Charlie Toft June 17, 2009
There’s a certain sameness built into the format of the Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise, with its revolving door of characters. One important attribute, however, has never changed: All the capital-B Bachelors and Bachelorettes have been white.
Reality shows have generally been a positive force in promoting diversity on television, but The Bachelor and its female spinoff have been major exceptions. Gays and lesbians have not made an impact on the shows for obvious reasons, but racial and ethnic minorities have made almost no mark either. No African-American contestant has ever been chosen by a Bachelor or Bachelorette, or even come close, and the current season had no black contestants at all. Latinos have had slightly more success, with Cuban-American Mary Delgado ending up as the choice of Season Six Bachelor Byron Velvick. But year in and year out, The Bachelor and Bachelorette are among the whitest shows on network TV.
It’s not that the series isn’t diverse within the white community. We’ve had Bachelors with family money, Bachelors with a more working class demeanor, Bachelors with ex-wives and children, Bachelors in the NFL, Bachelors in the military. Two Bachelors and current Bachelorette Jillian Harris were born outside the United States. One has to assume, after 13 seasons of The Bachelor and five of The Bachelorette, that the failure thus far to have a nonwhite protagonist isn’t “just one of those things,” but a deliberate policy that has been pursued because the powers-that-be believe it is commercially necessary.
The viewing public has been willing to support black contenders on reality shows such as Dancing With the Stars and American Idol. And of course, the VH1 franchise spawned by Flavor of Love, which now includes I Love New York and Real Chance of Love, has been a major success by the standards of that channel, although these shows are less of copies of The Bachelor than parodies.
The Bachelor is different in that it presents itself as featuring real people, and what stakes could possibly be higher than the search for a life partner? The show has its cheeseball elements, but it takes the conventions of romance very seriously. Make fun of the rose ceremony all you want, but also realize that millions of hearts melt every week when a beaming young woman accepts the flower from her hunky suitor.
The audience for The Bachelor is made up of white women, for the most part, and while many of them are in it for the snark, a good portion of that audience wants to believe in the fairy tale (the anger at the woman-swapping ways of Jason Mesnick this past season is proof of that). They imagine themselves into the show — to see the Bachelor as a fantasy husband (it’s no coincidence that all these guys are at least arguably handsome, none are short or fat, and most aren’t hurting for money), and to identify with what the women are going through emotionally. And that’s what ABC and the producers of The Bachelor have to have wondered over the years: Would the show’s typical audience be able to make that same emotional connection if the people on the screen were all of a different race than themselves?
The Bachelor has revitalized itself quite a bit in recent seasons, but the sort of publicity bonanza it received this past winter is not something that can be easily repeated, and the producers will eventually need to find a new way to build buzz. Something truly radical would be a Bachelor where everyone was over 60, or gay, or both. Compared to that, having a nonwhite protagonist would seem both mild and an easy way to gain positive attention. I think assuming the season was well-cast (always a major concern with any reality show), the novelty would draw many people back to The Bachelor and attract a new audience besides.
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