Crowd DNA New York’s Simi Olagundoye explores how reality dating shows misrepresent those of marginalized identities and what they should consider instead…
Dating shows have long been criticized for their lack of representation and regard for contestants from marginalized backgrounds. With race and sexual misrepresentation rife, viewers are ready for a reckoning. But this must be responded to in an educated and intentional manner. Firstly producers need to eliminate racist, homophobic, and sexist tropes from their narratives to positively affect and inform viewers of all backgrounds. They then need to provide ongoing training and therapy for casts and crews to ensure that physical and emotional safety for marginalized identities is achieved.
Since its start, dating show The Bachelor has been in hot water for racial insensitivity. And recently, conversations reached boiling point. The season involving Matt James, the first Black Bachelor, was revealed to have a history trodden with racism.
Following an outcry for the franchise to examine its racial insensitivity, longtime host Chris Harrison was removed. Rachel Lindsay, the first Black Bachelorette, denounced the show. This spawned important conversations around how to create a safe environment for people of color (POC) on reality dating shows.
‘Can a show that’s built on stereotypes handle race well?’ – Rachel Lindsay, Bachelorette
Many shows employ colorblind casting, insisting that they ‘don’t see race’. POC, especially Black people, are expected to exist in a raceless space. But we cannot pretend that dating shows are devoid of racism or racial stereotypes. And while colorblind casting means representation might increase, race is rarely being discussed. An exception to this is Netflix’s Love Is Blind. Couples engage in discussions around race in a manner that is both impactful and entertaining.
These conversations about race are key in creating a safe environment for POC. When broadcasters omit them, they revert to aged racist tropes, feeding into biases. These tropes have the power to influence viewers’ perception of the world. They signal to marginalized communities that they don’t belong. To the non-marginalized, these tropes are a dangerous guide to how others should be treated.
‘I get why they are hesitant to do it, but I don’t think it’s working when they chuck in one bisexual person.’ – Megan Barton-Hanson, Love Island
Built in a heteronormative vacuum, dating shows often get it wrong when it comes to representing sexualities across the spectrum. Love Island executives have expressed challenges placing queer contestants into heterosexual-aligned spaces. But instead of trying to squeeze queer people into straight spaces, networks should place queer communities at the centre.
In 2007, A Shot At Love With Tila Tequila challenged existing dating show formats by being the first to feature a bisexual lead. However, the show is infamous for a homophobic plot twist, pitting queer women and straight men against each other. This perpetuates the false stigma that bisexuals have to ‘pick’ a gender.
Season eight of MTV’s Are You The One? exclusively cast sexually fluid contestants and was highly lauded as groundbreaking reality TV. Unfortunately, fans were disappointed that there wasn’t a reunion episode, unlike every other season, reinforcing feelings of exclusion for the queer community. Give queer-focused shows, and queer cast members, the same exposure that their straight counterparts receive. Viewers are acutely aware of tokenism and want to see real action being taken, so they enjoy their guilty pleasures, guilt free.
Attitudes to the representation of marginalized identities is changing. Viewers expect openness, diversity and a sense of commitment to progressive programming. First comes the conversations, then decisive action. This action must reconfigure broadcasting around the struggles of previously marginalized voices, while providing real and sustained support for any harm caused.
With subscription online streaming now the norm, audiences are increasingly discerning and selective when it comes to the content they watch. People are less passive. They’re done with the couch potato identity. This means that meaningful engagement with the issue of representation will pay off, for TV and across the board.