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The inevitable departure of Love Island‘s Yewande Biala was met by many with both a sigh of disappointment and relief. Though the lone black female contestant is gone, the show will no longer double up as an exercise in triggering. After watching her break down at the news that Danny, who she had been coupled up with for nearly two weeks, was no longer interested, most black viewers had collectively had enough. Her removal means she can now pass on to influencer heaven as a fast-fashion ambassador, as opposed to an unwitting ambassador for the black community.
Her inclusion was, as so often with black women in reality television, bittersweet. One that makes you question whether it’s representation we want at all. On a recent podcast recording with authors Sofia Hagen and Zing Tseng, we discussed this tension. When there was uproar around the show’s refusal to include plus-sized contestants, Hagen sat outside of it. She told us that as a fat woman, Love Island was the last place she wanted to see fat representation – the constant and consistent rejection of larger contestants would remove the enjoyment of the show. I explained that this was how I often felt about black female inclusion on the programme. Zing added she probably would feel the same too, if they actually bothered with East Asian representation.
While some people bemoaned the lack of black Islanders, many of us actively prayed against it, knowing what would come when Samira Mighty – the first black female contestant on the show – was cast last year. Before long, she was in tears at a lack of interest and male suitors, comparing herself to peers who were more likely to be “someone’s type on paper”. It’s hard to be black when the check boxes on that paper are usually “blonde” or “brunette”.
In general, dating shows have historically struggled when it comes to black women – from the contestants on Take Me Out to the singletons on The Bachelor. Unless producers orchestrate a match (as on shows like First Dates and in the 2017 series of The Bachelorette by making her black) it usually ends up being watched through fingers.
Black female contestants don’t tend to fare well in most types of reality show – think of how many have been booted prematurely from Big Brother, how many black characters there are in TOWIE and how loathed Alexandra Burke was on Strictly Come Dancing. Their departure is even quicker, however, if desirability is thrown into the equation as a means to longevity. It’s like watching the same 1990s horror film over and over again, with the knowledge that the black character is going to be killed off first. Or in the case of Love Island, pied off.
The only predictable thing about Love Island is how the black women will be treated in the villa. And seeing this cycle of rejection repeatedly played out is tiring, demoralising and, honestly, boring. Though recoupling is part and parcel of the series, the continued plight of black women – inability to find matches, days spent moping about a lack of a match – makes a guilty pleasure simply feel guilty. I joke that Yewande could have been the fourth of my sisters, with her button nose, cat eyes and Yoruba heritage. Her name even begins in “Y” – a prerequisite for my immediate family. Seeing the constant dismissal of someone who looks like you stings.
But I’m unsure of whether that means black contestants should forgo the process entirely. We are watching a reality television programme, and this is largely the reality of dating as a black woman in predominantly white countries. My anger is rarely at the Islanders or even the producers these days – rather, it’s with a white supremacist society in which virtually any blonde or brunette is preferable, on or off the Island.
Yewande couldn’t have been a better mascot for black girl magic. She went to university at 16 and became a scientist. She was smiley and amiable, with ‘the third sexiest accent in the world’ – Irish. She was beloved in the villa and outside of it. I have no doubt she was a victim of unfair editing, with fans noting she was AWOL for the first few episodes. Fellow contestant Elma also suggested in an interview she hadn’t been given a fair shot by producers. But despite that, she was well liked and for almost a fortnight, took centre stage.
She was held to doubly high standards by two communities: her own, to which she became a representative of the entire black population and those outside of it. Yet her appearance managed to broker a truce between natural opponents, so-called Fiat 500 Twitter and Black Twitter, who often come to blows over the show but simultaneously showed her massive support. Yewande’s journey was expectedly turbulent, but she’s no victim. Her short stint embodied the grace and confidence so many black women must have in a world that tells us we’re less than.
The relatability of her protecting her hair with a carrier bag during a messy challenge was wonderful. But she also shone a light on the harsh reality of dating as a black woman that so many deny. The show highlights the specific ways in which skin tone penalises men and women differently. White men and women perform best. Mixed-raced women fare better than black women, but still struggle (Amber Gill has been quickly and happily coupled up, whereas Rachel Christie from season one and Montana Brown from season three had difficulty). Yewande is just one of two black women, over five series. Her short stint in the villa may have been at times hard to watch, but lots can be learned from it. Real world prejudices appear in reality TV, no matter how fake we consider it.