Racism in television dating shows

Aoife O'Brien

It’s no secret that black women have historically been under represented on screen and their characters have generally lacked the depth and complexity that reflects their real world experiences.  

While television has often been heralded for offering a more diverse portrayal of minority groups than film it has still struggled with a tendency to reinforce stereotypes.

Many believed that the explosion of reality TV, with its portrayal of real people in a natural environment would finally break the glass ceiling of these rigid typecasts.

However, as more and more reality dating shows burst on the scene it turns out that reality isn’t any prettier.

In shows such as Married at First Sight, The Bachelor or Love Island where contestants compete for romantic relationships, black women regularly contend with numerous ugly realities.

Historically many of these shows excluded black women to the extent that Love Island failed to feature a dark-skinned black woman until their fourth season and a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit was taken against ABC’s The Bachelor in 2012 for “the deliberate exclusion of people of colour from the roles of The Bachelor and the Bachelorette.

As a result, their presence can often be treated as a “token” rather than as a real contender in the show.

In the first ‘coupling’ ceremony in every season of Love Island over the past five years a coloured contestant has been the last to be selected. In series two it was Malin, in series three it was Marcel, Samira and Yewande both met the same faith in series four and five. So it unfortunately wasn’t a huge shock when Leanne was also picked last this season.

The dismissal of Leanne not only by the male contestants but also by her female co-stars continued right through the first week of the show and piqued the question; ‘is it because of her race?’

When Mike told fellow islander Jess Gale that he liked Leanne more than her she said that she was “shocked at this strong preference.”

While the comment itself does not outwardly appear racist many viewers felt there was an underlying racism.

One Twitter user wrote, “I honestly believe that Jess was shocked that Leanne was picked over her because she’s black and thinks she’s superior to her and more beautiful, because she’s white…I can’t see any other explanation.”

Of course, it is possible that there was nothing racist about the comment and Gale merely felt that she had a strong connection with Mike and was shocked that he didn’t feel the same.

Perhaps people were immediately defensive because we were conditioned to be racist for so long as a society and now in an effort to escape our past we convince ourselves that racism exists even where it doesn’t because if we can see it in others then surely it doesn’t exist in ourselves.

If this is the case, then society could be responsible for inflaming a racist environment in situations where it is not already present.

As a result, it might be time for producers on these programmes to start asking themselves if they are doing more harm than good by allowing every subtle suggestion of racism to make it through the editing process.

While people should be held accountable for their words and their actions and the public should not be left oblivious to blatant discrimination of reality stars while filming, editing footage in such a way that we rarely hear a full conversation could mean that instead of raising awareness of racial issues they are merely spreading a more toxic environment than what already exists.

Aoife O’Brien

Image Credit: ITV