After concluding her time working as lead digital writer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, writer Kate Stayman-London opted to ease her frustrations by building her own universe. She soon fell into creating the world of her debut novel, One to Watch, which sets its story against the backdrop of a TV dating show and explores the topics of body positivity and pop culture consumption with the allure of fabulous travel and reality TV’s dramatic flair.
One to Watch challenges mainstream media to follow alternative media’s lead. Plus-sized models and content creators have become a norm on social media platforms, but the entertainment industry has yet to follow. Take The Bachelor franchise, which Stayman-London readily admits to having indulged in every season. Over those 24 seasons, each lead has fallen into the same predictable categories: straight, white (with very few exceptions) and thin.
“I’ve been a fan of The Bachelor for 20 seasons. And in that entire time, at no point has the show ever reflected what the world actually looks like,” she told Observer. In creating her fictional reality TV dating show, Stayman-London set out to envision one that didn’t exclude people of color, LGBTQ+ and gender nonconforming individuals. “It was really important to me to write the world as I see it and as I experience it.”
One to Watch follows plus-sized blogger Bea Schumacher through her journey of self-acceptance and love. After a devastating heartbreak, Bea takesto her infamous blog, OMBea, to express her frustration with dating reality show Main Squeeze’s lack of diverse representation. Her post goes viral, and Bea lands as the next season’s first plus-sized star.
“I think there are really two inciting incidents of this novel, and the first is her tweet storm and blog post that go viral, which is what gets her a lot of attention. But the other inciting incident is that there’s a change in the executive producer of Main Squeeze, and it goes from a man, who’s been running it since its inception, to a woman. That’s important to me because I think it’s not a coincidence that we have men running a lot of these shows, and then all of it is cast to conform to the male gaze that conforms to these beauty standards,” Stayman-London said.
Kate Stayman-London takes the common tropes she observed watching The Bachelor and transforms them into fully realized characters. Take Wyatt, for instance, a play on the “football hero” trope. While he does embrace this stereotype, he also embarks on his own journey: coming to terms with his asexuality.
“I’ve done a lot of work with GLADD over the last year. I’m also I’m bisexual and have identified as queer since I was a teenager, so queer identity is something that’s really important to me,” Stayman-London said. “I wanted to paint a really full picture of him as a character and sort of thinking about this, you know, farmer, football hero, this truck that we’ve seen on The Bachelor so many times. And how can we subvert that trope? How can he be a more fully realized, more interesting person than the kind of one-dimensional edit he would probably get on a show like this?”
Stayman-London also introduces a male plus-sized constant, Jefferson, who initially serves as a compassionate ear for Bea’s struggles, but helps the story develop into an examination of how beauty standards negatively affect men as well.
“There’s a whole narrative in our society that you as a man are valuable if you have a very conventional and beautiful woman on your arm. And I don’t think it’s just men who conform to the beauty standards who agree with that narrative. I think men who themselves are insecure about the way that they look tend to buy into those standards even more sometimes. And it becomes even more important for them to have a really conventional, conventionally beautiful woman to affirm their own self-worth,” Stayman-London said.
With these efforts of inclusion, Stayman-London hopes her fictional universe transfers to the real world. She reflects on how the white majority should be advocates for inclusion, just as Bea was throughout the casting process.
“That’s part of her value system and part of her responsibility as a white person to say, I don’t accept a seat at the table if everyone else doesn’t get to be at that table too, which is something good. I think all white people, you know, if you’re serving on the board of an organization or are asked to be on a panel, it is not hard to do. Just say, ‘I don’t want that seat at the table unless everyone else also gets one.”
There have been some steps forward to diversify representation in mainstream entertainment. The Bachelor franchise has recently announced their first Black Bachelor season star, 28-year-old Matt James. Voice actress Jenny Slate has stepped away from her role as Missy on Netflix’s hit cartoon Big Mouth saying: “Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people.” And Black actors, like Vanessa Morgan, are advocating for accurate portrayals of diversity within their shows. There is still a long way to go, but Stayman-London remains hopeful.
“I think that it’ll be enough when we no longer find it remarkable, when it’s just what our culture is when people of all identities get to experience the power of telling their stories and getting their story told equally. It’s a long time coming. I think it will take a lot of work and a lot of change to get there. But I think I think a big part of it is audiences understanding their power and demanding more,” Stayman-London said.