The Bachelor Franchise Fails In Addressing Race and Consent

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.

There Will Never Be a Better Dating Show Than I Love New York

Originally published on The Cut.

On May 22, 2017, Rachel Lindsay stepped out from a limousine and became the first black woman to receive the supplications of 25 men on network television. It’s welcome change, and one that is long overdue; but while Rachel may be the first black Bachelorette of the ABC franchise, she is not the first black Bachelorette of our hearts. That is a title that is reserved for the notorious Tiffany “New York” Pollard.

For those who are unfamiliar, Tiffany Pollard (of the Utica, New York, Pollards) made her grand entrance into the reality-show cannon in 2006 via VH1’s cult-classic dating game show, Flavor of Love, starring Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav as the bachelor. As one of several women competing for Flav’s affection, Pollard brazenly declared early on that she would be the last woman standing, earning the nickname “New York” both for her hometown as well as her distinctly “uptown” demeanor. In short form, New York’s wit and brashness quickly made her a fan favorite with viewers thanks to lines like I never was a child — soon as I popped out of my mom, I was in the know.” New York ran through two seasons of the show, then turned her ultimate rejection into a franchise of her own — I Love New York, which ran for a magical two seasons on VH1 (and is still available on Hulu).

ILNY was a dating competition with Pollard calling the shots. It’s difficult to explain the pure wondrousness of those 25 episodes for those who didn’t watch in real time: Every week a bevy of men from all walks of life competed for the adulation of a regular black girl from around the way. She made no qualms about making it clear that the men were there for her objectification, from lasciviously commenting on one’s bulge to letting another know he looked like “a pinto bean with eyes.” She could tell a man that she looked forward to treating him as a plaything in the same breath as she expressed a desire for a “real thug” straight out of Destiny’s Child’s “Soldier.” Pollard was also prone to giving them nicknames of her own such as Token, Whiteboy — my personal favorite — Rico, and Punk, who is now more commonly known as David Otunga, the fiancee of Jennifer Hudson.

Whereas the Bachelor franchise portrays a sanitized and polished ideal of romantic fantasy, I Love New York leaned heavily into the farce of courtship. The men cooked for Pollard. They scrubbed the house. They drew up business plans to market their financial value. There was even a beauty-pageant competition, replete with a swimsuit contest and talent competition! Episode after episode featured men embodying the worst of the traits that are so commonly attributed to black women on corresponding reality programs — cattiness, dramatics, and underhanded antics for the sake of camera time and Pollard’s adoration. And instead of roses, she gave chains.

But the significance of New York’s run lies beyond her show’s entertainment value. For two years, a regular-shmegular black woman was adored for being shamelessly herself without caveats or compromises. There was no political correctness or need for genteel demurs as someone proudly proclaims they would “like to go black and never go back,” as Rachel Lindsay recently had to endure (in fact, early on in the show Pollard ardently expressed her disapproval of a contestant calling her his little negrita). What made Pollard so loved was the fact that she spoke her mind. Proclamations such as, “When I make these motherfuckers cum I do it with my heart!” are the sort of unadulterated, bona fide emotion that both entertained and bonded her audience to her journey for love. The varnish that seems to be a prerequisite to be a network darling, especially a black one (Rachel is not only full of girl-next-door appeal, but a lawyer at a top Dallas law firm) was absent on ILNY, and the show was all the better for it.

As a fan of the Bachelor franchise, I am looking forward to enjoying Rachel’s current season — if the first few episodes are any indication, there will be some compelling narratives ahead for Rachel and her suitors to contend with. Rachel’s combination of poise and girl-next-door appeal makes her a perfect fit for a franchise that has long been marred by allegations of lack of diversity — and while she may not tell anyone to “take the high road all the way to hell, bitch” à la Pollard, she has made it very clear that she did not sign up for this endeavor to be embarrassed.

While I await the next episode of this season-long romance-novel, however, I will continue to tip my hat to the first black woman of the reality-show era to set her own terms in the search for love, and thank God for my monthly Hulu subscription that allows me to revisit this time-capsule moment, chains and all.