The magic behind the Bachelor franchise is simple: sell a fairy tale. For fifteen years—that’s 33 seasons total, 21 of The Bachelor, 12 of The Bachelorette—the series has fed into a very particular heteronormative fantasy of attractive people finding love, albeit, in an unconventional setting. Sex sells, marriage does too: together, the equation is unstoppable.
But 15 years is a long time. The problem with any formulaic media is that it becomes predictable. Viewers aren’t stupid; they learn to recognize signs and patterns. The inverse is that when something becomes unsurprising and successful, it requires innovation to maintain interest. The Bachelor has found something that works, but to continue its stronghold over primetime in an ever-changing reality television climate, it needs to progress, too. The most obvious way to do so, a move they should’ve made long ago, is to diversify the kind of person who goes on the show. In the simplest of terms, shit needs to get less white.
There have been subtle moves towards a more inclusive cast in the past: JoJo Fletcher, the last Bachelorette, is half-Iranian, but it’s rarely mentioned, if at all (speculatively, it could be a conversation of racial presentation, but more likely it’s not a topic of discussion the producers wanted to explore.) One of the 25 contestants on her season was Jonathan, a half-Chinese, half-Scottish technical sales rep, who, as Fusion points out, appears to be one of the very few men of East Asian descent in the series’ history—definitely the only in recent memory. He was eliminated in the first week. Fletcher’s final four suitors were a cast of almost identical white men with 5 o’clock shadows, V-neck t-shirts and such similar dispositions, that it became a running gag online.
With the exception of the season of the Bachelor that ended last night, a black contestant has never made it past five weeks on the show. More than half, 59%, of black contestants are eliminated in the first two weeks. The fact that the next Bachelorette, the first black suitor on either program, Rachel Lindsay made it to the top three of Nick Viall’s Bachelor season is unprecedented—but the way the franchise announced the move was anything but. They ruined the season by announcing her as the next Bachelorette well before she was eliminated from The Bachelor—essentially a back-pat of a move, celebrating this first active foray in anything resembling diversity while ensuring they’d get the most applause for the longest time in doing so. Before that, Juan Pablo Galavis, the season 17 Bachelor and JoJo Fletcher were the only non-white suitors in the show’s history. It’s also worth noting that Lindsay is the first Bachelorette to be announced under new ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey, the first black woman to lead a major broadcast network, who has called for diversity in the past.
It wasn’t until the Women Tell All episode where Rachel Lindsay was able to publicly address her role as the next Bachelorette. She said simply, “It is a big deal. You know, I don’t want to get caught up in everything. I feel very honored to be the person to represent an African-American woman in this position. It’s a lot on my shoulders, but I feel that I’m ready to take it on…I don’t want that to be the focus of my journey but I’m happy to acknowledge it and I’m happy to be the person to be able to do this. I’m humbled by the experience.”
It’s hard to imagine her season to be one where race isn’t a focal point—when she made it to hometown dates, her family spent the majority of time asking Viall about his past relationships with women of color (in a few episodes later, on their final date in Finland he’d tell Lindsay that he “might be white” but “is a minority,” confirming a really gross disconnect that probably assisted in the unraveling of their relationship.) In the final scene of the After the Final Rose episode, Lindsay is introduced to four suitors from her upcoming season—two white men and two black men—one of the former group begins with declaring “I’m ready to go black and I’m never going to go back.” This, mind you, is before her season has even begun.
Nick Viall’s season was slated as the most diverse ever: considering the results it seems like anything but. Viewers essentially championed a program for taking elementary steps when big leaps aren’t dangerous. Early on contestant Jaimi King made mention of a past relationship with a woman—making her the first to ever mention a queer relationship on the U.S. program—but it was never addressed outright. Her only quote: “Nick was really receptive to my past relationship with my ex-girlfriend.” The topic was dropped immediately—she didn’t identify her sexuality with any level of transparency (and she doesn’t have to!) but it seemed like a note to be skirted over for a cheap headline, nothing to be discussed ever again. She was cut in the fifth week alongside dolphin/shark queen Alexis Waters and Corrinne-enemy Taylor “emotional intelligence” Nolan. She was essentially cut with the contestants with novelty personas. On the Australian version of the Bachelor, however, two female contestants, Megan Marx and Tiffany Scanlon fell in love with one another while dating Richie Strahan in Season 4, just last year. It seems like America is far behind in that department.
In no way is Rachel Lindsay’s position as the first ever black Bachelorette a small feat. It’s hard to think of a more conservative reality TV franchise than the Bachelor, one literally predicated on the promise of heterosexual marriage, but making moves so it’s cast better reflects America (i.e., is not homogeneously white) is a step in the right direction. We can assume that Lindsay’s cast will be more diverse than seasons prior—if Viall’s Bachelor was supposed to crack open some door, we can anticipate Lindsay swinging it open. Reality TV has had a history of looking more diverse than scripted television, though even that world seems to be making changes in the right direction as well—and there are obvious financial benefits because of it. People crave representation and networks are finally taking notice. Lindsay’s season should prove to be a successful one, and she has the opportunity to help move the Bachelor franchise into a much more interesting direction.
The fear becomes: how will the series avoid tokenizing racial identity? They haven’t had success in the past doing so, mostly because they haven’t tried—and it seems like we’re many seasons out before they attempt to diversify the cast based on different gender and sexuality expressions. Until then, let’s hold the series responsible and hope that as time progresses, viewers will prepare themselves for a show that can sell a fairy tale while representing their friends, families and neighbors more realistically. It’s easier to feed into an aspirational dream if it looks like you.