When ABC announced that they were selecting the first ever Black Bachelorette, several questions presented themselves. Some of those questions have already been answered , such as “what does that mean for the racial makeup of the contestants?” (The season ended up featuring more Black male contestants than ever before). However, one question continued to linger throughout the season like a precarious guillotine: will the Bachelor franchise make an attempt to address race in America, and if so, how? Presently, the answer is “not really, and when applicable, horribly.”
Discussions around racism in the Bachelorette have been largely constrained to the farcically portrayed machinations of the season’s clear villain in country singer Lee Garrett, with the production team choosing to inexplicably keep Rachel isolated from the inner details of the situation while simultaneously treating the racist behavior with the gravity of a comical B-plot, forcing the Black male contestants to endure a series of microagressions at a near nauseating clip. In a methodical fashion, Lee invents tensions between several other black male competitors, branding them with the label “aggressive” when challenged, all with a malicious twinkle in his eye. When forced to contend with the historical context of a white man inflammatorily referring to a black male as aggressive, Lee dismisses the conversation by invoking the insulting allegation of a “race card”, a statement which came on the heels of derisively referring to black male contestant Kenny as a “stack of bleeding muscle” in the course of an argument. All of this is relayed to Rachel by Lee in a rather disturbing contortion of narratives; Lee portrays himself as an affable possessor of Southern genteel who is unjustly left at the mercy of the Black contestants’ violent inclinations.
Consuming all of this as a black woman has been a tough pill to swallow. Racism-as-entertainment-value commodifies centuries of pain and dilutes it down to the potency of a supreme annoyance, a conceit that is highly insulting to both the viewers as well as Lindsay, who becomes an unknowing accomplice in continuing the storyline as a result of being excluded from the context of Garrett’s scheming. In a landmark season during a time period where the gravity of the lived racial experience is as relevant as ever, ABC’s choice to dismiss nuance in favor of encouraging race-based gaslighting for ratings has left a sour taste in my mouth for the past 3 weeks.
This series of events has dovetailed into the latest burgeoning scandal of the Bachelorette’s salacious sister show, Bachelor in Paradise, whose latest season was intended to feature early-exit black male contestant Demario Jackson from Rachel’s season. However, taping was abruptly stopped approximately 3 days in for investigation of a potential sexual assault that may have occurred while filming, which, as more details were leaked, were revealed to stem from an incident between Demario and former Bachelor contestant Corinne Olympios. Over the course of the investigation, it was concluded that no sufficient cause for sexual assault; however neither Jackson nor Olympios will be returning to the show while the network “plans to implement certain changes to the show’s policies and procedures to enhance and further ensure the safety of all participants.”
The looming spectre over the entire series of events is, of course the very real and pained history of black men being falsely accused, imprisoned, and even murdered for being perceived as sexually domineering towards white women. This is a narrative that America is not all that removed from, and remains a consistent fear in many black men’s lives, as Demario has since stated in his first public interview since taping was halted. That lens cannot be ignored – black men, and black people in general are so rarely given the benefit of the doubt when attesting to their innocence or humanity, that the optics alone warrant a critical examination of the circumstances.
However, with the rights of Jackson to be absolved come the rights of the victim to due diligence. The facts remain that Olympios was not the one to lodge any complaint about alleged misconduct during taping(and as of this moment, has yet to accuse Jackson of sexual assault), as it was two producers; couple that with Jackson’s own admission that Olympios was cut off from alcohol the next day and competing narratives from other contestants both on and off the record, and the circumstances warranted a proper investigation. There shouldn’t be any stigma surrounding thoroughness; however with ABC Studios and Warner Bros choosing to defer detailing any context around the circumstances, viewers of the show are instead forced to fill in the blanks to their own personal inclinations, doing a disservice to both Jackson and Olympios. For some, this means that the empirically pernicious context of black male and white women sexual interactions supersedes all; for others, it’s the reality that in modern-day justice systems and public opinion there is little to no value in falsifying accusations.
As a viewer who is not just black but also a female survivor of sexual assault, the overlapping of circumstances such as these immediately detail just how ill-prepared the Bachelor franchise was to handle complex issues of race and consent in advance of their landmark season. For a show that trades in the hazy magic of alcohol-fueled hookups, there seems to have been no clear plan in ensuring that all participants had unambiguous guidelines on what affirmative consent really means. Instead we are forced to deal with the weight of alleged sexual assault as a titillating storyline that leaves more questions than answers: if Demario felt uncomfortable immediately when Corinne made advances to the point of needing to engage in the sexual acts on camera, why did he proceed? If the unnamed sources of the crew were put off by Corinne’s inebriation in the moment, why wasn’t filming stopped immediately instead of 48 hours later? What procedures and policies are the studio ultimately reviewing if no misconduct was found? Why is the tape not being released? In a presumed effort to both protect the studios from liability as well as regroup the narrative construction in light of recent events, frank discussions about the topics of race, alcohol, and consent are lacking, ultimately doing a disservice to both Olympios and Jackson, who have their public lives excoriated without much to show for it.
I can’t say in good conscience that I plan on watching the upcoming season of BIP. Barring sincere engagement on the multiple layers of my identity – black, woman, sexual assault survivor – I’m not interested in participating in the ratings spectacle of scandal without substantively deconstructing the root of why these threads are so readily available to pull. Both black people and assault survivors deserve more than that. Peddling pain as entertainment fodder leaves everyone worse off, and if the show plans to substantively move forwards with a seemingly more diverse and multifaceted pool of Bachelors, Bachelorettes, and contestants, it would be well-served to treat critical issues as more than tools to prop up story narratives.