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For a genre often labeled as fake, trashy, and meaningless, reality television has left a huge mark on our culture and its influence on the American psyche is only growing. The world of reality TV may be frivolous, but its social significance is nothing to scoff at. The reality show-to-influencer pipeline has redefined what it means to be famous, the Kardashian-Jenners — who are now basically synonymous with reality TV —  have transformed societal standards of beauty, and the abundance of dating shows has normalized an unrealistic view of romance

Though some may contest the “reality” of this genre, it clearly has real world consequences and mirrors the real social issues that many people face. These real consequences and issues are exemplified when examining colorism in reality television, specifically dating shows.

Colorism, a term often credited to author and activist Alice Walker, is defined as “the prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.” Like most aspects of structural racism in the US, American colorism has its roots in slavery. As the NCCJ explains it, preferential treatment was given to lighter-skinned slaves as they were often the product of the rape of enslaved women by white slave owners.

Later examples of colorism are seen in the “paper bag test,” a 20th century legacy of Jim Crow that denied darker-skinned people membership in organizations such as college fraternities and churches. Today, colorism is incredibly prominent in the dating world, especially online. Dark-skinned women in particular have shared their dating experiences, feeling overlooked and unattractive in a society that values and fetishizes light skin. In an article for The Guardian, Dream McClinton expresses feelings of poor self image after repeatedly seeing “successful black men coupled with fair-skinned female partners who pass the paper bag test” and coming across male online dating profiles that state they “only date light-skinned women.” These preferences are not only backed by anecdotal evidence, but by research as well. McClinton’s article references the work of Dr. Darrick Hamilton, whose data concluded that 55% of light-skinned women were married, as opposed to 23% of dark-skinned women. 

Courtesy of GLDN

As dating moves not only online but onto television screens, the truth about colorism in relationships is on display for national audiences. Popular shows such as Love Island and The Bachelor highlight the prejudice against dark-skinned women. Diyora Shadijanova, writing for Cosmopolitan, points out that “In every single ‘coupling’ ceremony over the past six seasons [of Love Island UK] a Black contestant has been picked last” — not to mention the first two seasons had no Black contestants at all. 

In an article for Insider, Ebony Purks explains that “‘Love Island’ continues to overwhelmingly cast people who aren’t attracted to darker-skin individuals, and dark skin Black women mainly reap the consequences of this ‘oversight.’” Colorism in the show is often masked by contestants saying someone isn’t their type or saying that they have other preferences. However, when every guy in the villa’s type is blonde hair and blue eyes, one should question the casting process. 

Yewande Biala, a contestant on Season 5 of the British series, has spoken up about the racism and colorism she experienced on the show. She voiced her frustration about being stereotyped as the “angry Black woman,” especially when being compared to other, lighter-skinned Black women. This highlights another issue in the representation of dark-skinned Black women on the show: editing. An article by Kovie Biakolo points out that Biala “was often portrayed as cold and detached, whereas a different racial framework might have just as easily interpreted and portrayed her as shy and cautious.” More recently, the show received heat from the public for Black couples, particularly those with dark-skinned women, getting less airtime. 

Love Island is not the only dating show with these problems as The Bachelor is no stranger to the issue of colorism either. A recent instagram post by a popular account that comments on the franchise, @theblckchelorettes, highlights the casting and editing preference towards light-skinned, mixed, and ethnically ambiguous women over their darker-skinned counterparts. The post argues that even when there are dark-skinned women on the show, they are “totted around the screen as vehicles of representation without truly being seen.”  As Brooke Leigh Howard wrote for Daily Beast, “there is no space for Black women to be seen as winners in the franchise.” 

In the franchise’s 25 seasons of The Bachelor and 17 seasons of The Bachelorette, no Black contestant has ever won — or received the final rose — and there have only been three leads of color, all of which were recent seasons from within the past four years. Even with the most recent bachelor, Matt James, being the first Black male lead, the franchise sparked controversy. The winner, Rachael Kirkconnell, was revealed to have attended racist, Antebellum plantation-themed party and had other accusations of racist bullying of previous classmates. This raised questions about ABC’s casting process for the show, especially when they were specifically casting for a Black lead. 

Colorism is a structural injustice that cannot be changed by mere alterations to reality television casting — but there are corrections that must be made. People’s “types” and dating histories should be seriously considered when casting for these shows to ensure that people who make it on the show have the opportunity to meet someone with mutual attraction. In addition, diversity should not simply apply to those on screen, but to those behind the camera as well. Producers, editors, casting directors, and all crew should have more diversity to limit the stereotyping and hopefully identify problematic behavior at earlier stages. 

Reality TV holds a mirror up to society and allows us to see who we are. What is being reflected is a culture with deeply rooted colorist biases, both conscious and unconscious, that need to be addressed. Efforts towards diversity, equity, and inclusion cannot simply be vague promises made by networks and hosts to satisfy critics. They must be implemented, they must be prioritized, and they must be genuine — or to put it in reality show terms, “there for the right reasons.”

Isa Iiams

American '24

Isa (she/her) is in her second year at American University as an International Relations major with a focus on Justice, Ethics, and Human Rights. Her passions include reading, traveling, and reality television. She hopes to advocate for social justice issues through her writing.
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