Illustration by Nina Skrzypczak
Love Island is like that toxic relationship that we keep going back to; in fact, 3.3 million of us inevitably return to it every year. There is some comfort in watching people fight over each other in the pursuit of love, all from the safe sanctuary of your sofa but above all, it’s the relatability. Dating struggles are a common denominator between us all and Love Island is a microcosm of the worst parts. Being a person of colour adds another level of difficulty to the already awkward and puzzling dating experience: ‘What will they make of my culture?’, ‘Have they ever dated anyone who looks like me?’, ‘Are they going to make any weird race-related jokes?’ – All questions that circulate in the lead up to the first date. So naturally, Love Island is an extreme version of this. As every toxic relationship goes, we convince ourselves that things will be different this time only to be disappointed once again. The lack of diversity and representation in the casting of the show is just as foreseeable as the fast-fashion collaborations that emerge post-villa. It seems that Love Island’s ‘type on paper’ heavily resembles paper itself: white and thin.
The question ‘what’s your type’ gets flippantly tossed around on and off the show as if there are some set standards of attractiveness that we are born with and cannot deviate from. In reality, it is nurture rather than nature that defines one’s ‘type’. Unconsciously, or perhaps in some cases consciously, we build up an idea of attractiveness from the people that surround us, the cultures we are raised in and, of course, the screen. Love Island plays a huge role in setting the tone for what we should deem appealing especially as it rakes in a huge number of young viewers who are inaugurated into the world of relationships and sexuality through the show. Following this past year where the voices of minorities have been amplified through movements like Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, more was expected from the reality show. It was expected to fit in with the general race and diversity discussions that populate other platforms like Tik Tok and Instagram. Unfortunately, the show missed its opportunity to make a mark and redefine expectations.
Throughout the whole programme, there was no more than one East Asian contestant, a total of two black islanders and two south Asian women (which was a historic record first for the show) entering the villa. As someone of South Asian descent, it was refreshing to see, though brief, that there were two Indian women amongst this year’s contestants. Upon further thought, I realised that the two women were noticeably lighter-skinned south Asians and perhaps this made them more palatable to a Western audience. Even at Love Island’s best, they are still conforming to colourism and a white-centric view of the world. Growing up, every Indian character I came across was confined to being an Indie Mehta from How to be Indie, someone that had to rebel against their culture to be considered cool; or the nerdy kid like Ravi from Disney Channel’s Jessie that everyone found obnoxious and hard to understand. It feels as though the Love Island producers are seeking to tick an ethnicity box with a token black woman or South Asian woman without fully considering the breadth and variety that these groups carry. Once again, the people of colour are reduced to the functional and practical role of being a trump card so that ITV have something to combat their complaints of lacking diversity.
I could continue to chastise the show for its disappointing attempts to be diverse in its casting but as I said, Love Island is a reflection of the wider society that watch it. It’s the dating scene on steroids. While it is a problematic show, this is symptomatic of an already existing dating world where white beauty standards are the default and some non-white communities are still far behind in their liberality.
To see an Indian, Shanon Singh, enter the villa as a promiscuous and daring female was important for the whopping forty-eight hours she was there. It was the same with Priya Gopaldas who was only there for one of the eight weeks. It is worth noting that the image of a young, sexually active, South Asian woman is refreshing and significant not only because of the existing discourse surrounding them from outside their community – the standard of being docile and unblemished also stems from inside the community. Shanon Singh received great deals of abuse from Asian men in particular for embracing her sexuality and going on the show, seeing it as a deviation from her culture as an Asian woman. It is perhaps a hesitation for people of colour to even go on a dating reality show like Love Island. Countless Tik Tok videos display Asian men and women receiving invitations from Love Island’s casting team with ‘I am brown’ repeating in the background as if that is enough to know they’d get slapped with a chappal if they ever even considered going on the show. There is apprehension from people of colour themselves present their sexuality so publicly due to the ideals upheld in their cultures. This does not, however, account for the whole problem.
Of course, we must put it all into perspective. Love Island is ultimately a reality tv show designed to bring the most drama and we can’t expect it to be a beacon of hope for race struggles and demolishing structural and systematic racism. However, having the viewership and influence that it does, it could surely try a little harder. Love Island is communicating a message about what is beautiful and the world would not be so beautiful without the sheer range of people that populate it. So, Love Island, here is my call for you to reflect that.