Jenn Tran is the first Asian American Bachelorette. It’s about time.

BROOKLYN — At seven minutes till 11 p.m. on Monday, a collective scream erupted from a Brooklyn bar that could have rivaled the crowd decibel levels of a Taylor Swift concert.

I’d dropped by a viewing party for the live season finale of ABC’s “The Bachelor,” a show — I say this with some sheepishness — that I’ve watched since its very first season 22 years ago, and that I’ve tried to quit, with little success, as it became a launching ground for aspiring influencers.

Seemingly every hopeless-romantic 20-something woman in New York (and me), plus a couple of supportive boyfriends and a few errant guys who, shockingly, did not seem to be gay, had crowded into Syndicated, a Bushwick watering house that has been hosting Bachelor Nation watch parties for years. We were there to see find out who tennis-teaching pro Joey Graziadei, the most emotionally intelligent Bachelor possibly ever, would propose to. Would it be Daisy Kent, the bubbly blonde who grew up on a Christmas tree farm and recently got a cochlear implant to correct near-total hearing loss? Or would it be Kelsey Anderson, the sweet, tearful construction manager from New Orleans with enviable Julia Roberts curls who lost her mom to breast cancer six years ago and senses her presence every time she sees a butterfly? (The bar was 100 percent Team Kelsey, who did, in the end, win Joey’s heart.)

What we hadn’t been preparing for was a shocker of an announcement by host Jesse Palmer about who would be the next Bachelorette: Jenn Tran, the first Asian American lead in franchise history.

“We’ve wanted it to be Jenn ever since she stepped out of the limo!” screamed one of two Vietnamese American women sitting next to me. They’d been instant fans of Tran, a fellow Vietnamese American with immigrant parents who’s studying to be a physician assistant. She told Palmer that she’d been in her scrubs working in the emergency room the day before putting on a gown to go on national television.

“My cousin! My cousin!” one of my bar-buddies yelled jokingly. They just could not believe that someone who looked like them was going to be the lead of the most popular network-TV dating show in America

Tran, too, seemed to realize the significance of the moment. “Growing up I always wanted to see Asian representation on TV and I feel like it was really sparse,” she told Palmer. “Any time Asians were in the media, it was to fill a supporting character role, to fulfill some sort of stereotype. … And now, to be here today, sitting in this position, being like, ‘I am going to lead my own love story, I am going to be the main character in my own story,’ I just can’t help but think of how many people I’m inspiring and how many lives I’m going to change.” (Change lives? A little much, Jenn, but that’s okay!)

If you are not familiar with “The Bachelor” or think it’s totally frivolous — I don’t blame you, but I also don’t agree with you! — it’s actually the object of fascination for many smart people I know, who see it as a window into societal progress. And as the longest-running dating show on television, with millions of viewers, it has undeniable cultural significance that is often dismissed in ways that reek of sexism.

“I think that we refuse to take lighthearted or fluffy-coded culture seriously at our own peril,” said Emma Gray, co-host of the “Love To See It” podcast, which examines “The Bachelor” franchise through a feminist lens. “Millions of people are tuning into this show every week. It is the gold standard of reality dating shows [that] every reality dating show that comes after it is reacting to. … Does casting Jenn as the lead achieve some grand goal of racial equality? No. But can it move the needle in terms of what we as a culture deem desirable, worthy of attention, a person with a lived experience worthy of us all connecting to? I think it really can.”

“When I was little, I would have killed to have seen this, or when I was watching the show in college or high school, even,” said Sharleen Joynt, a biracial Chinese Canadian opera singer from Season 18 with Juan Pablo Galavis. Ten years ago, she was one of the first Asian contestants to make it significantly far on the show. “I mean, I remember when ‘Mulan’ came out [in 1998] and I learned all the words to the songs because I had never seen anything like that before, and it was animated!”

All that Ali Barthwell, Vulture’s “Bachelor” recapper, who’s also a three-time Emmy-winning writer for “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” could think of was that Tran was trying too hard to cultivate a funny-hot-girl personality, despite being very bad at telling jokes.

“I want her to have a great time and get everything she’s looking for, but she just is very awkward when she’s put on the spot. I mean, that’s the sign of true equality — when every race, every creed can be represented as an okay ‘Bachelorette’ season,” said Barthwell, who is Black.

The show’s failure to cast an Asian lead, until now, has become a running joke among fans. It’s so overdue that the podcast “Game of Roses,” in which the hosts recap the shows like they’re major sports events, ends every episode with a special countdown (that’s still going!): “It’s been 8,037 days without an Asian Bachelor.”

To understand why it’s been so long, you need to know how the show works. “The Bachelor” (one guy dating 32 women) and “The Bachelorette” (one woman dating 32 men) are stuck in a somewhat toxic feedback loop. Typically, the chosen Bachelorette is the person on the previous “Bachelor” season who has the best “deserving of love” story. She’s almost always someone who made it into the Bachelor’s final four, gone to the all-important “Hometown” or “Fantasy Suite” dates and had her heart broken, but not so broken that she can’t turn around and date 32 guys in, like, a month. If a White lead only has White love interests, then only White people advance to the stage where they can get cast as the next lead, and so on.

Tran never made it past Joey’s top six, which on most seasons would put her out of the running, and is one reason her selection came as such a surprise.

When Joynt was filming the show in 2013, she said, the idea that she’d make it far enough to become Bachelorette was completely out of her realm of thinking. “I was of course aware that no one else looks like me, but I wasn’t really focused on it,” said Joynt, who now recaps the shows with her husband on their “Dear Shandy” podcast and is host of “Bachelor in Paradise: Canada.”

“But when the show starts airing, and you start getting messages from people, just with general excitement that you are Asian and are on this show, it was like, ‘Oh wow, that is kind of a big deal.’” (I’m Chinese American and can rattle off the names of every Asian contestant in the show’s history because there have been so few.)

For years, the show’s M.O. has been to cast one or two Asian contestants, who usually get sent home immediately. If someone makes it past night one, that’s a win, says Joynt. A one-on-one date? Hall of Fame. Although, most of the time, if an Asian contestant gets airtime, it’s usually if they managed to get in a fight with someone before getting sent home.

Like me, Joynt remembers how thrilling it was when Bachelor 17, Sean Lowe, proposed to Catherine Giudici, a Filipina graphic designer, back in 2013.

But we didn’t get a lead of color until Rachel Lindsay was cast as the first Black Bachelorette in 2017 — after being a contestant on **SEASON 21!!!** of “The Bachelor.” The show only got its first Black Bachelor, Matt James, after major outcry from viewers during the George Floyd protests.

The 28th season with Graziadei, though, felt different. We first got to know him as he was falling in love with the show’s fourth Black Bachelorette, Charity Lawson, and he’d lived in Hawaii, which already gave us Asian women a sense that we might stand a fighting chance. The show also seemed to cast with Joey’s wide-ranging tastes in mind. In addition to Tran, we had multiple Asian American women make it past the first three episodes (a milestone!).

“Something we’ve talked about on our podcast for years is that casting diversely does not just require casting people on each season who aren’t, you know, White and Christian,” says Gray. “It requires casting leads who have genuinely diverse tastes.” (Next up, body diversity and not making every woman over 30 feel like a crone.)

It’ll remain to be seen if the producers respect Tran enough not to cast a racist on her season — as happened with Lindsay — or subvert her love story with some other manufactured drama. Barthwell is skeptical: “This ‘Bachelor’ franchise is so bad at talking about race … And that makes me nervous for all the weird dating fetishization that goes on for Asian women.”

There’s also work to be done to get to know Tran. But here’s what we do know: She’s estranged from her dad; she and her immigrant mom have a cultural divide; she’s outspoken on her Instagram about AAPI representation; she makes everyone who comes to her house down liquor at what she calls “shot-o-clock”; and she’s terrified of sharks. (Get ready for a lot of ocean dates.)

And if my Brooklyn bar is any indication, people are excited for her.

What Joynt noticed most was a moment when Tran told Graziadei that in Vietnamese culture, it’s not uncommon to live with your parents until you get married, or even after. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, yes! Sharing a tidbit that a lot of people might never have known if it weren’t for this,’” said Joynt. “It’s an exciting time. It’s feels momentous.”


Leave a Comment