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Ah, the (White) Privilege of Being a (Hot) Mess on Reality TV

For the past ten weeks, I’ve happily submerged myself in the escapist goldmine that is The Bachelor. Equal parts chaos and drama, this season marked a return to form for longtime fans like myself. Because if there’s one thing Bachelor Nation stars and fans have an insatiable appetite for, it’s scalding hot mess. In the world of reality television, messiness is king. Unabashed portrayals of difficulties and disorder often shatter the façade of flawlessness, making picture-perfect contestants seem more relatable. But when reflecting on the franchise’s breakout stars, I realized that messiness is also a privilege. For while much has been said about The Bachelor franchise’s clumsy handling of diversity, we need to talk about fans’ double standards on contestant behavior and personas.

When reflecting on the franchise’s breakout stars, I realized that messiness is also a privilege.

Of the five most recent Bachelorette leads, it’s the white women who embrace mess with pride, spilling tea, bearing their most vulnerable moments, and captivating viewers’ hearts and attention spans in the process. Season 17 Bachelorette Katie Thurston embarked on “12 Days of Messy,” a social media challenge to reveal her relationship with a previously eliminated contestant just weeks after ending her engagement to her season’s winner. Instagrammers crowned Clare Crawley, the lead of season 16, a messy queen for low-key calling out a former Bachelor contestant rumored to have hooked up with her ex-fiancé. Then there’s Hannah Brown, the season 15 lead who titled her tea-soaked New York Times bestseller memoir God Bless This Mess.

On the other hand, Bachelorettes Michelle Young and Tayshia Adams moved much differently both during and after their respective seasons. The third ever Black Bachelorette, Young led a decidedly mess-free season last year. Twitter users called Young “boring,” while viewers wondered why she spoke slowly and deliberately. Bachelorette Tayshia Adams, the Black and Mexican lead who replaced Crawley on season 16, addressed her very public breakup to television audiences in a composed manner only to be called fake and calculated. (A Bachelor got in on the criticism, too, openly doubting Tayshia’s display of emotion and authenticity in his podcast.)

Even when dating 20-plus people at once in front of millions of viewers (an experience bound to bring out the mess in almost anybody), neither Young or Adams really let loose. Probably because if they did, their behavior wouldn’t be praised as radically messy, but rather ratchet, crazy, or angry, the go-to stereotype for when Black women keep it all the way real. Upon entering an environment once exclusive to white women, Bachelorette leads of color automatically become the default representation of their entire race and face the limiting dichotomy of being portrayed as either a stereotype or a role model. And for the latter, messy isn’t an option.

Their behavior wouldn’t be praised as radically messy, but rather ratchet, crazy, or angry.

Several people of color in Bachelor Nation have spoken publicly about the pressures they’ve felt to defy stereotypes and carry the weight of representation. Rachel Lindsay, who made history as the franchise’s first lead of color in 2017, devoted an entire chapter of her book Miss Me With That to this. “As a person of color, I would never be given the benefit of the doubt,” she wrote. “I got this message early on, and it was reinforced repeatedly. Because of the social caste system in this country, if I had a disagreement with another white person in the franchise, the fans always cast me as the stereotypical angry Black woman.”

Bri Springs, a finalist on the Bachelor’s 25th season, opened up about her decision to avoid getting involved in onscreen messiness. “That was a line that I felt like a lot of the women, especially the Black women and women of color in the house were always threading,” she recalled. “We [didn’t] want to be the angry Black women who are going to stand up to bullying and speak our minds. There’s just so many dynamics at play in these situations. I think there’s a lot of complexities and nuances that…I realize the audience might not necessarily consider.”

Earlier this week, Sierra Jackson, a season 26 Bachelor contestant, received disproportionate hate after calling out another problematic contestant during the season’s tell-all episode. Sierra confronted the very real double standards women of color face in a series of tweets. “A WOC that talks too much is worse than a white women [sic] that makes fun of mental differences,” she wrote, referencing the contestant’s mockery of ADHD. “Let that sink in, America. #WhitePrivilege.”

Women of color need to be empowered to be their full, imperfect selves on screen.

That white privilege is also reflected in both attention and numbers. When women of color don’t fully connect with audiences, their post-show career prospects suffer in the real world. Bachelor Nation contestants who leave a lasting, colorful impression on audiences are more likely to be considered for the Bachelorette lead title and for a role on the popular spin-off Bachelor in Paradise. They also rack up tons of social media followers, and as a result, boost their earning potential. At the time of publishing, Brown boasts a whopping 2.6 million followers on Instagram, whereas Young has only 782,000. When former contestant Tammy Ly, a woman of color, pointed out a similar discrepancy on Twitter, many users minimized her valid sentiments and chalked it up to lack of screen time. But here’s the thing: In order to make lasting, TV-worthy moments, women of color need to be empowered to be their full, imperfect selves on screen. In order to do that, the world needs to stop demanding they be impossibly perfect.

This isn’t just a Bachelor Nation problem, it’s a universal one. After all, we live in a world where a white man with absolutely no formal educational or professional background in law has the audacity to dispute the pristine qualifications of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. Most women of color know what it feels like to be under that proverbial microscope in nearly all areas of life, especially in spaces that haven’t always embraced racial diversity. We have to work exponentially harder to simply be considered competent or skilled enough to represent our race, something white people never have to consider.

Some fellow Bachelorette fans might be wondering how this argument applies to the fact that messy white leads like Crawley and Thurston are still not exempt from harsh, public criticisms. Well, you’re right. All women, regardless of race, are held to near impossible expectations. However, women of color, particularly Black women, face unique double standards and pressures and have to exert specific emotional labors to move through the Bachelor franchise and its subcultures. We might not be able to uproot these longstanding issues through a reality dating show, but as fans, we can challenge ourselves to interrogate and demand more from the programs that perpetuate them. Producers and viewers can foster a culture that empowers women of color to embrace our whole selves. We are human beings, mess and all.

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