Entertainment

Is 'The Bachelor' Equipped to Tell a Black Love Story?

ABC's flagship reality show is back with its first Black Bachelor, but we shouldn't expect conversations on race and dating to go too deep.
Alex Zaragoza
Brooklyn, US
January 6, 2021, 5:35pm
The Bachelor Matt James with Kristin, a Contestant this Season
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The 25th season of The Bachelor premiered on Monday, and instead of another Ben or Brayden or Brasen, we got the much anticipated entrance of Matt James. The franchise's first Black Bachelor was inducted into the Bachelor Hall of Flames—which is now a lavish, COVID-compliant Pennsylvania resort.

As expected, James' race was a topic of discussion, though it was not nearly as hyped (if that's what we want to call it) as Rachel Lindsay's race was when she became the first Black Bachelorette and first Black lead in the franchise's history in 2017. Tayshia Adams, who is Black and Mexican, came in as the Bachelorette last season after Clare Crawley dropped out, having fallen hard for Dale Moss only a week into filming. Perhaps since she was the second Black Bachelorette in a series that has historically avoided mentioning politics and race, producers didn't make a big to-do about her racial background. But both women still had to face difficult discourse around race during their tenure.

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(Recall: Lindsay dealt with a contestant who had been cast despite holding deeply racist views and continuously targeted a Black contestant during her season. On the other hand, Adams and her suitor Ivan had a tearful conversation about the killing of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, and the realities of living as a Black person in America, something unseen in The Bachelor universe of the past. As Vuture's Ali Barthwell noted, "Two Black adults sat down and talked about the state of race in America during the pandemic on the same television program where men had to make orgasm noises into a hotel phone...It was one of the most interesting things I’ve seen in the Bachelor franchise in a long time.")

It's hard to call James' casting groundbreaking considering it's taken almost 18 years and a social reckoning to twist ABC's arm into his casting a Black man as their lead. Even so, his inclusion in the franchise and the conversations already being had are a necessary step towards diversifying the series. What is clear is that aside from his race, James isn't so different from Bachelors past: he's attractive, apparently a registered Republican and a devout Christian (he led the women in prayer at the top of the first cocktail party), comes off inoffensive and mild mannered, and he's a gym rat so therefore ripped. In effect, he's a safe diverse choice—the perfect Bachelor to bring into a largely Conservative, heavily Christian series.

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James found his way as this season's chief rose distribution manager after auditioning for Crawley's 2020 season of The Bachelorette and having the backing of former contestant Tyler Cameron, who is his BFF. Chris Harrison noted during the premiere that as soon as producers met James they "knew we had to make him the Bachelor," and escorted him through the express lane to the leading role before he appeared on Crawley's season.

It's also awfully convenient that this handsome and palatable Black man was chosen right as producers and the network were being called out for perpetuating racism on the series via public outcry and a Change.org petition, and as the U.S. was in full uprise against the brutalization of Black people. His casting, while good and important, reads as a response to backlash rather than a concerted step to make the series more diverse. On top of that, he clearly fits the Bachelor ideal (inoffensive and swole), so it's a win-win, right? Well...

As I fired up my TV to watch the premiere, I mentally (and spiritually) prepared for how race would be addressed, and the possibility of extremely cringey, casually racist moments that would play out, even though this season's cast appears to be one of, if not the most, diverse in the show's history. While the premiere mostly avoided any seriously questionable mess, past seasons of The Bachelor haven't inspired a ton of trust in me, and there were enough snippets of brow-raising moments in this first episode offering clues as to how this season will play out.

Despite it appearing as if whatever HR-mandated anti-racism Zoom seminar The Bachelor's producers were forced to take last year led to positive changes on-screen, it became clear that the conversations around race will likely remain polite and that audiences were being prepared for a season of deeply naïve, casually racist colorblind dating.

While Black contestants mentioned how important it is "seeing yourself on screen" (Pieper), asked James how he felt being the first (Kristin), or expressed excitement at possibly "[making] history together" (Chelsea), James was clearly uncomfortable taking on such a burden. This was evident as he discussed his biracial identity, and the heavy expectations that come with being the first Black Bachelor. "People want you to end up with a certain type of person," he said, alluding to the pressure he feels to hand the final rose to a Black woman. James shared his fear of "[pissing] off" Black and white viewers with his final decision, particularly because he, as he put it, is "both."

The subtext there was loud for many viewers, in particular Black ones. 

Many saw James' concerns about pressure as a roundabout admittance that he may have a preference for white women, with one person tweeting, "Matt struggling to find the gentlest way to tell us he WILL be choosing a white woman," accompanied by an image of Wendy Williams sipping on a drink. The jokes and memes didn't stop there. Even though others cheered him on, encouraging him to choose with his heart regardless of the pressure he's grappling with, it certainly felt as if James was prepping everyone up for yet another season of The Bachelor where Black women are set up to lose.

It's understandable that audiences would want to see a Black woman come out on top at the end considering the paucity of people of color ever chosen to lead the series and the rarity of any non-white contestants making it to the top five, let alone winning (suggesting that the producers choose white leads who don't date outside their race). The only time a Black person has won was when Crawley chose Moss, who is biracial. An expression of love between two Black people on an overwhelmingly white series would be culturally important and about damn time. 

James is, of course, entitled to choose whomever he wants. The point of the show is to find love, after all, and he can do so, just as Bachelors and Bachelorettes of the past have all done with the Laurens or Jordans that caught their heart. But a Black lead seemingly warning the audience to not get too excited about a Black love story finally showing up on their fave hate-watch show is disappointing.

James is certainly both Black and white, as he mentions continuously. But on appearance alone he is Black, and it would seem that the experience of growing up a Black man mostly raised by a white mother is still something he's figuring out. As the season continues, I'm looking forward to these discussions because I know they need to be had in this venue, but as a woman of color, I'm exhausted for James and every non-white contestant having to carry a load they may not be equipped to handle. James seems to understand that the conversations must be had, but he's also there with an express purpose. For his part, he was concerned with impressing the women, which we've never really seen with Bachelors of the past.

"With him being the first Black bachelor, which plays largely to white America, he wants to not be the reason he’s the last—and has to be 10 times more cognizant of how he is portrayed because his actions won’t be viewed and judged exclusively without race," said Mani Marcus, who hosts the podcast Mixing with Mani and discusses race on reality TV in depth on her show and Instagram page. "And then to be the reason that a whole new demographic is watching, with Black viewers tuning in, they expect him to make some kind of statement and be the first Black couple ever or just a non-white presenting winner." 

Marcus agrees that it's a lot to take on, and that she as a "Black presenting and non-white passing person I have felt that pressure to be a cut above, try to be 'impressive' to no one in particular," a sentiment she saw in James when he mentioned a desire to "impress" the contestants. Not the point, but can you imagine Arie or Pilot Pete worrying about impressing the ladies?

His concerns as a biracial man are worthy of discussion and empathy, and he brings important insights as someone with lived experience, but it feels like the producers and cast as a whole might not have the range to do that. Chris Harrison, who moderates these fireside chats, in this case next to an actual roaring fireplace, is certainly not capable of tackling these subjects with anything beyond acknowledging it’s “a big load to carry.” (Thank you, Chris.) In a teaser for an upcoming episode, a white contestant is seen telling James "love is love," reiterating the overall tone of the premiere. Sayings like that fail to address internalized racism, or how and why Black and brown love is rarely given space on screen, which is necessary context if we're really trying to have the conversation. And it feels like pandering when we all know Black people just don’t make it far in this love game. Love is love, but only for a specific type of person.

While race will inevitably continue to be a topic, and James is open to talking about it, it's clear he doesn't want it to be his whole narrative. And who can blame him? James seems to be simultaneously overthinking it and trying not to overthink it. That anxiety is real, and something people of color live with daily. As he put it, "I can only speak on things I've experienced. Being a person of color, it's important to me that someone knows what that's like and embraces it because that's part of who I am and it's going to be part of our relationship." Clearly he gets it, but that doesn't make it any easier. It's an unfair burden to be everything and make everyone happy. I'm not sure Bachelor producers, despite the recent steps taken to make the show a more diverse and honest space, will guide him—or his viewers—through.