Black Women On Reality Dating Shows Are Rarely Finding Love. Instead, They’re Securing The Bag
The reality dating show contestant-to-influencer pipeline is real, and it may be the only practical motivation for Black women to join the ranks.
Finding love on reality TV has exploded in popularity within the last decade, leading to a wave of new dating shows. Though the formats for attaining a partner on these shows are decidedly different — weeding out wastemen to find Mr. Right (Fckboy Island), abstaining from sex to inspire emotional maturity (Too Hot to Handle), exchanging vows with a total stranger scientifically selected by a group of relationship experts (Married at First Sight) — the core objective is the same: finding true love. For Black women on these shows, however, establishing romantic connections is significantly more difficult than it is for their peers of other races. And in a genre where anti-Blackness and racism run rampant, it’s becoming more and more clear that the only thing worth pursuing by Black women during these productions is not love. It’s the bag.
Dating as a Black woman can be a grueling process. Whether you’re looking for love in person or online via dating apps and social media, DWBW (dating while Black woman) is often a stressful and emotionally-trying endeavor because of the sheer amount of obstacles that we face as a result of the intersection of our gender and race. Misogynoir, a term coined by scholar Moya Bailey and writer Trudy in 2008, refers to the “specific hatred, dislike, distrust, and prejudice directed toward Black women.” In dating, that bias is distressingly clear, and it shows up in a number of ways. In his book Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking), OkCupid founder and data scientist Christian Rudder shared troubling research that showed that Black women were considered the least desirable racial group to men — Black men included — on the popular dating app. That bias undoubtedly extends to other apps and real life social situations, making it harder for Black women to connect romantically. Things only get more dire when the other offshoots of misogyny come into play: fatphobia, colorism, and featurism.
If the process of dating as a Black woman is this taxing in real life, it only makes sense that it’s just as bad on a reality dating show — if not worse — and the misogynoir starts as early as a project’s casting practices. With the power to decide who is qualified to appear on their shows, producers and casting directors set the tone for what the experience will be like for the entire production, and they tend to use those powers for evil, not good. Despite a growing push for more diverse casting efforts on reality TV, many modern dating shows are typically populated by white contestants. And on the occasion that people of color are included in the candidate pool, they aren’t usually pursued on the same level. How many times have we seen a Black woman play a bigger role in someone else’s love story without having one of her own? On dating shows where everyone is supposed to be looking for love with main character energy, Black women are still relegated to the role of sidekick.
Bachelor Nation is a perfect example of the way that misogynoir has played out on reality dating shows. In its almost 20 years, The Bachelor has recruited a number of Black women to participate in the saccharine TV journey to true love (and a dazzling Neil Diamond engagement ring), but their success rates through the process have been disturbingly low. Of the Black women contestants to appear in this franchise, Rachel Lindsay, Tayshia Adams, and Maurissa Gunn are the only ones who found love on the show, and Lindsay and Adams’ success can be credited to the fact that they were given the rare opportunity to lead their own seasons. (Current Bachelorette Michelle Young will hopefully join the ranks at the end of her ongoing journey.)
For Black women in Bachelor Nation who aren’t the Bachelorette, the odds are not in their favor, mostly due to the fact that executives repeatedly fail to cast men who are genuinely attracted to them. The consequences of this unfortunate casting oversight are demonstrated season after season of The Bachelor and its spinoff titles. On the most recent installment of Bachelor in Paradise (where the rejects of previous editions of the show gather on the beaches of Sayulita, Mexico for a hot summer), we watched as Bachelor Nation fan favorite Natasha Parker spent what should have been a shot girl summer being toyed with and treated like a second-class citizen by castmate Brendan Morais. Despite being an obvious catch, Parker’s time on the beach was more hellscape than paradise, marked by manipulation and microaggressions. In fact, save for Maurissa Gunn and her historic engagement to Riley Christian, all of the Black women on Season 7 of Paradise walked away from Mexico without having the opportunity to make a genuine romantic connection — something that is not at all uncommon in this franchise.
It’s not just The Bachelor either. Across dating shows, Black women have been dealt an unfortunate hand as a result of problematic casting that recruit men who seem to like everyone but them. Throughout its seven seasons, British cult favorite Love Island has only cast a smattering of Black women, who went through hell and high water during their time in the villa. Though Samira Mighty, Yewande Biala, and Kaz Kamwi were knockouts with great personalities, they all experienced the painfully familiar rejection that many dark-skinned Black women know personally, week after week. They were often chosen last by their crush, put in the friendzone, voted the least favorite Islander or part of the least favorite couple, and picked apart online by “fans” of the ITV show.
Unfortunately, the girls across the pond fared no better in the American version of Love Island. The three seasons of the dating series have continued the similar thread of Black women being underrated and undesired by their fellow islanders despite being the undisputed stars of the show. Justine Ndiba clinched the big win (and the $100,000 cash prize that she split with then-boyfriend Caleb Corprew) at the end of her Season 2 run, but only after a number of early days in the villa tainted by troubling displays of what many viewers identified as blatant colorism. Season 3’s Cashay Proudfoot suffered a similar rocky start, repeatedly being described as having an “amazing personality” and “good vibes” — backhanded compliments that don’t usually lead to romance. (Proudfoot did eventually find her love story with her boo Cinco Holland, but only after being sent home.)
In a rare interview following her season on Love Island, third place winner Kamwi opened up about the toll the experience had taken on her mental health. Although she ultimately left the villa with her partner Tyler Cruickshank, her time on Love Island had nonetheless been negatively impacted by the anti-Blackness she faced.
"The most difficult abuse to receive is any that is racially motivated,” said Kamwi in an interview for BBC Panorama special Online Abuse: Why Do You Hate Me?. “When you look at me, I am a dark-skinned Black woman, that's the first thing you see...and the fact that my family was exposed to that breaks my heart."
Because representation often plays a significant role in our perception of ourselves and our places in society, the endless obstacles Black women face in these situations can feel deeply personal. As a Black woman who enjoys watching people fall in love — or, at least what they think is love — it’s understandably frustrating to see women who look like me get the short end of the stick when it comes to romantic pursuits onscreen or to be subjected to ill treatment because of the color of our skin. Knowing that Black women can face abuse and rejection based on race while pursuing romance onscreen, what exactly is the draw for any one of us to willingly sign up for a dating show in 2021? The answer is far less romantic but absolutely practical given the times that we’re living in: capital. And everybody knows it.
For many Black women on dating shows, a happily-ever-after more practically involves leaving the production with an army of new followers on social media and a string of corporate big wigs circling them to sign a five-figure deal. Sure, million-dollar deals and brand partnerships are by no means a panacea for the many occupational hazards that come with being a Black woman on reality TV. However, this system was made to be finessed, especially by the people whom the chips are so obviously stacked against. The girls are turning lemons into very expensive lemonade.
What exactly is the draw for any Black woman to willingly sign up for a dating show in 2021? The answer is far less romantic but absolutely practical given the times that we’re living in: capital.
Mere weeks after her tumultuous experience and hard-earned win on season five of Love Island (a case study of what happens when every corner of Black Twitter throws its weight behind you), Amber Gill signed a massive deal with clothing brand Miss Pap. The former beautician from Newcastle became a millionaire overnight; she’s since reportedly raked in another million through brand partnerships, including working with makeup brand Maybelline and airline company British Airways.
Gill’s season five co-star Yewande Biala is also building her empire following the show. Though she had every intention of resuming her work in Dublin as a pharmacist before flying to the villa, Biala is now working full-time as a social media influencer, creating content for YouTube and Instagram while also preparing for her summer 2022 authorial debut.
Melinda Melrose, a contestant from the recent installment of Netflix’s Too Hot to Handle, has hit the one million followers mark on Instagram after her season, lending to opportunities that have furthered her modeling career and given her a chance to collaborate more across other Netflix projects. Rachel Lindsay pivoted from being The Bachelor’s voice of reason — a lucrative but emotionally draining gig — to working as a full-time podcaster and TV correspondent. And while Love is Blind’s Lauren Speed-Hamilton was one of the few to find real love in those pods, she also found an unstoppable bag, launching a viral YouTube channel and publishing a book with her husband Cameron in the aftermath of the show.
Because the quest for true love is a universal one — and because our collective interest and investment in other people’s business will never, ever wane — more shows of this nature are steadily popping up on network television and on a number of streaming platforms alike. As more dating shows are greenlit, the pool of eligible and TV-ready singles is growing exponentially, but the real draw of these shows isn’t as “pure” as wholesome fans might like. While the producers, executives, and even cast members of our favorite dating shows would have us believe that the appeal of these projects is the prospect of finding a soulmate, the reality is that, for many contestants, being cast on reality TV is an important first step in a major career pivot. For people who once worked traditional jobs (and those whose careers were more...niche), becoming a reality star opens up a wealth of possibilities regardless of how their journeys end.
"People aren't there for the right reasons, to put it frankly," bemoaned former Bachelorette Desiree Hartsock in conversation with Insider. "It's too obvious you can then become an influencer if that's what you want to do....a relationship can't really last if one or both of them are seeking out that fame, because then it's all about them."
At the risk of sounding hyper-capitalist...so what? Though the exact numbers differ depending on the person, their following, the content they create, and the platform they use to share said content, influencer work does bring in the dough. In 2018, a Vox article revealed that influencers of varying levels were making whole salaries through their social media content alone; influencers at the time were bringing in anywhere from $30,000 all the way to millions of dollars with just a year’s worth of consistent posting and brand sponsorship. Now, with the rise of new platforms like TikTok and Cameo alongside the persistence of Instagram as an influencer haven, those numbers are likely even higher.
Of course, as within all fields, racism and sexism negatively impact the financial opportunities of Black women pursuing careers as influencers. The pay gap also exists in the influencer world, and Black women and other people of color are still working twice as hard for half as much as their white counterparts. That disparity is painfully evident when it comes to the availability of deals and partnerships for white reality stars-turned-influencers compared to that of Black and brown influencers.
Million-dollar deals and brand partnerships are by no means a panacea for the many occupational hazards that come with being a Black woman on reality TV. However, this system was made to be finessed, especially by the people whom the chips are so obviously stacked against.
Despite the blatant socioeconomic inequity of the influencer space, these observable rags-to-riches success stories are tempting enough to give almost anyone cause to join the cast of any dating show — even if it means putting your heart and ego on the line. The more that we follow the stories of singles on screen, the more we want to keep up with them after the production wraps, guaranteeing an increase in their social followings and subsequently, their financial opportunities by way of social media. With more eyes tuning into their perfectly-curated feeds and stories after watching them on television, brands across industries are practically falling over themselves to connect with these up-and-coming influencers with built-in fan bases and customers. Thus, a certain level of fame and fortune is inevitable. It pays to be an influencer, and it is high time for Black women to get paid.
To quote the great salesman and living meme Relly B, the girls are going where the money resides. Pursuit of the bag is in fact a righteous endeavor when it comes to dating on reality TV as a Black woman; if you can’t get the guy, you should, at the very least, get the deal.