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“Why Love Island’s lack of diversity speaks of a much bigger problem”

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Danielle Dash
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“Occupying a predominately white space as the lone black woman is lonely.”

Friday night’s episode of Love Island was one of the most harrowing yet. The ITV2 reality gameshow series, which sees contestants compete to find love, is entering its fifth week and in each episode, viewers have watched Samira Mighty struggle to make a genuine connection with any of the men who have entered the villa – despite her obvious beauty and bubbly personality. I cried watching Samira cry as she stood with her back to the camera, her head held down, as she whispered to Megan, “I just don’t understand”.

Because many of us watching did understand. While Samira repeated “I’m fine, I’m fine”, attempting to assure Megan she wasn’t affected by weeks of constant rejection, we knew the truth. It’s clear there is a problem.

Love Island has been on our screens for four series. Over this time, 97 islanders have entered the villa. Yet despite some 36,000 people applying for this series alone, Samira is only the second black woman, and one of only 17 people of colour, to compete. Surveying the facts on the ground, the knee jerk reaction is to point to diversity to explain why Samira has had an emotionally challenging time in the villa. 

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However, across the four series, despite only one Asian man (Omar Sultani, series one) and one mixed race Asian woman (Malin Andersson, series two) appearing in the villa, for the most part, Love Island has reflected the racial landscape of the country. People of colour account for 13% of the British population and have so far made up 17.5% of islanders. In Samira’s case, the problem isn’t diversity. Rather, the problem is how society has been trained to see black women and certain people of colour – not at all, and certainly not romantically.

Josh and Wes, along with other black and mixed-race male contestants across the series, have rarely struggled to couple up because society is taught that black and mixed-race men are sexually attractive. From Idris Elba to Jesse Williams, Denzel Washington to Omari Hardwick, the messaging is clear: regardless of their hue, black men are sexy. Society is taught to see and value black men as romantic options. This isn’t always positive as white women have been taught that it is acceptable to fetishise black men or, in Laura’s case, mixed race men, as evidenced by her “we’d make cute babies” comment to Wes during a recent challenge. This fetishisation of mixed-race people is a harmful form of stereotyping that both generalises and dehumanises them.

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Black women, especially black women with no proximity to whiteness, have not been positioned in the same way. White society has not been trained to see black women as attractive in the ways we have been taught to see black men or mixed-race men and women. From Susan Wokoma to Viola Davis, Queen Latifah to Wunmi Mosaku, black women are read as strong, funny and capable. However, they are rarely valued by society as the sexy and desirable women they so clearly are. 

The lack of opportunity to consume black women as romantic options on television, in films and in the media in general has real life consequences. Samira’s experience on Love Island is just one. Rachel Christie, the first black woman to appear on the show, described her experience as pointless, explaining, “I was starting to feel miserable because there was no one in there I had a connection with and I wasn’t going to meet anyone.” Despite being two very different black women, Samira and Rachel’s experiences are eerily similar and point to a deeper rot.

In last night’s episode, Samira invited new arrival Frankie to share her bed. During a morning debrief with the other women in the villa, Samira shared that Frankie had said maybe one word to her before he started kissing her. The women were happy for her as she had wanted affection but I remain concerned that, like Alex and Sam before him, Frankie is simply biding his time before he finds another woman he believes he’ll have a connection with. 

I continue to be saddened and frustrated as I watch Samira slowly lose her carefree attitude, her confidence eroded episode by episode. It is heart breaking to see black women across social media detail the ways in which Samira’s isolation in the villa reflects their own lived experiences while dating, in the workplace and in life in general. Occupying a predominately white space as the lone black woman is lonely. It is demoralising that it took Samira’s vulnerability and tears for viewers to recognise the damage the constant rejection has caused. As one woman said on Twitter: “This isn’t escapism anymore, it’s just triggering and upsetting.” 

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I wish it was as easy as blaming a lack of diversity, and chastising producers for not having included more people of colour in the new crop of islanders, but Samira’s problem is bigger than Love Island. The problem of how black women, and other non-black people of colour, are included and represented on television is bigger than Love Island, too, and it certainly won’t be solved when the winning couple are crowned.

Keisena Boom for Everyday Feminism outlines four tropes that limit how black women are seen. Until black women are viewed outside of the hypersexual, sassy, angry and strong black women roles that society casts us in, until Asian people, disabled people, and LGBTQI+ people are represented in the myriad ways that white, able bodied, heterosexual people are on TV and in films, Love Island can try all the diversity it wants, but the results will be the same. Men will pine after a Megan or a Laura before ever considering a Samira, because that’s what they’ve been taught to do. It’s so deeply engrained they aren’t even aware that anyone other than a white woman moulded to conform to prevailing beauty standards is even a romantic choice.

Images: ITV2