As a black woman in America I can’t help but take exception to what I see as Hollywood’s cultural insensitivity. No doubt we’ve come a long way in diversifying entertainment, but it still stings when I see white actors cast in roles that traditionally belong to minorities, or black characters only being written as sidekicks or the “noble savage.” Other people share my sensitivity, and it’s why we hail the Shonda Rimeses and Viola Davises of the industry.
That being said, I’m not ignorant of the true purpose of entertainment—ratings, particularly in the realm of television. These days reality TV is big ratings, and one of the biggest ratings successes is the Bachelor franchise.
Recently there has been some talk of “diversifying” the show by bringing in more minority contestants and leads. The most recent Bachelorette, Jojo Fletcher, is half-Iranian. That’s the closest the show has come to that goal.
It’s Not About Casting
My husband and I watch the show (I through gritted teeth and dripping sarcasm, he with sincere curiosity and affection), and every season we have a giggle when the black contestants show up. You can’t cut the black person in the first couple of rounds (obviously!) so we take bets on how many rounds they’ll last. Even when they go further than we predict, we know there’s never any real danger of winning.
The consistent lack of chemistry between the white leads and their minority contestants is painfully obvious. This season of “The Bachelorette” was glaringly white when Jojo’s top three suitors all looked almost exactly the same, down to the color of their hair and their five o’clock shadows (or, more precisely, around 7 p.m.).
Lifetime’s “Unreal” follows the behind-the-scenes drama of a Bachelor-type show, and this season they explore the trials and consequences of having the first black Bachelor. This prompted ABC’s new Entertainment President Channing Dungey (the first black woman to head a major broadcast network) to respond to growing questions about whether reality TV life will imitate art: “I would very much like to see some changes there…we need to increase the pool of diverse candidates in the beginning, because part of what ends up happening as we go along is there aren’t as many candidates to ultimately end up in the role of the next ‘Bachelor’ or ‘Bachelorette.’”
Dungey is being diplomatic but not very specific. As a black woman, she knows what I know: this isn’t just a matter of casting more minorities. It’s a challenge of human nature. The entertainment industry commonly underestimates the viewing public’s capacity for change. Interracial dating isn’t that scandalous anymore. The problem isn’t the viewer—it’s the contestants.
Chemistry Is Key, and Culture Matters
Dungey is smart enough to understand that you can make all the conditions favorable, but you can’t create chemistry. There’s a reason why Bachelor/ettes never have any chemistry with their minority contestants. It’s actually not that common for people to mate outside their culture or ethnicity. According to a 2013 Pew Research poll, only 12 percent of newlyweds in that year married outside of their race. This is a record high.
American Indians had the highest rate of intermarriage. White people had the lowest, with just 7 percent of both men and women marrying outside their race. A quarter of black men married outside their race, as opposed to just 12 percent of black women.
This actually makes some sense if you are talking about a long-term commitment as opposed to casual dating. It’s one thing to date around, but for spending your life with a person it’s not inconceivable that most people would choose a mate with common experiences and cultural references. New couples must surmount a lot of personality hurdles when first settling down. It’s understandable that sharing the same cultural shorthand adds to an attraction and cuts down the difficulty of blending lives.
All of this is reflected in our biology—how we are attracted to each other. I don’t want to put words in Dungey’s mouth, but it seems she is well aware of these realities. The reason the Bachelor has never chosen a black woman as his fiancé is because they’ve all been white men, and white men, statistically speaking, are not attracted to black women as life partners, and vice versa. Obviously there are all kinds of exceptions to this rule (I am one) but statistically speaking that’s simply a truth.
It is the same for white women. Dungey understands that casting a reality show interracial love match isn’t just an uphill battle against audience reaction and Hollywood culture, it’s a battle against statistical truths.
Where Color Especially Matters
As a reluctant viewer I would be thrilled to see more minority finalists in the Bachelor franchise, especially a minority Bachelor or Bachelorette. They don’t even have to be black (I mean, can my Asian brothers and sisters get a little love?). If they could just not all be carbon-copy of the same twenty- or thirty-something, blonde bland guy, that would be fantastic.
However, I’m not ignorant. I understand bringing more color to a show like the Bachelor goes way beyond casting numbers. I would simply settle for a stronger attempt at diversity and let the pheromones fall where they may.
The reality of reality TV is that there are huge cultural hurdles that could spell reduced ratings. It’s a risk at the very least, and in the entertainment industry at the end of the day the only color that matters is green.