What does it require to properly watch ABC’s The Bachelorette? A few “It’s Wine Time!”–sized glasses of chilled pinot grigio, a group-friendly entree that’s been simmered in a Crock-Pot all day, carefully filled-out brackets with the statistical knowledge typically reserved for a March Madness office pool … and a denial of all ethical and moral convictions.
Nobody equates watching network television’s most popular dating show to, say, clubbing a seal. But a passport to Bachelor Nation requires a Faustian bargain: enjoy the drama, romance, ugly cries, and square jawlines — but accept the show’s questionable racial and sexual politics.
“I looked at several dating shows on network TV, and one popular one in particular, and the same things kept coming up — it’s not diverse,” says TV producer Mark Burnett, who did a deep survey of the dating show landscape while creating his latest show, Coupled. That’s putting it mildly: After 30-plus combined seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette and a 2012 racial discrimination lawsuit (which was thrown out) against the shows and its producers, it’s hard to unsee how there’s approximately one contestant of color for every 15 white ones. The franchise has demonstrated minimal interest in any sort of diversity; to quote Bachelor host Chris Harrison, who was once asked about the possibility of a gay Bachelor: “If you’ve been making pizzas for 12 years … and someone comes and says, ‘Hey, you should make hamburgers.’ Why? I have a great business model, and I don’t know if hamburgers are going to sell.” And then there’s the sexism; for every whirlwind helicopter date that mimics what falling in love “feels like,” there’s a Juan Pablo Galavis slut-shaming Clare Crawley.
Last year, the excellent scripted series Unreal exposed (even if fictionally) how the manipulative sausage gets made, making it all but impossible to suspend disbelief about The Bachelor franchise. It’s a beautiful fantasy obscuring an ugly reality, which — if we’re getting really real — functions as a microcosm for the low-key sexism and racism that’s present in all of Hollywood. Does that ruin the Fantasy Suite for anyone? Probably not. Every season, the moral dilemma that is The Bachelor/ette gives me pause, and then I ask myself: “Do I want to watch JoJo Fletcher fall in love with Aaron Rodgers’s less-talented former quarterback brother, knowing the cost?” The answer, always, is yes.
So, how to indulge in the romantic fantasy offered up by The Bachelorette with a clear conscience? Maybe by switching the channel and watching Fox’s Coupled.
Coupled is the latest offering from reality TV macher Mark Burnett — the master of heavily produced realities like Survivor, The Apprentice, and The Voice. It’s an attempt to redraw the blueprint laid out by the dating shows that have come before, and simultaneously an attempt to reflect the dating world in 2016. Translation: It’s his proposed antidote to The Bachelor franchise.
The result is, in some ways, also the antidote to Next, Date My Mom, Elimidate, The Love Connection, The 5th Wheel, Are You the One?, Blind Date, Online Dating Rituals of the American Male, Joe Millionaire, Beauty and the Geek, Temptation Island, and even Rock of Love. While the very first show of this kind, The Dating Game, was a fun, no-stakes, and weirdly progressive diversion (contestants were chosen for their witty answers!), the genre has spiraled into a semidisturbing subgenus. Gone are shows like Singled Out, which, aside from Jenny McCarthy’s gross-out humor, was as fun and innocuous as The Dating Game. Instead, we’re left with voyeuristic half hours like Blind Date, on which contestants are followed like government assets; or the supposedly instructive Millionaire Matchmaker, on which one woman spouts toxically anachronistic ideals about femininity while corralling other women into near prostitution; or out-of-touch fairy tales like The Bachelor franchise, which prefer to pretend that premarital sex and black people barely exist. All of these shows have a few things in common: a lack of diversity, a lack of female empowerment, and really cheesy music.
Burnett’s solution to that tired and retrograde formula looks similar to a fever dream you’d have after too much Tindering: Twelve single, 20- and 30-something women are brought to an island (old habits die hard). After introducing themselves, the women fall into the sort of high-speed bonding chatter that wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test and involves more than a little squealing. Their quick getting-to-know-you conversation reveals that not a single woman has been able to land a boyfriend in their respective hometowns, even though they are attractive, successful, and adventurous. (“I think it’s reflective of dating in America,” Burnett offers in a moment of terrifying clarity.) Their lives don’t depend on finding a man, they say, but good lord would they like to settle down already. Then, as if God were listening, all of their show-approved cell phones ping with a text message from “Black Cupid,” a.k.a. Terrence “J” Jenkins — the show’s younger, smoother, blacker Chris Harrison — who promises that soon they’ll all be paired with the relationship-minded, employed men of their dreams. It could be the preppy musician in a hip-hop reggae alt band — sure, that is someone’s dream — or the wounded, conservative, ex-Army turned romance novelist, or the hot black guy with an offbeat sense of humor and killer style. Really, anything is possible. And even better, they won’t have to compete with one another to win that love. Instead, an abundance of suitors will rain down from the sky, just like the mythical events described in that Weather Girls song.
“I wanted every woman to have a chance, technically, to end up in a relationship,” says Burnett. “And nobody wants to see one man eliminating 12 women. That’s just not very 2016.” So the women vote on whether a dude gets to stay on the island, and they never run the risk of being eliminated. The show, in a conservative twist, focuses on couples trying to make it work, without sacrificing the drama, tears, joy, real human emotion, sunsets, and, of course, hot tub sessions. (Burnett isn’t reinventing the wheel, just improving it.) It’s not Lean In, but at least the set-up follows some of the rules of modern dating. It’s a start, anyway.
There are two ways to be spoon-fed network television’s heavily produced romance: There’s the fairy tale, an addictive Disney-like story in which a woman is “made whole” by “her one true love” — that’s the Bachelor’s vibe. Or there’s the romantic comedy, in which a stereotypically loveless — but plucky! — woman overcomes some sort of strange situation to end up with a handsome — but witty! — love interest. (There are some other VH1-like outliers, but cable is free to break the formula in as many outrageous ways as possible, without fear of low ratings. Hence, Flavor Flav.) Coupled takes the rom-com route. Absurdly, even though this is the most retrograde, conservative genre of television possible, the decision to reject those white-horse conventions makes Coupled somewhat progressive.
By now, the standard characteristics of a Bachelor contestant have become one of reality TV’s most reliable tropes: white skin, flat stomach, big blowouts, small aspirations. The women are just here (“here” meaning on the show, but maybe on this Earth) for love, and are more or less required (by producers) to spend their downtime in their temporary home and various hotel rooms thinking of and talking about nothing other than the Bachelor.
On Coupled, by contrast, the contestants have real careers (though unlike in most romantic comedies, magazine editor is not one of them). Job descriptions like dog lover, fishing enthusiast, former professional cheerleader, and hot dog vendor are replaced by attorney, radio personality, CEO, photographer, and former member of the Israeli army. There’s also an amusement park princess, though I’d like to think that’s an ironic twist. Even more surprisingly, the Fox show has one of the most diverse casts reality television has ever seen. I counted black, Asian, and Latina female contestants in one season. There’s a black host, and the suitors so far have been as diverse as the women they’re meant to woo. It feels modern, real — like the Benetton ad of dating shows.
I’ve been extolling the virtues of Coupled enthusiastically, but full admission — I’m more than a little embarrassed at how much credit I’m giving the show and its executives at Fox. They’re getting high praise for doing the bare minimum: i.e., casting people of color in a real capacity, as romantic leads, instead of just stunt-casting to silence critics. But consider the competitors for context: In 20 seasons, The Bachelor has had only one main contestant of color (Juan Pablo, in Season 18). And by my count, there have been only 32 nonwhite competitors on 20 seasons of The Bachelor, and that number is even lower for its spin-off, The Bachelorette, on which there have been just 19 men of color in 11 seasons. If a minority even makes it on the show, he or she rarely makes it past the early rounds.
“Maybe it’s ad sales? It’s fear? I don’t know,” says Sarah Shapiro, former Bachelor producer and creator of Lifetime’s Unreal, when I asked her about the lack of diversity on these shows. Even Unreal, a scripted series about the making of a thinly veiled version of The Bachelor, managed to feature a black Bachelor before its real-life inspiration. “I think it’s really scary for people who make television to alienate audiences. We live on the coasts. It’s really hard to understand that black men dating white women, or vice versa, is still a hot-button issue for a lot of people.”
I asked Reality Steve, a.k.a. Steve Carbone, notorious spoiler blogger, Bachelor franchise antagonist, and ABC legal enemy, the same question.
“To sound PC, they say they are open to it,” Carbone says. (ABC declined to respond or to comment for this story.) “And they hide behind the fact that they don’t get a lot of minorities who apply for the show … then they have a very slim chance of making it on the show long enough to become the lead. They like the conversation out there, to let people think they are considering it.” A recent example: Season 20 Bachelor contestant Jubilee Sharpe, who made it to a record-breaking Week 5 and inspired at least one Change.org petitions advocating for her to be the next Bachelorette. “But it was never going to be Jubilee,” Carbone says.
Nor was it going to be half-Filipina Caila Quinn, whom ABC controversially pulled last minute in favor of JoJo Fletcher. It is a real pattern, as Carbone points out, with little outside pressure to change it. So could Coupled’s decidedly diverse casting make a difference?
“We won’t know how an audience is going to react to diversity until The Bachelor casts a minority lead,” Carbone says. “But … it’s not like people are protesting that Caila wasn’t the Bachelorette. Or that Jubilee wasn’t it. [ABC] just weathers the storm because they know people are going to tune in.
“In that mind-set, do I think they’ll cast a person of color any time soon? No,” Carbone says. “But Coupled can try it. It’ll probably fail.”
It should be said: Burnett’s proposed utopia is still flawed. If the show curates a group of high-functioning women and creates a formula that allows for triumphant moments of empowerment, but still shows them cat-fighting, what’s really different? Coupled places the power to choose in women’s hands, but the women are only given superficial choices. It’s still the dude who gets to pick his date for the couple’s villa. One man still gets to choose between a bevy of way too attractive women, many of whom will still be forced to wonder why they were not selected.
And as for diversity: Is it enough to cast people of color if the show plays to stereotype? Will the show feature an interracial couple? And will this show offer its black and Latina cast members a different role than the ones they’re typically offered on reality TV?
I asked Shapiro, who operates as something of a Greek chorus calling bullshit on reality dating shows, what she thought it would take to make a truly diverse, feminist show. “I like to think I’m making one,” she laughed. “I honestly don’t know. You’ve stumped me.” But she also points out: “I have to say that while I think that we hope a feminist show would do well — I hope it would — I don’t know if it would, because the princess fantasy is crack. Even people like me give into it.”
And that’s the biggest problem: Even if someone could envision a show that reflects a true-to-life, inclusive experience of dating, it’s not clear we’d want to watch it. So far, Coupled’s ratings are tanking. This week’s episode only pulled in 1.29 million viewers, compared with the 5.94 million that tuned into The Bachelorette. And the franchise isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
“It’s the gold standard for reality TV dating,” Carbone says. “The Bachelor owns the marketplace. Frankly, no network should try to compete.”
Reality Steve is right. JoJo Fletcher might be just like every other petite, bouncy-haired Bachelorette, and she may choose the same square-jawed every Joe we see propose over the same seaside cliff each season — but, by God, it will be some reliably good (or at least reliable) television. Isn’t it reassuring to know that somewhere, in some exotic locale, some man will (almost) always propose to some woman after some subtle coaching by Chris Harrison and a team of producers?
Now and then, when I get that little screen that tells me I’ve run out of Tinder matches in my area, or when I’ve been forced to change bodegas again because I keep running into failed OkCupid dates, I imagine how nice it must be to find love on a reality show. The Bachelor and The Bachelorette hand you a fairy tale without any of the emotional labor of finding and maintaining a relationship.
For that reason alone, I watch. Hell, I’d even go on the show, knowing full well that I would make it — maybe — to Episode 3. (I’m a black woman with minimum crazy in her eyes.) I’d probably go on several other dating shows, even though they all feature some variation on the problems that can make The Bachelor so infuriating. The idea of a tightly produced, whirlwind romance with several men solely dedicated to escorting me on dates and trips is very seductive. “I fall for it every time! And I’m making it,” commiserates Shapiro. “You want to feel that way. It feels good.”
An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that no person of color has ever won either The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. Catherine Lowe, who won The Bachelor in 2013, is partially of Filipino descent.