Diversity on television should be more than a ‘shock factor’

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

Since its inception 15 years ago, ABC’s The Bachelor — a reality show in which 25 women compete for a chance at marital bliss with a charming bachelor — has arguably become the biggest reality TV show in the nation. Its spinoff series, The Bachelorette, has earned similar success, and the castoffs never leave empty-handed.

Female contestants who stay on the show long enough can become social media influencers and utilize their Instagram feeds to sell dieters’ tea, among other unorthodox products; almost all castoffs who make it past the third episode have a good chance at being invited to Bachelor in Paradise, the franchise’s summer spinoff purportedly for young singles to find love on a Mexican beach. And contestants who wind up in The Bachelor’s top four have a good shot at being selected to be next bachelor or bachelorette.

That’s how most season leads get the gig, and most recently, that’s how Rachel Lindsay — the franchise’s first black bachelorette — got the job after coming in third in Nick Viall’s season of The Bachelor. In all but rare cases throughout the franchise’s long history, leads are cast from the previous season.

But this wasn’t the case for the casting choice of The Bachelor’s 22nd season, which will air in January 2018. Instead, the producers went with Arie Luyendyk, Jr., a castoff from a Bachelorette season more than five years ago — a millennia in Bachelor nation time — without even so much as extending an invitation to the lone man of color in Lindsay’s top four. Frankly, were it not for my family’s decades-long, guilty-pleasure obsession with the franchise, I wouldn’t even know who Luyendyk was.

In either case, Eric Bigger, 29, an African American contestant from Baltimore, became the second runner-up after undergoing far more character growth than you’d expect of anyone in one season of a reality show. Early on, Bigger found himself unwittingly caught in petty fights with the season’s resident racist before appearing to mature — even find inner peace — from deep conversations with Lindsay about the authenticity of his intentions, and his humble upbringing.

Lindsay’s conversations with Bigger seemed to draw the most attention and commentary from online columnists than those of any season in recent franchise history. They gave the most complex glimpse of real life outside of the artificial glamour and fabrication of “reality” television. Bigger’s youth was woven with crime and addiction within his family, and the struggle to find love and accept himself as worthy of it.

In pushing himself to have these exceptionally difficult conversations on camera, Bigger proved himself more three-dimensional than any other candidate this season — maybe in franchise history. His full-mouthed smile, puppy-like enthusiasm and, ultimately, his tangible zest for life dominated Lindsay’s season.

There was no reason for producers to overlook him, but according to Bigger, that’s exactly what they did. One of the most charismatic and memorable contestants in the history of the franchise was overlooked for a gray-haired, exceptionally average 36-year-old white male, whose most interesting piece of background information is that he once formerly dated a producer on the show and failed to disclose it to the then-bachelorette, Emily Maynard.

Nonetheless, Bigger hardly seems embittered about this decision by producers, thanking the show for giving him an opportunity to “become a man” and to fall in love. But regardless, the implications of this snub speak volumes about the franchise and what diversity really means to its producers, who were once so quick to pat themselves on the back for casting Lindsay as the bachelorette earlier this year — as if 15 years were a short time to wait for a first black lead.

To them, diversity is an experiment, not a matter of representing different types of people and bringing inclusivity and authenticity to a reality show for a diverse nation. BuzzFeed reports that the ratings of Lindsay’s season, however widely it was marketed, were subpar, and speculates that Lindsay’s blackness could have been identified by producers as a reason for this.

Further, in the eyes of the show’s producers, diversity can also serve as a tool for shock factor, but only if used in moderation. To follow Lindsay with the franchise’s first black bachelor would wholly strip diversity of its shock factor. For that reason — and, likely, for that reason alone — Bigger was not even considered.

Lindsay’s casting as the first black bachelorette was important, and it certainly warranted celebration. But the franchise’s smugness and pride in its decision, as if their choice in casting Lindsay had somehow created something greater than world peace, also sent the message that diversity and blackness are a sort of rarity. It sent the message that inclusion and representation of people of color are so strenuous and forced as to be reserved only for rare, special occasions.

In casting Lindsay as the bachelorette, the show’s producers did not achieve some great feat so much as they — finally, after more than a decade and dozens of mediocre white leads — gave representation where it was due from day one. And ultimately, the producers’ decision to overlook Bigger should be just as attention-grabbing as its decision to cast Lindsay six months ago.

Kylie Cheung is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Grab Back,” runs every other Friday.