Race, Consumerism, and Gender in The Bachelorette

By Anika Grevstad

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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.

Angels for A Capitalist Agenda: The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show

LIFESTYLE-BRITAIN-US-FASHION-VICTORIAS SECRETBy Isabel Aurichio

Victoria’s Secret has been gearing up for their 2016 fashion show all year. On Wednesday evening, the models strutted down the runway at the Grand Palais in Paris, one the fashion capitals of the world. The event gains a massive amount of media coverage every year, resulting large viewing audiences. This year, the show is expected to reach over 800 million people in more than 190 countries. With such a wide audience, Victoria’s Secret attempts to market their fashion show as an empowering experience for women all over the world. However, formulating female empowerment by portraying women as active, desiring sexual subjects not only encourages an objectification of women through the male gaze but also creates an expectation for women to enjoy their own objectification. The commonality of using hypersexualized “empowered” women in media and advertising is an extremely problematic post-feminist mantra that is used and abused over and over again in our modern capitalist society.

The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is marketed as an opportunity to view women that represent the pinnacle of western idealized beauty, setting a standard that is impossible for most women to meet, therefore encouraging women to “self-police” their appearance according to absurd standards. According to Olivier Rousteing, a renowned fashion designer who turned out for the event, the show includes “a wonderful mix of pop culture and fashion” (Isaac-Goize). He went on to note, “Here you have the most beautiful women in the world daring to show how powerful, sexy and confident women can be, in all their diversity” (Isaac-Goize). According to the thought process that fashion designers and promoters of the show want customers to buy into, feeling sexy should be something every woman is able to participate in. Victoria’s Secret offers women this opportunity through the consumers’ choice to purchase part of the fashion line. However, this discourse creates issues for women. As Rosalind Gill writes in “Supersexualize Me!,” “A notion of women as completely free agents who just ‘please themselves’ – does not serve feminist of cultural understandings well” (282). Gill goes on to note that, “the emphasis upon choice sidesteps and avoids all the important and difficult questions about how socially constructed ideals of beauty are internalized and made our own” (282). “Choice” therefore, is an illusion created by media and advertising to convince female consumers to participate in a society that actively sells and exploits a hyper-sexualized and exclusive female body.

Victoria’s Secret’s portrayal of the fashion show as an “empowering” experience ultimately works to convince potential customers that sexual objectification of oneself can give one power. However, this power is only able to reach the desires of heterosexual men. Edward Razek is the executive producer of the show and chief marketing officer of creative services at Limited Brands, the parent company of Victoria’s Secret. According to him, “It’s a celebration of powerful women by powerful women who work very hard at what they do, live a healthy life and inspire legions of admirers. It speaks to diversity in a number of ways, as well as free-spiritedness” (Isaac-Goize). The idea of women’s power stemming from their sexual desire is a concept that has been determining female worth long before the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show began. In Laurie Ouellette’s “Inventing the Cosmo Girl” Cosmopolitan’s editor-in-chief Helen Brown was quoted in 1962 saying, “Sex is a powerful weapon of a single woman in getting what she wants from life” (266). This attitude of treating sex as a commodity exchange limits female potential for upward mobility to relying on men by fulfilling their sexual desires and expectations. Therefore, Victoria’s Secret’s promotion of “female power” is not about the women at all, but instead stems from the idea that women hold sexual power over men, that can be taken advantage of through self-sexualization and objectification. In accordance with this attitude towards female power, Ouellette mentions, “Expenditures on clothing, cosmetics, and accessories were presented as necessary investments in the construction of a desirable self” (262). By buying into the Victoria’s Secret franchise, women have the opportunity to dress up their full feminine potential with lace, ribbon, and sparkle.

The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show reinforces unrealistic expectations of women’s bodies and reduces them to sex objects while veiling this agenda under the disguise of “female empowerment.” Unfortunately, this is a common marketing strategy adopted by modern media and advertising to further capitalistic agendas. Although mega-corporations like Victoria’s Secret are not going to give up this strategy despite the negative effects it has on its target customers, it is important that consumers are able to recognize the manipulative way media tries to brand hyper-sexualization as harmless. By acknowledging this dangerous discourse, women can alleviate their own self-critical gaze while continuing to fight back against the omnipresent male-gaze that media also relies on.