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The First Black 'Bachelor' Lead Had A Ludicrously High Bar To Clear

Rachel Lindsay seems absolutely perfect. To become the first black Bachelorette, she had to be.

18/02/2017 2:35 AM AEDT | Updated 18/02/2017 2:35 AM AEDT
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The new Bachelorette, Rachel Lindsay, is flawless.

First of all, look at her: She’s got an incandescent smile, gorgeous features and a great body. Then, consider that the 31-year-old Dallas native is a successful lawyer. Not convinced? Watch her appearances on Season 21 of “The Bachelor” ― she’s warm, funny, bubbly and down-to-earth. Not only does Nick Viall, the current Bachelor, love her; her competitors do as well. She’s stayed out of house drama, and even acted as a calming influence on the instigators. Putting aside what may have been left on the cutting-room floor, Rachel appears to viewers bathed in a warm glow of goodness and grace.

Rachel is the first black lead of a “Bachelor” show, and both her selection and the manner of the announcement ― so early she’s still a contestant on the “The Bachelor,” meaning ABC spoiled their own show ― has broken with long-established norms of the franchise. 

But Rachel isn’t just a self-described “historic” pick by ABC because of her race. She’s notable for her extreme perfection. She’s not the first lawyer or the first warm, nurturing woman or the first conventionally stunning Bachelorette ― but she is all of those things at once, a rare complete package.

The show has often been mocked for mostly featuring women from just a few, stereotypically feminine professions: dental hygiene, yoga instruction, event planning. The Bachelorette rarely works in a competitive industry that requires a postgraduate degree. Though there’s certainly nothing wrong or inherently unimpressive with being a dance instructor, a real estate agent or a bridal stylist, the titles don’t carry the unquestioned cachet that a high-status profession like “lawyer” does in our society.

Of course, the 10th Bachelorette, Andi Dorfman, was also an attorney. But whereas Andi could come off as abrasive thanks to her ability to seize control of confrontational moments and eviscerate her opponents ― in fact, her breakout moment on “The Bachelor” was an unforgiving cross-examination of Juan Pablo Galavis, her purported romantic interest ― Rachel is soft-spoken, sweet and seems to find the best in everyone. In the midst of a feud between resident embodiment of white privilege Corinne Olympios and biracial mental health counselor Taylor Nolan, Rachel sat them both down and expressed that she wanted the best for both of them. “I think you’re both misunderstood to some extent,” she said. Could she be any more generous and open-minded? 

Even Rachel’s style is utterly unobjectionable. Kaitlyn Bristowe, Bachelorette 11, was funny, charming and gorgeous, but her tattoos and open sexuality differed from the show’s usual, blandly wholesome vibe. Rachel’s demureness and fresh, clean-cut look make her the classic girl-next-door crush. 

In addressing questions about the show’s lack of diversity in the past, host Chris Harrison has insisted, “We’ll never pick anybody [as the lead] for any other reason other than they are the best person for the job. Period.” 

So, what does a black woman have to do to be viewed as the best person for the job of Bachelorette? Be flawless according to every relevant (and deeply problematic) metric, of course.

None of this is surprising. Black women have long been held to higher standards to receive equal recognition, even in romantic contexts. Betraying even an iota of ego, outrage or irritation can doom a black contestant on the show, even if the same behavior might have been read as “spunk” or “personality” coming from a white woman. On “The Bachelor,” the onus tends to fall on black women to prove that they’re soft and womanly enough to be worthy of love ― all too often, instead, they’re boxed into a stereotypical “angry black woman” corner or ignored altogether. As Vulture’s Ali Barthwell wrote about Rachel’s selection:

Feminist movements led by white women have tried to create distance between white women and the roles of girlfriend, wife, mother. Black women, meanwhile, have tried to reclaim these roles and, in turn, the full spectrum of womanhood. This is because of how routinely black women are criticized in terms of their womanhood. Black women are angry and unladylike. Their bodies are vulgar and lack grace.

Nowhere is this more true than on “The Bachelor,” which offers us black contestants as tokens but rarely takes any care to depict them as desirable. Harrison was particularly tough on last season’s Jubilee Sharpe, a beautiful veteran with a tragic past who flinched in the face of a barrage of microaggressions that isolated her from the group. “Jubilee has a lot of work to do on herself,” Harrison told The Daily Beast after her departure from “The Bachelor.” “You can see from the episode she’s got a lot of issues.” Jubilee’s primary crimes were making self-deprecating jokes and withdrawing from the rest of the group after they became persistently critical of her offhand jests ― transgressions that are fairly standard for women on “The Bachelor,” and perhaps easy enough to forgive as a lovable flaw if the contestant meets a perceived standard of white femininity.

It’s past time for a black lead on “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.” That the show’s creator smugly played up its decision as “historic” (which it is mostly in the context of its own show’s aggressively white history) grates in particular, though, because the franchise clearly waited until they found a black woman of unimpeachable character, kindness, beauty and credentials, a truly exceptional woman, to take the risk of casting a black lead. That’s not new, revolutionary, brave or historic. It’s business as usual.

By any measure, Rachel Lindsay is a major catch. She was the obvious choice for the next Bachelorette, based on what we’ve seen so far in the series. Will the men cast for her be similarly diverse, perhaps leading the series to snowball in a more colorful direction, or will she date the same mostly white assemblage as usual? That we don’t yet know. Will ABC ever cast a black woman with visible tattoos, a career as a hairstylist or a spiky personality as an object of universal desire? We’ll have to wait even longer to find that out. But as we’re enjoying Rachel’s journey to find true love, it will be worth remembering that ABC’s push for diversity on the franchise is far from done. On the contrary: It’s barely started.

For more on “The Bachelor,” check out HuffPost’s Here To Make Friends podcast:

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Follow Claire Fallon on Twitter: @ClaireEFallon

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