Megan Harder of The Atlantic writes that this season’s “The Bachelorette” has created exploitative plotlines that treat racism as entertainment, making the show harder and harder to defend.
A few years ago, in response to a combination of scientific studies, legal cases, and human tragedies, commentators began to question the morality of watching American football. We’d always known the sport was an especially dangerous one to play—that, indeed, is part of its brute appeal—but now there was undeniable evidence of that brutality, rendered in statistic and awful anecdote. To watch the violence play out, it became increasingly clear, was to be in some way complicit in it—to cast a silent vote, not with one’s pocketbook but with one’s attention, in favor of all that violence continuing.
The Bachelorette, of course, depicts a sport only in the loosest sense; the show is very rarely violent in the literal sense of the term. And yet it has recently adopted the same rough outlines that football acquired a few years before: The show, always questionable, has become in its latest season more troubling than it has even been before. Recent episodes of the long-running ABC show have laid bare just how craven and exploitative its producers have become. Problems that have long been simmering in its world have come to a boil. Watching it has become harder and harder to enjoy—and, like that other blood sport, harder and harder to defend.
For many, the final straw in all this has been the previous several episodes of The Bachelorette, a collection of hours-long affairs that the show had billed for their vaguely gladiatorial qualities. “Next week,” Chris Harrison, the show’s otherwise affable host, intoned as a teaser, “the drama explodes on a shocking two-night Bachelorette. You won’t believe what happens when Lee and Kenny go head-to-head in an epic two-on-one battle. … It’s double the drama next Monday and Tuesday night on an unbelievable Bachelorette event.”
What Harrison didn’t say, but what the show has gone out of its way to exploit, was the fact that the “battle” between the two men had racial overtones. Lee, who is white, invented stories about Kenny, who is black, all of them amounting to an upshot with troubling historical precedent: Kenny, in Lee’s framing, was “aggressive.” Lee had lobbed similar accusations against Eric, another of the show’s black contestants. As The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix noted, Lee “repeats the word ‘aggressive’ as if it were a charm.”
And yet Lee, as the drama escalated, did what bullies often will do: He played the victim. He accused Kenny and others of “playing the race card.” And The Bachelorette—double the drama—took delight in exacerbating the conflict, placing the two men next to each other at Rose Ceremonies and, during this week’s double-header episode, pitting them against each other on a two-on-one date with Rachel, this season’s Bachelorette, with the stipulation that she must, over the course of that date, send one of the men home. The Bachelorette delighted in all this. It exploited the tension. It treated racism, as Broadly’s Gabby Bess put it, as entertainment.
And it may have knowingly set the conditions for all that exploitation to occur. It was revealed several weeks ago that Lee, prior to his casting on the show, had sent out a series of racist tweets—about Black Lives Matter, about the NAACP—that have since been scrubbed from his (now private) account. The show professes not to have known about those tweets; it also does, however, extensive background checks on its contestants, which would make its ignorance about them a severe oversight. And, regardless, the show’s producers would have had some idea about the kind of person they were inviting to compete to become Rachel’s husband: Lee’s self-written Twitter bio describes him as “pleasantly offensive.”
So, again, football. The Bachelor franchise, too, was problematic in the same hazy way that football was—the kind of show many have watched with caveats and shrugging embarrassment. (“Specifically, we hate that we love it,” one fan, a writer, summed it up, in her effort to explain “Why Smart Women Watch (and Love) The Bachelor”). The show’s penchant for manufactured drama, its blithe heteronormativity, its myopic focus on marriage as a solution to life’s problems, its willingness to give contestants—women, in particular—the “crazy edit” … all of that has been troubling from the outset. All of it has led to the “but” in the sheepish “but I love it” that has characterized so many viewers’ relationship with the show.
The worst of it, however, has been the show’s relationship with race. It took more than 20 seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette for the series to cast a person of color as its star—a fact that, given the moralities baked into this show about romance and community and family values, doubled as a statement on who, in the show’s estimation, deserves to be an icon of such things. The franchise has long framed love as something available only to the beautiful and the white, thus presenting, season after season, what NPR’s Linda Holmes explained as an unwitting lesson in how systematic racism gets systematized in the first place.
And yet the show’s creators took great delight in announcing its “historic” casting of a black Bachelorette, the season 21 finalist Rachel Lindsay, all while eliding the more salient fact of the matter, which was that it had taken the show a shameful 21 seasons to cast any person of color in a starring role. They suggested that Rachel’s season, with a star of color and a more diverse cast of suitors than the show has ever offered before, might mark a new chapter in the franchise. They suggested that fans’ caveat-marked appreciation of the show might not, in the future, need to be quite so qualified.
And then the season aired. There were problems from the beginning. One suitor, Dean, introduced himself to Rachel by declaring, “I’m ready to go black and I’m never going to go back.” Another, Peter, did a freestyle rap in which he referred to Rachel as “a girl from the hood.” Rachel laughed politely at it all. But then came, in recent episodes, the ginned-up drama between Kenny and Lee. Then came the racism that was played for ratings—then came something deeply unfunny played for lols.
It’s too much, at this point. It’s too much for Rachel—she had a breakdown during last week’s episode, discussing the pressures of being the first woman of color to star on the show—and it’s too much for viewers. The caveats are too heavy. The defenses are too weak. During this week’s two-night special, the double-header that Chris Harrison teased as if it were a sporting event, both Kenny and Lee ended up eliminated—Lee for his untrustworthiness, Kenny for the fact that his relationship with Rachel hadn’t “progressed” as speedily as those of his competitors. Tuesday night’s episode concluded with the dramas that typically define the show: about romance, about “connection,” about finding The One. There was no more mention of Kenny and Lee; the racial-tension plotline had, apparently, served its purpose. It had been exploited, then forgotten. By the producers, at any rate—but not, necessarily, by viewers.