This season was different. Last night’s MTA proved as engrossing as a real episode of the show. For one uncomfortable, edifying segment, The Bachelorette provided the setting for a frank dialogue about the insidious racism that still plagues America.
I realize how surreal that sounds (not to mention, how ironic how surreal that sounds). But if you watched last night you know what I’m talking about. If you didn’t, here’s a quick synopsis: an ingratiating white Southern singer/songwriter named Lee confessed during the season that he was there “to ruffle feathers.” The problem was, it only appeared that he wished to ruffle the feathers of the black contestants—particularly Kenny, an affable wrestler from Las Vegas. While Kenny threw in his fair share of insults, it became increasingly clear that Lee was the instigator, tone-deafly calling Kenny “aggressive” and even going so far as to lie to Rachel about Kenny pulling him out of a van. And when a series of Lee’s racist tweets came to light mid-season, it cast his run-of-the-mill reality TV villainy in a much crueler light.
The other contestants didn’t know about those at the time, but they certainly did at the MTA. After calling Lee up to the hot seat, host Chris Harrison also made a show of putting them up on the big screen for everyone to see. This was the most offending tweet:
“What’s the difference between the NAACP and the KKK? One has a sense of shame to cover their racist ass faces.”
You have to give it to the The Bachelorette here: Harrison presses him on this, and gave the guys in the house ample time to press him on it, too. Lee, for his part, was, as Harrison says, “literally shaking in his boots.” His refrain seemed to be a forced apology and the suggestion that he “had a lot to learn in that area.” He denounced the tweets, of course, but it was clear he had only denounced them now that he’d been caught.
The guys, to their credit, refuse to let him off the hook. One contestant, Josiah, joins him on the couch and asks him why, if he had these racist sentiments, he went on a show to meet a black woman; another, Anthony, articulately suggests Lee had failed to recognize what they were trying to forgive them for: while he’d admitted to being a bad person/friend, he hadn’t acknowledged the racism in his actions, whether it was intentional or subconscious. Lee concedes once again that what he did was wrong, but once again fails to explain how it was wrong.
This is where it gets interesting. Harrison tries to goad him into saying the right thing, asking Lee if he recognizes that racism was a part of him, regardless of who he is now. Lee says, “I am grateful that I have people in my life now that make me not like I was when I made a racist comment. I completely denounce that and I denounce that Lee. I wanna learn.”
Anthony is satisfied with this apology, but another black contestant, Will, wants to hear him use the word “racist”; in fact, he tacitly suggests that this is what he needs to hear in order to forgive him. Obviously, Lee yields: “That tweet was racist and I denounce it.” Soon after, the men uniformly seem to accept his apology and agree to help him move forward. Kenny and Lee “hug it out.” The show moves on, as if this were any other silly tiff that happened on any other season of The Bachelorette.
But can a conflict as complex as this really be that easily tied up in a happy little TV bow? A few weeks ago, in the heat of the Kenny-Lee battle, I wrote that the format of The Bachelorette meant it was ill-equipped to deal with questions as complicated as these. Watching last night’s episode, I found it profound that a show like The Bachelorette could engender such a candid conversation about race. But what I found more profound still was the show’s insistence on subsequently shoving that conversation into its readymade mold of closure. Instead of leaving the conflict messy and unsettled, as it should’ve been, as it really probably was, ABC gives it a clean, Disney-esque happy ending. This is what one might call the “TV” aspect of “reality TV.”
The takeaway here is that, with this genre, form bludgeons content. Reality TV might be more than a scripted series, but that doesn’t necessarily make it more true. Truth, it should be said, is harder to pin down than reality. It can be more challenging to represent via a format grounded in a manipulated reality than a fictional world whose loyalty lies not with reality, but with truth. So, yes, this was perhaps one of the most honest conversations on race I’ve seen on television—particularly of the reality variety. But is it more effective, or affecting, than discussions of race broached on shows like Dear White People, or The Wire, or even Mad Men?
Let’s not go overboard.