By Anika Grevstad
Much of the press surrounding last spring’s Season 13 of The Bachelorette focused on having a black woman, Rachel Lindsay, as the star of the season, the first time in franchise history that a person of color had taken the title role. The season’s contestants were also more racially diverse than in seasons past. While putting Rachel in the spotlight for this season may allow the franchise to seem progressive (despite the fact that increased racial diversity was long, long overdue), doing so serves to hide racist undertones on which the show relies and to obscure the fact that the reality contest generally perpetuates a problematic, heterosexual, consumerist, and primarily white representation of fairytale romance.
Different manifestations of racism appear throughout the season, and while some contestants call out overt racism, many of those same contestants participate in inferential racism themselves. The producers dedicate a significant portion of airtime throughout the season to conflict between Lee, a racist contestant, and Kenny, a black contestant towards whom Lee directed much of his racism. Other contestants on the show call out Lee as racist, the producers portray Lee as a villain, and Rachel ultimately sends Lee away. However, the overt racism on display in Lee and Kenny’s disputes serves to hide the inferential racism that manifests itself in other contestants’ comments and that underlies the show’s very premise. White contestants who call Lee out on his racism in one episode say, in other episodes, statements such as, “I’m going black, and I’m never going back,” fetishizing and exotifying dating a black woman, and that Rachel is “a girl from the hood,” even though she comes from a suburb of Dallas. These statements “have racist premises and propositions inscribed in them,” a characteristic of inferential racism as described by Stuart Hall in “The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media” (104); however, unlike the more obvious racist comments made by Lee, these subtler manifestations of racism are never called out or shown to be problematic.
More importantly, featuring Rachel and a diverse cast of contestants functions to conceal the fact that the image of romance and fairytale that the franchise sells to its audience is still exclusionary in a multitude of ways, particularly in its portrayal of women, consumerist qualities, and heterosexual focus. Similar to Gareth Palmer’s point in his article “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” The Bachelorette “is part of a growing number of television programs that are not simply recording or reflecting on society but becoming active elements, working practically and ideologically to change the world” (55-56). The Bachelorette influences ideology by painting the ideal, fairytale relationship as heterosexual and based in material consumption. The show, which features one woman choosing among many men – or vice versa, in The Bachelor – excludes any version of love that is not heterosexual and any gender identity outside of the male/female binary. Through elaborate dates, the show implies that the ideal romance is only accessible to those who can ride in hot air balloons, stay in five-star hotels around the world, and eat fancy meals. In this way, “capitalism is sold to audiences,” but, like in EMHE, “costs have no place in a fairytale” and are therefore left out (Palmer 54, 55).
The Bachelorette is also problematic in the way that it relies on ‘commodity feminism’ but in fact undermines many feminist ideals. Commodity feminism is “an attempt to incorporate the cultural power and energy of the feminist movement whilst simultaneously domesticating its critique of advertising and the media” (Gill 279). The Bachelorette puts a woman in the spotlight, giving her power to choose among many male suitors, presumably partially aiming to engage viewers disillusioned with the earlier male-centered counterpart, The Bachelor. However, the franchise presents a very specific image of feminine beauty, as the women on the show are generally very thin, wear heavy makeup and tight dresses, and would be considered conventionally beautiful in society’s predominant, narrow beauty standards. Furthermore, while The Bachelorette gives the woman decision-making power throughout the season, the show ultimately falls back on the societal tradition of men proposing to women in the last episode; this serves to take the power out of the woman’s hands at the last minute. This is especially apparent in the final episode of Rachel’s season, in which a contestant, Peter, says he won’t propose, instigating a long conversation that makes apparent how reliance on the convention of men proposing wrests all of the power out of Rachel’s hands at the last minute in a show founded on giving the female star the decision-making power.
The idea of exploiting feminism as a commodity could, perhaps, be extended also to diversity as a commodity in this season of The Bachelorette. After all, even if the cost of this capitalistic fairytale is never shown on screen, “there are many people who profit enormously from the show” (Palmer 55). It makes sense, then, that the producers of the show would hope to make it seem progressive to please audiences, in the hopes that audiences would then not question the problematic basis of the show itself.