This season of “The Bachelorette” was supposed to be the most inclusive in the “Bachelor” franchise because it finally featured an African-American as the person every contestant is trying to wed. But Rachel Lindsay’s season has been notable for ugly moments involving race.
The headline of a commentary in Vice’s Broadly summarized recent complaints about the show: “The Bachelorette’ Has Confused Racism With Entertainment.” The problems stem from comments by a contestant named Lee Garrett, a white singer-songwriter from Nashville, who has accused two black rivals for Rachel’s affection of being “aggressive.”
The word “aggressive” has nasty overtones in America’s racial history, because it plays into a racist myth about sexually predatory African-American men that has fed into legal debacles from the Scottsboro case to the Central Park Five trial.
It fell to contestant Will Gaskins in Monday’s episode to explain this to Garrett. “There is a longstanding history in this country of regarding black men in America as aggressive to justify a lot of other things,” Gaskins said.
This led Garrett to accuse King of playing the “race card.”
The season got off to an inauspicious start when four of Lindsay’s suitors were announced on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in March, and one, Dean Unglert, declared: “I’m ready to go black, and I’m never going to go back.”
Last week, during a group date on a boat, Peter Kraus rapped that Lindsay is a “girl from the hood.”
But most of the season’s racial drama has centered around Garrett, who told Lindsay early on that Eric Bigger, a black contestant, was “aggressive,” and later used the same adjective when telling Lindsay about Kenny King, a professional wrestler and father to a 10-year-old daughter.
During a date, Garrett told Lindsay that King was physically violent with him, which King vehemently denied. Lindsay ultimately eliminated Garrett and gave King a rose, although King decided to exit the show to return to his daughter.
ABC had teased the episode with promos suggesting a violent confrontation between Garrett and King, but no such moment occurred, with King instead suffering a gash over his eye in an unrelated mishap during a group-date game.
“The show doesn’t work without a villain, but Lee’s racism isn’t entertaining,” Gabby Bess wrote for Broadly. “And the fact that the producers are subjecting a cast of black men to it, in the name of drama and ratings, is pretty gross.”
Treva Lindsey, associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Ohio State University, told TheWrap that the franchise has a problem with its representations of people of color.
“Although it is noteworthy that after several seasons, the franchise finally has a beautiful and brilliant black woman as the desirable Bachelorette, as well as the most ethnically and racially diverse group of suitors in the show’s history, the show continues to rely on racist stereotypes for ratings and for publicity,” Lindsey said.
Lindsey said that although this season has its charms, stemming from the appeal of this year’s Bachelorette herself, it still “relies upon stereotypes of black people to draw on viewers and to create a buzz around the show.”
Miki Turner, USC lecturer and pop culture expert, told TheWrap that reality shows resort to highlighting conflict in order to attract viewers. “They enforce these stereotypes because it creates this drama that they need as a plot point,” she said.
She says any changes need to come from the top, and sees ABC entertainment chief Channing Dungey as a source of hope.
“I would think that as the leadership starts to change at the network — even though ABC is run by a black woman — that you’ll see these things slowly dissipate,” she said.
ABC declined to comment.
Ashley Boucher contributed to this report.