Britain has given us some of the most rubbish reality TV. And I mean rubbish in the best way. The UK has brought us cultural gems like Geordie Shore, Big Brother and The Great British Bakeoff. The British have, in many ways, picked up what American reality TV left behind: keeping some of the grit and mess that gets edited out in favour of slick, vlogger style production. The latest British show to capture our free-downloading attention is ‘Love Island’. For four seasons now, viewers have been invested in the lives of the contestants: and now there is another twist. Love Island is bringing its contestants out of the Villa and to South African shores.
Love Island isn’t a particularly revolutionary dating show. In fact, it feels a lot like the producers from Ex on the Beach and Big Brother decided to do the TV equivalent of splitting an uber fare. The basic premise of the show is as follows. A group of contestants, who we’ll call ‘Islanders’ are isolated from society in some Spanish villa. To stay in the game, Islanders need to couple up with each other based on initial attraction. As the game goes on, Islanders need to re-couple and find new partners. Anyone who isn’t in a couple at the end of the episode gets eliminated and misses out on the £50,000 prize. Easy enough, right. Except that, like every other TV show, social politics from the real world find their way into the villa and have a real consequence on who ends up strolling out with both the cash prize and the new lover.
It’s no big secret that black people have a harder time in the dating pool. Black women, specifically, are often listed as the least dateable on dating websites like Tinder and many feel like they find themselves the ‘last picked’ in their social circles. That applies in both black and white spaces, where colorism and racism still run rampant and white women are the standard. These social trends reproduce themselves on reality TV dating shows. Up until 2016, no black women had ever made it past Week 5 on The Bachelor (it’s had 21 seasons, by the way). And sure, The Bachelor’s target audience is middle aged white women: but will their TV screens blow up if a black woman gets to the sixth rose ceremony and can claim more TV royalties? No. The politics of the series affects black men too (who also don’t get very far on the show). In the spinoff, The Bachelor in Paradise contestant DeMario Jackson found himself the victim of a footage editing scandal that made it seem that he had sexually assaulted his fellow contestant Corinne Olympios. After an investigation, it was found that no sexual misconduct had occurred, and the footage had been heavily edited to warp the situation. The familiar trope had been another ploy to pull in viewers, at the expense of the only black male contestant that season.
Love Island has yet to have a scandal at that same level, but British TV isn’t exempt from falling into the same politics of the screen that are at best, lazy and at worst, damaging to black participants. Despite recent attempts to diversify the cast, there’s still only a handful of contestants that don’t look like they were plucked off the pages of Sports Illustrated. The kind of racism that plays out in the villa is generally made up of the kind of slack, lazy microaggressions that people of colour experience daily. For instance, within the first five minutes of season 4, islander Samira Mighty was asked to twerk for the rest of the villa when she revealed she was a dancer. Her dancing career has been based in musical theatre, but the conversation didn’t get that far. On her season, Samira was constantly turned down in the coupling process, as her fellow contestants expressed little to no interest in pairing up with her.
On the last season of the show, there were a few black contestants: namely, Yewande Biala, Amber Gill and Sherif Lanre. Yewande, a twitter fave, received far less airtime than the other contestants and much like Samira, often found herself uncoupled. Amber Gill has been called out for a photo she posted of herself showing the middle finger to a black man in a club, captioned “I’m not into black guys x”. Sheriff was kicked off the season for unclear reasons. Calum, too, received a fraction of the airtime given to the other Islanders. Furthermore, two Islanders (Tomy Fury and Antony Danyluk) have been exposed for blackface and homophobic comments.
The show also has a complicated history with mental health. Mike Thallasitis and Sophie Gradon both committed suicide after their time on the show. Many other contestants have come forward to reveal that the show and its production process has negatively impacted their mental health.
So then, what does it mean that this show is coming to South Africa? Apart from Come Dine with Me and Date My Family: the current reality television pool in SA is a little underwatered. When the new season was announced, twitter was awash with people excited to claim their potential spots in the villa To be clear, the producers of Love Island are simply bringing the already chosen cast to South Africa: much like when Jersey Shore dumped Snookie and JWoww in Italy for a few weeks. They’ve announced no plans to cast any South Africans. But who knows? Anything could happen.
The producer’s choice to bring the show to SA is probably purely based on aesthetics. If popular trends are anything to go by, the cast will either find themselves in Cape Town or the Kruger National Park. The Islanders, once again only a handful of them POC, will compete for each other’s love against the backdrop of ‘sunny South Africa’. Let’s say, plausibly, that the cast of this upcoming season diversifies and includes a South African in the lineup. Maybe it’s a black woman. I think it’s safe to assume she’d have a really hard time.
On one hand, I understand an older generations commentary that black people don’t need to involve themselves in this type of a show. Sure, its trashy and it’s baseless. But I also don’t think black people are above being on trash television. Representation is important, even if you don’t always like what you’re looking at. On the other hand, ‘Love Island’ and dating shows at large have a gross history of racism and willfull ignorance of mental health issues that I’m not sure that the payout would be worth it for our hypothetical South African Islander. She probably wouldn’t even win. I’m not sure how the next few seasons of Love Island are gonna go. But I am almost 100% sure that Flavor of Love is the only show that will ever come close to getting it right.
I don’t anticipate that the producers will be doing anything to make the experience on the show more balanced for people of color or employ meaningful, thorough preventative measures to ensure positive mental health experiences any time soon. I’m also not sure that the contestants are going to be able to hold back strange comments about Africa and questions about the jungle. It might be possible that the show doesn’t even owe the contestants (or Africa) that much: after all, they all enter the villa willingly and sign contracts that I’m sure don’t stipulate access to therapy or diversity training. But is that true?