The Bachelorette, ABC’s indefatigable reality staple, returns tomorrow night, bringing with it all your faves: the dramatic rose ceremonies, the “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee” winking attitude towards sex, the parade of kooky contestants (more people in dolphin costumes, please!).
The show, and its brother program The Bachelor, have successfully melded unscripted schadenfreude and fairy tale romance for over a decade. If the promise of The Bachelorette Season 13 was more of the same, few would be disappointed. But in addition to the dudes in tuxes, the glamorous destination dates and the GIF-worthy reaction shots, the show is teasing something even bigger: a conversation on race.
Famously, neither iteration of the show has had black person as its lead. (Venezuelan Juan Pablo had the distinction of being the first non-Caucasian lead in 2013.) Over 32 seasons of The Bachelorette and The Bachelor, only a handful of black contestants even got to vie for a rose. The last such hopeful, lawyer Rachel Lindsay, is now the first black Bachelorette. Is it about time or way too late?
Last season, when Rachel was a contestant vying for the affection of perpetual runner-up Nick Viall, the show took its first, tentative steps toward a deeper, much needed exploration of an unspoken barrier. Rachel was the first black contestant to receive the first-impression rose. In 13 years, not one black woman had left a mark? Suspicious. The Bachelor/ette franchise is built on a huge suspension of disbelief, but the idea that fairy tales don’t include diverse couplings was growing harder and harder to swallow.
The minds behind the Bachelorette clearly saw the writing on the wall, positioning Rachel from the get-go as a barrier breaker. In anticipation of the first-impression rose, producer Mike Fleiss tweeted, “This history-making, historic announcement could be the most-historic in the history of #thebachelor !!!” It was very subtle. As far as hyperbole goes, one would think Rachel had made first contact with (eligible, hairless, buff) alien life.
Then again, maybe first contact isn’t that farfetched a description of what happened. After all, the idea that a television juggernaut not run by Shonda Rhimes would center a black woman’s experience is still, sadly, revolutionary.
One of the things that makes the Bachelor/ette franchise so bewitching is that it reflects so many truths about our world, particularly the world of dating, that it’s almost cathartic to see them played out for ratings. While a weeknight Tinder date likely does not involve putting on a prom dress and being forcibly kept awake by a producer while plied with booze, modern dating can still feel just as daunting a gauntlet. The show indulges our desire for easy romance (within a rigid, patriarchal, heteronormative system, but still) and corroborates our suspicion that it really shouldn’t be this hard or this absurd.
All of the familiar tropes were brought to the surface in the Lifetime series UnReal, which satirized the dating show concept excellently in its first season. UnReal, like The Bachelorette itself, was a confirmation of what we’d all suspected: that dating is not for the meek and that reality television isn’t actually reality at all. The second season of UnReal focused on a black Bachelor, but something was missing. All of the punch and shock that made the first season so juicy had ebbed out. Perhaps, just as our political situation has taken the teeth out of watching House of Cards, the realities of the gender and racial conversations being had in the world make a satire about a dating show’s diversity moment almost regressive. And so, this is the perfect time for The Bachelorette.
In this post-satirical moment, what unexpected reveals does The Bachelorette have up its sleeve? For her part, Rachel has tread a careful line, promising in interviews to address race head-on while also saying that this is, “my journey in finding love. And whether that person is black, white, red, whatever — it’s my journey. I’m not choosing a man for America, I’m choosing a man for me.” It’s a bit disheartening, but not at all unsurprising, to see the burden for diversity fall to the lone person of color, despite the fact that she is but a cog in a larger system. No one asked JoJo about the race of her suitors. But the conversation is being had, at least, and with the show’s participation, which is a step forward.
In her hometown date with Nick, Rachel and her family questioned whether he actually understood the dynamics of an interracial relationship. True to the form, Nick gave agreeable, plain platitudes about looking past Rachel’s race. Rachel’s family, which includes another interracial relationship, was quick to press him for a deeper, more nuanced answer. Rachel’s mother, in her one-on-one with Nick, told him, with regard to race, “It’s about you two. But society will see it.”
That quote may as well be the tagline of this “historic, history-making” season of The Bachelorette. We want Rachel to fall in love, we want her to find happiness, we want some dudes to get too drunk and embarrass themselves, but we also want to see a reflection of the conflict and conversations we have in our own lives. And we want The Bachelorette to show that it’s had some of those conversations, too. This is, after all, the show that paired Nick with black contestant Jasmine, in whom he was clearly not interested, and then left her to stew in rejection — not cutting her loose, but not giving her any attention. It’s no surprise, then, that Jasmine called Nick out — a move some called “aggressive,” a lighting-rod term for many people of color. The show got its clip, including a meme-worthy moment of Jasmine “choking” Nick. Jasmine got nothing.
In a show built on strategic edits that underscore preconceived notions, quick takes and suspicions, perhaps the best hope for this lucky thirteenth season is that it forgoes any sort of Jasmine edit. Perhaps this season can be a testament to the fact that anyone can find corporately sponsored, fairy-tale love. After all, it’s about the two of them, but society will see it.
Collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; photo via Disney ABC Press.