By NEDRA RHONE and HELENA OLIVIERO
Tiffany Tulloss poured a glass of her favorite pinot grigio, made sure her phone was charged and settled in to watch one of her favorite reality TV shows.
Several friends were likewise glued to their TVs, and the Instagram chatter started up immediately: She looks amazing … She is so sweet … Even her dog is adorable. She is the total package.
Her name is Rachel Lindsay and she matters to these women.
Lindsay is the first black bachelorette and, at 32, the oldest one, too. The Texas attorney is pretty, bubbly, gainfully employed and earnest in her search for a mate.
If we’re being real, “The Bachelorette” hasn’t dropped any tangible lessons in love — most of the couples broke up just weeks or months after the relationship was revealed. But some viewers believe that this season the show has the opportunity to finally offer something of substance, a meaningful look at how a black woman navigates life and love in America.
“As a young African-American woman, it’s very exciting to see Rachel Lindsay as the first black bachelorette,” said Tulloss, 24, a public relations specialist who lives in Atlanta. “She is someone who is like an American sweetheart, and not silly but someone who is smart, kind and healthy.”
But can a “reality show” featuring beautiful people, exotic locations and contrived controversies tell us anything of real value about race in America?
Lindsay acknowledges feeling the pressure. “I’m something new and different that they haven’t seen on this franchise before,” she told People magazine. “Everyone’s going to have an opinion. There’s going to be a lot of judgment, and I can’t please everyone.”
According to Nielsen data, the Season 13 opener of the ABC reality series had a 1.8 rating among adults age 18-49 and 5.7 million viewers. That was down from the Season 12 premiere (2.0, 6.6 million) last May, but was still strong enough to tie for second in the demo for the night, behind only “The Voice” on NBC.
Since the opener, The Bachelorette has been inching up, week by week, with the dating competition clocking in close to 6 million viewers for Monday’s episode. It was the most watched show Monday evening, according to Nielsen.
‘I don’t just date white or black’
“Bachelorette” host Chris Harrison says race is the elephant in the room this season. It came into play as the show cast its most diverse group of suitors, Harrison told Entertainment Weekly.
Indeed, much of the conversation about diversity this season has been focused on the men of “Bachelorette.”
Lindsay says she requested a diverse cast.
“I told them that I date everyone,” she told the Hollywood Reporter. “I don’t just date white or black. I date Asian, Hispanic, and have dated Middle Eastern men. I wanted the people coming out of the limousine to reflect my dating history — and I wasn’t disappointed,” she said.
There were 31 original suitors, which Lindsay trimmed down to 23 after the premiere. Of the men remaining, eight were black, so the majority of the contestants are still white men.
While the suitors are cast in a variety of ways (online, casting calls, on the street) they reportedly go through a screening and vetting process. Recently, when current Bachelorette contestant Lee Garrett was accused of posting racist tweets, it wasn’t clear if his casting had been deliberate and designed to raise controversy or not.
ABC and Warner Bros., the studio that produces “The Bachelorette,” declined to discuss the show this season.
One reason the industry gives for not casting black men and women in lead roles is a decline in viewership, but there are a number of reality shows that cater to black audiences with great success in ratings. The Real Housewives of Atlanta features an all black cast of women and has been one of the most successful shows in the franchise. Reality shows featuring black celebrities such as T.I. & Tiny or Michael Vick to name a few, may not have blockbuster ratings, but often gain a dedicated following of viewers.
But for the most part, these are shows on cable networks that feature African American characters in their own manufactured worlds. “They have African-American characters. They will interact with each other and the whites interact with each other but they don’t mix. If they were mixed then it would be more powerful,” said Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist based in Marin County, Calif., who writes Mindful Stress-Express for Psychology Today.
‘Underrepresented and tokenized’
“The Bachelorette” has made no secret of the fact that it seeks to reflect the white, upper-middle class aspirations of its viewers.
In 2012, two black men sued the Bachelor for racial discrimination (the suit ultimately failed) and a different black woman (dentist and model Misee Harris) conducted a futile campaign to be chosen as a bachelorette just a few years ago.
Eric Deggans, NPR’s TV critic, recently wrote, “Occasionally, the show has presented moments where black contestants have struggled, but for the most part it has ignored or papered over its blind spots on race.”
Jennifer Pozner, media critic and author of “Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV,” raises questions about whether Rachel – or anyone of color – could break through a formulaic show that has long reinforced negative stereotypes about women and people of color.
The show features women who were turned down (“humiliated,” she says) by “Bachelor” stars, and the primary message of the show is women can never be happy or fulfilled or even successful unless they get married, she says.
She said the franchise has portrayed women of color as lazy, ignorant, hypersexual, and African American contestants, in particular, as “the angry black woman” trope — “that is, when they weren’t underrepresented and tokenized,” she said in an interview.
‘Racism is reality in this country’
But despite the franchise’s flaws, and despite being built on what Pozner calls “misogynist and racist framing,” Pozner believes this season has an extraordinary opportunity to do some good.
“This show will still do harm, because of the regressive gender-role messaging at its core, but it could potentially also make positive representational strides,” said Pozner, a media literacy educator who conducts workshops and keynotes on gender and race in the media.
“Black women — and all viewers – will have a couple months of week-to-week reminders that black women are beautiful, competent, ambitious, valuable and worthy of love.”
Still, it is unclear whether television shows can change human behavior in a meaningful way, said Melanie Greenberg, a clinical psychologist based in Marin County, Calif. who writes Mindful Stress-Express for Psychology Today.
At the very least, she agreed, this season of “The Bachelorette” can normalize our view of black women as well-adjusted, lovable creatures. But even that can have a downside.
“It is good to try to see people as people rather than only by race, but on the other hand, I do think racism is real in this society and pretending things are all the same ignores the reality that it is there,” Greenberg said.
‘Just a girl who wants to find love’
Maggie Thompson, 19, a student at Oglethorpe University who has been watching the show since her favorite bachelorette, Ashley Hebert, connected with J.P. Rosenbaum on season seven, recognizes the importance of Lindsay being cast as the first black bachelorette, but she is enjoying the show for the same reasons she has over the past six years.
“Everyone is saying it is the most diverse cast it has ever been,” said Thompson, who is white. But what she notices most about Lindsay is how serious she is about finding love. “I do think it is a big deal because she is the first (black bachelorette), but at the same time, yeah, she is black, but she is just a girl who wants to find love. She is standing up for herself. Hopefully the bad guys won’t stick around.”
As for who Lindsay ends up with, Thompson said it’s too early to make a guess, but should it be one of the non-black men currently in the majority, that won’t be an issue for her.
“I am a college student and I see interracial dating all the time. I understand it is a big deal (for some people), but it is 2017 and that shouldn’t be a big thing, that should be normal,” said Thompson.” “I think it is good that the show is showing that, hey, they are just people. It doesn’t matter as long as they are a good person.”
At the end of the day, she said, it is Thompson acknowledges that it’s just reality television and that, while she may enjoy the romantic escape, she is realistic about the show having any meaningful impact on real life.
“I know none of the guys in my class are going to take me on a helicopter ride. I like watching it because if I can’t get that romantic experience at least someone is,” she said.
‘Black women want romance, too’
Romance seems to be trumping all else so far in this post-racial rendering of the “Bachelorette” and Lindsay’s journey is serving as an inspirational guide to a range of women.
Barbara Harvey, 51, is a self-proclaimed hopeless romantic who has waited a long time to see a woman of color as the star of “The Bachelorette.”
“I’ve wondered a long time why they didn’t have bachelors and bachelorettes of every race,” said Harvey who lives in Atlanta and is African-American. She is also the executive director of Parents, Teachers and Advocates, an Atlanta-based non-profit which provides parent training for parents in crisis. “This is significant. Black women want romance too.”
Harvey is hoping for a fairytale ending for Rachel, and for herself. “I hope to find my own mate someday soon,” she said.
THE AJC COVERS RACE
Georgia is in the midst of a dramatic transformation in which minorities will become the majority in about 15 years. The AJC is covering that story in all of its manifestations — digging deep for data that expose the trends and examining how our daily interactions affect one another. The popular culture – how race manifests in the arts, in music, on TV and in film — is an important part of that story.
» RE:Race: Guide to The Journal-Constitution’s race coverage
» Interactive: Watch as Georgia transforms before your eyes
» Read: The new face of Cobb County
» Read: Is Atlanta ready to elect a white mayor in 2017?
» Watch: Black college students discuss “Dear White People”