What was that glittery, joyous feeling in your heart last night, on the eve of St. Valentine’s Day? Like someone skywriting “happily ever after!” in the clouds outside your window while Beyoncé’s twins gently play footsie inside her golden womb? It could only have been your body’s natural reaction to the news that The Bachelor, the Hunger Games for people who are here for the right reasons and think they could maybe be falling in love right now, would be one-giant-leap-for-mankinding into the 21st century by announcing to all the world that Rachel, a 31-year-old attorney, will be the series’ first black Bachelorette. They said this day would never come, they said our sights were set too high, racism is over, etc.
The Bachelor has been on the air for 21 seasons; its sister series, The Bachelorette, for 12. The franchise premiered 15 years ago. And although the first kiss in the history of the series was with a black woman — Alex, the (white) bachelor, kissed her on a group date — in all those years, there has been only one lead of color, the astonishingly unappealing Juan Pablo Galavis, a Venezuelan-American. Last year, ABC heavily hinted that half-Filipina contestant Caila Quinn would be crowned the next bride-to-be; ABC president Paul Lee said at the time that he would be “very surprised” if the next cycle’s star “isn’t diverse.” He must have been shocked, just shocked, when Jojo Fletcher, a white girl, was selected as the lead instead.
Even a 2012 class action lawsuit alleging that the series violated racial discrimination laws (which was dismissed) did little to influence the state of affairs for contests of color. As a Fusion study found, nearly 60 percent of black Bachelor and Bachelorette contestants leave the shows within the first two weeks. (A standard season runs ten or eleven weeks.)
Just before this season premiered, executive producer Mike Fleiss told Us Weekly that “the goal” was to feature a woman of color in the next season of The Bachelorette. “We’re making a concentrated effort to make that happen,” he said. “We’re gonna do everything possible to pick the right person and add a little diversity to our cast.” Ah, yes, a little diversity. Wouldn’t want too much diversity! Let’s not get carried away.
Fleiss has been teasing the “history-making, historic, could be the most-historic in the history of The Bachelor” announcement for at least a week on Twitter, and L.A. Times reporter Amy Kaufman broke the story Friday morning:
I just found out a piece of information that makes me 100% certain that @TheRachLindsay is the next "Bachelorette." It's happening.
— Amy Kaufman (@AmyKinLA) February 10, 2017
Rachel appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Monday night, after The Bachelor, making the news official, and gave an interview to People, published Tuesday morning, about her upcoming season. “Honestly, it’s not going to be that different from any other season of The Bachelorette,” she told the magazine. “I’m obviously nervous and excited to take on this opportunity but I don’t feel added pressure being the first black Bachelorette, because to me I’m just a black woman trying to find love. Yes, I’m doing [this] on this huge stage, but again my journey of love isn’t any different just because my skin color is.”
This marks a deviation from Bachelor protocol, where producers at least made an effort to keep the outcome of each episode from leaking before airtime: In the decade-and-a-half since, social media has made such secrecy all but impossible. Savvier to get a jump-start on the news cycle and give the fans something to tweet about, even if this means we all know, as Kimmel put it, “your hometown date with Nick did not go as planned.”
Rachel — supported by fans, recipient of a benevolent edit, obviously out of twice-rejected Nick’s league — is only a surprising choice in the context of the franchise’s past failure to promote people of color to the starring spot, and ABC’s top brass has basically spent the past month and a half assuring fans that this season would be different. Rachel’s synergistic Kimmel cameo is the reality TV equivalent of your parents giving up on the whole Santa charade and wrapping your Christmas presents in front of you.
The real surprise, if there is one, is the contrast between ABC’s all-white-everything casting policy for The Bachelor and its relatively inclusive scripted slate. ABC’s diversity track record with scripted television is among the best in network television: It is home to two sitcoms about families of color — Black-ish and Fresh off the Boat — plus the progressive-for-when-it-premiered stalwart Modern Family, along with the Priyanka Chopra-starring Quantico and Shonda Rhimes’ Thursday night block, which includes Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, two hours led by black female stars with ethnically-diverse supporting casts. ABC recently introduced a family sitcom about a child with special needs, Speechless, and later this year will see the premiere of another Shonda show, Still Star-Crossed, a Romeo and Juliet sequel centered on an interracial couple.
Again, we’re talking about a landscape that is still predominately white and male, but grading on a curve, ABC is faring better than CBS — would list all the CBS shows led by white men but honestly who has the time — and NBC. (Fox, which airs Empire, Star, Rosewood, 24 Legacy, and Pitch, is really the only network that gives ABC a run for its money here.)
In case you’re wondering who even watches this show: Last night’s episode of The Bachelor was watched by 7.5 million people, winning the night for the 18–49 year old demographic. Since 2012, the series has averaged over 8 million viewers an episode.