In a surprise move following "The Bachelor" finale on Monday, ABC announced that runner-up JoJo Fletcher would be America's next Bachelorette. This came as a shock to some fans who were expecting to hear the name of third runner-up Caila Quinn.
It was widely reported that Quinn, who is half Filipino, would be the one narrowing down suitors when "The Bachelorette" returns on May 23 — a decision that seemed all the more possible after this year's winter TV press tour, where then-network president Paul Lee said that he would "be very surprised if 'The Bachelorette' in the summer isn't diverse." (Lee was replaced as network head last month by Channing Dungey, who happens to be the first African American to head any of the four major broadcast networks.)
After Fletcher — who was left heartbroken when this season's 'Bachelor' Ben Higgins chose Lauren Bushnell to be his future wife — was announced as the next "Bachelorette," some questioned whether "The Bachelorette" had shunned the diversity route altogether. "The Bachelorette's Casting Switch Proves the Show Isn't Going to Get More Diverse," Time reported. Over at Jezebel, the headline read: "The Latest Bachelorette Casting Proves What the The Bachelor Truly Cares About: Ratings"
Here's the thing, though: 'Diverse' is a very vague word. And according to Entertainment Weekly, Lee followed his widely reported TCA statement up with this caveat: "Perhaps I shouldn't have said that, but I think that's likely to happen." The "Bachelor" franchise has long faced criticism for its overwhelmingly white casts and was the subject of a class-action lawsuit in 2012 that cited racial discrimination in casting decisions.
The criticism behind ABC's recent "Bachelorette" choice gets a bit murky when you consider that Fletcher is also of mixed heritage. Her mother is from Iran, and Fletcher makes note of her Persian background in a Q&A on "The Bachelor" website. ("My mom is Persian, and my Dad was born and raised in Tennessee. I'm proud of my mother's background despite what social opinions are. It's important for me to stand up to people stereotyping Iranians.")
As many have noted, ABC played up Fletcher's Texas roots in its news release about her being cast as the Bachelorette (referring to her as a "Southern sweetheart"), and it wasn't a focus on "The Bachelor." Meanwhile, Quinn's background appears to have gotten more attention because it came up when Ben visited her family during the hometown-dates episode.
In a post for NPR's Code Switch blog ahead of Monday's finale, writer Akemi Johnson analyzed the potential significance of a "hapa" (or someone mixed with Asian heritage) Bachelorette, noting that out of the women of color who have appeared on the show, those "of mixed-race Asian-white background" have fared the best (including two winners, Catherine Giudici and Tessa Horst). Johnson wrote:
Other women of color on 'The Bachelor' tend to follow a familiar pattern: They may face hostility and racial anxieties from other contestants, then disappear from the screen early in the season. The latest example is Jubilee Sharpe, this season's black military veteran who fielded microaggressions from other contestants and suffered tension with the two biracial African-American and white women. On the show, these conflicts were coded with euphemisms: Sharpe was "layered" and "complicated" and "different." Sharpe stuck around longer than most black women, but was still eliminated within the first half of the season.
That tension played out on "The Bachelor's" recent "Women Tell All" special when Sharpe, who was favored by some to be named the next Bachelorette, was confronted over comments she made while on the show. Sharpe later told People that her remarks were misconstrued.
"I said I am the one full black girl in the house. I think of that as a fact," Sharpe told the magazine. "The way they tried to portray me really got to me, like I was the racist black girl. Race has never been a thing for me. My whole [adopted] family is white. I wasn't raised seeing color."
Jezebel speculates that Fletcher's background will be more of a focus on "The Bachelorette," given the calls for diversity changes on the show, but the site also points out that Fletcher has experience in reality television beyond "The Bachelor" — her brother Ben Patton was on NBC's failed "Bachelor"-esque competition show "Ready for Love" and Fletcher even made an appearance in an episode.
Fletcher's casting, and the reaction to it, serve as a reminder that, ultimately, contestants aren't in control over what the show chooses to focus on — nor what audiences respond to when tuning in each week. That's a theme that Lifetime's reality show drama "UnReal" astutely captured in its first season. Coincidentally, when "UnReal" returns for Season 2 this summer, its fictional reality show will revolve around a black suitor.