Love Island UK should adopt a diversity mandate

A call to make reality television a bit more real.

I watch a lot of television. 

Not in a sad, anti-social way, in a sophisticated consumer of arts and culture way–like a member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences or the Hollywood Foreign Press. Like any good connoisseur of the arts, I am well aware of the importance of diversifying my consumption.

For every gritty prestige drama I watch, I know I need to cleanse my palette with an equally raw exploration into the human psyche. For this, I have to look no further than reality television. 

Frankly, scripted television will never be able to compete with the highs and lows of thrown pinot grigio, tearful confessionals, and suspiciously rushed makeups. Reality television is like an instant hit of dopamine to the system and a great way to unwind after a tough day. I feel no only a little shame about how much I enjoy it. 

A New Age in Reality Television

Lately, I’ve been enjoying it even more because of how increasingly diverse reality TV has become in the United States. Until recently, being able to follow the stories of people who looked like me was something I didn’t even realize I was missing. Now that I have seen what a difference it has made in my enjoyment as a viewer, I think people on this side of the Atlantic deserve the same experience. 

In November 2020, CBS, the airer of Survivor, Big Brother, and Love Island US, announced that going forward the casts of their reality programs would be comprised of at least 50 per cent of people of colour. This decision was made in response to criticism from past contestants on CBS programs. The effects of this decision were almost immediately felt by viewers.

On Season 3 of Love Island US, which finished filming in August of this year, Cashay Proudfoot and Trina Njoroge fostered a close friendship that fans have enjoyed immensely, both while the show aired and on social media today.  The two women agreed to support each other unequivocally regardless of what drama conspired over the summer.

In the third episode, Trina confided in Cashay that she felt like they could “relate [to one another] in so many aspects of this thing.” In this statement, Trina was referring to the racial preferences that often come to the fore in reality dating shows where the default type tends to include blond hair and blue eyes. “It is hard for Black women,” Cashay replied, “It’s nice that I can talk to you about things no one else can understand. I have you.”

While this exchange may seem pedestrian to some viewers, the novelty of this conversation cannot be understated. Two Black women were able to speak openly and honestly about racism and misogynoir on network television.

Not only was the conversation affirming and validating for Black viewers, but it was also enlightening for the many non-Black viewers who don’t have conversations like this on an everyday basis.

Diversifying the Competition

The positive effects of CBS’ diversity mandate are not only evident on romantic reality shows, they have presented a unique advantage in competitive reality tv programming as well.

Big Brother, which concluded its 23rd season in late September, crowned its first Black winner in large part due to the success of an all-Black alliance. The alliance, affectionately called The Cookout, a reference to the informal spaces where Black people can let our guard down, effectively negotiated the “eviction” of all other competitors to ensure the show crowned one of the six of them the first Black winner.  For a primer about the formation of Cookout have a watch of this Tiktok.

On Survivor, currently airing its 41st season, two Black contestants Shan Smith and Liana Wallace shared a genuine connection in a game known for lying, manipulation, and backstabbing. The two were made to trek for hours in the hopes of receiving an advantage in the game.

While on this hike they open up to one another and both felt a stronger connection with each other than they had with any other players in the game thus far. Both women acknowledged quite frankly that they likely bonded so quickly as a direct result of the safety and familiarity of another Black person. While the season is still ongoing, fans are confident that this bond will carry both players far in the game.

So why does any of this matter?

Is representation in reality television the hill to die on in the fight for diversifying media? No, of course not. But it is a critical step. I, and other people of colour, deserve to see people who look like us whenever we turn on our television sets regardless of the circumstance.

Life is hard right now; studying at Cambridge is difficult and the world feels like an increasingly scary place. If I want to watch TV that includes people who look like me, I should have more options than historical dramas or racial tragedies.

I wasn’t cognizant of how much the racial homogeny of reality television bothered me until I saw what was possible when representation was taken seriously. People of colour in the UK deserve to see this difference on the nation’s most popular reality show.

ITV’s commissioner Amanda Stavri claimed that she wants “to encourage greater inclusivity and diversity” on Love Island, yet only 14 of last summer’s 37 contestants identified as people of colour. That simply is not a serious effort.

The bottom line is that representation matters. Whether it is in political representation or on reality television there is immeasurable power in seeing people who look like you represented in all facets of society.

It’s time that reality TV leans further into reality and depicts a more accurate picture of our increasingly diverse world.

Feature Image Credits: Re-coupling from Love Island UK season 7 via ITV.

ITV was contacted for comment.

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