The Problem With Women of Colour and Reality TV

Love Island, ITV2’s hotly anticipated reality gameshow dedicated to finding love under the rays of the Mallorcan sun, is back for its fourth series. Like the previous series, it promises scandal, disloyalty, secret snogs and high levels of sexual tension, as a line-up of thirsty singletons enter a villa keen to find love and win £50,000. Attracting around 5 million viewers and growing, already, since the first episode in June, we’ve witnessed tears, heartbreak and couples that have swapped partners more times than my daily food intake! It’s definitely a sign that the fire pit, the focal meeting spot in the villa, isn’t the only thing causing intense heat amongst the contestants!

 

I’m pretty new to the excitement that surrounds the show. I tuned in half way through series three after the dramatic conversations I’d hear around the coffee machine between colleagues, the morning after the previous nights episode. The show, which falls within the realms of catty and argumentative behaviour caused by love pairings and shock recoupling before islanders are ruthlessly dumped from the island, was one, which I knew would provide light-hearted entertainment whilst revealing the harsh realities of dating in the 21st century. 

 

The first episode is always highly anticipated. Even before a freshly tanned Caroline Flack enters the villa pre the contestant’s arrival, like many, I found myself scanning through social media, just so I could get an early glimpse of the Islanders entering the villa. Rightly or wrongly it was a chance to pre-judge who was likely to be the most fiery, cause the biggest stir amongst the group and…on the more serious side for some, how many non-white contestants will have been chosen to represent those from a more diverse background.

 

When it was revealed Samira Mighty, a 22 year old West End performer, would be entering the villa as the first black woman since Love Island started in 2015, I wasn’t surprised she was the only one. Samira, along with Wes Nelson who is mixed race, represents just 18% of this years contestants, which instantly highlights just how little diversity has been inflicted into the current series. 

 

couple carnivalista

 

The first episode, where the initial coupling takes place, is the one which ‘sets the tone’ as we get an inkling as to who the popular contestants are likely to be, based on level of attractiveness. The girls are given the first opportunity to check out the villa before the boys arrive and within minutes of chatting around the fire pit, we see evidence of racial profiling when, when Hayley Hughes excitedly asks Samira if she could ‘twerk’ after Samira shares with the girls that she’s a dancer, almost like it’s a perquisite of being a black woman. It sparked social media outrage with some fans accusing Hayley of microagression and initiating racial stereotyping.  After the girls had settled, the boys make their grand entrance into the villa giving the girls the opportunity to ‘step forward’ for the guy they fancy the most. Whilst Samira admitted to being a little on the fussy side, she stepped forward twice and on both occasions her interest was overlooked. It was awkward to watch, because I knew what was coming. To add insult to injury, she ended up with Alex George, who was left on the ‘subs bench’, which from the outside looked like a complete mismatch with little spark. Already it felt like a sign as to how Samira’s time in the villa was going to be played out.

 

Aside from being fresh faced and beautiful, Samira is bubbly, supportive, honest and has come across as a loyal member of the group, yet not once has she been the topic of conversation amongst the guys when it comes to pairing up during recoupling. When Alex described her as ‘nice’ (who an earth in the Love Island villa uses a dull word like ‘nice’ to describe a girl with a hot bikini bod!) and Adam said her bubbly personality was ‘refreshing’, it was those fluffy words with little substance that indicated Samira’s journey for finding love was likely to be a lot trickier than those contestants with fair skin. But why, once again, is a beautiful black woman who has much to offer, not being seen for who she is when it comes to finding her ideal love match?

 

It has long been known that there are a plethora of challenges that black women face when it comes to finding love. Sadly, they are seen as less attractive and desirable against other races and are commonly branded with qualities such as confrontational, aggressive and full of attitude. When it comes to dating online, black women receive fewer messages from all races, yet when the interest is there its often because of a fetish and desire to see what its like to date a woman of black heritage.

 

Often, with reality TV shows that feature a small sample of black contestants, it can feel like it’s their way of saying ‘we’ve filled the diversity quota’, which is by far not the case. The playing field isn’t level. Since the first series, there have been 39 female contestants, three of which have been mixed race - Montana Brown, Ellisha Jade and Rachel Christie and now with Samira as the first black woman in the villa. In fact, Rachel, who appeared in the 3rd series commented that she herself continually struggled with recoupling’s on the show and that she was happy to leave when she was dumped from the island. In one interview she commented that 'When it comes round to the guys picking the women, you know they're not going to pick you. A lot of people are brainwashed into thinking [black] is not beautiful. And obviously that's a load of rubbish.'

 

In one episode, Samira sheds tears whilst opening up to Megan about how ‘she didn’t understand’ why she was experiencing weeks of rejection. I question whether there is an element of innocence that genuinely doesn’t understand why she has been unlucky in love, or whether she thought Society had changed and that things would be different in the villa, despite the lack of non-white’s around her.

 

The story for black male contestants is somewhat different, especially those of mixed race heritage. Generally, they are labelled as attractive, muscular and sexy and are more likely to be a popular choice amongst the female contestants. In a recent episode, Laura Anderson, who was comfortably coupled up with Wes before Megan Barton Hanson swooped in and stole him, commented that she and Wes would make cute babies. In another episode, the girls were invited to dance one by one for the guys who sat looking highly aroused as the women individually gyrated in before them. I couldn’t help but notice that the guys barely flinched when Samira appeared in a space inspired outfit, even though she is a trained dancer and clearly a pro when it comes to bodily movement. When it was revealed afterwards which females raised the male contestants heart the most, Samira disappointingly wasn’t mentioned once.

 

couple2 carnivalista

 

Briefly moving away from Love Island, another show that lacks diversity when it comes to featuring non-white contestants, is Take Me Out, the dating show where one lucky lady out of a panel of 30, is chosen by a male contestant for a date at the Isle of Fernando. More often than not, a high percentage of women will keep their lights on, yet the majority of the time the light for women of colour is always switched off during the early rounds. Its uncomfortable viewing and I for one, question why we put ourselves through the torment. Other shows which fail to raise the diversity profile is Towie which has only ever featured one black woman, Dani Park Dempsey (that you likely missed through blinking!) and then there was the controversy surrounding Alexandra Burke who was negatively branded ‘too confident’ when she appeared on Strictly Come Dancing in 2017.

 

I often find myself talking to the TV in frustration, questioning why black women have a desire to appear on reality TV shows which are based on being ‘picked’ by the opposite sex. It’s like setting yourself up for disappointment. Are we simply bringing to the forefront the issues around the lack of diversity within the media so that it highlights just how commonplace it is?

 

Scrolling through Twitter it’s frustrating seeing the same themes reappearing and ‘other’s’ not understanding why the portrayal of Samira is causing so much angst. One tweeter, in response to the question ‘why being black makes it harder for Samira’ commented that ‘our whole lives we have been told that ‘white it right’ which leads to black girls not being happy in their natural state’. Whilst others recognise that Love Island reveals just how deep the issue of colourism is within our society, and in the case of Love Island, Samira simply isn’t being picked because, personality aside, she’s just isn’t ‘their type’. It’s a truth, being played out so openly and which is incredibly painful to witness.

 

We are now just over five weeks into the show and Samira has finally found her match in Frankie Foster, one of the new faces that recently entered the villa. When the opportunity to recouple came up, she chose Frankie because she felt an instant connection with him. Coincidently, since they’ve coupled up they’re getting very little screen time, almost as though they have completely blended into the background. Is this because ITV don’t think their relationship is worthy of airplay or simply because now Samira has found a ‘connection’ with Frankie, they believe Samira’s purpose for being on the show has been fulfilled so there is little to share? Who knows. What I do know is ITV cannot be commended for casting one black woman in the show. Prior to entering the villa, its likely the contestants would have been asked every question under the sun about what they are looking for and who their ultimate love match was and I can only assume the male contestants didn’t tick the box for ‘black women’, which already puts Samira’s place at a disadvantage.

 

Reality TV is a popular part of TV culture and I’d like to think as we continue championing for diversity, especially within the media, that eventually colourism and stereotyping will be eradicated. But how long that will take, who knows, we can only live in hope….

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