’t?) having about racism.
When The Bachelor/ette Executive Producer Mike Fleiss announced back in February 2017 that the franchise would host the first black Bachelorette, Rachel Lindsay, he pretty much knew he was going to get dragged on social media. So his fallback was to poke fun at the “historic” nature of the announcement with the following tongue-in-cheek tweets …
At least I hope they were tongue-in-cheek. After all, it had been 15 years and 21 cycles since the show premiered and it had yet to feature a black protagonist. As Doreen St. Felix later noted in The New Yorker …
… the announcement […] that Rachel Lindsay, a black woman, had been chosen as the newest Bachelorette marked a grossly belated kind of progress.
And by waiting this long to address this embarrassing lack, Bachelorette producers found themselves in the position of somehow having to prove that the show itself isn’t racist which, in turn, meant attempting to address racism itself in a format spectacularly ill-suited for the task; and leaving, as a result, pretty much everyone underwhelmed or deeply offended.
It’s necessary to back up and to explain why it took Fleiss, or more specifically his pals at ABC, this long to cast a black protagonist in the first place. Simply put, for quite some time broadcasters have operated on the (racist) assumption that white audiences (who comprise much of The Bachelor/ette’s audience) won’t watch a show featuring a black lead. Make no mistake, not only do broadcasters think this way, they also feel pretty comfortable talking this way on conference calls with production companies (yes, I’m looking at you, TLC, with your iron-clad one-brown-person-every-hour rule).
In any event, having waited this long to feature a black protagonist, thereby earning accusations of racism, and given the context of police shootings and the rise of Black Lives Matter, the show found itself somewhat obliged to, you know, address racism while still making The Bachelorette its usual fluffy fun. It failed in both of these goals.
The format of The Bachelorette is not conducive to thoughtful examinations of anything, let alone race. It is, after all, a Competition show and, in this case, Rachel Lindsay had the task of winnowing down 31 potential mates to “he who might propose” in 13 episodes (even if those episodes are super-sized two hour affairs). There are, after all, all the group dates, celebrity guest judges, charity stripping challenges and most of Europe to travel through, not to mention rose ceremonies and tearful farewells.
That doesn’t leave much space for serious discussions of race. If The Bachelorette would even attempt to address the primary issue bedeviling the United States we would be looking at something resembling an epic novel. So, instead of taking that on, the show decided to fall back on the old binary thinking around race that has gotten us precisely nowhere so far by making it a character issue: you either are or are not a racist. You feel me?
Characters on Competition shows are stripped down to a single defining trait – or archetype, if we wanna be fancy about it. As I’ve indicated elsewhere on this blog, this means that characters tend to be portrayed as single note with simple arcs. Thus it was that Lee Garrett found his way onto the show …
As those of you who watched the show no doubt know, White Country Boy Lee Garrett was revealed as a racist when tweets posted prior to his engagement on the show came to light.
And while the leaking of said tweets caused an unsurprising kerfuffle, you may rest assured that producers did know about the tweets prior to casting him. We run background checks on potential cast members and search the web extensively during the process, so to claim that producers knew nothing about his past is impossibly naive.
Instead I would suggest that Lee was cast as the Resident Racist and that the producers felt that his requisite shitcanning handily addressed racism, while not getting too much in the way of Rachel’s rose-petaled path to true love.
Addressing race in this ham-handed way not only turned off audience members who were offended by the oversimplification of the issue but also audience members who view The Bachelor/ette as a guilty pleasure that should never stray anywhere close to issues of any gravity; and ratings suffered accordingly.
Oh what a tangled web we weave … the fact is that had ABC and Fleiss simply started integrating black protagonists into their lineups earlier and not waited until the point where it became a source of public embarrassment, they most likely would not have had to make Rachel Lindsay’s season some kind of half-assed treatise about race in America in 2017.
Lindsay couldn’t just be a woman looking for love, she had to be a black woman looking for love. And the frustrating thing is that because the drop in audience numbers addressed above now give the network execs the excuse to delay casting, say, a black Bachelor or another black Bachelorette. They might perhaps instead take a gander at narrative television which is, slowly but surely, becoming less lily white without (gasp!) losing ratings. But, sadly reality tends to lag behind narrative by at least 30 years, so I’m not too convinced we’ll see a change in the composition of casts (outside of VH1, WE and BET) anytime soon.
Which is, ultimately, their loss. Because while they attempt to cater to their apparently brown-averse white audience, the country as a whole grows increasingly diverse. Which also means that there’s a largely untapped viewership out there not being catered to; which means a bigger potential audience; which means larger ad sales. So if broadcasters aren’t interested in doing the right thing, perhaps we could interest them in potential revenue? Probably not. The premise that network execs operate on rational thought is evidently at odds with their whole heads-up-their assholes reaction to digital. But I digress…