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Are dating shows behind the curve when it comes to inclusion?

By Stephanie Goldberg, CNN
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Fri April 20, 2012
After appearing on
After appearing on "The Bachelorette," Jake Pavelka handed roses out on season 14 of "The Bachelor."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A class action lawsuit accuses "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" of racial discrimination
  • The complaint alleges that the defendants have never featured a person of color in the central role
  • Many inclusive reality competition shows involve platonic, as opposed to romantic, relationships

(CNN) -- Reality programs have long featured contestants of color in their casts.

Competition shows like "Amazing Race," "The Biggest Loser" and "Dancing with the Stars" have featured diverse contestants since their inaugural seasons in 2001, 2004 and 2005, respectively.

But while African-Americans, Asians and Latinos can be seen racing around the world, losing weight and dancing the paso doble on TV, dating shows continue to be far less inclusive.

Two African-American men filed a class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, accusing ABC as well as other companies involved with the production of "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" and creator Mike Fleiss of racial discrimination.

The complaint alleges that, in 16 seasons of "The Bachelor" and seven seasons of "The Bachelorette" (the eighth season is slated to begin airing in May), the defendants have never featured "a single person of color ... in the central role." The suit also alleges that the few people of color who have been chosen to compete are often eliminated after the first few rose ceremonies.

It should be noted that Cuban-born Mary Delgado won Season 6 of "The Bachelor," and Puerto Rican Roberto Martinez won Season 6 of "The Bachelorette."

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But even "The Bachelor's" short-lived competition -- like "Average Joe," "For Love or Money" and "Joe Millionaire" -- featured predominately white casts.

So why does it seem like dating shows might be behind the curve when it comes to inclusion?

Nashville-based plaintiffs Nathaniel Claybrooks and Christopher Johnson assert in their complaint that: "'Dancing with the Stars' and 'Extreme Makeover' only involve platonic, as opposed to romantic, relationships among the cast members. This indicates that the presence of people of color in ABC programming is acceptable so long as there is no exhibition of actual romance between non-whites or whites and people of color."

The lawsuit has helped stoke a conversation about diversity and dating shows, especially when it comes to black-white relationships.

Allison Samuels, a senior writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, said the men who filed suit may be on to something.

"When it comes to romance and love, I just don't think African-Americans ... are viewed as people who love or know how to love," Samuels said. "We're made to be people who are not interesting or attractive ... and can't have that fairytale."

Young minority viewers might end up watching a show like "The Bachelor" and thinking, 'I'm not good enough to get on this show, but I'm good enough to get on the show where I can beat somebody up and fight all day long,' like "Basketball Wives" or "Flavor of Love," she said.

"The Bachelor" has set the tone for how women and people of color are portrayed on every dating show -- on network TV and cable, alike, said Jennifer L. Pozner, the author of Realitybitesbackbook.com.

And for a decade, "[ABC and creator Mike Fliess] have done everything they can to create an on-screen America that looks like the segregated South in the '50s," Pozner said, adding, "It's as if [the network] is afraid they could lose advertisers by showing interracial dating."

Calling "The Bachelor" "light and fluffy entertainment," Bradley Jacobs, a senior editor at US Weekly, said, producers are "probably not interested in getting their hands dirty in some kind of interracial romance."

The show has always featured a bunch of "white girls fighting over a white guy," Jacobs said. "That's what the viewers, I guess, expect and what the advertisers, I guess, expect. ... A lot of people a still are against mixed-race marriages."

According to data from 2008 and published in Social Science Research last year, white women who were surveyed are more likely to approve of interracial relationships for others than themselves, while white men are more likely to personally engage in such relationships.

People are increasingly becoming more accepting of interracial relationships, Samuels said. But TV doesn't "push black-on-black love, so why would [viewers] want to see black-on-white love. It's taken a lawsuit to make people talk about this, but I'm not perplexed."

Arturo R. García, the managing editor at Racialicious.com, said he is surprised "The Bachelor's" alleged whitewashing is just now being widely criticized.

"I'm surprised that someone like Fleiss didn't at least see the revenue potential of expanding the cast," García said. "Why wouldn't you feature a successful African-American man or woman?"

Not to mention the fact that "a meaningful multicultural dating show ... would more closely reflect modern interaction," he added.

However, García said, one lawsuit can't immediately change the dynamic of such a long-running program.

"It would take a re-engineering of the show's thought process to make inclusiveness part of the culture of that program," he said. "If the plaintiffs win and you see an African-American Bachelorette, would there be a stigma associated with her? She's only there because the lawsuit said she had to be there."

It's too soon to tell how the lawsuit might effect impending seasons of the dating show. But lawsuit or not, Lamar Hurd hopes to be wielding roses in the near future. The Portland-based sportscaster has been petitioning to become the first black Bachelor.

This isn't the first time the issue of diversity has been raised regarding "The Bachelor."

In March 2011, creator Fleiss told Entertainment Weekly: "I think Ashley [Hebert] is 1/16th Cherokee Indian, but I cannot confirm. But that is my suspicion! We really tried, but sometimes we feel guilty of tokenism. Oh, we have to wedge African-American chicks in there! We always want to cast for ethnic diversity, it's just that for whatever reason, they don't come forward. I wish they would."

"I'll take tokenism if it's going to get one person a job," Samuels said, referencing Fleiss' quote. "The point now is that not even that one person is on there."

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