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Reality TV's Racism Goes Deeper Than Casting

Recent firings and casting choices on Bravo and The Bachelor, following complaints about racism, are a reminder of all the work still left to be done behind the scenes.

Posted on July 2, 2020, at 3:01 p.m. ET

Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News; ABC, Getty Images

In the past few weeks, the entertainment industry’s racial reckoning has reached unscripted television. The reality cop show universe, for instance, has been almost entirely canceled. The castmates on Survivor have spoken out about how they were racially stereotyped by editors. Then the guilty pleasure wing of reality TV, like Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules and Real Housewives, and the Bachelor franchise, followed suit with a wave of cast firings and hirings.

Long mired in racist social media scandals, The Bachelor has finally cast its first Black Bachelor ever. Bravo, for its part, fired two cast members of the perennially popular Vanderpump Rules after the sole Black cast member, Faith Stowers, said they had called the cops on her in 2018 as a vengeful “joke.” Two other castmates were let go over racist social media posts. A minor character’s role on the Below Deck franchise was minimized through editing due to a racist Instagram post about Black women.

The reality genre presents an important test case for television’s racial reckoning. In scripted television, the writers rooms are obvious places to demand accountability and reform for a show’s content and perspective. When a show is deliberately fictional, the people who make it can write plotlines and cast (or recast) characters to address issues raised by the audience.

The question of who is responsible for reality content is a little more nebulous, because the “characters” are (supposedly) real people, simply living their lives, while producers merely document it. And so much of the actual creation of reality television occurs not through the work of a writer-auteur or showrunner but through the unheralded behind-the-scenes efforts of casting, producing, and editing.

The current Bravo cast firings over social media posts, or the Bachelor’s hiring of its first Black protagonist, are in some ways superficial and symbolic gestures. They don’t begin to address the bigger issues of the industry’s white-centric production and casting, and how that operating model impacts storylines and show content. The choices white producers and editors make are limited by their own experiences and identity, and are almost always catering to an imagined white audience. Thus, firing (or hiring) a few people isn't going to create fundamental changes. If anything, reality television’s racial reckoning is a reminder of all the work left to be done behind the scenes.

ABC

Rachel Lindsay on the "Men Tell All" episode of The Bachelorette Season 13.

While on some level The Bachelor is about the drama among the contestants, it’s ultimately a show about romance and white heterosexuality. This is true both behind the scenes and on camera. The show’s creator, Mike Fleiss, and its iconic host Chris Harrison are both straight white guys. And all the franchise’s biggest stars, including every single one of the titular Bachelors and Bachelorettes, are white except for Juan Pablo Galavis, the most white-presenting Venezuelan producers could find to be the Bachelor in 2014, and the one Black Bachelorette, Rachel Lindsay, from 2017.

In concrete terms, contestants who appear on the show gain a profile boost, especially the recipients of the Bachelor or Bachelorette’s proposal, which is the show’s climax. The fact that Black contestants aren’t serious contenders on the franchise is obviously no accident; the show has, throughout its entire history, quite purposely avoided raising questions about racial dynamics in dating. Lindsay Smith, a Black contestant on Season 10 of The Bachelor in 2007, wrote a first-person account in 2017 about being tokenized as the sole Black woman. “Black contestants, if there are any on the show, do not win,” she wrote. “They are there to play to America’s stereotype of black men and women, and then they are sent home.”

In fact, in 2012, two Black men who auditioned for The Bachelorette sued ABC for discrimination in casting. Their lawyer argued that while the content of a show is protected by the First Amendment, the casting is more like a business contract, and thus should be subject to federal antidiscrimination law. The lawyers pointed out that in the case of The Bachelor franchise, the casting and production seemed explicitly designed to avoid controversy over interracial dating, which meant that Black people who auditioned for the show were often turned down. But the judge ruled that even if the show was discriminating in casting, it had a First Amendment right to do so without interference.

Despite the lawsuit specifically calling the show to account for anti-Blackness, not long after the lawsuit was dismissed, the show’s producers trumpeted the casting of the whitest, most blue-eyed Venezuelan they could find as their first “non-Caucasian,” “ethnic” lead. But there were no announced changes to the racial makeup of producers or editors, and those are the people who — as the Lifetime drama Unreal memorably fictionalized — actually shape the episode-to-episode narratives and message of the show.

Media studies scholar Kristen Warner has written about “color-blind casting,” and what she terms “plastic representation,” to refer to the phenomenon of plopping Black characters into shows without changing storylines or providing cultural specificity. And this is exactly what happened when Rachel Lindsay was finally cast as the first Black Bachelorette. Her season didn’t really acknowledge her race, the role race has played in the show or even include any thoughtful discussions about race and dating.

The Bachelor didn’t address race until it was forced to. 

Instead, the season was taken over by a racism controversy, as one of Lindsay’s suitors had a history of racist social media posts and kept antagonizing one of the few Black contestants. In one of the most real moments of the season, Lindsay broke the fourth wall when she tearfully told a white woman producer that she had “no idea” about the pressure she was under. The producer responds, “You’re right, I don’t.”

”I just felt like no one was getting it because I was looking around the room and no one looked like me,” Lindsay said years later. “So no one was understanding. You hear me, but you don’t get me.”

During the “Men Tell All” special at the end of her season, Lindsay had to educate the racist contestant — and the audience — about racism. As she pointed out later, that’s not what she had signed up for when she joined an escapist show about epic romance and taking dates on helicopter rides. (Incidentally, Lindsay was the first Bachelorette to pick a Latinx suitor, but it got lost in the brouhaha.)

In the aftermath of that season, Fleiss blamed the audience for the season’s low ratings. “I found it incredibly disturbing in a Trumpish kind of way,” he told the New York Times. “How else are you going to explain the fact that she’s down in the ratings, when — black or white — she was an unbelievable bachelorette? It revealed something about our fans.”

But the show itself courted and created that homogenous audience and fanbase, and carefully avoided alienating their fans by keeping the winners white — ostensibly so the show could maintain its massive ratings. The Bachelor didn’t address race until it was forced to. And even after Lindsay’s season, no changes were made. A former Black casting producer on the show, Jazzy Collins, recently spoke out about the whiteness of the show’s entire staff, and about the requirements for Black women to be on the show. “The only Black women that were picked to be in the running had weaves or chemically straightened hair, were ‘ethnically ambiguous,’ or were not considered if they were ‘too Black,’” she wrote in an open letter.

Making a show that isn’t just about white hetero romance isn’t hard. Dating Around, created by a former Bachelor producer who was fed up with the brand, was made with inclusive casting and careful editing that showcase different identities, including interracial and intraracial discussions about dating, in a way that feels natural and fresh.

Even The Bachelor’s recent announcement of a Black Bachelor is not enough to meaningfully change the fundamental premise of the franchise, or its audience’s expectations. When white producers and editors create the storylines and aren’t thoughtful about the editing, they ensure that the show’s message remains trapped in racism 101 conversation. In this context, making the lead contestant Black doesn’t carry much weight.

Gustavo Caballero / Bravo

The (all-white) cast of Vanderpump Rules, Season 8 (from left): Beau Clark, Stassi Schroeder, Ariana Madix, Tom Sandoval, Katie Maloney-Schwartz, Kristen Doute, Tom Schwartz, Jax Taylor, Scheana Shay, Peter Madrigal, and Lala Kent.

Bravo, unlike The Bachelor, has always tried to be, in corporate parlance, “diverse” in its casting. The network is famous for creating escapist docusoaps about rich or quasi-rich people’s petty dramas, but the protagonists aren’t only straight and white.

Family Karma, which just ended with no news of a renewal, centers around a group of South Asian friends living in Miami. Blood, Sweat & Heels, which aired from 2014 to 2015, focused on a group of mostly black women professionals in New York; Shahs of Sunset is about Iranian Americans who live in Los Angeles, and Texicanas, which aired in 2019, followed a group of Mexican American women in Texas.

Andy Cohen, basically the face of the network, is the only openly gay late-night host, and he has always has a wide range of guests, in terms of race, gender, and sexuality on his talk show, Watch What Happens Live. But the network is also a good reminder of how “diversity” can paper over bigger questions about hiring practices, and the way behind-the-scenes elements like production and editing impact a show’s content.

In a New York Times piece last year, after the hiring of actress Garcelle Beauvais, the first Black castmate on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Tracie Egan Morrissey pointed out that while the network’s show roster is diverse, the shows themselves are very segregated, especially within the channel’s marquee Housewives universe. The New York and Orange County iterations are all white; until last year, Beverly Hills was all white, with the exception of one Latina woman.

Cast members on the shows are supposed to be “friends,” but anyone who watches the shows and follows the blogs knows that they are actually more like work colleagues. Women tend to be inducted into the Housewives universe through each show’s existing network — often referred to producers by past or current cast, sometimes by Cohen — which tends to reinforce the cast’s racial uniformity.

Adding “diverse” castmates doesn’t get at the core issue.

New York Housewife Jill Zarin and her husband famously suggested Bethenny Frankel for the first season of Real Housewives of New York. Bethenny Frankel suggested prosthetic leg thrower Aviva Drescher. Kyle Richards said at a reunion that she wanted Camille Grammer on the show, and she knew of her because her husband, Mauricio, was Kelsey Grammer’s realtor. They all later admitted on reunions that they weren’t actually friends; they grew to know — or dislike — each other through the show.

In the New York Times story about Bravo’s segregated casts, neither Andy Cohen — who usually takes credit for Housewives — nor the production companies would talk. A Bravo spokesperson did say that each iteration includes friends from overlapping social circles, essentially suggesting the show’s segregation reflects the women’s own social networks. To some degree that’s true.

But according to former New York cast member Heather Thomson, when she suggested some women of color for producers to reach out to, they told her they “were not successful in finding the right individual to fill the void.” It’s an odd and nebulous excuse, because RHONY has had a revolving door of white castmates — Kristen Taekman, Cindy Barshop, Barbara Kavovit — that have ultimately not worked for the franchise, but have gotten at least one season to test their chemistry.

These are the subtle, informal ways that segregation and racist hiring practices reproduce themselves on reality TV — which makes it harder to call gatekeepers to account. But, as with The Bachelor, just adding “diverse” castmates doesn’t get at the core issue of white-centric casts and production teams who decide, in a kind of unspoken collaboration, what even counts as a storyline.

Faith Stowers’ addition to Vanderpump Rules — because, as Lisa Vanderpump put it, the show didn’t “have a lot color” — ended with her being called a liar looking for a storyline when she revealed she had slept with Jax Taylor. Then, when it turned out to be true, she got accused of a robbery by Stassi Schroeder and Kristen Doute as revenge. The addition of Beauvais to Real Housewives of Beverly Hills hasn’t really ended up with her getting much screen time or interaction with the other women. Joyce Giraud’s one-season stint on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills got her subjected to racist jokes about knowing how to swim.

When there have been some nonsegregated casts on these Bravo shows, the storylines often devolve into stories about white cast members’ racism or xenophobia. Unlike all the all-white versions, like New York or Beverly Hills, the first few seasons of Atlanta included Kim Zolciak, a white cast member, who was actually included on the show on the recommendation of star NeNe Leakes. During her time on the series from 2008 to 2012, Zolciak told her Black assistant to lock her car doors when they were visiting Black castmate Kandi Burruss’s neighborhood, “joked” about whether Black people tan, and had to be schooled at the reunion by Phaedra Parks about the way she was throwing around the word ‘bitch’ to the other castmates, and why her “I don’t see color” line of thinking was racist. (Zolciak left Atlanta amid accusations of racism in 2012 and got her own spinoff, Don’t Be Tardy for the Party, that same year.)

The addition of a Mexican cast member, Kary Brittingham, to the Dallas-based incarnation of Housewives proves instructive about how storylines regarding identity are created — or not. The show has mostly revolved around the villainy of LeeAnne Locken, a former Miss Arizona who emphasizes her connection to the LGBTQ community. She is “good television” because she’s generally willing to break a glass to make a point and can make drama out of a visit to a tranquil elephant rescue.

After some petty disagreements with Brittingham, Locken started unleashing a torrent of xenophobia behind her back. She called Brittingham a “chirpy Mexican,” sarcastically said that maybe she needed to “speak Mexican” so Brittingham, for whom English is a second language, could understand her. Most disturbingly, Locken had a kind of enraged breakdown in front of another Housewife where she imagined confronting Brittingham: "Come on, Mexican! I thought you were all Mexican and strong!"

Allegations of racism or xenophobia are simply treated as ways for producers to stir up drama and create storylines.

The other castmates didn’t tell Brittingham what Locken had been saying until the end of the season, when Brittingham confronted Locken and she refused to apologize. During the reunion, the other castmates said they hadn’t told Brittingham about Locken’s outbursts because they weren’t sure if the editors would make her xenophobia into a storyline.

There are plenty of racist and xenophobic moments that don’t rise to the level of ongoing storylines. In past seasons of RHONY, Luann de Lesseps claimed to have Native American background and said she might scalp someone, and showed up to a party in Diana Ross brownface. Sonja Morgan said Moroccans were going to steal her luggage, and Ramona Singer said the country was dirty; in their visit to Cartagena, they said they were scared by “men with machetes,” by which they meant workers on their boat who used a knife to cut an anchor when they hit rough waters.

Arguably, these shows accurately reflect the country’s very real racism and xenophobia, and open up uncomfortable conversations. In a way, these guilty pleasure shows also expose how toxic white women — like Schroeder, Zolciak, or Locken — celebrated for their basicness, easily take their anger to a racist or xenophobic place. (Until, like Schroeder, they’re suddenly called to account.)

But which reality personalities get a platform, and what storylines and thus personalities become more prominent than others, is obviously affected by the white editors and producers. Often it appears as if allegations of racism or xenophobia are simply treated as ways for producers to stir up drama and create storylines — creating an environment in which cast members actually have a kind of perverse incentive to be abusive and offensive, knowing it might earn them more screen time.

Like Mike Fleiss, who was shocked by the “Trumpish” nature of the Bachelor franchise audience, Andy Cohen said he was shocked when, before the last presidential election, he held an audience poll every night to see who the viewers wanted to win, and Trump kept winning. Presumably he had assumed Bravo viewers were less racist than the president. Either way, it’s a reminder that “diversity” in representation, whether across Bravo’s offerings or elsewhere on TV, doesn’t magically erase deeply ingrained attitudes about race and inequality.

Bravo / Getty Images

LeeAnne Locken on Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen.

Despite the current Bravo firings, and The Bachelor casting of a Black lead, it’s clear that reality television accountability remains random and haphazard, depending on public whims and Twitter backlashes. Schroeder and Doute, the Vanderpump Rules castmates, were only fired after Stowers spoke out in the midst of nationwide protests about police brutality.

Responding to public outrages will not do the work of careful hiring, casting, and reconsideration of what a show is fundamentally about. It might be, for instance, that a show like The Bachelor is simply untenable in 2020. As others have noted regarding the racism of algorithms, and what audiences click on, a monocultural supersize audience based on white romance might be inherently racist. (And corporate media is a big part of the problem; I started covering The Bachelor because stories about it got so much traffic at BuzzFeed News.)

To his credit, Cohen recently dedicated two episodes of Watch What Happens Live to discussing systemic racism with Real Housewives of Atlanta star Porsha Williams and comedian and activist W. Kamau Bell. Bell and Williams shared some of their own experiences with racism; Williams thoughtfully asked the audience to question their complicity. “Take a look inside,” she said, “No, you may not necessarily identify as racist, but how many black friends do you have? And if you don’t, I would just say amplify black voices, amplify black life.”

Bell said he was looking forward to the moment when allies would “dig into the change part and move out of the conversation.” Not long after, Cohen said on his radio show that he was having wonderful conversations with Real Housewives of Atlanta castmate Kandi Burruss-Tucker.

“Well, there is a lot more to discuss, there is a lot more and we’re already having those discussions,” he said. “And I had a great, very long talk with Kandi two days ago about … she had some really fantastic suggestions for how we can move forward, and we’re all ears.” How much will actually travel from Cohen's ears to reshape the network structure and the shows you see onscreen is anyone's guess. ●

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