CULTURE & ARTS
01/20/2016 04:32 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2016

'The Bachelor' Is Letting Its Race Issues Show, But That's Not Enough

Especially when we all know the show has the power to fix them.
Ben Higgins seems to like Jubilee, but ABC doesn't know quite how to deal with a "diverse" contender.
ABC/Rick Rowell
Ben Higgins seems to like Jubilee, but ABC doesn't know quite how to deal with a "diverse" contender.

Members of Bachelor Nation sat through a particularly harrowing episode on Monday, as black, Haitian-born Jubilee became the focus of an oddly virulent, racially charged mean-girl swarm.

Bachelor Ben Higgins selected Jubilee, who has the flawless features of a Disney princess and the strength of a war veteran (because she is one), for a one-on-one date that saw the two of them wafted by helicopter to a luxurious spa for a day of relaxation. During their day together, she ended up revealing her painful past -- she was adopted after her entire family died -- and shared her offbeat, self-effacing sense of humor.

Back at the house, the girls seemed to be fuming over a few of Jubilee’s misfired jokes. As they all stared enviously at her while she waited for her date, she awkwardly commented that he was 20 minutes late. When he arrived, and asked whether she was excited, she still-more awkwardly brushed off her eagerness -- which had been all-too-obvious since she first heard her name read from the one-on-one date card -- and facetiously asked if anyone else wanted the date.

Ben, despite having the soft, white personality of a hot dog bun, mustered enough pep to enjoy Jubilee’s sarcastic remarks, and even understand that they often covered up insecurity or social discomfort. But his other bachelorettes were unaccountably livid, especially when Jubilee came back with a rose instead of being sent packing.

While most girls return from one-on-one dates with roses, she immediately became a loathed target of the other women in the house, leaping to enemy No. 1 overnight. "The target is always on the girls who have roses," Jubilee said, "but it's ridiculous." Though that statement sounded like it was pieced together by a clever editor in post-production ... well, it's also true.

The nightmarish remainder of the episode was a parade of unmistakable dog-whistles (“Ben wants to have a wife that will be friends with all the other soccer moms,” Lauren H. prissily informed the cameras) and racially charged insults. She was termed aggressive, accused of flaunting her rose and of thinking she was queen bee. During the cocktail party before the rose ceremony, Jubilee awkwardly attempted to join a group of girls and was immediately rebuffed by Jojo, who rudely stormed away muttering about lip gloss. Lauren H. cast it as Jubilee "separating" herself from the other girls.

Ah, the old “she’s the one who’s segregating separating herself” argument, always convincing.

As always on “The Bachelor,” it’s difficult to know how much of this reflects the reality of what went on in the house. Obviously much of what happens between the girls is facilitated or prompted by pot-stirring producers, e.g. “Why don’t you just go confront her about that, Amber?” or “Lauren H., why do you think you’d be a better wife for Ben?”

How much of the subtly racialized and blatantly overwrought tensions between Jubilee and the other girls were stoked by the ratings-focused production team?

“The Bachelor,” as we know, has a fraught relationship with race. Not just a straightforwardly bad one, either. Latinas, for example, remain fairly elusive on the show, as do South and East Asian women, but part-Asian women have become mainstays, and often go far. One, Catherine Giudici, even won Bachelor Sean Lowe’s heart, and final rose.

A sprinkling of black contestants usually rounds out each group of gentlemen or ladies, but they are rarely portrayed as serious contenders -- certainly not as finalists who end up as the next Bachelor or Bachelorette. On Andi Dorfman’s season, funnyman Marquel Martin stuck around for a while, but she never really seemed interested in him romantically. On Sean Lowe’s season, he actually took a black woman, Leslie Hughes, on a one-on-one date where she was lavished with jewels and designer threads, but she was still gone halfway through the season.

Often the one or two black bachelors or bachelorettes simply vanish by episode 3, before we even get a chance to learn their names. Often there are none to begin with. Even the few who make it far don’t seem to be considered true possibilities by ABC itself.

Charismatic Marquel, who had a huge presence on the show and a loyal fandom, was invited on “Bachelor in Paradise,” but wasn’t even considered for “The Bachelor” -- a choice he pondered in a blog post that openly acknowledged the role his race likely played in that decision. The fact that Chris Soules, an inarticulate bulge of muscle whose main trait was living in a town with no grocery store, became the Bachelor that season suggests that the main strike against Marquel wasn’t that the producers were cursed with an abundance of compelling options.

The sympathetic edit Jubilee received was marked in large part because a black contestant has never been such a clear contender without quickly imploding -- or, perhaps, being exploded. It’s apparent that this season “The Bachelor” made a choice to play up the coded comments made about Jubilee by other contestants, rather than gearing the storyline in other directions. The production team have more than enough material to work with, and in the past, as black contestants faded or burned out, there’s been reason to wonder whether the show wasn’t obscuring in-house bigotry or other pressures that contributed to their emotional twists and turns.

Take Kaitlyn Bristowe’s turn as the Bachelorette last year. She seemed pretty into Ian Thomson, a black Princeton grad with a compelling backstory, and more tepidly interested in Kupah James and Jonathan Holloway, the other black bachelors, yet two of the three ultimately made melodramatic exits following confrontations with the Bachelorette.

Kupah, in particular, openly expressed fear that he was a racial token, questioned her genuineness, and was sent off as an angry black villain. The show included no footage that lent any validation to his concerns. But does that mean there wasn’t any? How many seasons filled with microaggressions and snide bigotry have contestants of color had to face before this week’s episode, when “The Bachelor” finally, it seems, chose to actually show some?

Jubilee, a war veteran, has particularly stood out in a crop of contestants who are disproportionately very blonde, very youn
ABC/Greg Zabilski
Jubilee, a war veteran, has particularly stood out in a crop of contestants who are disproportionately very blonde, very young, and seemingly quite naive. 

ABC execs have already teased the likelihood that the next Bachelorette will be “diverse” (the hilarity of describing a single person as diverse, of course, is apparently lost on them), and whether it’s Jubilee or one of the lighter-skinned women of color from the show, this week’s show seemed to be a priming of the market, albeit a market that’s been crying out for a non-white Bachelor or Bachelorette for years. By making a non-white contestant sympathetic, rather than villainized in tacitly coded ways, the show signals, if not a shift in allegiance, a clumsy awareness of narratives that aren't centered on white protagonists.

But what we really saw in Monday night’s episode was the flip side of the show's ugly history with race. As we know by now, "The Bachelor" has the power to make or break a contestant’s character with an edit, a cleverly placed voiceover, or a well-timed prod from a producer; and if that worked in Jubilee’s favor this time, it only makes it all the more possible that other times, it works explicitly against black contestants.

In Jubilee’s case, anyway, it’s hard to see that she gave them anything to work with. The women appeared to be violently overreacting to everything related to her -- especially given that Olivia, an openly provocative frontrunner, has drawn mostly catty behind-the-back chatter rather than overt bullying and insinuations about her deep-seated unsuitability for Ben as a spouse. Meanwhile, Jubilee is shown sitting quietly, treating Ben with selfless consideration, and making tentative efforts with the other girls, handling their rejections with calm humility.

Unless Jubilee did something truly shocking that was entirely hidden from the audience, it seems like the logical conclusion is that the only way for a black contestant to be given such a favorable cut is to behave completely blamelessly, to be twice as good as everyone else.

For Jubilee, the benefits are nonetheless questionable; she’s seen as a victim, but that’s a look that has historically benefited white women more than black women, and it’s at the expense of turning her narrative into a racially charged one. As soon as a black woman becomes a serious challenger, she’s othered, disproportionately targeted by incredulous contestants who see her as an inappropriate spouse, and entangled in the distractions of painful interpersonal drama. 

For viewers, seeing these issues addressed openly may be vindicating, but undoubtedly also painful. In a Medium post about the episode, writer Nichelle Stephens celebrated that Jubilee wasn't held out as a stereotype, but also revealed that it was deeply uncomfortable to watch the racial targeting playing out onscreen. "I personally felt every microaggression that the 'ladytestants' were saying on camera," she wrote. "I am not sure if I can keep watching."

Nor was she alone, as many pained tweets from women of color during the show suggested. Is that what "The Bachelor" wants for its black viewers?

To this day, even when a black woman on “The Bachelor” is winning, she’s losing -- and with every season it becomes harder to ignore that ABC has far more control over that dynamic than they’ll concede.

For more on this week's episode of "The Bachelor," check out HuffPost's podcast "Here To Make Friends":

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