In the first episode of the second season of UnREAL, Lifetime’s dark satire of The Bachelor, Rachel and Quinn, reality producers and reality’s puppeteers, are celebrating. They have just given their Bachelor-esque reality show, Everlasting, its first black Suitor—Darius Hill, an NFL quarterback who, like most of the show’s Suitors, agrees to take on the role because he is in need of some light image rehab. Everlasting, at this point, has gone 14 seasons without casting a star of color—and Rachel, having fought to update her show’s regressive monochromism, is now exceedingly proud of herself for having won the battle. “It was meeeeeee!” Rachel yells. “The first black Suitor, it was me! We’re gonna make hiiiiistory!”
UnREAL and the show it mocks have, for the past couple of years, been engaged in a particularly ripply kind of feedback loop: Since the satire entered the scene, The Bachelor and the other shows that circle in its gauzy orbit have offered viewers, even more than they did before, teasing plot twists and low-hanging conspiracy theories and, in general, a posture of inviting knowingness when it comes to the interplay between reality and “reality.” So it was fitting that, on Monday—when The Bachelor announced that it had cast the Texas-based lawyer Rachel Lindsay to be its next Bachelorette, the first person of color to star in the 21 seasons of The Bachelor/ette—the show neatly channeled that other Rachel. The Bachelor, at once so real and so UnREAL, was very, very proud of itself. It had, after all, made hiiiiistory.
Here’s Mike Fleiss, The Bachelor’s creator, stirring rumors about Rachel’s elevation to Bachelorettehood via a series of impishly enigmatic tweets—suggesting, in their brevity, that the powers-that-B had made a selection for the show that was so “historic” and “history-making” as to be, indeed, possibly “the most-historic in the history of #thebachelor”:
I have just received approval to make an historic announcement in the coming days regarding #TheBachelor !!!— Mike Fleiss (@fleissmeister) February 7, 2017
This history-making, historic announcement could be the most-historic in the history of #thebachelor !!!— Mike Fleiss (@fleissmeister) February 8, 2017
Was Fleiss joking with all this “most-historic thing in the #history of history” stuff? Was his commentary self-congratulatory, or self-deprecating, or something in between? It was all, as with most things that get caught up in reality TV’s particularly buoyant brand of gravity, unclear. And that, of course, only served to add to the drama of the revelation—made on Monday, as was foretold, on Jimmy Kimmel’s ABC show (and reiterated, on Tuesday morning, on ABC’s Good Morning America, under the chyrons ‘BACHELORETTE’ BOMBSHELL and ‘BACHELORETTE’ MAKES HISTORY).
The announcement was also made, in another #historic move, while Rachel remains as one of the final four women vying for Nick’s heart on the current season of The Bachelor. So the franchise, on Monday, spoiled itself.
But the franchise also, on Monday, spoiled itself. All that high-five-ing to #history may have been enigmatic, but it was also decidedly ironic, especially considering the length of time it took Fleiss and his fellow realitymongers to cast a person of color as a star of their show. There’s a statute of limitations for such self-congratulation, and it’s one The Bachelor long ago surpassed. As Deadline summed it up: “There have been 21 editions of The Bachelor since it launched in March of 2002, including the edition now on the air. There have been 12 editions of spinoff The Bachelorette. That’s more than 30 missed opportunities over about 15 years to cast an African American in a lead role….”
More than 30 missed opportunities. Fleiss’s smugness in spite of those, and ABC’s more generally, was precisely what UnREAL was satirizing, with varying degrees of success, in its “black Suitor” plot line. The Bachelor franchise is regressive in many ways, from its marriage-plot-centrism to its vaguely Darwinian premises to its cheerful sidestepping of its cast members’ jobs and lives and intellects. (The Bachelor once identified a woman contestant as a “Chicken Enthusiast” and two others as, simply, “Twin.”) The show’s track record with race, however, has been the most cringe-worthy element within a show that offers many reasons to cringe. The Bachelor, vaguely aware of its obligations to reflect the world beyond its borders, has long paid lip service to an extremely superficial notion of diversity; it has also long established that the contestants who make it to the hometown dates and the Fantasy Suites and the golden-houred, Neil Lane-assisted proposals of marriage—the contestants who, in The Bachelor’s moral universe, are Here for the Right Reasons and, thus, Deserving of Love—will be monochromatic.
During Ben’s season of The Bachelor, the show’s 20th, many fans were hoping that Jubilee Sharpe, who stood out from her fellow contestants not just because she was a war veteran, but also because she was funny and awkward and authentic within a show that doesn’t always prize those things, would become the first Bachelorette of color. It was not to be, for the reasons that all things, within Fleiss’s franchise, will or will not be: The producers decided against her. They chose, instead, JoJo Fletcher.
And now, finally, it’s Rachel. And she will be, very likely, a fantastic Bachelorette: She is gorgeous, as all the women who take that role will be, but she is also smart and driven and funny and compassionate. She has, perhaps above all, adopted an attitude toward the show’s proceedings that manages to be at once aware of The Bachelor’s varied absurdities and, also, embracing of them. Rachel is both way, way better than the show and game, nonetheless, to be part of it, which is, for a Bachelorette star, a very good combination. Plus, her dad is a federal judge, and, she has told Nick, a man who expects that her dates will refer to him as “sir”—so next season’s hometown dates, you can fairly predict, will be amazing.
So the show’s producers deserve to be proud of themselves for casting Rachel, the person, as their next Bachelorette. But for casting Rachel, the black woman? No. They took far, far too long to deserve any plaudits for that. “I’ve heard appalling things about race all the time,” Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a former producer for The Bachelor and the co-creator of UnREAL, told Variety of her behind-the-scenes experiences of the ABC show. It will take more than one casting decision to undo the effects of those appalling things. It will take more than one season for The Bachelor to legitimately claim to have Made History.
Fleiss’s framing of things did offer one good insight, though, into The Bachelor’s 15-years-in-the-making casting choice: Hollywood producers finally allowing a person of color to take on a starring role—and, then, congratulating themselves for the progress they have allowed to have been made—hews, it turns out, extremely well to history. The history not just of Hollywood, but of the world it claims to reflect. It was Rachel, unsurprisingly, who summed up her situation far better than the reality producers did on her behalf. “I’m honored to have this opportunity and to represent myself as an African-American woman,” the new Bachelorette said, after her casting was announced. She added: “Even though I’m an African-American woman, it’s no different than any other Bachelorette.”