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.

San Junipero: Recognizing Inclusion in Awards and Media

By Hailey Corkery

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At the 2017 Emmy Awards, Black Mirror: San Junipero won two awards: “Outstanding Made for Television Movie” and “Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special.” In this episode of Black Mirror, two women named Kelly and Yorkie meet and fall in love in San Junipero, a technologically created space in which people who are either dead or sick spend their time­. In this digital manifestation of an afterlife, the deceased are permanent inhabitants and the ill, like Kelly and Yorkie, are “tourists” who can only spend a few hours a week in this destination. The recognition given to San Junipero from the Television Academy was applauded by many due to the TV movie’s representation of many different marginalized groups as well as its celebration of queer relationships. While this instance of minority representation in media and its Emmy win is significant, it is imperative to inquire about the ways in which the representation in this film is presented: how was this episode of the Netflix hit series inclusive and celebratory and how was it exclusive and problematic? 

Black Mirror fans’ praise is mainly focused on the relationship between Kelly and Yorkie. The two women meet in a club and after some flirtation, Kelly asks Yorkie to sleep with her. Yorkie politely declines, but a week later, she looks for Kelly in the same club. Yorkie finds her and tells her that she really does want to sleep with her, but is nervous because she has never slept with a woman before (we later find out Yorkie has never slept with anyone before and this is really where her anxiety came from). Kelly listens to Yorkie and then takes her home. The sex scene is very brief and does not show much: the couple is only seen kissing in a bed and just beginning to take off clothing. This sex scene differs from sexual encounters in other queer television shows. For example, The L Word shows graphic sex scenes, “relying heavily on heteronormative or hypersexualized images” (Kessler 603). The simple indication of the sexual encounter in San Junipero, however, takes away the common media trope sexualizing and degrading lesbians purely for heterosexual male pleasure.

The relationship is also commended for giving the couple a happy ending–out of the few queer couples represented in television and movies, many do not get the privilege of receiving this positive fate. Also, the women’s relationship, which eventually turns into a marriage, does not take on heteronormative roles. Many queer couples are thought to have a “man” and a “woman” in the relationship, but San Junipero does not give into this stereotype, or any gender roles regarding relationships. Many romances in media depict female passivity as being “at the heart of romance” (Radway 64), but neither of the protagonists take on a “feminine” (i.e. submissive) role in their relationship. This power balance between the two women resists the heteronormative roles of the dominant and the subordinate placed onto queer couples.

The couple are also representative of other marginalized groups. Yorkie is white and Kelly is black, creating a successful representation of an interracial marriage. Also, outside of San Junipero, the two women are in their eighties and are sick and disabled; Kelly is dying of cancer and Yorkie is quadriplegic. This includes older women in the narrative and discredits the myth that only young people can fall in love and be queer. This representation of age, however, is somewhat problematic. When they are in San Junipero, Kelly and Yorkie are in their twenties. The fact that these women leave their old age behind romanticizes youth and echoes the fact that “[i]n popular culture the older female body is particularly vilified” (Fairclough 298). This relation of the older female body to sadness and boredom perpetuates ageist stereotypes.

Another possible issue in Black Mirror: San Junipero is the promotion of consumerism. In their happy ending, Kelly and Yorkie live together in a big, beautiful house and in the very last scene, drive away in a fancy new car. This, in turn, promotes luxury: “Because television shows are so heavily skewed to the ‘lifestyles of the rich and upper middle class,’ they inflate the viewer’s perceptions of what others have, and by extension­–what is worth acquiring” (Schor 253). This subtle promotion of indulgence through the belongings that constitute San Junipero’s happy ending perpetuates society’s high value of consumerism.

Another question to consider when analyzing this TV movie is this: is the inclusivity of marginalized people merely included for branding and monetary reasons? It is essential to consider this because it is often problematic when media includes “empowerment via consumption in the marketplace” (Murray 285). Was the celebration and visibility of queer women in this episode purely created to increase the number of Netflix’s subscribers or to get Netflix more publicity? It could possibly be a “cause branding strategy that merges messages of corporate ‘concern and commitment for a cause’ (Cone 2000) with the participation of [the audience] for the same social goals, further concealing corporate aims” (Murray 286). However, it is extremely difficult to truly determine the main goal of the production of this work.

Due to the fact that television is ingrained in capitalism, it is challenging for a TV show or movie to be issue-free when it comes to representation and oppression. With that in mind, Black Mirror: San Junipero did a great job of being inclusive in its unique narrative while also trying to defeat stereotypes of different minority groups. Not only is the creation of this story important, but also the awards it won are also extremely noteworthy. The fact that a diverse production received multiple awards and lots of positive publicity could possibly push other screenwriters to create more stories that fairly and accurately represent people of minority groups.

 

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Knockout

Created by Colorado College students Kylan Nelson (Editor), Christopher Banks (Journalist), Samantha Crook (Journalist), and Jesica Ast (Graphic Designer) during Block 6 2013

Created by Colorado College students Kylan Nelson (Editor), Christopher Banks (Journalist), Samantha Crook (Journalist), and Jesica Ast (Graphic Designer) during Block 6 2014

“We believe the mainstream media’s traditionally negative narrative of women is not the only story to be told. We present critiques, focused primarily on television and sports, of the media’s current depiction of women and offer you alternate portrayals of women that serve to empower.”
—Kylan Nelson, Editor

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