Race, Consumerism, and Gender in The Bachelorette

By Anika Grevstad

Bs13

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.

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Racialized Representations of Women in U.S. Media at Frauenkreise Berlin

Frauenkreise Talk

Helen, Heidi, Cassandra, Marca, Gabi, and Vicky

On Friday, June 13, I presented “Racialized Representations of Women in U.S. Media” at Frauenkreise in Berlin at the invitation of Project Manager Gabi Zekina. Below, you will find a written version of the introduction to my analysis. Click here to view the complete PowerPoint presentation, and click here to listen to the audio (approximately 90 minutes) recorded by Cassandra Ellerbe-Dück. I would also like to thank Vicky Germain for also recording the event and for suggesting that I post it to the web for you all to listen to and engage.

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Before I begin the analytical discussion, I want to spend about 10 minutes introducing myself and my work to you. As you know, my name is Heidi R. Lewis, and I’m an Assistant Professor in the Feminist & Gender Studies Program at Colorado College, where I also serve as a core faculty member in the Race & Ethnic Studies Program. My teaching and research interests include Black Feminist Theory, Transnational Feminisms, and Critical Studies of media and popular culture, feminism, race, whiteness, and hip hop. I’m also an Associate Editor for The Feminist Wire, a peer-reviewed online publication that provides sociopolitical and cultural critiques of anti-feminist, racist, and imperialist politics pervasive in all forms and spaces of private and public lives.

Alexander

Marissa Alexander

Regarding my own career, I have begun to situate myself as a theoretical activist, because often, especially within “liberal” and “progressive” communities in the United States, I hear people denigrate theory in an effort to communicate the necessity of action. For instance, sometimes my audiences, including my students, grow frustrated when they ask about what they can “do” to affect change, and I respond that theorizing is one of the most important things that can be done in response to injustice. I respond in this way, because for me, theory is simply a way of thinking about, understanding, and explaining the world. How many of you are familiar with the Marissa Alexander case in the United States? It’s my contention that a theory sentenced Marissa Alexander to 20 years for self-defense. Of course, the racist legal system, including police, attorneys, the jury, and the judge, sentenced Marissa Alexander. However, this sentencing would not have been possible without racist and sexist theories about Black women’s bodies and lives, theories that suggest that our bodies are not worthy of love, affection, and protection, theories that suggest that our lives don’t matter and that they’re not worth saving. Only racist and sexist thinking would allow someone to see Marissa Alexander as anything other than a victim.

At this point, then, I’d like to clarify the theoretical framework of my work on U.S. media, a framework situated at the nexus of cultural studies, critical media studies, and feminist studies. As Paula Saukko points out, “The trademark of the cultural studies has been an interest in the interplay between lived experience, texts or discourses, and the social context,” which relies heavily on an investment in multiple validities. Saukko points out that this draws attention to the fact that the theories, methods and modes of analysis that underpin our research open up different and always partial and political views on reality. Multiple validities ask us to be more critically aware of what drives our research. Additionally, acknowledging that there is more than one way of making sense of social phenomena asks us to come up with a more multidimensional, nuanced, and tentative way of understanding one’s object of study. Multiple validities, then, suggest that we should approach reality in less simplistically dichotomous ways, such as “true” or “false” and “right” or “wrong,” and instead to develop more complex terms. This does not mean that there are no rules for conducting research. It simply means that rather than one universal rule that applies everywhere, there are different rules, and we need to be aware how they make us relate to reality differently. There are three methodological approaches to uncovering multiple validities: hermeneutic/ dialogic validity, which evaluates research in terms of how truthfully it captures the lived worlds and experiences of the people and communities being studied; poststructuralist/ deconstructive validity, which evaluates research in terms of how well it manages to unravel social tropes and discourses that, over time, have come to pass for “truth;” and realist/ contextual validity, which refers to the capability of research to locate the phenomena it is studying within the wider social, political, and even global, context. My talk this evening will be methodologically reliant upon the latter two frameworks insomuch as I will examine how advertisements communicate tropes and discourses that have come to pass as “truth” for racialized women in the U.S. and also how these tropes and discourses can be best theorized by examining the wider sociopolitical contexts in which the advertisements are situated.

Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall

Regarding critical media studies, James Lull argues, “The most potent effect of mass media is how they subtly influence their audiences to perceive social roles and routine personal activities.” This happens because media functions as a hegemony, which Lull defines as a “power or dominance that one social group holds over others.” Along these lines, Antonio Gramsci argues that hegemony and mass media “are tools that ruling elites use to perpetuate their power, wealth, and status by popularizing their own philosophy, culture, and morality.” More specifically, Sut Jhally argues that “advertising thus does not work by creating values and attitudes out of nothing but by drawing upon and rechanneling concerns that target audiences already shares.” Stuart Hall would, of course, connect this to racism and white supremacy. He writes, “Every word and image of such programmes are impregnated with unconscious racism, because they are all predicated on the unstated and unrecognized assumption that blacks are the source of the problem.” Hall defines this as “inferential (or unconscious) racism,” which leads to “apparently naturalized representations of events and situations relating to race, whether factual or fictional, which have racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions.” Audiences typically only respond viscerally to “overt racism,” which Hall defines as “occasions when open and favorable courage is given to arguments, positions and spokespersons who are in the business of elaborating a racist policy.”

Scholars writing within the tradition of feminist theory have advanced these arguments by taking an intersectional approach that considers race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality, and other social markers when examining mediated constructions. In “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” bell hooks explains that in “mass culture, imperialist nostalgia takes the form of re-enacting and re-ritualizing in different ways the imperialist, colonizing journey as narrative fantasy of power and desire, of seduction by the Other.” Further, she explains that white males “claim the body of the colored Other instrumentally, as unexplored terrain, a symbolic frontier that will be fertile ground for their reconstruction of the [white, Western, heteropatriarchal] masculine norm, for asserting themselves as transgressive, desiring subjects. They call upon the Other to be both witness and participant in this transformation.” Marian Sciachitano explains that these “heteropatriarchal and imperialist politics of domination that desires and demands the construction of ‘fantasy islands,’ ‘new planets,’ and ‘playgrounds’ where Black and ‘Third World’ women are positioned as interchangeable, exotic, sexual commodity-objects.” It is this practice of commodifying the “Other’s” interchangeable, essentialized difference that, as hooks claims “promotes paradigms of consumption wherein whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization.” I also want to point out here that throughout this talk, I won’t describe these constructions as “stereotypes,” which refers to “too-simple and therefore distorted images of a group, generalizations, usually exaggerated or oversimplified and often offensive, that are used to describe or distinguish a group.” Instead, I will use Patricia Hill Collins’ “controlling images” theory, which I think more effectively conveys the implications of stereotypes for subjugated people and communities.

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Click here to view the PowerPoint presentation.
Click here to listen to the audio recording of the discussion.

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Riots Reframed and Absent from the Academy: An Homage to Stuart Hall

By Melissa L. Barnes

Stuart Hall Event

Kaimara and I

Sunday night, Heidi, Kaimara, Celine, and I decided to attend an homage to Stuart Hall at Balhaus Naunynstraße. The event was not on the syllabus, so the FemGeniuses were not required to attend. We did not even learn about the event until a few days ago, after we met with Cassandra Ellerbe-Dück. I asked Cassandra about the presence or absence of discourse regarding mental health within Afro-German communities. According to Cassandra, unfortunately, there really is not a lot of literature or academic discourse regarding Black people’s mental health. As I was looking through a program for the 2011 Black Women’s European Conference Cassandra was telling us about, I found a biography of a woman named Grada Kilomba. Grada Kilomba is a professor, writer, and clinical psychologist who studies and writes about trauma, post-colonialism, and racism. She lives in Berlin and, luckily for us, she was a panelist at the homage to Stuart Hall.

Grada Kilomba

Grada Kilomba

At the event, we watched two documentaries followed by a quick discussion with the directors of the documentaries and Grada Kilomba. The first documentary, Riots Reframed, directed by Fahim Alam, examined the 2011 London riots. Instead of depicting the riots as an event of mindless criminality, Alam portrays an alternative narrative claiming that those who riot do so with common ideas about the oppressions they are fighting. Rioters are not mindless; all humans have a brain and, when asked, rioters have clear reasons as to why they are uprising. Regarding the London riots, participants stated that the riot was anti-police criminality with the shooting and killing of Mark Duggan being one of the triggers. Not only were people extremely angry about the murder of Mark Duggan but this brutality also brought to the forefront the negative experiences they often had with the police.

The second documentary, Absent from the Academy, was directed by Nathan E. Richards. This documentary was about a lack of Black professors in British universities, possible solutions to this issue, and comparisons to the United States’ higher education system. Professors and scholars interviewed in the movie theorized that the higher education system in the United States is more willing to hire Black professors than in Britain. Even those interviewed from the United States have said this. I find this extremely disturbing, because Black professors and even Black staff are tremendously underrepresented in the United States, unless you are at a historically Black college (HBCU). Throughout this class, I have constantly been surprised at the perception that the United States’ culture is more flexible and welcoming to Black people than Germany and Britain. For example, at Colorado College there is a lack of Black professors; yet, the presence of even a small number of Black people is an achievement within certain European countries.

Panel

L to R: Fahim Alam (Riots Reframed), discussion moderator, Grada Kilomba, and Nathan E. Richards (Absent from the Academy)

While I enjoyed both documentaries, I have had time to think more critically about the two since the event. I am a bit disappointed regarding the lack of intersectional analysis within each documentary. More specifically, I was a bit disappointed by the absence of Black women’s perspectives during both films, especially in Absent from the Academy. However, even in Riots Reframed, Alam clearly focused predominantly on men’s perspectives. Audre Lorde, as well as many other Black feminists, explicitly fought for Black women’s rights to voice their unique experiences due to their race, gender, sexuality, age, class, and other important aspects of their identity. I think a more nuanced analysis of riots and academia will be even more salient if women are accepted as different, but not other, in these spaces.

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MelissaThis fall, Melissa will be starting her final year as a student at Colorado College, double-majoring in Feminist & Gender Studies and Psychology. This fall, she is planning to apply to Ph.D. programs in Clinical Psychology.

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Our First Weekend in Berlin

In planning this course, I decided to include mandatory activities in the mornings and afternoons on weekdays so that the students and I could have our weekends “free” to explore the city. I did tell the FemGeniuses about most of the things I had planned in case they wanted to join me for some things. So, on Saturday, I planned to visit the Berlin Dungeon. The problem is that I didn’t pay attention to the fine print on the tickets, so I didn’t know that we shouldn’t wait in line for the English tour. So, we ended up missing it and had to come back on Sunday. That meant that I spent most of Saturday hanging with Celine.

Celine Pergamon Museum

Celine at the Pergamon Museum

First, we visited the Pergamon Museum. Even though Celine grew up in Berlin, she’s been enjoying some of our official tourist activities, because we both are learning a bit more about the “official” narrative of Berlin. This is importance, since we both are also invested in studying and teaching narratives that are often silenced in these spaces. Along these lines, we thought we may have invented the discipline Critical Tourism Studies, but I see now—after a quick Google search—that this already exists. Haha. The Pergamon Museum was full of lots of fascinating things that were “excavated” by Germans from various places and during various times. At one point, the woman in my headphones said something like, “This room is full of items from various times and various places in order to give you an idea of what a mansion might look like.” I thought that quite odd, but also quite telling about the ways in which Africa—the entire continent, of course—is still often constructed as a place outside of time or specificity. I didn’t take copious notes, but see pictures here!

OTA Kitchen

Stefani, Melissa, and Beril in their New Kitchen

On Sunday, the FemGeniuses moved from their two separate apartments into one. This is the apartment I planned for them live in for the entire course, but I booked them too late and had to separate them for the first week. I think they’re all glad to be together, and of course, the apartments are just as beautiful as they are when Tony and I visited them in November.

OTA Bedroom

Melissa and Kadesha in their New Bedroom

While the Zehdenicker Straße are a bit further from the classroom, they’re also a bit closer to me, and while the Greifswalder Straße students are a bit further from me, they’re also a bit closer to the classroom. So, this is really the ideal location.

Brunch

The FemGeniuses at Café Hilde for Brunch

We also had a group brunch at Café Hilde, which was really nice.

Berlin Dungeon

Heidi, Casey, Kadesha, and Kaimara after the Berlin Dungeon Tour

Later, Casey, Kadesha, Stefani, Blaise, Melissa, Kaimara, and I went back to the Berlin Dungeon, which is “a 60 minute journey into 700 years of Berlin’s horrible history.” Yes, 700 years in one hour. I got the sense from visiting the website that this was a semi-scary, amusement-park type place, but it was scarier than I thought. People jumped out at us in scary costumes. We were “trapped” in a maze of mirrors. A butcher locked us in a dark room where fake knives poked us in our chairs. Yes, it was something else. At one point, we entered a mock courtroom in which Stefani was put on trial for “murdering the fashions” in Berlin. That was pretty funny, but I think Stefani felt a bit strange being put on display. I think my son will enjoy this when he comes, but I think my daughter will be having none of it. Haha. I would share pictures, but we weren’t allowed to take them inside.

RfR

Mutlu Ergün-Hamaz (Sesperado Lyrical Guerilla)

Later that evening, I met Celine’s family and we walked around Kreuzberg for a bit. We also visited the Roses for Refugees at Oranienplatz, which is organized by AfricAvenir International, AFROTAK TV CyberNomads, Berlin Postkolonial, Bühnenwatch, glokal, Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland, and Tanzania-Network. Roses for Refugees has been happening every evening at 6 pm from April 13 until June 21 in order to express solidarity with and show support for refugees. On this day, Mutlu Ergün-Hamaz (Sesperado Lyrical Guerilla) read poetry and a short story. At one point, he read, “Sometimes our brain races away from our soul.” Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about what this means for those of us committed to justice. I often find myself asking my students and myself to listen and to be compassionate—to not let our brains run away from our souls—as we think about ways in which we can try to change the world.

RfR III

Police Conducting Surveillance of Roses for Refugees

During his reading, I turned slightly to my left and noticed two police vehicles conducting surveillance of the park. I asked, “What are they doing here?” and Celine responded that they sit there 24/7, in shifts, watching the park, policing the refugees and their comrades. She told me that folks who sleep in the park aren’t allowed to have blankets and that the police will arrest and deport anyone who doesn’t abide by this and/or other unjust laws. This, of course, reminded me of Martin Luther King Jr.’s declaration that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” It seems, then, that police and government in Berlin, similar to what I know about the police and government in the United States, has allowed their brains to run away from their souls.

Rfr II

Roses for Refugees

One of my new comrades in Berlin, Sharon Dodua Otoo, is an instrumental force for Roses for Refugees, and when I posted a short video of Mutlu reading his work in the park, she asked if the FemGeniuses would be interested in reading poetry on Wednesday night. In honor of the late Maya Angelou’s life, we’ll read from her work. In doing so, I hope that we remember more wise words from Mutlu—“Not because they’re evil but because they’re people.” It seems that part of the human condition entails denigrating, subjugating, marginalizing, victimizing, and hurting each other. Not because they’re evil but because they’re people. Not because we’re evil but because we’re people. I’ve come to the conclusion that the only other way to live is to fight, to resist. To know that we will live…fighting, resisting. To know that we will die…fighting, resisting. With a heavy heart, Celine and I—with Celine’s friend Ana—joined Melissa and Kaimara in order to attend an event honoring the life of the late Stuart Hall at the Balhaus Naunynstraße. I actually wasn’t aware of this event—Melissa found out about it after doing some research on Grada Kilomba—so I didn’t require the other FemGeniuses to attend. Also, I decided to let Melissa blog about it, so you can read more about it when I post it tomorrow or Wednesday. So for now, I’ll just end writing that I am truly honored to be here in Berlin learning so much and having an opportunity to also share my own knowledge. It really is helpful to know that we are not alone in the struggle.

More to come!

Heidi