As ABC's Bachelor Pad debuts tonight, I wonder: What does the Bachelor franchise say about race in America?
Generally, I tend to ignore The Bachelor and Bachelorette, because it is a heavily-manipulated so-called "reality TV" show in which pampered, model-pretty fame-seekers lie each other into a usually short-lived romance.
At least tonight's spin-off from those shows, an unscripted competition series featuring the most notable losers from both shows called Bachelor Pad, seems to dispense with even the pretense of romance to showcase the soapy backstabbing and made-for-reality TV drama.
It's because the result mirrors a problem with race that The Bachelor and its assorted spinoffs have had for many years, starting with a painful fact: There has never been a non-white person allowed to pick their true love in 14 seasons of The Bachelor and six seasons of The Bachelorette.
So it's small surprise that, in all that time, just two non-white contestants have been picked by the Bachelor or Bachelorette -- curiously, two Hispanic people from Tampa -- Martinez and 2005 Bachelor winner Mary Delgado.
As media critic Jennifer Pozner notes in a most-excellent blog post, The Bachelor franchise's pointed exclusion of non-white stars says more about producers' anticipation of advertiser's attitudes than anything. "Just a year after Byron and Mary were lauded as a Bachelor ’success story’ on a reunion episode, the United States elected our first Black president, Barack Obama, whose mother was white and whose father was Kenyan," she writes. "Eighty-three percent of Americans approved of inter-racial dating in 2009, compared with 48 percent in 1987."
It's a lesson I taught often in media literacy classes; film succeeds by staying a step ahead of society, but TV -- which depends on influencing you with commercials messages in the comfort of your living room -- stays a step behind. So ABC's not risking its still-potent franchise by casting a person of color in the power position -- no matter how backward that looks in the 21st Century.
It also gets at one of the most potent advantages the majority culture can have -- something I think often goes unappreciated when talk turns to the need for diversity in media: the power of being generic.Which means the reality romance programs featuring people of color are niche-oriented cable shows, focused on young and multicultural audiences, such as Omarosa's Ultimate Merger, now airing on the black-focused TV One. TV's other Lady O told me some time ago she hoped to create a dating show which would give minority contests the same opportunities afforded airheaded white folks on The Bachelor, but she found her showcase relegated to a tightly focused cable channel, despite being executive produced by Apprentice star Donald Trump.
A cursory look at the cast photo for ABC's Bachelor Pad suggests the franchise hasn't changed its ways -- there appears to be no people of color in the cast beyond Buenos Aires resident Juan Barberi, offering a curiously monochromatic group of 20 past Bachelor and Bachelorette competitors vying for a $250,000 grand prize.
We may be romancing across color lines more and more everywhere else -- this fall's crop of new network TV shows features at least a half dozen shows with interracial couples -- but in ABC's world, it seems there's only a limited space offered for people of color to participate.