It's no secret that black women's representation on screen has lacked the depth and complexity of their experiences in the real world. While flattened or stereotyped portraits of black women have a specific and pernicious history in the United States, the power of American cultural exports ensures that, from Hollywood blockbuster films to raunchy reality TV, black women around the world end up facing the consequences of these erroneous perceptions. Despite being vigorously challenged for over a century, stereotypes such as the "Jezebel,""Sapphire," and "Mammy" routinely plague depictions of black women in art and media, as (some) writers, directors, and showrunners update those stereotypes for the current age.
Television, heralded for offering more diversity and discernment than film in its portrayals of minority groups, still struggles with a tendency to reinforce stereotypes. Even the explosion of reality TV since the early aughts—with its carefully constructed but real characters—has not strayed far from portraying black women according to rigid typecasts rooted in the white Western imagination. Beyond these caricatures though, on reality shows where contestants compete for (usually heterosexual) romantic relationships, black women regularly contend with an ugly reality: the politics of desirability, defined as the narratives a society projects about who is an ideal partner, based on how the culture has constructed ideas of beauty, intellect, personality, and character.
The result is that black women's experiences on these shows are distressing (or at least deeply uncomfortable) to watch. And if reality TV is meant to offer a form of escapism, black women's enjoyment of these shows will necessarily be limited, as they are often forced to relive some of their own dating fears and traumas in watching others endure the same on screen.
One consequence of desirability politics is the existence of a hierarchy of ideal partners. Just as real dating experiences are most biased against black women (and Asian men), when black women are present on dating reality TV shows, they are often treated as tokens—people to make up numbers, or to serve as a familiar cliché for white viewers. But it's also true that many of these shows have often historically excluded black women (along with other demographics of color) entirely. It’s almost as if there are two choices for black women's representation on these shows: You can be an oversimplified character, curated to live up to a stereotype, or else absent.
ABC's The Bachelor franchise for example, which debuted in 2002, famously faced a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit in 2012 for "the deliberate exclusion of people of color from the roles of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette [which] underscores the significant barriers that people of color continue to face in media and the broader marketplace." Though a judge dismissed the suit under the protection of the First Amendment, the franchise subsequently made incremental improvements over the years in diversifying its cast. These moves included making Rachel Lindsay, previously a contestant on the most diverse cast yet of The Bachelor, the first-ever black Bachelorette, in 2017. Still, the way the show portrayed Lindsay involved more than a few racist elements, and she spoke out against these last year, decrying her depiction as an archetypal angry black woman in the finale of the show.
Lifetime's Married at First Sight—a show true to its name, where relationship experts marry off complete strangers who first meet at the altar—is not without racism either, even through nine seasons that have featured a relatively diverse cast. In fact, Married at First Sight makes plain the different rungs occupied by black men and women in the dating hierarchy, and unveils the role of colorism in this discrepancy. In terms of desirability politics, colorism works like this: Darker-skinned women, farther from an idealized whiteness than their lighter-skinned counterparts, are classed as less desirable partners. Last year, for example, a black male contestant openly revealed in his pre-marriage interview that he would not want to date a woman darker than him. Additionally, one of the show's relationship experts, Pastor Calvin Roberson, who is black, told Madame Noire in an interview, "One of the biggest problems we have on the show when we're trying to match is finding black men who want black women." Given that 75 percent of black men in the U.S. marry black women, the men on this show are outliers. Thus, not only does the show perpetuate an ugly stereotype about black women's marriageability; at least in one case, it clearly enabled the dating hierarchy to be weaponized against dark-skinned black women.
But even less-serious dating shows, ones as far as possible from having their contestants contemplate or commit to marriage, don't offer affirming experiences for black women as contestants or audience. The popular British show Love Island, which launched in 2015—and premiered its American version in early July of this year—features singles who must "couple up" to remain in a luxurious villa for a chance at winning £50,000, and of course, finding love. Prior to this season, the United Kingdom version had only ever included a handful of people of color. This year, it has featured the most black and mixed-race contestants in the history of the series (though the show still falls short in East and South Asian representation). In fact, until last year, when dancer Samira Mighty was selected as part of the opening cast, there had been no dark-skinned black woman on the show. Her time on Love Island appeared unpleasant, as Mighty experienced continuous passive and active rejections, including from her typical dating preference, a type she once described as "blondes." Mighty's dilemma was that men on the show also preferred "blondes," and "brunettes" too—in their case, this was a shorthand for white women. Eventually, she chose to leave the show of her own volition.
This year’s cast included Ireland's Yewande Biala (of Nigerian, Yorùbá descent), and Newcastle's Amber Gill (of Trinidadian and English descent), the latter of whom became the first woman of color to be part of the winning couple as of yesterday, while the former was "dumped" from the island earlier in the season when her romantic interest chose someone else. Biala, like Mighty, struggled to find and cement a stable connection, and their experiences, however different, are ultimately connected. If Mighty's time in the villa was characterized by invisibility—to the point where her only mutual romantic connection was barely aired on the show—Biala was hypervisible, often portrayed as cold and detached, whereas a different racial framework might have just as easily have interpreted and portrayed her as shy and cautious. Both women's experiences resulted in plenty of commentary in British media, as many black British women shared their apprehension of watching how women who look like them get treated, and some questioning the usefulness of this representation entirely.
On the American version of Love Island, which is notably more diverse in representation in its first season than the U.K.'s (even if the narration and banter are objectively not as entertaining), the experiences of another dark-skinned, overtly coded black woman, Alana Morrison, do not veer too far from Mighty's or Biala's, though she does face her own unique, if predictable, challenges. Morrison, attracted to the sole black man on the show, gets dumped at the first opportunity possible, when two new women are added to the cast. On one hand, Morrison, portrayed as lacking in romantic experience, made the mistake of putting all her eggs in one black love basket. On the other, none of the other men showed any romantic interest in her, and given what we know about how hierarchies of dating are reproduced on television, this is par for the course.
Still, as we decipher these portrayals of race on reality TV and analyze their consequences, one question lingers: Why should anyone care at all? Very few of these shows are representative of the average person, and are instead premised entirely on accepted forms of youthful attractiveness under a white-supremacist, heteronormative, able-bodied framework. This framework does allow some black women to fit in, for a certain amount of time at least, especially when superficial diversity in the form of tokenization meets the capitalist interest, but the black women in question usually experience eventual negative outcomes. Maybe black audiences should divest from seeking representation on these shows entirely and let them be the lily-white escapist fantasies they began as.
Yet inasmuch as television replicates harmful stereotypes, and in this case has implicitly endorsed the racial dating hierarchy, we also know that the medium has been an agent of change in teaching tolerance. In a 2015 study for the journal Politics, Groups, and Identities, SUNY–Stony Brook University political scientist Jeremiah Garretson examined 30 years of TV portrayals and their effects on social tolerance from the 1970s to 2000, and determined that TV "has the potential to be used to increase political tolerance, and eliminate racism, sexism, and heterosexism." This relationship between TV and the culture, widely accepted as a reciprocal one, can therefore also alleviate some of the racist and harmful experiences of black women on these reality shows, and among the audiences that watch them—at least in theory. What's more, these shows don't need to undergo massive transformations to achieve these changes.
What if most of these shows included men and women who had broad and diverse dating experiences, or who were legitimately interested in expanding those experiences? (How to determine legitimate interest is a worry for another day.) What if, for black women specifically, these shows simply included men of all ethnic backgrounds who have indicated that dark-skinned black women are their primarily preferred "type"? One wagers that the outcomes of these shows might not be so inevitable for the black women on them, and the portrayals of these women, in turn, could finally go beyond the stereotypical and one-dimensional, all while still meeting the producers' bottom line.
Until then, even when women of color may against all odds claim a singular victory, watching black women on these shows, at least for some black women in the audience, is an exercise less in escapism than in emotional cutting.
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