Bachelor and Bachelorette seasons work hard to distinguish themselves from what’s come before. This Bachelor was a runner-up several times! This season, we’re making two Bachelorettes fight it out for who gets to be on the show! This Bachelor was a beloved fan favorite who turned out to be a huge jerk! This Bachelorette season includes a bonafide monster and probable serial killer! The franchise is now hoary enough that a season without a strong individual characteristic feels underwhelming, and Rachel Lindsay, the first black Bachelorette ever, is the strongest defining feature in a long while.
There have been questions swirling about how this will play out from the moment she was announced as the series’ lead. Her pool of available masculinity will come striding out of a set of limos; how many of them will be black? How many of them white, or other men of color? (Why did it take so long for the male bios to appear on the ABC website?) Will the producers strive to define her Bachelorette persona as different from that of previous Bachelorettes? If there are several more black men on the series than there have been in previous years, will the drama in the mansion take on new facets?
For better and for worse, they’re the same questions that show up over and over again in our national discourse, now writ glossily into the highly produced and previously lily-white world of The Bachelor: How do we think about, and define, and shape, and experience, and elide race? How will it get inflected inside the framework of this meticulously controlled version of reality? How much, in other words, is Rachel’s blackness going to be a part of this show, both for the series itself and in the huge and increasingly visible secondary market of stuff (tabloids, interviews, social media, podcasts) that surrounds it? In at least one interview, Rachel has indicated that she expects race to be part of the conversation this season.
And so it was with great fascination that I watched the premiere of Rachel’s Bachelorette season, where every editing choice, every structural cue, every trope and stereotype and classic Bachelor element appeared with remarkable predictability. There’s an extensive opening montage of Rachel being made up into full-on Bachelorette glamour, posing for promotional photos. This little trope — behind-the-scenes photo-shoot footage — is a perfect example of The Bachelor and Bachelorette’s favorite one-two punch: all the glitz and princess-dom of Bachelorette status, presented simultaneously with a vision of Rachel-the-real-person. “I’m so not ready for this,” says Rachel, when a producer tells her she’s about to be surrounded by screaming fans. Except by the time we’re seeing it, of course, it’s all already happened. The process and the product have merged into a single entity.
This is primo, grade-A, pure-gold Bachelorette nonsense, as standard and unsurprising as it comes. If you were wondering whether a black Bachelorette was going to usher in a new age and style for the franchise, that opening is designed to reassure you: No, it will not. Race is only skin deep, the episode tells us. Beyond that point, it’s all roses.
As Ali Barthwell notes in her recap of the episode, this certainly doesn’t mean that race has no impact on the premiere. It’s threaded through much of what goes on, especially in the way the men size each other up and how everyone tries to predict what Rachel will like. Its presence in all these important, palpable ways is what makes it even weirder that the framing and discourse of the episode itself steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that anything new is happening.
The rest of the episode follows in the same vein, with each editing choice and each new contestant appearing within carefully familiar boundaries. The contestants, who are black and white, as well as a small handful of other men of color, follow some now well-worn archetypes: There’s a jock with a heart of gold, a sexually forward frontrunner, a nerd, a pull from Rachel’s past, a braggart, a clown. Perhaps notably, the clown is white and also the most aggressively dumb clown who has appeared on the show in a long time. There’s also a backup clown, who comes bearing an unnerving miniature mannequin of himself. (He is also white; so is the mannequin.) One of the dudes gets predictably drunk, but not so much that things seem threatening or out of hand. There are some shenanigans among the contestants, but things stay relatively restrained. No one jumps in the pool. No one pukes. None of the guys overtly neg the Bachelorette. (Yes, this is a thing that’s happened in the past.)
The order of the evening seemed to be twofold: First, regularly mention that Rachel is incredibly desirable. Second, stick to Business As Usual.
That second point seemed to be such a weighty presence in everyone’s mind that it was vocalized in the episode itself. Sitting on one of the mansion’s many sofas, Josiah turns to his fellow contestants and asks, “Which one of y’all gonna be crazy? Which one of y’all’s the crazy one?” Mr. Whaboom appears right on cue, and Josiah nods: “That’s the crazy one.” It’s another moment like Rachel’s behind-the-scenes photo-shoot footage. “See?” says The Bachelorette. “Here is the formula! It’s so overt that we’re speaking it out loud, and everyone knows it. This is the norm.”
It’s not exactly fair to say that what’s happening with this premiere has a Definitely Just a Normal Episode of The Bachelorette, Do Not Even Worry About All the Black People vibe. It’s a formulaic series, so who’s to say that something unusual is going on when it’s just carefully following its own formula? At the same time, it is the most obvious, least obviously marketed angle a Bachelorette season has ever had. Remember when Juan Pablo was the Bachelor, and ABC was carpeted with Juan-uary promos? Remember how much time Chris Harrison spent hyping the Two-Bachelorettes-One-Season gimmick?
But here’s Chris, walking out in front of the mansion to introduce us to Rachel, very conspicuously not saying The Thing. He describes an outpouring of fan support for Rachel, her heartbreak in the previous season, her initial skepticism of the franchise, and her remarkable change of heart. He does not say: “We got crap for years because we only cast white leads, and we finally had to change things up.” He does not say: “Please pat us on the back for doing something we should’ve done more than a decade ago.” That part is implied.
Nor is it fair to say the premiere completely ignores the issue of race. One of the contestants — Josiah, again — scopes out the competition and notes approvingly that there are way more black men than ever before. And in one of the intros in the stunt mini-premiere in last season’s After the Final Rose, one contestant tells Rachel he plans on “going black and never going back.” But for the most part, the issue remains a very visible and very under-addressed elephant in the room, something everyone sees and no one talks about directly. It’s there as we get the first signs that a room full of black men may come with a different set of life stories than your familiar nondescript white dude. We see a bare hint of it in the ending episode promo, as Rachel asks one guy if he’s ever brought home a black woman. It’s even true of the way Rachel herself is edited. “I’m just going to be myself,” she tells us. “I do think that’s going to be a little different.”
Different, how? Different, why? Clearly everyone knows, but The Bachelorette premiere would prefer no one say it directly. Much better to just go through the typical order of events, from Disney princesses, to dummies and husband-potentials, to first kisses and elimination ceremonies. If the premiere is any indication, this season of The Bachelorette will only be tackling issues of race through a pair of nearly opaque rose-tinted glasses.