In the 1960s, people sued to desegregate lunch counters and universities. In April, a pair of black men challenged a different sort of institution they say remains a bastion of racial exclusion: ABC’s The Bachelor. They asked a federal judge to order the dating show to cast a black lead. Last week, the judge threw the suit out on First Amendment grounds — which was the right thing to do. But just because the suit was a clear loser does not mean it will not have an impact.
Nathaniel Claybrooks and Christopher Johnson applied to be cast as the lead in the 2011 season of The Bachelor but they were turned down. That meant they missed out on the chance to receive a stipend, free food and housing, and travel expenses — and to have 25 women as exhibitionist as they are compete for their affections. The Bachelor may be mind-rottingly dumb — and its couples certainly have a poor track record of actually making it to the altar — but it is in its 16th season, so it clearly has a following.
The show boasts of its “eclectic mix of bachelors,” which have included “a doctor, football star, prince, millionaire, [and a] single dad” — presumably not the same person — but that eclectic mix has never produced a bachelor of color. The Bachelorette, its sibling show, has never had a bachelorette of color in its eight seasons. That makes the franchise 0 for 24. The overwhelming majority of the women and men competing for the bachelor and bachelorette’s affections have also been white.
Claybrooks and Johnson said that when they applied to be on the show, they were not seriously considered. Claybrooks said that when he went to a casting call in Nashville, all the other applicants appeared to be white, and while their interviews lasted about 45 minutes, his was ended after just 20 minutes. Johnson said that when he arrived at a casting call also in Nashville, a white employee of the show took his materials and promised to “pass them on” to the casting directors, while white applicants were allowed in an given an interview.
The two men accused the show’s producers of intentionally avoiding casting black participants to avoid the subject of interracial dating — which could alienate the predominantly white audience. The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are, they argued, “examples of purposeful segregation in the media that perpetuates racial stereotypes and denies persons of color of opportunities in the entertainment industry.”
The two men charged that the show violated their rights under a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in forming contracts. They asked the court to order the show to stop discriminating, and to consider non-whites as finalists for the roles of bachelor and bachelorette.
The judge sided with the show’s producers, ruling that their casting decisions are free expression protected by the First Amendment. The court invoked a 1995 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the organizers of a Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade could keep out an Irish-American gay, lesbian and bisexual group, even though Massachusetts had a law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Supreme Court said that “the speaker has the autonomy to choose the content of his own message” — a principle that applies to the producers of The Bachelor, as well.
Claybrooks and Johnson may be wrong on the law, but they have a point to make on the facts. The contestants on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are far whiter than the country. The shows may be dreck, but television and pop culture shape public opinion. When Star Trek aired one of television’s first interracial kisses, it chipped away at racial barriers. Vice President Joe Biden was right when he said on Meet the Press earlier this year that Will and Grace did a whole lot to change public opinion about gay marriage.
Even if the First Amendment protects the producers’ right to use casting decisions that bear an uncomfortable relation to social mores of Alabama in 1950, that does not mean it is the right thing to do. The lawsuit put an uncomfortable spotlight on the show’s practices — and as NPR has pointed out, may well have had an effect. It appears that after seasons in which there have been no minority contestants, the next season of The Bachelor will have four black women. It is not exactly putting Thurgood Marshall or Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court, but if we really want a society in which all groups are included, even our drivelly television should not discriminate.