Love Island is one of the biggest shows in the UK right now. Millions of people tune in every night to watch contestants laying it on factor 50 thick and getting pied on national television. It’s entertaining, it’s embarrassing, and it’s easily digestible. But the show is a completely different viewing experience for people who are familiar with subtle racism in the dating game.
For many of us, it serves as an uncomfortable mirror up to our own dating experiences. It brings up difficult conversations around western beauty standards, fetishisation and internalised racism. As Love Island has become essential in understanding the British dating scene, it’s vital, then, to look into the way racism manifests within it.
Think about the last time you went on a date. How nervous you felt beforehand. The numerous outfits you tried on. The excited voice notes you sent to your friends. Wondering whether your date will like you or how the evening will go. Now think about the added pressure of considering things like, ‘Have they ever dated anyone who looks like me? What will they make of my religion? Where I come from? Are they going to make weird race-related comments? Do they vote for a political party that actively discriminates against people like me?’
The point being - racism in dating exists, and it’s not easy to ignore as a person of colour. If racism is something you’ve experienced throughout your entire life, you will have a trained eye for it. Your heart will drop every time you’re called “exotic”, as though you’re a seasonal fruit flown in from Thailand. It’ll sting every time you’re told that you’re “pretty for your race”. For so many people, this is the exhausting reality of dating - and it’s only amplified on shows like Love Island. This isn’t because the show fosters an environment for this type of behaviour, but because it accurately reflects modern-day Britain.
In every single 'coupling' ceremony over the past five seasons, a black contestant has been picked last. In series two it was Malin, in series three it was Marcel. Series four - Samira, series five - Yewande. So it wasn’t exactly a shock to the system when Leanne got picked last this season.
People even tweeted about having predicted this might be the case:
Leanne is getting picked last as per and I'd love to be outraged but we knew this was coming #LoveIsland— Ceedark (@ceedark) January 12, 2020
It’s something series three’s Marcel Somerville expressed his frustration about as last summer’s first coupling ceremony played out.
This is mad!!!! #LoveIsland flash backs! Black guy, black girl and mixed race guy all left unpicked. Mad!!!— Marcel Somerville (@marcel_rockyb) June 3, 2019
Yewande Biala, an ex-Love Island contestant tells Cosmopolitan how it felt for her: “Before I went into the villa, obviously I was aware of how hard it is when dating as a black woman. Being from Ireland, the diversity pool isn’t as big, so it’s definitely something I had at the back of my head before going in.
“I personally struggled a lot because every man who came into the villa said their type was said ‘blonde hair and blue eyes’,” Yewande recalls. “ I just sat there like, ’obviously I missed the memo because I’m not blonde and I definitely won’t have blue eyes.’ It was a struggle and I cried so much.”
Yewande says watching the first week of winter Love Island play out has made her feel relieved that Leanne, being the only black woman in the villa, is not suffering the same painful experience. “When I look at Leanne and Mike it makes me so happy to know she’s not feeling the way I did. I honestly wouldn’t want anyone to feel that way. It’s like someone telling you you’re not good enough every day.”
It might be easy - for some people - to dismiss these moments. To say it's just 'coincidence' that contestants of colour are picked last, or that season four's Samira was asked to twerk within minutes of entering the villa. But I'm not so sure; they feel like blatant signifiers to what's going on in wider society. Western beauty standards dictate what is desirable and what's not. For years, we’ve been told via various modes of media that whiteness is the ideal. It doesn’t matter how beautiful Leanne is; she doesn’t fit into the narrow ‘beauty standard’ box we’ve been conditioned to accept, and so she was picked last - as so many people accurately anticipated.
And it’s not just in the coupling up ceremony that this kind of inadvertent racism is evident. The dismissal of Leanne as a black woman arguably fed all the way through the show’s first week. When Mike told fellow islander Jess Gale he was leaning towards Leanne in preference, she commented that she was “shocked at this strong preference.” For me, there were uncomfortable undertones to what she was suggesting; why couldn’t she wrap her head around the fact that Mike could somehow find Leanne more attractive? It wasn’t something that went unnoticed by viewers.
“I honestly believe that Jess was shocked that Leanne was picked over her because she’s black and she thinks she’s superior to her and more beautiful, because she’s white,” wrote one person. “I can’t see any other explanation,” she added.
“WHY IS SHE SHOCKED? Lmao I have to laugh ,” posted another, adding that Leanne is “a fine fine babe.”
Jess's twin, Eve Gale tells Cosmopolitan she doesn't believe her sister's shock was race-related. "We were both encouraged to pick the person that we would most likely be attracted to in the 'real world', regardless of who they were currently coupled with. For Jess that person was Mike," recently-dumped islander Eve says. "Leanne has been Jess and I's closest friend in the villa and we believe her to be a stunningly beautiful woman, both in looks and personality."
Jess's perceived disregard of Leanne as 'competition' had echoes of last summer's series. When Arabella Chi dismissed Yewande's entire relationship with Danny, some of the viewers felt then, too, that it might have stemmed from the fact that Yewande is a black woman.
Arabella doesn’t see Yewande as competition because she’s black if we’re keeping it a hunnid #LoveIsland— Glenise 🇧🇧 (@TheyCallMeNeicy) June 21, 2019
What's annoying is that arabella sees yewande as nothing. So many white girls think they are above black girls and don't see them as competition and that any boy will be rushing to pick them #LoveIsland— daisy (@womaninaboxx) June 24, 2019
Arabella insists this wasn't the case, however. "I saw Yewande as equal competition. She is a beautiful looking girl with an incredible personality," she tells Cosmopolitan, reflecting on the events.
Elsewhere, hearing Nas from this year’s cast refer to himself as "exotic" and then having a fellow contestant compare him to "Aladdin" was also precarious; the perfect microcosm of how people of colour are often othered in the dating scene.
Siânnise, who initially gave him the nickname, may have also referred to herself as Jasmine because she’s “obsessed with Disney” - but regardless, hearing an Asian man being compared to a Middle-Eastern cartoon character is imprecise, uncomfortable and not in the least bit surprising. It carries the message that all brown people look the same. Is there such little positive representation of Asian men in popular culture, that the nearest comparison Siânnise could reach was someone from an entirely different part of the world?
The fact that the official Love Island account then made the same joke about Nas and Siânnise, calling them "Princess Jasmine and Aladdin", is a further indication that we’re forced to see people of colour through a white gaze.
Scroll through your feed, and you’ll see the Fiat 500s on Twitter question how racism can possibly exist on the show when previous contestants such as Wes, Josh and Amber were all so popular. But this merely raises another complex issue; the fetishisation of mixed-race contestants.
Journalist Reiss Smith, who wrote about this exact topic last year, explains: “Society has always favoured a specific beauty ideal in both men and women – whiteness. People who have light brown skin are less removed from this ideal than those with dark skin, therefore they're often seen as more conventionally beautiful, and as such do better in the dating world due to unconscious bias,” he tells Cosmopolitan.
“Mixed-race is a huge umbrella term, not a specific racial identity in itself, and mixed raced people definitely have privileges over those with darker skin.
“Our lighter skin and sometimes whiter features are more palatable to a society where institutionalised racism and unconscious biases are very much real. This is even true among black communities, where the traumas of colonialism and white supremacy continue to perpetuate the idea that lighter skin is beautiful.”
Increasing the cast’s diversity is a positive step forward, and it’s something the producers have been doing year on year. But it’s not the only answer to the issues surrounding race on the show. You can put as many different ethnicities as you like in a villa, but how can racist micro-aggressions stop when our society doesn’t give people of colour the tools to thrive in these environments?
Practically speaking, ITV could and should increase the diversity of people they hire on Love Island’s production and social media teams. They should ensure their employees are well-equipped to understand institutionalised racism, so they’re able to have these conversations instead of skirting around them.
Upon reaching out to ITV, a spokesman tells Cosmopolitan: "Love Island refutes any suggestion of racism in the strongest possible terms." And of course, there is only so much producers can control. It’s a reality show, after all, and as we’ve seen illustrated in the coupling up ceremonies, contestants will act autonomously.
But do these subtle - and more imperatively, the less subtle - suggestions of racism all need to make it through the editing process? Perhaps Love Island simply needs a few more people in the room who just get it.
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