Come January, Nick Viall will become the latest man to choose between 25 potential wives on national television in the title role on ABC's "The Bachelor."
In a Wednesday interview with Good Morning America, host Chris Harrison cited Mr. Viall's sincerity and history as a two-time runner-up on "The Bachelorette" as the primary reasons why the thirtysomething Milwaukee native was chosen to star. But critics of the show say Viall possesses another, unspoken quality that makes him "Bachelor"-worthy: his whiteness.
The lack of diversity on "The Bachelor" and its spin-off show, "The Bachelorette," has long been lamented by fans who point out that the long-running reality shows consistently feature disproportionately white contestants: In the shows' combined 32 seasons, there has only been one "Bachelor" of color – Season 18's Juan Pablo Galavis – and no nonwhite Bachelorettes.
The show's creator, Mike Fleiss, has previously attributed the lack of diversity on the show to a lack of diversity among applicants. But critics say the problem goes deeper than a practical lack of interest. The bad news, they say, is that the shows promote antiquated ideals of beauty and femininity. But the good news is that the reality franchise doesn't necessarily reflect reality – and more people are beginning to speak out against it.
There is "definitely more of a discussion surrounding issues of body size, ageism, and colorism happening today and some prominent examples of individuals and media that are trying to address these issues," says Fabienne Darling-Wolf, an associate professor of journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. "However, while the issue gets raised and discussed, I'm afraid actual representations of beauty still fit within a rather limited range of what is deemed 'acceptable' and I am not sure they have evolved that much."
"The Bachelor," she says, is "pretty representative of where we stand in terms of media representations." But "it doesn't necessarily reflect where we stand as a society."
The show's contestants look very much the same today as they did in 2002, when "The Bachelor" first aired, says Jennifer Pozner, author of "Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV." Women on the show, besides being predominantly white, are typically thin and, more often than not, blonde.
In the early seasons of the show, she tells the Monitor in a phone interview, there wasn't much discussion about the appearance of female contestants and the show's "regressive political ideals" regarding gender roles. Today, a quick Google search yields hundreds of blog posts and articles.
"The difference between then and now is not on the show or among the contestants being cast," Ms. Pozner says. "The difference is in the social and political climate online." Social media, and especially the rise of feminist blogs, have produced "a new generation of pop culture viewers [who] understand gender and race in a way they never did before."
This new understanding may be reflected in some media pushback as well: "UnREAL," a scripted Lifetime drama that centers around a "Bachelor"-esque show called "Everlasting," features a black suitor in its second season. In the real "Bachelor" franchise, no African-American contestant has made it past week five, a recent Fusion survey found – and 59 percent of black contestants are eliminated within the first two episodes.
In 2012, a highly publicized lawsuit was brought against ABC by two African-American "Bachelor" hopefuls from Nashville, who accused the show of intentionally excluding people of color. The lawsuit, which was dismissed, had some immediate effect – in 2013, both shows had six minority contestants, a record number – but the following year, and all seasons since, featured between one and three contestants of color.
The lack of diversity despite pushback may be an attempt to avoid difficult conversations about racial differences among contestants and stars, says Rachel Dubrofsky, an associate professor at the University of South Florida.
"The assumption [in the "Bachelor" world] is that a woman of color can as easily date a white man as a man of color, as if race is nonexistent," she told the Los Angeles Times. "This does not effectively address issues of diversity and the real, lived ways in which people are impacted by racial difference."
Or, as diversity consultant Joshua Fredenburg suggests, it may be due to "the desire to get ratings," and a lack of confidence that minority contestants will do so.
Whatever the reasons, Pozner says she isn't optimistic that the franchise will change its ways any time soon. But she does believe that its viewers and media peers will continue to combat "Bachelor"-esque standards of beauty and gender roles, both through social media and in a "really interesting storytelling fashion," as Lifetime's "UnREAL" has.
"The great thing about fiction is that we can go anywhere," UnREAL's creator, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who worked on "The Bachelor" for nine seasons, told the Los Angeles Times. "And in an era when driving your car to the grocery store while black is dangerous, and people of color are getting beaten up at presidential rallies – there are few national issues more pressing than race. This felt urgent, important and now."