Reality TV. Whose Reality Actually?
I’ll admit, last summer I spent way too much time watching Netflix. Granted, I was at home in a small town in Illinois with not a lot to do. Yet, I now recognize that spending hours upon hours trying to find a comfortable position while binge watching How to Get Away With Murder, Grey’s Anatomy, or Scandal, isn’t the healthiest use of my time. Truly, I do.
This summer I spent a considerably less amount of time glued to my computer screen and actually experienced the outdoors. It was beautiful. Would recommend. And it had way more to do with the fact that I recognized my problem than with the limits of South African Netflix. I promise.
It’s true; I had way more real-world experiences and found ways to occupy my time that were not Netflix.com.
However, I did find the time to watch this season of The Bachelorette.
I know what you’re thinking, all of the Shonda storylines combined don’t add up to the ridiculousness that is The Bachelorette. You’re probably thinking that all of the episodes of Friends, 7th Heaven, and Full House don’t add up to the whiteness that is The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. You’re probably thinking that my summer would have been better spent reading a quality novel.
You’re probably right, and I’ve definitely thought all of those things at one point or another. But since my biggest criticism of The Bachelor/Bachelorette has always been that it highlights the beauty of white love, and white love only, it felt wrong not to watch the first ever season with a Black person, a Black woman, looking to find love.
Last summer, as I’ve admitted, I watched a lot of TV, but at the end I came away with the realization that U.S, TV shows are almost entirely and unjustly white (see: Living in (Color) Whiteness). For an industry that is supposed to reflect reality (at least somewhat) just as much as it is supposed to entertain, TV does an incredibly poor job of reflecting anyone besides straight, upper-middle class white people.
It hasn’t always been a problem for me; it hasn’t always been something I’ve noticed, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve begun to understand what it means to see yourself represented on TV. I’ve begun to recognize the validity that someone with your skin color or gender or sexual orientation or religion or ability status can give your identity when you see them on your TV screen. I’ve begun to see that TV, whether we like it or not, is much more than a way to occupy our free time.
TV is where we get our understanding of justice, of right and wrong, from a very young age. It is where we acquire our images of love and acceptance. TV is where we see ourselves and our futures and our potential. Yet, when TV depicts justice and heroism as male, or love as white, or acceptance as only accepting the socially ‘normal’, TV manages to affirm so much that is fictitious in our society.
Yet, when I watch shows like Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, Jane The Virgin, Grey’s Anatomy, Game of Thrones, or Empire that have incredibly strong female leads, many of whom are actually women of color, I am repeatedly reminded of how powerful, intelligent, and beautiful women are. When I see women, particularly women of color, on TV, I am reminded that I, too, can be that powerful, intelligent, and beautiful.
But by not depicting women as leading protagonists, by not showing love of or between people of color, and by not giving airtime to LGBTQIA+ characters, the TV industry continues to perpetrate the idea that straight, white men are the only people worthy of our time and attention.
So I decided to watch this season of The Bachelorette.
I decided to watch it because this season, the show was finally making an effort to support the sentiment that people of color deserve love too. Whether it acknowledges it or not, The Bachelorette is finally showing that Black women are beautiful, smart, and worthy of love. This season, The Bachelorette moved away from the tradition of depicting white love on reality TV and made their way into a reality that seemed just a little more accurate. The Bachelorette finally showed the reality that people of color are looking for love too.
I had to see if they would do these sentiments justice.
It’s difficult for me to give so much power to a reality television show where people are meant to fall in love after two months, but when millions of people tune in every week to believe this fairy tale, its power must be acknowledged.
So I watched, week after week, as Black men stuck around longer than probably any other season of The Bachelor/Bachelorette. I watched as the men on the show pushed back against the stereotype of labeling Black men as aggressive and denied any use or existence of a “Race Card.” I watched as Rachel, the bachelorette, asked men if they had ever dated a Black woman before, a hint at the racism often present in potential interracial relationships. She asked them how their families would react to them bringing a Black woman home, an acknowledgement that there is still a need for people of color to be wary of the prejudice in our society. I watched, as race was a topic of conversation on The Bachelor/Bachelorette for the first time ever.
I watched, so now I must ask the question: was it all worth it?
Truthfully, I don’t know. I don’t know mainly because there are so many more questions that need asking. Is this just ABC’s one and done? Back to the white bachelors and bachelorettes? Was this just a way to placate the critics? Can’t criticize ABC if they answered your criticisms. Maybe worst of all, was this just a way to sensationalize racism (see: The Bachelorette and the Empty Redemptions of Reality TV) with primetime entertainment?
I think these questions deserve answers, because the answers to these questions will dictate what viewers take away from this season of The Bachelorette. If this really is just a one and done season, then ABC has just pulled off the ultimate tokenization. If they were just aiming to placate the critics and immediately go back to what they have been doing for years, then annual viewers will only get a glimpse of the importance of multiracial love, a glimpse that lasts only until the next bachelor is announced. If this season really was just a way to make race and racism entertaining, then I’m not really sure what to do with that.
I realize that only time will reveal these answers. Only time will shed light on the motives of ABC to cast the first Black bachelorette.
So, in the meantime, I’m not jumping to conclusions. I don’t think that all of the annual viewers of The Bachelor/Bachelorette are now prepared, or willing, to have conversations about race. I am not so hopeful as to believe that a TV show can do what millions of people have been trying to do for decades.
But I do believe in the chances that this show has given its viewers, chances that all shows should be giving their viewers. The chance to see that a Black woman deserves to find love. The chance to see that a Black woman is smart, beautiful, and worth rooting for. The chance to see what TV shows so often choose not to depict: the reality that love and happiness can, and should, reflect people of all colors*.
So maybe it isn’t really about the show’s motives at all, because, when it comes down to it, it’s all about the viewers’ reaction to the show. In the end, all we can really ask of the TV industry is to give people the chance to challenge their own preconceptions. In this case, their ideas, and images, of love.
And regardless of how expertly or genuinely The Bachelorette gave its viewers this chance, they, unlike too many shows, actually did.
*It should also be acknowledged that this show only depicts heterosexual love when, if this show fully depicted reality, love between people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations would, and should, be shown.