To best understand the jubilation expressed over the new black “Bachelorette” Rachel Lindsay, one need only watch the pilot of HBO’s “Insecure.”
In one of television’s most comedic and honest exchanges to date, Molly (Yvonne Orji) tearfully asks her best friend Issa (star and series creator Issa Rae) why no one has chosen to marry her. The question comes soon after Molly’s Asian-American coworker at her law firm gets engaged to a black man.
“They wife others up with a quickness,” Issa declares, easily verbalizing what far too many of us have said away from mixed company.
That’s because in real life and in pop culture, rarely do we see ourselves – with the exception of Michelle Obama – as leading ladies. From professional athletes such as Robert Griffin III and rappers such as Kanye West to Will Smith in “Focus,” black men are often given the option to pursue love outside of their race while black women are not so subtly told to hold it down and “keep it real.” When it comes to dating, black women are supposed to wait on the perfect black Prince Charming or die alone.
But Lindsay, a beautiful and accomplished 31-year-old attorney, won’t have to suffer the fate of waiting or being rejected, at least not again. Not only is she the object of desire but as the first black woman to helm “The Bachelorette” in the ABC hit reality series’ 14-year history, she’ll be the one calling the shots.
As Linda Holmes pointed out in her NPR.com piece on Lindsay, the best thing “The Bachelor” Nick Viall could’ve done was ultimately reject the Dallas native because it made her eligible to become the next “Bachelorette.”
That’s how the series works and because more than half of the show’s black contestants get eliminated within the first two weeks – and there have been some seasons with no people of color at all – no black men nor women have made it far enough for consideration until now. There was even a short-lived racial discrimination lawsuit in 2012.
Diversity isn’t always an easy path to pursue. Juan Pablo Galavis, the first Latino suitor on “The Bachelor,” turned out to be a public relations nightmare three years ago. Not only did the Season 18 suitor treat women abominably but he made homophobic statements in an interview that rankled a number of contestants and viewers.
Fictional pursuits have also fallen short as fans of Lifetime’s “UnREAL” can attest. In an attempt to shame “The Bachelor” for never having had a black suitor, the dramatic parody cast actor B.J. Britt in Season 2. But the show fell apart when its non-black writers and producers haphazardly tackled too many social issues ranging from interracial dating to the Black Lives Matters movement.
Of course as the “Bachelor” franchise’s first black star, Lindsay will have to deal with a lot of conjecture and commentary her white predecessors didn’t. For instance, what if Lindsay is given a predominately black pool of bachelors to choose from but actually prefers white men? It’s plausible considering her attraction to Viall and the fact that her sister is happily married to a white man. What if she chooses a Latino man or an Asian-American? Will black men turn on her?
Remember those options that I mentioned black men having? Yeah, that doesn’t apply to black women. Anytime black women dare to break the code and date or marry non-black men, they are ridiculed everywhere from “The Rickey Smiley Morning Show” to Twitter posts. Just look at the angry and vocal minority of black men who declared tennis superstar Serena Williams a #traitor when she got engaged to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who is Armenian American.
Never mind the fact that Williams once dated a few beloved black bachelors, including rappers Common and Drake. Williams has also been criticized for being too “masculine” by some and too sexy by others and despite it all, she has managed to still love herself and finally find love on her own terms.
The 23-time Grand Slam champion is in good company. Before Williams, detractors spewed similar vitriol at Oscar Award-winning actress Halle Berry, sci-fi queen Zoe Saldana and British actress Thandie Newton for their choices in leading men on and off the screen.
Not even fictional characters are free from ridicule. Critics and viewers berated ABC’s “Scandal” when political fixer Olivia Pope (star Kerry Washington) enjoyed a steamy love affair with a married white president.
Disney, which owns ABC, should be used to this kind of ballyhoo. The media giant faced similar rants when “The Princess and the Frog” featured Disney’s first black princess falling in love with a non-black prince. But if the ratings success of Shonda Rhimes’ executive-produced dramas “Scandal” and “How To Get Away with Murder” are any indication, black women consumers/viewers could drum up enough support and positive social media buzz to make a black bachelorette an invaluable ratings asset.
And then there’s the Rick and Michonne relationship on AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” The pairing has been heralded by a number of black women fans because Michonne (actress Danai Gurira) gets to be the leading lady with a hot guy (Andrew Lincoln) on her arm.
For every black woman who cheered, there have been a considerable number of white male viewers who have said that the “shipping” between these two characters feels “forced” and betrays the graphic novel. But such protestations do little to mask the undeniable problem these same viewers seem to have with seeing a white man they admire and relate to settling down with a strong and beautiful black woman.
Speaking of strength, black women are probably the only women shunned socially for appearing too strong. It’s a stigma we’ve had to shake off for far too long writes Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn, co-author of the book “Swirling: How to Date, Mate and Relate Mixing Race, Culture and Creed.” The book, released in 2012, encourages black women to date men of all races in order to find their happily ever after.
“The ‘Strong Black Woman’ is capable of just about everything, from leaping tall buildings with a single bound and lifting cars with one hand to change a tire,” Littlejohn writes. “Sure, it’s nice to be considered more durable than a dandelion, but it sucks when men feel like there’s little use for them outside of their phalluses.”
What it all boils down to is that Lindsay, as the first black “Bachelorette,” will probably have to toe the line. She will have to choose and pursue at least one relationship with a black man and although she’s a successful attorney, Lindsay can’t appear to be too strong, too angry or too career-oriented.
So far, thankfully, Lindsay is pushing against the box some viewers might want to put her in.
“I’m honored to have this opportunity and to represent myself as an African-American woman,” Lindsay said on “Good Morning America.” “I just hope that people rally behind me like they did in Nick’s season. Even though I’m an African-American woman, I’m just trying to find love and it’s no different from any other bachelorette.”
Here’s hoping she’s right.
“The Bachelorette” Season 13 premieres May 22 on ABC.