A handsome, fair-haired man waits expectantly outside a palatial mansion as a horse-drawn carriage pulls up the drive. A beautiful young brunette in a floor-length gown emerges playing the violin, then pauses to introduce herself: “Hi, I’m Shamiqua.”
Suddenly a producer interrupts: “Cut! Cut! Cut!” Shamiqua, she explains, does not have “wife potential.” The problem: She’s black.
“It is not my fault that America’s racist, people,” the producer proclaims.
The scene is from the Lifetime series “UnREAL,” which follows the backstage drama at a fictional dating competition show called “Everlasting.” Last week, a similar shade of reality invaded the carefully constructed fantasy of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” the long-running ABC reality franchise that inspired “UnREAL.”
Perhaps the most surprising turn in the March 14 finale of “The Bachelor” was that that runner-up and self-proclaimed “Southern sweetheart” Joelle “JoJo” Fletcher would be the new star of “The Bachelorette,” rather than half Filipina Caila Quinn, as had been expected.
The news revived perennial criticisms of the popular but racially homogenous franchise. All 12 “Bachelorettes” have been white. And in 20 seasons of “The Bachelor,” there’s been just one lead who qualified as diverse: Juan Pablo Galavis, a blond Venezuelan whose boorish behavior and homophobic remarks (he referred to gay people as “perverts”) made him one of the most reviled stars in the show’s history.
A disproportionate number of contestants have been white, while black, Latino and Asian competitors are, predictably, eliminated in early episodes. A few seasons failed to include any nonwhite cast members. (As of 2014, minorities constituted nearly 40% of the American population.)
Like horror movies in which loose women and black characters are killed off quickly, the fate of the shows’ nonwhite cast members has become a recognizable trope, spoofed on “SNL” and the Web series “Burning Love.” It’s easy to dismiss the controversy as much ado about nothing: Why should anyone care who gets cast in a guilty-pleasure reality show when there are more urgent civil rights concerns to worry about? But the shortage of diversity at “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” exposes entrenched ideas about race, gender and sexuality, say critics.
“This is reenforcing unfortunate, deeply rooted stereotypes,” says Cyrus Mehri, a Washington, D.C., civil rights attorney who represented two African American men who unsuccessfully auditioned for “The Bachelor” and filed a discrimination lawsuit against the show’s producers in 2012. (It was ultimately dismissed.) “You’re sending the message to African American women that they’re less beautiful, and vice versa for men. I think it’s a poison.”
The latest dust-up could become an embarrassment for ABC, which has led the charge for more inclusive programming in broadcast television. Recently ousted entertainment president Paul Lee had made it the network’s mission “to reflect America,” as he put it, with acclaimed shows such as “Scandal,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” “Blackish” and “Fresh Off the Boat” featuring people of color in prominent creative and on-camera roles.
As recently as January, Lee had all but promised a diverse bachelorette was in store, further fueling the outrage.
The negative attention is only likely to increase later this year, when “UnREAL” returns for a second season featuring — you guessed it — a black bachelor, putting the critically lauded series well ahead of its real-life inspiration.
“When I was thinking about what I wanted to do in Season 2, race was always a priority for me,” said creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who has unique insight on the inner workings of “The Bachelor,” where she was a producer for nine seasons. “The great thing about fiction is that we can go anywhere. And in an era when driving your car to the grocery store while black is dangerous, and people of color are getting beaten up at presidential rallies — there are few national issues more pressing than race. This felt urgent, important and now.”
Warner Horizon Television, which produces the series, declined to comment for this article. In a 2011 interview the show’s creator, Mike Fleiss, said, “We always want to cast for ethnic diversity. It’s just that, for whatever reason, they don’t come forward.”
But more recent comments made by Fleiss on Twitter seem to undermine this claim. Fleiss tweeted March 5 that the identity of the new bachelorette would be revealed via the social media platform, adding in a subsequent tweet, “After 5 years of BBQ chicken as our Night One dinner, I’m thinking of mixing things up this year. Maybe a little Thai food … Yum!”
Some saw the tweet as an indelicate metaphor about the ethnicity of the new bachelorette, an impression strengthened by this update, which arrived two days after Fletcher was announced as the new bachelorette: “I chickened out and went with BBQ chicken. If it ain’t broke … #Bachelorette.”
Many have argued that Fleiss and his colleagues care only about ratings and worry that an interracial romance would alienate less-tolerant viewers — this despite a profusion of mixed-race couples on hits including ABC’s “Scandal” and AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” Furthermore, the success of shows such as “Empire” and “The Wiz” has shown that inclusiveness can also be good for the bottom line.
It could simply be that producers are reluctant to spoil the gauzy fantasy of a fireside couple’s massage with a probing discussion of racial difference — a circumstance rarely acknowledged in the artificially post-racial universe of the shows, argues Rachel Dubrofsky, an associate professor at the University of South Florida. “The assumption is that a woman of color can as easily date a white man as a man of color, as if race is nonexistent. This does not effectively address issues of diversity and the real, lived ways in which people are impacted by racial difference.”
“The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” are hardly unique within the reality genre, which has been plagued by allegations of racial insensitivity since the very first season of “The Real World” in 1992.
More recently, contestants on “Big Brother” were caught on tape making derogatory comments about African American and Asian American housemates. Other shows, including “The Real World” and “The Celebrity Apprentice,” have been criticized for trafficking in negative stereotypes or stoking racial tension for ratings.
The guise of reality gives producers of shows like “The Bachelor” a convenient excuse, says Dubrofsky, author of the book “The Surveillance of Women on Reality Television: Watching ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘The Bachelorette.'” “The makers of the show are easily let off the hook since they can say, ‘We are only showing you what the person actually did, which we happened to catch on camera.'”
This season on “The Bachelor,” Haitian-born Jubilee Sharpe became an early standout among the contestants, briefly buoying hopes that a black woman would have a shot at the final rose or title of “The Bachelorette.” But her initial success provoked jealous sniping from her housemates, who spoke about her in language that, to many viewers, had racial connotations. Sharpe wasn’t right for bachelor Ben Higgins because she wouldn’t be “friends with all the other soccer moms,” said one blond contestant. Sharpe was eliminated two weeks later.
Still, she lasted much longer than the average black contestant on ‘”The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.” A recent survey by Fusion found that 59% of black contestants leave the show within the first two episodes, which now run for 10 weeks, and that no black contestant had ever made it past Week 5.
Because producers typically cast a popular but rejected contestant as the next bachelor or bachelorette, this has created a “cycle [of] white contestants, white star,” notes Andy Dehnart, editor of the website Reality Blurred.
Dubrofsky’s research has also shown that there are fewer men of color on “The Bachelorette” than women of color on “The Bachelor,” a disparity that she believes reinforces negative ideas about the romantic suitability of nonwhite men and the notion that white men are “saviors.”
The truly groundbreaking thing, Dubrofsky added, would be a season featuring a nonwhite star and predominantly diverse contestants. For now, however, “the story of love on ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘The Bachelorette’ is about two white people finding love.”
Where: Hulu (first season)
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)