Last night on ABC’s The Bachelorette, the second ever Black Bachelorette, Tayshia Adams, spoke with contestant Ivan Hall about their experience growing up bi-racial in predominately white communities and what the Black Lives Matter movement has meant to them. On a show that has historically struggled when dealing with race and has operated in an impenetrable bubble where things like politics, race, and socioeconomic status do not not exist, how did we get here?
On both The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, the male or female lead narrows down contestants week after week until they ultimately pick a person to propose to (or be proposed to in the case of The Bachelorette). The shows have historically been almost exclusively white and heteronormative, attracting those characteristics in a large portion of their audience as well.
In the show’s history, the entire cast has always skewed white with a few token POC contestants that rarely make it into the final few picks. One white male lead, Sean Lowe, has picked a woman of color and up until 2020, there had been one Black lead, Bachelorette Rachel Lindsey, in 2017, the shows 13th season.
But ratings have always been high and the show continues to attract audiences from across age groups, from college watch parties to generations of women religiously tuning into the show. So from a production standpoint, the “race problem” was never really a problem.
In 2012 however, the franchise faced a racial discrimination class action lawsuit, filed by previous Black male contestants on the show that stated casting practices were in violation of civil rights law. The case was ultimately dismissed on First Amendment grounds and another 5 years passed before a Black lead was cast.
Since then, season 14 “winner” of The Bachelorette, Garrett Yrigoyen, had either not been vetted enough, or vetted and his problems were ignored. After the season aired, he was found to have “liked” multiple racist and homophobic posts on Instagram. Contestant Victoria Fuller faced similar scrutiny. After the season aired, she was discovered to have participated in a marlin preservation campaign which used the slogan “White Lives Matter.” Begging the question that if fans of the show can find this information, couldn’t the producers who have access to an array of investigative sources and material?
Previously, the show existed in a bubble where the contestants would be pressured to talk with the lead about their family life and ideas of marriage, but never about their political or social views. In a polarized environment where it is not uncommon for someone to reject a partner based on their politics, today, it is almost unsettling to watch.
Moreover, where the nation is experiencing a racial reckoning, ignorance is no longer an option for producers on the show. Their show has too often perpetuated racial stereotypes and minimized BIPOC voices on screen.
Fans of the show have spoken up calling for more diversity both in front of and behind the camera. A change.org petition and full-fledged social media campaign, A Campaign For Anti-Racism in the Bachelor Franchise, has amassed over 150,000 signatures.
The show finally released a statement admitting they had a “responsibility for the lack of representation of people of color on our franchise,” and spoke to their future efforts to make changes by “taking positive steps to expand diversity in our cast, in our staff, and most importantly, in the relationships that we show on television.”
The franchise has since announced that its next Bachelor will be Matt James, who will serve as the first Black male lead in the history of the show. Also following Bachelorette Clare Crawley’s exit from the show, Tayshia Adams, the second Black Bachelorette, was cast to fill her shoes.
Whether the same efforts to promote diverse voices behind the screen in production, casting, and management roles has not been publicly shared.
But last night, reality was finally shown on screen. Ivan Hall, a Black, 28 year old aeronautical engineer from Texas opened up about his experience with the prison system, racism, and what the BLM movement has meant to him.
While Ivan portrayed himself as a by-the-books kind of guy, his brother found himself in trouble with drugs and alcohol which ultimately led to a prison sentence. His brother’s experience with the prison system included abuse by correctional enforcement officers and deprivation from physical touch with his newborn daughter, shaping Ivan’s worldview.
He spoke about once feeling like there was blame on his brother for breaking the law, but ultimately came around to feeling like the subsequent and severe punishments his brother faced were both unwarranted and unfair. He also recounted experiences of being called the N-word on his college campus and feeling marginalized in his community for being one of very few Black people.
He and Tayshia also spoke about what the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd’s death meant to them. Both spoke to finally feeling seen and worthy. Tayshia, for the first half of the conversation, couldn’t find the words to describe what this past year has meant to her. Simply saying it has been “a lot” through tears and eventually mustering up the courage to express that she had spent her life trying to prove everything this moment is saying, that she is enough.
The fact that the production team even decided to air the conversation at all is a result of the tireless efforts of the BLM activists and former POC contestants of the show who have pushed the conversation into the national political and cultural dialogue.
The Bachelor’s audience is largely white. Having Ivan and Tayshia openly discuss their experiences with racism was not only important for the franchise to reckon with its own racial issues, but it was also the perfect opportunity to capture a white audience’s attention who may not otherwise be exposed to the Black experience.
The Bachelorlette can also serve a unique vessel to hear this information, as it doesn’t deliver the message in a vacuum where this person is defined by this one experience. Viewers have come to know Tayshia for her career, her past relationships, and her ability to deal with conflict, giving the audience the opportunity to feel more trusting of her and open to believing her experience.
The franchise did not cure their race problem in one episode. But their effort to showcase new voices and experiences was a tremendous shift towards a more inclusive environment on the show. As the rest of Tayshia’s season continues, and Matt’s seasons begins, we can only hope that production continues to redefine its reputation from skirting around its diversity issues, to addressing them head on.