Regardless of quality, reality television is alive and well — just this year, Netflix released several new reality shows that gained significant audience and media attention. They’ve recently tapped into a gold mine that traditional networks have had a stake in for over decades; though looked down upon by most audiences, reality television is a genre that is significantly popular and financially lucrative. “The Bachelor,” for example, has endured for more than a decade, with over 20 seasons and continues to average six million views per episode.
Like most reality television, “The Bachelor” and its sister shows, “The Bachelorette” and “Bachelors in Paradise,” is not without its problems — the most prominent being their continued lack of racial representation. As the newest season of “The Bachelor” wraps and the next season of “The Bachelorette” gears up, it has become apparent that the show will continue to be overwhelmingly white. Despite the reputation that follows reality television, it should face the same demands for representation that other media forms do.
ABC was sued for racial discrimination in 2012, and although the case was eventually dismissed, the network seemed to take the lawsuit in mind during casting for the following year. There was a sharp increase in the number of minorities the show featured from then onwards. However, this increase in minority contestants seemed to highlight other issues with the show: the few minority contestants on “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” are booted off the show relatively quickly and very rarely do they win. A third of the contestants of the current season of “The Bachelor,” for example, were women of color, but the final four were all white women. Even this season’s pick for the bachelor was contentious among fans; many criticized ABC’s decision to cast Peter Weber over Mike Johnson, a fan favorite.
Johnson’s time on “The Bachelorette” and “Bachelors in Paradise” won over so many fans that a petition on change.org with over 3,700 signatures at the time of publication urges ABC to cast Johnson as the next bachelor. If chosen, Johnson would be the first black bachelor and the second black lead in the series’ history. The network’s decision to cast Weber highlights their shameful history with racial representation. Not only are minorities not being cast as contestants, it’s become apparent that there is little chance that they’d be cast in a lead role or progress through the show successfully.
During the 2012 lawsuit, the show’s creator defended their casting choices by claiming that people of color “don’t come forward” despite his personal desire to cast more diversely. People in the entertainment industry denounced the statement at the time for being “straight up racism,” and it should continue to be denounced: there is an obvious lack of incentive to cast more diverse contestants on the show. “The Bachelor” and its sister shows consistently receive millions of viewers per episode, and this season in particular saw a 25% increase in viewership and a 37% jump in ratings for the target audience, 18 to 49-year-olds. Despite the Johnson debacle, fans are still tuning in to watch.
While there are no specific numbers available for audience demographics, ABC seems to be catering to one specific audience, and that audience does not include minorities. Besides the majority white cast, the contestants undergo drama and sexual scenes that appeal to the American viewer, but may scare away more conservative cultures from watching and participating.
Reality television is already looked down upon in mainstream American culture for being trashy; likewise, conservative ethnic communities may frown upon their members joining such a frivolous show. Nevertheless, it would be ridiculous to assume that a significant amount of people of color have not attempted to join the cast, as the show’s creator said. While there may be more social repercussions and scrutiny for people of color on the show, the allure of television and possibility of a career in social media or entertainment is likely to entice many people regardless of race.
While an appearance on “The Bachelor” may not be an incredible achievement, it presents a significant opportunity for people of color to see themselves on the silver screen. In 2015, the average U.S. resident consumed over 1.7 trillion hours of traditional and digital media, which displays how media is present in huge portions of our everyday life. Furthermore, studies have found that the portrayal of diverse characters in the media has a proven impact on the psyche of diverse individuals. Casting people of color in roles like these would be an important step in turning away from the usual stereotypical roles relegated to them in film and television.
Additionally, an appearance on a traditional show with millions of viewers is a remarkable opportunity for any person of color who is attempting to break into the entertainment industry. For example, Malaysian born A-List actor Henry Golding now has multiple blockbusters under his belt but began his acting career on several different variety shows. “The Bachelor” provides every contestant with a weekly chance to win over audiences and brands, which is especially valuable for individuals who may have a tougher time breaking into an industry where they don’t fit into the typical Hollywood mold.
Unfortunately, the Hollywood mold is what “The Bachelor” is selling. Aside from racial diversity, the show and most other reality television rarely stray away from a Eurocentric standard of beauty. By sticking to the white, blonde, thin, able-bodied form, “The Bachelor” is sending a message of what is attractive in itself. While this is problematic in its own right, it is also confinining the producers of the show to a certain standard that will inevitably get formulaic and boring.
There have been 24 seasons thus far and 24 cookie cutter bachelors; eventually, audiences will demand a change or simply stop watching the show. Victoria’s Secret faced a similar issue in 2019 as trends shifted toward body inclusivity and natural beauty over the fantasy that Victoria’s Secret sells. While their annual fashion show suffered plummeting ratings and views, Fenty, a racially and body inclusive brand thrived financially and in the public eye. Simply put, inclusivity sells.
The producers would do well to tap into these markets, or people of color will make their own space in reality television as Fenty did in lingerie. Traditional television will draw in diverse audiences if ABC is able to step away from the formula that they’ve honed for over 20 seasons. Perhaps it is making a step toward that by casting Clare Crawley as the new bachelorette because she is far outside of the age range of prior contestants, but this change is not enough. “The Bachelor” should make a concerted effort to be more representative of America’s diversity in a way that is sensitive and inclusive.