IAGO: And what’s he then that says I play the villain,
When this advice is free I give and honest …
(William Shakespeare, Othello, 2.3.324-25)
I didn’t do anything. I was just being honest
(Lee Garrett, The Bachelorette, season 13, episode 5)
In 2017, ABC’s The Bachelorette “made history,” as both the show’s own promotional materials and media coverage eagerly and repeatedly emphasized. The show, which has been justly criticized for its lack of diversity, cast a Black person as its lead for the first time: Rachel Lindsay, a lawyer and former contestant on The Bachelor. (There has still been no Black bachelor to date.) “Look!,” the multiple invocations of the “history-making” season seemed to assert, “we’re the good guys doing the right thing!” Interestingly, though, most of the season’s discussion—not to mention the DRAMA—around race focused not on Lindsay’s challenges as a Black woman in a largely white franchise but instead on a white man: the season’s much-loathed villain, Lee Garrett.
There’s been a lot of brilliant writing already about the show’s coverage of Garrett, not to mention the dubious decision to cast him in the first place; Ali Barthwell’s coverage of the show on Vulture was a particularly stellar example. But I want to zero in on an uncanny feeling I had watching the season—which is that I’d seen (and taught and written about) a version of this character before. And while I can’t prove anything, I can’t help but wonder if the producers had Othello, and particularly Iago, in mind when they cut the footage together in order to craft the villain of their season.
But first, some background: Lee Garrett, as presented by the show, is an oily-haired, smooth-talking Southerner, an aspiring country singer who imagines himself to be a master of subterfuge. The camera frequently lingers on him polishing his cowboy boots. He seems to believe that his down-home folksiness conceals the mind of a strategist, and he is prone to delivering lines to the camera like these:
Lee is also, as most of the men in the house repeatedly point out, clearly racist. All of the other suitors that he singles out to “mess with” are Black. He is booted from the season by Rachel when he completely fabricates a story about one of the Black contestants, Kenny, that leans on stereotypes of Black men as dangerous and aggressive. While the season was airing, in fact, some of Lee’s racist (and misogynist, and homophobic) tweets surfaced.
In short, presenting Lee as the clear-cut villain of a reality TV show is a pretty easy sell. The link between him and Shakespeare’s Iago might seem a little bit less intuitive. Now, it’s possible that my bone-deep conviction about the similarities between the two characters is just a symptom of the peculiar lens academic work sometimes produces, through which everything starts to look like your own research. (Side note: In the category of most-likely-over-reading but still my favorite conspiracy theory: the internet blew up about contestant DeMario’s use of the term “ocular facts” in the reunion special, which is not only an objectively weird phrase to use in the twenty-first century BUT ALSO a very close echo of Othello’s insistence that Iago present him with “ocular proof” that Desdemona was unfaithful. Was Dimario, consciously or unconsciously, trying to TELL US SOMETHING? Yeah, ok, probably not.) But as I watched Lee smirking, winking and aw-shucks-ing his way through the season, I couldn’t help but think that with this particular character, as Lee himself might say: “this isn’t my first rodeo.”
Iago is a white man who presents himself as plain-dealing and “honest,” then turns to the audience to inform them that he is actually spinning his lies into a “net that shall enmesh them all.” He describes his own words as poison. His lies rely on toxic stereotypes about women and men of color. His primary target is a Black warrior and general who is preoccupied with his honor. He is a plainspoken soldier who resents more educated characters when they are chosen over him.
Lee is a white man who presents himself as plain-dealing and “honest,” then turns to the audience to inform them he is actually “here to mess with everyone and it’s working.” Other cast members describe him as poisonous. His lies rely on toxic stereotypes about men of color. (Misogyny is largely absent in his dealings with Rachel, but his tweets more than make up for that.) His primary target is a Black wrestler, Kenny King, who is preoccupied with honor (he belongs to the “Ring of Honor” wrestling organization, and embarked on a tour called “Death Before Dishonor” following the show.) Lee is a plainspoken “country boy” who resents more educated cast members (or those around whom, in Kenny’s words, he feels “out of his league”) when they are chosen over him.
The show even echoes Othello’s repeated references to biblical imagery, positioning Lee as the devil—a serpent corrupting paradise:
But if Lee is positioned as a kind of Iago (and let’s assume for the moment that you, reader, are buying into my claim), he seems to have wandered into the wrong play. First of all, there’s a significant structural difference here. Lee’s lies rest on assumptions about race (rather than about women’s sexuality, as in Shakespeare) and the person he’s trying to lie to is not the Othello-figure but the closest thing the show has to a Desdemona. And Rachel, of course, unlike Desdemona, is Black. She is also, unlike the object of Iago’s deception, at no point susceptible to the would-be trickster’s fabrications.
If Lee is an Iago figure, he is REALLY bad at it, and the show delights in underlining how incompetent his attempts at trickery are. At one point Will, one of the other Black contestants, carefully explains to Lee why Kenny might take offense at being characterized as a stereotypical angry Black man. In fact, all of the show’s Black contestants bend over backwards to thoughtfully engage with Lee about engrained prejudice and toxic racial stereotypes. He responds by getting drunk, muttering incoherently about “playing the race card,” and indulging in increasingly far-fetched boasting about his ability to manipulate other (Black) contestants. Even fresh-faced young Dean, a white suitor from the Midwest, is able to succinctly identify the problem:
By Lee’s final episode, the show has literally taken to preceding his appearance on screen with stock footage of a snake slithering through the grass.
The Bachelorette seems to think that it’s being progressive in showcasing Lee’s failure to successfully convince anyone in the house of his racist nonsense. And I, at least, definitely derived some kind of pleasure from watching Lee’s hateful rhetoric repeatedly fail to land. The show’s producers happily lean into this pleasure, devoting a large portion of the “Men Tell All” special at the end of the season to a kind of racism-and-misogyny intervention for Lee. Rachel’s offer to give him “a Black history lesson and a lesson on women’s rights,” and contestant Anthony’s quick-and-dirty breakdowns of structural racism and unconscious bias are truly satisfying—not to mention great television. But the show’s focus on Lee also does something quite disturbing—and this, I think, might be the real payoff of the Lee/Iago comparison. Iago in Othello is troubling precisely because he is good at what he does. Notably, Iago is the only character to speak in soliloquy directly to the audience, and throughout the play he takes the audience along with him as he reveals and then executes his plan. Iago can make us feel complicit in his actions; he reminds us how racism works and that it works. Lee, on the other hand, lets us feel good about racism not working, as his clumsy attempts at manipulation are repeatedly identified and dismissed:
Through Lee, The Bachelorette tells us that racism is the province of cartoonish villains, easily identified and easily dismissed. Lee’s multi-episode narrative arc lets viewers feel good about identifying the bad guy’s transparent racism and seeing him chastised for it. We—especially progressive white viewers like me—get to feel good about our distance from such over-the-top bigotry. But is Lee really the one who is drawing the audience in and playing on their ingrained prejudices on The Bachelorette?
When Lee’s racist tweets surfaced, a number of people, from cultural commentators to contestants on the show itself, asked why an avowed racist not only wanted but also had been allowed to participate in Rachel’s season of The Bachelorette. The Bachelor franchise, via a tweet from host Chris Harrison, denied any knowledge of Lee’s incendiary tweets.
Lee himself, though, tells a different story. In a June 2017 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he said that he had been approached by a recruiter from The Bachelorette who had been following him on social media, and who encouraged him to apply. Lee said he wouldn’t have considered it otherwise (“because you think it’s a bunch of guys that are dashing, and I’m a Mississippi boy.”). Once the franchise announced that Rachel had been cast, Lee claims that a representative from the show called him to ask if he had “heard about what happened” and to confirm that he was still interested in joining the cast.
I am in no way suggesting that Lee is an innocent victim here; his unabashed racism is apparent throughout his time on the season as well as in his internet presence. And as his behavior on the show demonstrates, he is hardly a reliable narrator. But if there’s some truth in the story Lee reports, it’s a clear reminder that the people onscreen aren’t the primary figures constructing narratives drawn from toxic racial stereotypes. The timing of the show’s eagerness to “educate” Lee is also particularly suspicious. While Rachel’s season was airing, a scandal broke out around a hiatus in filming a spin-off show, Bachelor in Paradise, when contestant DeMario Jackson (who is Black) had a sexual encounter with Corinne Olympios (who is white), while she was allegedly too drunk to consent. The show resumed filming when producers found no evidence of misconduct, but questions quickly arose over the fraught racial dynamics at play in the decision to halt filming. (Such racial dynamics are also, of course, integral to Othello.) In other words, this was an opportune moment for the Bachelor franchise to position itself as a mouthpiece for progressive values. DeMario Jackson, though, does not seem so sure. In a June 2017 E! News interview, Jackson claimed: “I got played… not by her [Corinne], but I got played in general. I am not sure by who, but I got played.”
Emily Weissbourd is an assistant professor of English at Lehigh University. She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Her research focuses on representations of race in early modern English and Spanish literature, and she has published articles in journals including Modern Philology, Comparative Drama and The Huntington Library Quarterly.
The contributors to this special issue were participants in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Colloquium on “Gender, Race, and Early Modern Studies.” Organized and facilitated by Kimberly Anne Coles and Ayanna Thompson, the year-long colloquium met monthly to study a range of early modern cultural artifacts and texts. While exploring the Folger’s extensive collections, the participants also pursued innovative methods for bringing gender and race into dialogue with each other. Patricia Akhimie asked participants specifically to consider how questions of gender and race might be analyzed “in relation both to early modern texts and our own personal and contemporary experiences.” The contributions in this issue represent our efforts to do just that.