Image Source: Netflix
As a self-proclaimed hopeless romantic, I’ve always been in love with love. Whether I’m obsessing over a rom-com or swooning at the thought of love at first sight, love has always been a big deal to me. Finding love on a reality dating show used to fascinate me as a kid; a once-in-a-lifetime chance to find a soulmate you didn’t know existed through a chance of casting? What a concept! That’s until I noticed a pattern: no one who looked like me was looking for love on these television shows.
No one who looked like me was looking for love on these television shows.
It’s true, reality dating shows can be quite cheesy and downright corny at times, but to me, there’s something beautiful about seeing someone find the love of their life all thanks to a social experiment. But for Black people, it seems like those opportunities are so far and few in between on TV — especially if you’re not of a certain skin color. Dating shows like “The Bachelor” and “Love Island” have become huge staples in the genre, but rarely are there any Black men, Black women, or better yet, a Black couple for people like me to root for (though Justine Ndiba and Caleb Corprew’s season two win on “Love Island” offered some hope). Hell, these shows have a hard enough time casting the right contestants without putting Black people on the back burner, but even that feels like a half-assed job at times. And, when we do make it on these shows, we’re usually sent home first.
The handful of times I’ve seen Black people star on dating shows on TV, they’re hardly given a variety of romantic interests of the same race to pursue. The Bachelor franchise — and its huge diversity problem — is a prime example. In the last 26 seasons of the original show and 18 of its spinoff, “The Bachelorette,” there have only been four Black leads — Rachel Lindsay, Tayshia Adams, Matt James, and Michelle Young — all from within the last five years. Many Black contestants in the supporting casts noted their experiences subjected them to “harassment and abuse,” as well as racism from both fans and the cast and crew. And many of the contestants seem to fit a similar profile of light skin and racially ambiguous features — perpetuating another stark reality about desirability in DWB (dating while Black).
With shows like “Love Is Blind” and “Married at First Sight” (that feel slightly less gimmicky), Black people are always treated as the minority. Some Black contestants don’t even end up choosing a Black man or woman as their partner, and that might be due to their options oftentimes being so limited. It’s because of these scarce appearances from Black people on these dating shows (which are still considered milestones in some cases) that some have expressed the pressure they feel in having to choose someone of their own race.
“I was billed a certain way . . . almost perfection.”
Lindsay touched on her experience as the first Black Bachelorette during an appearance on the “HollywoodLife Podcast” in January, explaining the expectations she faced during her season. “I was billed a certain way . . . almost perfection,” she said. “You hadn’t seen that before because that’s not messy — that’s not entertaining, right? As a lover of reality TV, that’s true. That’s why it’s so interesting that I had to be all those things as the first Black Bachelorette.” The decision to choose Lindsay to helm her own season of the franchise was largely driven by her picture-perfect background — which includes her being a lawyer — that came across more palatable to a white audience. “. . . she makes sense, she comes from this family, she was raised this way, she has this career, she’s done all these things where she checks all the boxes so, OK, she’s acceptable to be the first,” Lindsay added.
Some viewers took it personally when the former Bachelorette chose her now-husband Bryan Abasolo (who’s Colombian) at the end of her season; it almost felt like betrayal to see the first Black Bachelorette not end up with a Black man — a disappointment. “I got so much backlash for picking Bryan even though I knew my decision and I knew I made the right decision,” Lindsay shared on the “Bachelor Happy Hour” podcast in 2020. For Black viewers who want to see our kind of love prevail on these whitewashed shows, it feels like an unfair ask to dictate who people should fall in love with, counting on them to “stick with our people,” because the system for reality dating shows was never designed with us in mind. So, unfortunately, the outcome will never be exactly what we want it to be.
It’s why some Black women and men who are fans of dating shows settle for the cookie-cutter ones that don’t truly prioritize us or handle us with care; it feels like the equivalent to accepting crumbs because that’s all we’re offered.
The pressure for Black people to be so perfect on reality dating shows is why there’s been a gap in us having our own series again. Previous ones we’ve led have been clouded by so much drama, antics, and flat-out foolery for ratings grabs. If you let VH1 (circa 2006-2009) tell it, seeing Black people compete for love on TV was only entertaining if we were acting reckless.
Between “Flavor of Love,” “I Love New York,” “Real Chance of Love,” and “For the Love of Ray J” (iconic shows that I’m personally a fan of for the messiness), it’s ironic these shows were centered around the namesakes finding love when everything but that occurred. Since that era, there’s been a huge void for representation of Black love on reality TV. It’s as if our image within pop culture TV was permanently stained. It’s why some Black women and men who are fans of dating shows settle for the cookie-cutter ones that don’t truly prioritize us or handle us with care; it feels like the equivalent to accepting crumbs because that’s all we’re offered.
But that impact has also inspired Black people to get creative and be the change we hope to see in this space. So if you’re someone like me who scours the internet for content that revolves around Black love, relationships, and dating, then you’ll find YouTube to be a gold mine: Buzzfeed’s Cocoa Butter has “Date My Fit” (pretty self-explanatory); Netflix has “Love That For Us” — a series in which Black couples dish on their favorite Black-centric films and love stories — as well as “Get You a Me,” which offers dating advice designed specifically for cuffing season. And for the folks with cable, OWN’s “Ready to Love” and “Black Love” check off all the boxes as far as representation goes.
The content is out there if you look hard enough. But with a such a heavily saturated genre, why should we have to? I’d love to see the day that we show up in abundance on these TV social experiments and are given more chances to lead them, more chances to actually make genuine love connections.
People may think it’s far-fetched to say women who look like me won’t really find love on these shows in “progressive” 2022. But then again, is it?