For many, the final straw in all this has been the previous several episodes of The Bachelorette, a collection of hours-long affairs that the show had billed for their vaguely gladiatorial qualities. “Next week,” Chris Harrison, the show’s otherwise affable host, intoned as a teaser, “the drama explodes on a shocking two-night Bachelorette. You won’t believe what happens when Lee and Kenny go head-to-head in an epic two-on-one battle. … It’s double the drama next Monday and Tuesday night on an unbelievable Bachelorette event.”
What Harrison didn’t say, but what the show has gone out of its way to exploit, was the fact that the “battle” between the two men had racial overtones. Lee, who is white, invented stories about Kenny, who is black, all of them amounting to an upshot with troubling historical precedent: Kenny, in Lee’s framing, was “aggressive.” Lee had lobbed similar accusations against Eric, another of the show’s black contestants. As The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix noted, Lee “repeats the word ‘aggressive’ as if it were a charm.”
And yet Lee, as the drama escalated, did what bullies often will do: He played the victim. He accused Kenny and others of “playing the race card.” And The Bachelorette—double the drama—took delight in exacerbating the conflict, placing the two men next to each other at Rose Ceremonies and, during this week’s double-header episode, pitting them against each other on a two-on-one date with Rachel, this season’s Bachelorette, with the stipulation that she must, over the course of that date, send one of the men home. The Bachelorette delighted in all this. It exploited the tension. It treated racism, as Broadly’s Gabby Bess put it, as entertainment.
And it may have knowingly set the conditions for all that exploitation to occur. It was revealed several weeks ago that Lee, prior to his casting on the show, had sent out a series of racist tweets—about Black Lives Matter, about the NAACP—that have since been scrubbed from his (now private) account. The show professes not to have known about those tweets; it also does, however, extensive background checks on its contestants, which would make its ignorance about them a severe oversight. And, regardless, the show’s producers would have had some idea about the kind of person they were inviting to compete to become Rachel’s husband: Lee’s self-written Twitter bio describes him as “pleasantly offensive.”
So, again, football. The Bachelor franchise, too, was problematic in the same hazy way that football was—the kind of show many have watched with caveats and shrugging embarrassment. (“Specifically, we hate that we love it,” one fan, a writer, summed it up, in her effort to explain “Why Smart Women Watch (and Love) The Bachelor”). The show’s penchant for manufactured drama, its blithe heteronormativity, its myopic focus on marriage as a solution to life’s problems, its willingness to give contestants—women, in particular—the “crazy edit” … all of that has been troubling from the outset. All of it has led to the “but” in the sheepish “but I love it” that has characterized so many viewers’ relationship with the show.