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Black Bachelorette, White Mask

The Patterns of Subjugation and Oppression in Reality TV

There is no more popular culture, only ways of seeing populations as nothing.

— Nina Power, Thirty-one Theses on the Problem of the Public

Like many faithful members of Bachelor Nation, I have long watched my favorite television show, The Bachelorette, with a healthy dose of irony. The sheer premise — thirty-five suitors competing for the heart of one woman over the wildly accelerated course of a televised courtship — is quite bizarre. There is a certain consolation, however, in the predictability of The Bachelorette, a suspiciously formulaic show that markets itself as “reality” television. One level of formula appears in the cast of characters: there is the mandatory weirdo (the suitor who emerges from the limo in some sort of wacky costume, or wielding a peculiar prop); the one with unfinished romantic business on the home front; the villain we love to hate; the sexy parent; the tattletale. These characters are doled out to us through an equally predictable series of dating rituals: the “date cards,” the “group dates,” the coveted “one-on-ones” and the not-so-nail-biting “rose ceremony” where we don’t need Reality Steve to tell us who will be going home that evening.

Though I have always taken the companion franchise, The Bachelor, with a grain of salt, I found myself deeply disturbed watching The Bachelorette last week as the first Bachelorette of color, Rachel Lindsay, traveled across the country to visit the homes and families of her four final suitors. There is much to say — too much to say — about the racism that has saturated this season of the show. There was the two-on-one date in which Lee, a contestant who has tweeted that the Black Lives Matter movement is a “terrorist group,” confides to Lindsay that his competition, Kenny, who is African-American, is “aggressive” and untrustworthy. There was the awkward rap battle staged on Rachel’s behalf. There were the comments about “going black and never going back;” and the references to Rachel’s “butt” (previous bachelorette Andi Dorfman’s “butt” never seemed to get any airtime.)

But what emerged with particular clarity in this most recent episode were issues that have riddled the entire season: first, the role of the bachelorette herself and the anti-black character that Lindsay has implicitly been called upon to perform. Related to this is the role of the predominantly white audience (Buzzfeed claims that eighty percent of the audience is white) that bears witness — and derives pleasure — from that performance.

As the first African-American Bachelorette, Rachel Lindsay has consistently noted “the difficulty” of her position, but has rarely elaborated on what that difficulty entails. At key moments of the show, Ms. Lindsay has justified her (understandable) silence on race and racism: she is “looking for love like every other bachelorette.”

Of course, this is true. On the “home visit” episode, however, Lindsay’s obvious discomfort in inner city Baltimore, with the final remaining contestant of color as her companion, suggested that this rationale — that she is no different from her white predecessors on the show — has amounted to a kind if discomfort with her own blackness, or what Frantz Fanon describes in Black Skin, White Masks as the condition of being “over-determined from the outside… a slave not to the ‘idea’ that others have of me, but to my appearance.” (1952, 95)

For most of the show, Lindsay has, indeed, been “just like every other bachelorette.” That is, she has been treated as someone that an anti-black culture acknowledges as desirable, as “marriage-material.” Lindsay’s visit to Baltimore disrupts the “white” persona she has been provisionally allotted within the bounds of the show; when Eric speaks of the men in his life being sent to prison, a sentiment more profound than sympathy (solidarity? recognition? grief?) momentarily flickers across her face.

Reflecting on their conversation in front of the camera moments later, Lindsay says that Eric is a “fighter” who had to “put on his big boy pants.” These comments seem censored for the sake of the show. It is as though the structural factors that forced Eric to grow up so quickly are a topic that cannot broached. Ms. Lindsay squirms when confronted with Eric’s family’s unprecedented questions about her experiences as the first bachelorette of color, and when an aunt proclaims, “let’s [talk about] R-A-C-E!”

Lindsay’s response is somewhat evasive. After acknowledging that she feels “judged” for her racial identity, she quickly reformulates her response to a broad and conciliatory reflection: “Eric and I both struggle with being selfish, but in this position I have to be if I want to get what I really want. I want love, and love doesn’t have a color.” It is a delicate moment. These gestures towards a black experience riddled with systemic racism and distributive injustice threaten to disrupt the carefully orchestrated performance of equality on the part of the Bachelor franchise more generally. Baltimore — the site of Freddy Gray’s death, and where his neighbors rioted in protest of police brutality — represents a minefield for Ms. Lindsay’s precarious wholeness, that is, the full personhood she has been allotted within the confines of the show. As Fanon observed: “I hailed the world, and the world amputated my enthusiasm. I was expected to stay in line and make myself scarce.” (94)

Is “Bachelor Nation” a nation of innocuous viewers, or is the audience implicated in this spectacle? In Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman looks at the fine line between “a witness” and a “voyeur,” as she examines at scenes of lawful terror, that is, everyday instances in which the black body is called on to perform its humanity, paradoxically serving to devalue and denigrate its very humanness. Central to Hartman’s argument are her questions regarding the role of the audience: do scenes of subjection prompt empathy? Or is empathy itself a self-reflexive emotion, one that elicits sympathy for the self rather than for the other?

To grapple with these questions about the ethics of spectatorship, Hartman focuses not on bloody displays of corporeal violence in slavery, but rather on the terror of its quotidian experience: “scenes in which terror can hardly be discerned,” where terror has been “diffuse[d]” (1997, 4). Consequently, Hartman’s study concerns itself with other spectacles of black suffering: the coerced dance in the marketplace, the simulation of will in slave law, the fashioning of identity, and “the process of individuation and normalization” (4). These forms of terror dominate the black experience into the present; they have, indeed, become parts of what Hartman elsewhere terms the “afterlife of slavery” (Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, 2008).

Central to Hartman’s book is that the terror of slavery was not derived from people being treated “as animals,” but rather from being treated “as humans.” Ostensibly, in the Bible, man “becomes flesh” and is made human. In the case of certain forms of black performance, however, this coming into human flesh, this recognition of humanity, serves to paradoxically intensify the black individual’s suffering rather than to alleviate it.

The acknowledgment of human flesh becomes, in Hartman’s words, a “pretext for punishment, dissimulation of the violence of chattel slavery and the sanction given it by the law and the state, and an instantiation of racial hierarchy” (12). This notion of “sanction[ed] terror” is precisely what Walter Benjamin describes decades earlier as “mythic violence”: law-creating violence, violence that is perpetually in the process of justifying its means under the auspices of the justness of its ends. Mythic violence is what sediments oppression, what allows the abhorrent to impose itself as the lawful.

Similarly, we find in The Bachelorette a scene of subjection in which the black body is called upon to “perform” its humanity through tropes of romance derived from white privilege: the expensive gowns, the horse back riding, the European junkets, the cocktail parties. These spectacles that seek to “individuat[e] and normalize[e]” the black subject actually do the very opposite, since they suggest that the black body is not human without these trappings of white experience. In simply tuning in to the show, then, we commit two acts of violence. The first form of violence, a kind of general scopophilia, is the pleasure we derive watching the embarrassing human drama that is The Bachelorette. Our awareness of that violence is somewhat commonplace, since the problematic nature of “the gaze” has been theorized to exhaustion in media studies.

A second form of more insidious violence, however, emerges from Rachel Lindsay’s role as a pioneer, a first, something that many of us have acknowledged, and that has been proclaimed jubilantly in much coverage of this season’s series: “I’m watching this season of The Bachelorette because this is the first bachelorette of color — it’s high time!” Such a statement might be re-formulated as: “Through watching this show, I acknowledge that a black woman, when offered the trappings of white romance, can momentarily appear as a full human being!” That blackness cannot amount to humanness without resorting to the rubric of whiteness speaks volumes. Despite  the efforts towards “woke-ness” in white liberal America, actual black lives still do not matter.

In the past, the predictability of The Bachelor(ette) rendered its inanities innocuous. In my own viewing experience, the charade seemed to pleasantly hover between reality and fiction. The predictability of the franchise now registers as the very source of its menace. In this season’s Bachelorette, a layer of simulated reality has thinly veiled a vast substrate of truth about a country that has yet to truly confront “the afterlife of slavery” in a meaningful or effective way. In this sense, then, the “formulaic” nature of the series points to other patterns — patterns of subjugation and oppression — which are all too real.

Liz Scheer is a PhD candidate in Literary Studies University of Wisconsin-Madison

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