Why Black Women Still Love Reality TV Even When We’re Not Included

Photographed by Michael Beckert.
Let me set the scene: it’s a Monday evening in 2011 and an excitable 13-year-old me is rushing upstairs to switch on the TV, practically bouncing with anticipation. For weeks, commercials for the UK's latest reality series Made in Chelsea had glittered across screens and billboards promising an unprecedented window into the gilded lives of some of London’s most privileged socialites. 
I can still remember those original promotional shots; the OG cast members draped over ornate furniture set against the backdrop of a historic stately home. The images couldn’t have been more quintessentially British if they tried. Notably absent from all of them however was even a whisper of racial diversity
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That fateful Monday night started my more than decade-long love affair with the show which is still going strong to this day. Such is my fascination with Made in Chelsea that I even applied to compete on the long-running quiz show Mastermind with the specialist subject ‘Made in Chelsea, series 1-10’. As I am writing this, I’m waiting to find out whether I was successful in the final audition...
My infatuation with reality television didn’t stop with Made in Chelsea. Shows including The Real Housewives franchises, The Hills and ITV’s The Only Way is Essex went on to define my adolescence. In my young adulthood, the all-encompassing cult of Love Island seduced me, and I can proudly say I haven’t missed an episode since season 3. 
Whether it was the perpetually shimmering blonde hair of Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag on The Hills, or the inexplicable preference of men on Love Island for (white) brunettes, it’s always been clear to me that the reality shows I spent so many of my formative years idolising don’t include me and yet I carried on watching. Religiously.
My beloved Made in Chelsea didn’t cast its first regular woman of colour until series 11 in 2021:the fantastic, in my opinion, 23-year-old model Paris Smith. One particular scene involving Paris struck me to the point I had to rewind the show to take it in again and was actually moved to tears. The scene shows Paris speaking to friends about her experience in interracial relationships. She details instances when white family members of her love interests made derogatory comments about her race, and experiences of being fetishized in previous relationships. This scene marked the first time, in my many years of reality TV fandom, that I saw myself and my experiences as a young Black woman recognised on screen. 
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Speaking about the scene, Paris told Grazia magazine "I know that addressing an issue and talking about a problem is the way to start fixing a problem. It made me happy to be able to speak up for those that have experienced this."This is a sentiment which I wholeheartedly agree with and  I commend Paris on her brave decision to bring awareness to the everyday reality of dating as a Black British woman. However, the knowledge that this conversation was ground-breaking for the series and perhaps a victory for the ‘movement’ did nothing to assuage my discomfort whilst watching it. 
Suddenly, my MIC bubble of iconic riverside dumpings and countryside getaways had burst. Instead of solely thinking about whether Liv and Tristan should get back together for the hour-long episode, I was forced to confront the reality of racism in the UK while bringing up some painful and personal memories. At that moment Made in Chelsea stopped being a form of escapism and became yet another reminder of how badly society treats Black women. 

Shows like Love Island miss the mark when it comes to representation... this makes for tiresome viewing for Black female consumers. 

In recent seasons, the inclusion of Black women in ITV 2’s infamous dating show Love Island has sparked heated debate. Year after year we’ve watched on as Black women are picked last by their male love interests or shunned for a white ‘bombshell’ just days after coupling up. 
The experience of season 3’s Samira Mighty is etched into the minds of Black women across the country who remember the 22-year-old’s tearful exit after experiencing repeated rejections. Eva, a 26-year-old content creator from London, who often shares her reality TV commentary to over 20,000 followers, remembers clearly the pain of watching Samira’s journey on the show?
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“Her experience was awful,” Eva recalls to Unbothered over a phone call. “It was really horrible to see her confidence crumble, literally disintegrate before our eyes because she was never being picked”.Far from being entertaining, Eva argues that having Black women on Love Island, in particular, can be both damaging to the viewer and the audience. 
When asked whether she wants to see more Black women on reality shows, Eva exclaims “Absolutely not!”. “In fact, I want to see the reverse,” she added, her reasoning being that shows like Love Island miss the mark when it comes to representation, casting Black women without considering the romantic preferences of the other contestants. This makes for tiresome viewing for Black female consumers. 
“It’s triggering,” says Eva of watching “beautiful” Black women constantly ignored by the show’s male contingent. “It’s difficult not to take it personally, it’s really painful to watch,” she concludes. This is a stance shared by Tobi Oredein, CEO of Black female-focused media organisation Black Ballad, who wrote at the start of Love Island’s current season that she wants, “escapism and the truth is Love Island doesn’t offer that. Yes, there are laughs but the laughs are so overshadowed by how the men in the show [don’t] see the beauty of Black women.”
 In fact, many Black female viewers, and perhaps contestants themselves now have the expectation that Black women who participate in reality dating shows won’t find love at all — and rather will receive commercial rewards instead. The fact that Black women’s involvement in these sorts of shows is becoming increasingly practical rather than romantic is yet another sad reminder that Black women are too often denied the whimsical love stories so easily achieved by their white counterparts, and of course difficult to watch. 
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The alternative is of course Black reality shows with all-Black casts (and preferably created by Black TV producers) that challenge limited depictions of the Black experience. In the UK, Channel 4’s High Life — a docu-reality series charting the lives of young, successful, British West Africans — was a strong start. As one of the show’s stars, TTYA founder Irene Agbontaen, told Harpers Bazaar, "When the producers approached me, I said I wouldn't want to be part of a show that wasn't aspirational or inspiring," she said. "The Black community gets enough trauma television. We need something that showcases our joys and successes."
Focusing on the entertainment factor when it comes to reality television is an approach shared by writer and broadcaster Chanté Joseph who in a recent Tik Tok video uttered the iconic words “I am raceless when Love Island starts!” She went on to detail how she just “wants to enjoy the drama for what it is” and offer her usual sharp-witted commentary. 

“I’m happy I didn’t see any nonsense on those shows depicting Black people in a certain light, I was happy to just watch and escape reality.”

*Anna, a doctor from London and reality TV superfan can sympathise with this too. “For me, [watching reality TV] was escapism a little bit, to get out of the norm. Especially when you’re studying something like medicine, you just want to switch off,” she explains. Amongst her favourite shows, she counts Netflix’s Selling Sunset, the entire Real Housewives universe and of course, Made in Chelsea. 
When it comes to the lack of diversity in the reality genre, Anna sees the positive side: “I’m happy I didn’t see any nonsense on those shows depicting Black people in a certain light, I was happy to just watch and escape reality,” she muses.
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Although it may be true that many Black women watch white-centric reality TV because it is simply less triggering than an inclusive alternative made by white people, others argue there is something fascinating about following the lives of those intrinsically different to us, specifically white women.
Doctor Anna notes that “most [Black women] are from very strict backgrounds where we’re not always allowed to go out, so it's great to see and watch how people interact.” She goes on to consider the appeal of looking into an often foreign, predominantly white universe through reality TV. “A lot of the time growing up we weren’t allowed to really mingle with boys so it’s really good to learn what not to do, I definitely picked up a few things,” she adds. Her words are a good reminder that reality TV isn’t always about relatability and that our capacity to be entertained isn’t necessarily diminished by a lack of on-screen representation.
It only takes a quick scroll through Black Twitter to realise that Black women as consumers contribute a great deal to the world of reality television. Not just by watching it, but also through contributing disproportionately to the cultural zeitgeist that surrounds it, often through the medium of Black Twitter.
The current approach to diversity taken by TV bosses is clearly alienating one of its biggest consumer groups by haphazardly inserting Black women into situations that do not favour them and producing content that is both harmful to the audience and the subjects. If producers continue at their current rate, their efforts to diversify their shows will end up homogenising their audiences as Black women continue to switch off triggering TV. 
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Whilst the novelty of white women and their lifestyles can be entertaining, it’s not true that Black women are incapable of finding joy through watching themselves on screen. For Eva, US created reality shows as an example of reality show diversity done right. “when you watch American reality TV, [diversity] is done so differently, and it doesn’t feel forced. They manage to get diverse casts, yet you don’t notice racial dynamics as much. It’s much more enjoyable to watch,” she says. American reality shows aren’t without their fair share of racial dynamics (think The Bachelor) and popular US franchises like Love & Hip-Hop aren’t necessarily known for being easy-breezy digestible viewing.
As Black women, simply existing in the UK can prove difficult on a daily basis. When we come home after a day of dealing with microaggressions at work or advocating for basic human rights, often the last thing we want is to be reminded of that reality by the methods we use to unwind. It really is an all-or-nothing situation, either we’re given considered casting choices designed to ensure the wellbeing of Black female participants or our shows are kept exclusively white.
But we must also acknowledge that white women can and do create riveting television loved by many of us. I don’t think it’s a genre that anyone including Black women wants to see disappear from our screens. Personally, I found that it didn’t matter that I’d never look like The Hills’ Audrina Partridge or Made In Chelsea OG Millie Mackintosh, their love triangles, outfits and general messiness was enough to keep me hooked for years. 
As our world continues to change, the future of reality television and Black women’s place in it, both as viewers and participants, is unclear. One thing is certain, however, that Black British women are rapidly tiring of racially charged tragedies being used for entertainment. 
This story was originally published on Unbothered's UK edition.

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