The Purely Accidental Lessons Of The First Black 'Bachelorette'
It is a truth universally acknowledged that parsing the broader implications of The Bachelor/Bachelorette can feel an awful lot like examining the semiotics of mashed potato flakes. But can we not also agree that the fact that a narrative is ridiculous and phony doesn't mean it isn't both reflective of and influential upon the culture out of which it grows?
We learned on Monday night that attorney Rachel Lindsay will, in the 34th season of the combined Bachelor/ette franchise, become the first black person at the center of a season. This is, in part, her reward for making it most of the way to the top of a heap that, according to the show's eternally dopey narrative, was built by current Bachelor Nick Viall, a dude so devoid of charm that I once called him a "churl" in a headline. (In fairness, some people like Nick, or else he wouldn't be The Bachelor. I do not truck with these people.)
The persistent whiteness of Bachelorons (my chosen term to encompass both Bachelors and Bachelorettes) is in part a result of the same dynamics that affect much of the rest of television. But this show has had an extra challenge that seems to have that particularly difficult to change even once network executives started to acknowledge it. (The only Bacheloron who wasn't identified as white until now was Juan Pablo Galavis, an American-born Venezuelan soccer player and — unrelated to that, of course — kind of a toolbag, to put it in fancy critical terms.)
In short, they alternate Bachelors and Bachelorettes, and each Bacheloron is chosen from the previous season's almost-winners. Not always the runner-up, but generally somebody from the top few finishers. Rachel is not Nick's chosen one, but she got close, and that's why she was in the running for Bachelorette. So in a sense, inside this narrative, each Bacheloron has given a stamp of approval to the next by at least bringing them close to the end of the season. Rachel will do the same with the next Bacheloron — and we'll get back to that.
When the Bacheloron is white and most of the candidates are white, what this means is this: If you're a black candidate, you can be chosen, but first, you have to impress a white Bacheloron and convince that person to, for many weeks in a row, pick you. You cannot go forward without their say-so, because of longstanding structural rules about allocating power that they themselves have followed successfully in order to become powerful in the first place. You have to figure out how to navigate not only their evaluation of your qualities as a person, but also their largely mysterious "gut feelings" and "instincts" and ideas about "compatibility" and "fit" and so forth. Only by navigating that white Bacheloron's decision-making correctly can you, as a black candidate, obtain power yourself by being chosen. So to succeed in this structure as a black person, you have to click — in some hard-to-define way for which nobody is accountable — with a white person who gets to say yes or no to you. That person's approval is the only path.
Now go back and replace "Bacheloron" with "boss" and "chosen" with "promoted," and you'll see that they may have accidentally set up a really freaky metaphor for the way structural racism can sometimes work without anybody setting out to do it. They consider this system, by the way, to be utterly race-neutral. But in practice, in actual undeniable fact, it has been a story almost entirely of a white person picking the next white person, and of that white person then picking another white person, and everybody shrugging and saying, "I just went with my gut! It was love!"
And that's why the fact that they chose Rachel to be the Bachelorette is much less interesting to me than this question: Whom will they offer her as candidates?
If the reason candidates of color were quite few in number until relatively recently was that the Bachelorons were white and the show had Certain Unspoken Ideas About Compatibility, that should mean Rachel should get mostly — not exclusively, but mostly — black men to choose from. (I am in no way endorsing those C.U.I.A.C., by the way; I am merely positing them as one of the ways the show could choose to try to explain its past casting decisions.) And if that happens, and if the show is right about compatibility (again, I don't think it is), then Rachel might well choose mostly black men at the top of her list. So maybe then you get a black Bachelor. And then maybe another black Bachelorette.
If that doesn't happen, then the story they've been telling is, in some way, wrong, or at least incomplete.
Before you come at me to explain that you've seen UnREAL and all of this is phony, let me stress this: for the purposes of this argument, it doesn't matter. Consider it a manufactured narrative, and you come out at exactly the same place: the show has put itself in an intriguing bind by building into its story structure both a longstanding lean against interracial dating and a story where being chosen by this season's hero is key to being next season's hero. This link between each season and the next has created a way for the centrality of white leads to perpetuate itself, without anyone who set up the whole one-goofus-leads-to-another system having ever needed to have that motive. The motives were undoubtedly ratings, familiarity, and audience loyalty; they probably wouldn't care if the lead were a head of lettuce on a broomstick as long as people watched. (Which they might.) (And let's be honest: some past Bachelors weren't far from that anyway, BRAD.) But it doesn't matter — the effect was the same.
So yes, it's interesting to see Rachel chosen as the Bachelorette. But watch for her list of suitors. Because that's where you'll get the hint about what the real rules are.
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