The moment Dallas woman Rachel Lindsay stepped out of a limo and onto prime time television as one of the contestants on the 21st season of ABC's The Bachelor, she was immediately captivating. Wearing a floor-length red dress and sparkling smile, the 31-year-old attorney proved to be charismatic, witty and a league above the other contestants.
Viewers weren't the only ones who noticed. Nick Viall, the titular bachelor, was also taken by Lindsay and gave her the coveted first impression rose during the season premiere.
The exchange happens every season, but Lindsay grabbed headlines because she made history as the first black woman to get that first rose. (She even made it to the top three, but was sent home during the episode that aired March 6.)
Lindsay would go on to hit many milestones on the reality TV series, most notably landing the star spot of the upcoming The Bachelorette. She's the first female of the color to do so. For a show that has been vehemently criticized for its lack of diversity, this marks a step forward. But is it really progress?
How 'The Bachelor' has (slowly) gotten more diverse
Brandy Zadrozny has been watching The Bachelor since 2003 when a friend of hers was a finalist on the show. As a reporter for The Daily Beast, she's also covered the series for several years and says whenever she interviewed black participants, they often felt like "the token." They wouldn't be sent home right away -- that would look unflattering, wouldn't it? -- but they never seemed to stay long enough for fans to get to know them.
Over many seasons, however, Zadrozny noticed a gradual evolution. The pool of contestants grew more diverse, albeit marginally, and the minority suitors seemed to click better with bachelors and bachelorettes.
"I don't know if the nation has changed or the bachelors they pick have changed," Zadrozny says, "but it seems like less of a token and more that these contestants actually have a chance."
Was it organic or on purpose? That's up for debate. A pair of series hopefuls sued ABC in 2012, accusing the network of intentionally excluding people of color from the cast. A judge, however, dismissed the case, saying casting fell under protection of the First Amendment.
Few will deny that Lindsay seemed like a golden opportunity for the network, however.
Kristen Warner, assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama, studies how women of color are represented in TV and film. She believes having Lindsay as the bachelorette is a win for black women because it proves the show's tastemakers deem her "worthy of them investing the time and marketing into." And that's not any easy find, she says.
"In order for her to be the remotest possible suitor, I think she would need to be 10s across the board," Warner says. "Her socioeconomic class, her education, her looks -- she needs to be above board in all those things."
With the combination of brains and beauty, Lindsay is oft described as the total package, but that doesn't mean she won't face challenges.
"It's going to be very hard when you're the first black anything," says Jessalyn Bradley, a Dallas resident and recent fan of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.
Bradley grew up in San Antonio surrounded by predominantly white and Hispanic peers, so she empathizes with Lindsay as a voice for the black community. The new bachelorette will be under a more critical eye than her predecessors, Bradley says, because viewers see her representing an entire demographic.
"She's going to get it from the black community, which I think is stupid, but that 'she's not black enough,'" Bradley says. "The white community might even be a little more accepting just because they feel, 'Well, if I say anything bad about her, I'm racist.'"
The show's editing could also affect her image. In an NBCBLK editorial, writer Nikki Booker points out that sex sells and says, "Rachel's brand will be tarnished if she isn't careful."
But what will perhaps most set the tone for the 13th season of The Bachelorette are the men cast as Lindsay's suitors. ABC announced the new bachelorette while she was still competing on The Bachelor to reportedly allow more time for casting. Bradley hopes Lindsay to will have "great diversity" of eligible bachelors, otherwise the network is headed down a slippery slope, she says.
"If it's 10 or 20 black guys, I'll be honest, I'm not going to watch it because I already know they're doing that to push [the show] out to me," she says.
Bradley's point raises another pertinent question: Is Lindsay's recruitment simply an attempt to lure new audiences?
According to Forbes, about 8 percent of the viewership during Nick Viall's season of The Bachelor are black, which aligns with the series' average. That pales in comparison to a program like Empire, the audience for which is about 63 percent black, according to a recent Nielsen study. Even Lindsay has said she hardly watched The Bachelor before going on.
In the aforementioned study, Nielsen analyzed the demographic viewership for TV shows that feature a predominantly black cast and, interestingly, found that the primary audience for three-quarters of them are not black. Four of the five programs with the lowest percentage of black viewership air on ABC -- Black-ish (20 percent), Secrets and Lies (25 percent), How to Get Away With Murder (31 percent) and Scandal (32 percent) -- suggesting the network's core audience is already receptive to leading black actors.
"Storylines with a strong black character or identity are crossing cultural boundaries to grab diverse audiences and start conversations," said Andrew McCaskill, senior vice president of Communications and Multicultural Marketing at Nielsen, in a statement.
More than a color
The Bachelor's newfound diversity may seem like a trivial stride toward equality on the heels of America's first black presidency, but Warner at the University of Alabama argues that pop culture often provides a lens through which people become more informed about society. She points to politicians who appear on talk shows and Saturday Night Live, as well as Shonda Rhimes, who positions people of color in high ranking positions in her TV series, such as Grey's Anatomy and Scandal.
"All those kinds of representations, personal and political, inform one another," Warner said.
Lindsay's expedition for love on The Bachelorette will also enable her to talk about dating from a new perspective. The Dallasite, who says she is both "humbled" and "proud" to be the first black bachelorette, is eager to foster conversations around race. Her hometown date with Viall in Dallas, for example, was one of the realest moments in Bachelor history, as her family discussed the implications of interracial dating and marriage.
But Lindsay doesn't want the issue to dominate her season.
In addition to practicing law, Lindsay is a sports fanatic -- "Dallas teams, preferably," she says. She volunteers at the Beacon Hill Preparatory Institute, an after-school program for at-risk high school students, and works out almost daily. Locals may also find her dancing the night away at concerts in Deep Ellum.
"I am honored to be the first African-American woman to take on this lead role, but at the same time I don't want it to become a theme for my entire journey," Lindsay says.
"I want people to just engage with me as a person and realize that my journey is no different from the next woman's."