Tuned In

White Roses: The Bachelor Sued for Racial Discrimination

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Has ABC’s long-running reality-romance hit been picking dates from a little white book? That’s the charge being made by two men who filed a suit Wednesday in Nashville against ABC’s The Bachelor (and The Bachelorette) for racial discrimination in casting. The two African American men charge that the franchise—which has had only white rose-givers at its center, unless one had a racial background that was unapparent and unpublicized—gave them short shrift in their applications because they were black.

The particulars of the case will have to be hashed out in court: it’s hard to even guess at this point how the men’s treatment differed from the (presumably numerous) other rejectees, nor am I an expert on employment law. (The law may not mandate diversity in pop culture, but it does prohibit plain old discrimination in hiring for a job, which, make no mistake, is what being Bachelor or Bachelorette is.)

But if nothing else, the suit is bringing attention to a plain fact: The Bachelor franchise has been too white for too long. And that’s no good, not just for applicants, but for the audience and the show.

The automatic suspicion about why the show’s stars have been 100% white, in a country that is far from that, is that ABC fears that viewers would be turned off at seeing a dating show about mostly-interracial dating. A couple of black, Asian or Latina women with a white Bachelor, sure; a black or brown Bachelor choosing among mostly white women—too dangerous, maybe stirring up old old feelings about miscegenation and men of color as sexual threats.

But is that really a concern? Would it even be a problem? No one’s going to claim that racism is dead, among TV viewers or anywhere else, but it’s not like the broad American public has anything against hunks and babes of all colors. And where interracial couples were a hot-button issue on ’70s sitcoms like The Jeffersons, today they’re presented matter-of-fact on shows like ABC’s Happy Endings.

Oddly enough, the suit follows some recent buzz that ABC might be considering picking its first non-white Bachelor, and the negative publicity might make that more likely. Beyond simple fairness and the law, casting the shows more broadly could, if nothing else, at least make them interesting. Partly because The Bachelor/ette has fallen into a rut of casting also-rans from previous seasons of the series, there’s an oh-you-again familiarity to the show these days. Casting a Bachelor of color might not fix that; I’m sure ABC could find good-looking men of color just as boring as any handsome white stiff.

But at least it could give the show a shot at reinvigorating itself. Casting stars who look different might—might—mean giving it stars with different outlooks and backstories. If the idea of a darker Bachelor did end up striking a chord and provoking discussion—well, since when has being provocative been bad for reality shows’ ratings?

Ironically, for all their flaws, one good thing about reality shows over the past decade or so is that they’ve often (outside dating shows) been shown more diversity, not just of race but of culture, than scripted TV shows. It’s on reality TV that you find entire shows built around, say religious-conservative homeschoolers or Persian Americans in Los Angeles. The Survivor season that dived contestants into four tribes by racial background was criticized, but it ended up being one of the better—and in a relative sense, weirdly thoughtful—seasons the show has done.*

And if none of that happens, if it proves that a season of sunset walks and product promotions with a non-white Bachelor is just as formulaic as one with a white guy—well, we’ll still have learned something. Either that love is blind, or that love-TV, regardless of color, is predictably bland.

*(Its winner, Yul Kwon, is by the way hosting the cool new documentary miniseries America Revealed on PBS now. A bit of a non-sequitur here, but I recommend it.)