Quick Hit: Can a lawsuit bring some racial diversity to The Bachelor and The Bachelorette?

Jennifer Pozner has an interesting piece up at the Daily Beast on the class-action racial discrimination suit against The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.

That calculus has governed casting on The Bachelor since its 2002 debut on ABC. Ten years, one spinoff (The Bachelorette), and 24 seasons later, every star of TV’s oldest reality romance franchise has been white. So were 22 of the 25 hopefuls on The Bachelorette’s Season 8 premiere last week. With that history, it came as no surprise that we heard almost no dialogue from the lone black contestant, Lerone, or that Southern blonde Emily Maynard sent him packing at the end of the episode. (On Twitter, one viewer suggested a #MenOfColorCountdown to see how long the Brazilian grain merchant and Colombian mushroom farmer will last.)

Now, a racial discrimination lawsuit aims to prove that this casting math isn’t only faulty—it’s illegal.

On April 18, two African-American men, Nathaniel Claybrooks and Christopher Johnson, filed a class-action suit alleging that ABC; the shows’ production companies, Warner Horizon, Next Entertainment, NZK Productions; and the shows’ creator, Mike Fleiss, “knowingly, intentionally, and as a matter of corporate policy refused to cast people of color in the role of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.” The complaint charges that this “intentional scheme” of “deliberate exclusion … underscores the significant barriers that people of color continue to face in the media and the broader marketplace.”

The case rests on the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and claims that producers cannot deny non-white contestants contracts based on “perceived racial biases of members of their television audience or their advertisers.” Of course, as Pozner notes, producers’ fears of audience and advertiser resistance to interracial relationships are probably overblown. While one exec insists it would “destroy the franchise,” these days 83 percent of Americans approve of interracial dating, and Americans of all races seems to have a weakness for truly shitty reality TV–especially if they can relate to it. As TV critic Eric Deggans said, “People of color should have the right to suck, too!”

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/mighty-ponygirl/ Mighty Ponygirl

    Talk about a lose-lose situation.

    Understanding that this is third-hand and might have been embellished, and hey, now you’re “reading it on the internet!”*, a friend once recounted to me how a friend of hers had been a contestant on The Bachelor. From the sounds of it she hadn’t auditioned, she was spotted at an audition while there to support a friend and enticed on by the show’s producers. She had a career and was doing very well for herself and was generally happy and thought that appearing on the show sounded like fun and was talked into it. Once she got in the mansion, however, she realized very quickly that she wanted out–evidently the place was disgusting, it was infested with rats, there was very little food given to the contestants but plenty of tequila and other hard liquor was on tap to make sure there would be plenty of film-able drunken moments, and generally the living conditions were just not acceptable. But due to the contract she signed, she couldn’t leave unless she was “voted off” (I imagine there was going to be some sort of heavy financial penalty otherwise that’s just wrongful imprisonment). When that finally happened, they had to do the “post-kickoff interview” and the producers really wanted her to cry and make it seem like she was all broken-hearted that the douchebag bachelor didn’t pick her. But she wasn’t crying, she was elated. So they kept her in the interview into the wee hours of the morning, until she was very tired, then, using the pre-show interview information from her (and how she basically was very driven because she wanted to do right by her parents), started asking her how her parents would feel about her being rejected, and failing at this game, and how it felt to know that she was going to be such a disappointment to them on this. So yeah, she started crying, and they were able to edit that into making it look like she was upset because she loved the Bachelor so much and not being picked by him broke her heart.

    So yeah–it’s really shitty that they are using the show to prop up unacceptable racist narratives about relationships and desirability. This is an important issue about visibility. But I have a hard time getting exercised that POC are missing out on all of that physical and emotional abuse.

    * Due to the confidentiality/non-disclosure agreement that was signed by the contestant, she couldn’t really “go public” with any of this and so third-hand is the best we can do I’m afraid…

    • http://feministing.com/members/smiles/ Smiley

      I agree. I was a little nonplussed when I read about this; I don’t follow those trash-TV things (they sound pretty awful), but I found it difficult to beleive that anyone would sue on the grounds stated.

      Wouldn’t it be more honest to simply say ‘I want my 15 minutes of fame’? And not resort to some high principle that wasn’t drawn up for this kind of situation.

      Talk about debasement!

      On the other hand… could a White sue the NBA on the grounds that his group is underrepresented?

      • http://feministing.com/members/mighty-ponygirl/ Mighty Ponygirl

        Could a White sue the NBA on the grounds that his group is underrepresented?

        Sports teams are more of a pure meritocracy than reality television shows. Whites may be underrepresented, but that’s not because the NBA has a preference for hiring black people, it’s because black people have consistently performed better, and there are the scores to prove it. And considering how totally ape-shit the media goes whenever a non-black player excels (ZOMG LINSANITY!) I have a hard time believing that the NBA is shoving aside non-black players who could broaden their market share in favor of having monochromatic teams.

        Reality TV shows, however, do not have the raw performance numbers that the NBA has. They have to rely on ratings (which only tell you if a show is underperforming, not why), and focus groups (which are very dodgy and not at all an accurate data). Furthermore, if they really did have good data that black contestants scored poorly with audiences (which might not have anything to do with the color of their skin, boring people exist in all colors I’m afraid), the argument could be made that shows like The Bachelor create a closed-circuit of prejudice — that by not challenging the audience to accept a person of color as a legitimate candidate, they reinforce the very narrative that they can then turn around and claim that the black contestants “just don’t poll well.”

        • honeybee

          That’s not totally true though. They do have stats and surveys about what shows do well, who watches the show, and which contestants are the most well liked not to mention they do focus groups to help them decide who to include.

          So they likely can present evidence (even if some is shady) to show that including more POC would hurt the show financially, ratings-wise, etc. This is why I think the lawsuit is doomed.

          I also think it’s wrong anyways. Once you set this precedent where do you stop? And how do you argue that a private enterprise isn’t allowed to make a specific type of show. Because once you put quotes on who must be involved, it’s no longer possible to make certain types of shows. E.g., if BET wants an all-black cast for a particular show now they aren’t allowed to do so? How does that make any sense?

        • honeybee

          To your final point though – it isn’t the network’s responsibility to fight against the “closed-circuit of prejudice”. They’re a business, in it to make money. Not in it for social justice. They shouldn’t have to subsidize social rights movements if it impacts their business.

          • http://feministing.com/members/mighty-ponygirl/ Mighty Ponygirl

            Except that in order to be on the air, the networks are licensed by the FCC. This is the same reason that Pharmacies shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate on their customers for religious reasons. It’s NOT like someone can just start up another network and broadcast their own content–our tax dollars and government regulate what’s on the television, and so there *is* some argument to be made that they need to fight discrimination.