Jenn Tran's debut as the Bachelorette is 'pretty groundbreaking': 'Being the first in anything is the hardest'

"It sends a clear message that an Asian American can be the lead in a mainstream television franchise," an expert told Yahoo.

Jenn Tran is this season's Bachelorette. (Ramona Rosales/Disney)

The Bachelorette is recognized as a pillar in reality television, but it’s hardly known as a model for diversity and inclusivity — especially when it comes to casting its leads. The show’s 21st season, which premiered July 8, saw Jenn Tran make history as the first-ever Asian American lead in the history of the franchise. Since news of her casting broke, the 26-year-old Vietnamese American health care worker has been the target of racist remarks and microaggressions, but she’s also broken ground for the descendants of Asian immigrants.

Now, there is cautious optimism about what Tran’s season will bring.

Grace Wang, an associate professor of American studies at the University of California, Davis, told Yahoo Entertainment that Tran’s casting is “pretty groundbreaking” because it is still rare to see an Asian American woman at the center of her own narrative. Wang said she watches far less reality television nowadays partly due to the “frustrating” way Asian Americans are represented. She was, however, proud to learn of Tran’s casting and will be tuning in to show her support.

“It sends a clear message that an Asian American can be the lead in a mainstream television franchise — that a whole season can revolve around the hopes, desires and feelings of an Asian American woman,” Wang explained. “I really applaud Jenn for putting herself out there because being the first in anything is the hardest — you get the hardest hits, the most backlash. She may feel a lot of added pressure needing to represent Asian Americans in a positive light.”

This pressure is something Tran has previously addressed.

“There is a lot of responsibility being the first Asian American Bachelorette,” she said during the season premiere. “I want to be able to make everybody proud and, you know, my heritage proud. I think what it really comes down to is I just have to be myself and do the best that I can do.”

Veronica Fitzpatrick, an adjunct assistant professor of modern culture and media at Brown University, is a “huge fan” of the Bachelor franchise — but she acknowledges the inherent “whiteness” of its audience. While Tran’s tenure as the Bachelorette is indeed historic, Fitzpatrick, who is Filipino American, reminisces about a time in reality television when people of color were able to exist onscreen without the pressure of having to represent their entire culture in an “educational capacity” for white viewers.

“[It] really reduces people to sort of characters or tokens,” she told Yahoo Entertainment.

The increased expectation for Asian Americans to teach others about their heritage in an engaging and compelling way is what Fitzpatrick believes to be one of the downsides of how “reality TV has tried to diversify itself.”

Tran made her Bachelor Nation debut earlier this year, when she was cast as one of the 32 women vying for the affections of The Bachelor’s Season 28 lead, Joey Graziadei. She made it to the final six before she was sent home.

What further sets Tran apart from previous Bachelorettes is her candor surrounding her experience growing up in an immigrant household. On Graziadei’s season, she opened up about her upbringing and the fact that she was not raised with a healthy understanding of romantic love. Tran’s parents emigrated from Vietnam, and she cites her Vietnamese culture as a reason why her mother continued to “serve” her father despite their volatile relationship. Tran has had no contact with her father since college.

“My mom was a type, like, I think she grew up in a ... different culture in Vietnam where the [women], like, they cook, they clean, they do everything for their husbands,” Tran explained on the June 26 episode of Call Her Daddy. “And then they started fighting, but my mom would still do everything for my dad.”

There are pitfalls to being the first Asian American lead. One of them, for instance, is that Tran may be subject to a “model minority” expectation — that her homelife is stable, structured and secure; that she hails from the perfect, nuclear Asian family.

“It’s important for AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] viewers and children of Asian immigrants to see a family dynamic like Jenn’s because there’s no one way to love (or not love) your family,” Natasha Jung, the founder of Cold Tea Collective, a platform that spotlights the experiences of the Asian diaspora, told Yahoo Entertainment. “There can often be a lot of shame and ‘saving face’ across AAPI cultures when it comes to how our lives are perceived outwardly.”

Wang echoed Jung’s sentiments and elaborated on the shame that can result from failing to uphold certain stereotypes.

“I think there’s this dominant perception of Asian immigrants as having ‘strong family values’ or the children of Asian immigrants being filial to their parents. So this idea that the kids of immigrants would have a strained relationship — or be cut off from their parents — helps complicate that image,” she explained. “It shows diversity within our group and humanizes Asian American families.”

Fitzpatrick said ideally, there would be “if you know, you know” nods to Tran’s Vietnamese culture that aren’t “exclusively acknowledgments that assume and address a white audience.” Should the show dip into that “educational tenor,” it could lead to an alienating experience for viewers of Asian and, more specifically, Vietnamese descent.

“I think the question is how a show like The Bachelorette can acknowledge heritage without either forcing it or overlooking it,” Fitzpatrick explained. “It’ll be knowing when to name things as owing to or reflecting Jenn’s heritage without sacrificing the specificity of her story and needing to speak for every Asian American or every Vietnamese American.”

Wang also advocated for intentionality when depicting Tran’s culture onscreen.

“I hope Jenn will be desired and discussed in ways that acknowledge her Vietnamese heritage but do not make it a defining factor in how her suitors [and] viewers understand who she is,” she said. “So much of reality TV slots people into preexisting types rather than allow us to see the complexity of who they are.”

She added, “I’m hopeful that having an Asian lead for a full season of The Bachelorette will allow us to see the many facets of her character and a more complex and humanized representation.”