How do you make a joke both political and funny?
This season of ABC’s “The Bachelorette” is a break from the norm.
For the first time, the star of the show — attorney Rachel Lindsay — is an African-American woman. While the dating competition’s all-too-familiar format filled with cringe-worthy pick-up lines and awkwardly staged physical encounters didn’t change, the conversations it sparked surrounding love, relationships, race and entertainment did.
Can one of the longest-running reality TV shows teach us new lessons about how to break with long-held stereotypes in our society?
- Amy Kaufman Film writer, Los Angeles Times; author, Bachelor Nation: The Definitive History of America's Favorite Guilty Pleasure
- Allison P. Davis Senior writer, The Cut
- Jennifer Pozner Executive Director, Women in Media & News; author, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV
- Eric Deggans TV critic, NPR
Reflections On The Season And An Interview With Eric Bigger
It turns out, you can bring books with you when you’re a contestant on The Bachelor and its sister-shows. This was one of the questions 1A producer Jonquilyn Hill had when she spoke with Eric Bigger, who recently wrapped up this season of ABC’s “The Bachelorette.”
During filming, contestants are hermetically sealed in the California mansion where the show is shot. They’re cut off from the rest of the world. No television, no outside contact and no cell phones.
To pass the time between tapings, Bigger read Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance. The book — which explores the social and psychological sides of dating in the 21st century — is either a perfect choice or an extremely ironic one, depending on your take on love and reality television.
Feelings can be difficult enough to cultivate without living among strangers under the microscope of a TV camera crew, but Bigger says they actually come more easily under the circumstances. “The emotions are very strong,” he told me. “I think the world we live in, we have a lot of distractions and people can’t get what they want out of life because their energy is place in several different places. But on the show you focus on one thing and that’s it, so the emotions are very strong.”
This is not what I was expecting to hear from a man who had gotten dumped in front of Middle America on network television. He is the eternal optimist, and it comes off as jarring to someone with the healthy skepticism of a D.C. news producer. But even to the most jaded among us (and who is more jaded than a person who experiences Washington politics and Washington rent prices?), Bigger’s earnestness shines through. When discussing the show, he calls it “life-changing.”
“It was challenging at the same time,” he said. “But fulfilling. I got my miracle.”
Bigger talks a lot about miracles. The phrase “it’s miracle season” came to him The Bachelor’s “After the Final Rose” special when he met Rachel Lindsay, the Dallas lawyer who was the lead on “The Bachelorette” this season. The meeting was broadcast live television, and Bigger had prayed backstage beforehand.
The meeting wasn’t just a first for him. Rachel Lindsay is pretty and accomplished and also the first African American lead in the “Bachelor” franchise. This season, America saw a black woman get pursued and pined over on national television for the first time since Tiffany Pollard’s legendary performance as New York in VH1’s “I Love New York.”
Bigger was the last black suitor left this season, and he left Monday night’s finale as the second runner-up. His presence on the show sparked lively conversation on my living room couch for the better part of the summer. Over glasses of red wine and containers Chinese takeout, my friends and I laid out enough ideas to cover theses for an entire section of gender studies students. We became arm chair sociologists — each moment a new opportunity to dissect the intersection of sex and politics. We wanted to see Lindsay and her suitors as affected by the world around them as we are. For us, first date small talk starts with favorite sports teams and ends with Freddie Gray.
But rather than reflecting our realities back at us, The Bachelorette gave us something we didn’t even know we needed: a diversion.
The stories on these shows are supposed to unfold neatly, and for the most part, this season’s did: At the end of it all, Lindsay got her ring and is now engaged to Bryan Abasolo, a Miami-based chiropractor with seemingly impeccable abs and cheeks.
And although she got her fairytale ending, nothing happens in a bubble. Gender, race and class are social structures, and we live in a society, after all. Black contestants on the show faced microagressions — to the point that it was dragged on as a storyline for a sizable chunk of the season. Rachel’s final decision came down to which man would propose, because on this show, women under no circumstance pop the question themselves. And for the first time we saw contestants that came from poverty or that had less-than-stellar relationships with their own families. As much as we’d love to use television as an escape, real life eventually creeps in.
Still, Bigger says these things weren’t at the top of mind while filming. His optimism doesn’t stop when it comes to love; it applies to race relations too.
“When I think of race, I think of perspective,” Bigger said when asked about the topic. “I think there’s a lack of awareness in all cultures, so when you have a lack of awareness, certain things can be misunderstood and can be taken the wrong way.”
I think the world we live in, certain subjects are touchy and they don’t know how to have conversations about them. There are probably people that want to talk about it but don’t know how to talk about it. I think that’s the problem we have in society, is the how to.”
But is ABC where we should start those conversations? Are we asking too much of the genre, or can reality TV be the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down? Maybe it’s just entertainment. But maybe not. After all, it’s miracle season.
Watch: Rachel & Peter Disagree
Rachel and Peter have different opinions on what it means to propose on the show. (From The Bachelorette Season 13, Episode 9).
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