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Let's be honest, the problem is bigger than Love Island SA

Representation on Love Island is a microcosm of local entertainment – not just from the production side, but from viewers, too
Fri, Mar 12, 2021

From the time it was announced, many of us knew Love Island SA was going to trend. In fact, we expected it to court controversy because that's the nature of a show that holes up a bunch of horny strangers in a headache-inducingly brightly-coloured villa. We expected it to set tongues wagging. But not like this.

For many Black people who tuned in for that first episode – and I am by no means trying to be the Black Spokesperson – we felt disappointment creep in as contestant after contestant was unveiled, and not many of them looked like us.

We turned into mathematicians as we started measuring the White-to-Black ratio (that's 3:1), even though we didn't need to because it doesn't take a genius to see that the numbers don't add up.

At the heart of the reactions was a collective, 'disappointed, but not surprised'.

SA has a shortage of many things, but not problems. One of those problems is the media we consume and the way we've been socialised to consume it – because this problem is bigger than Love Island SA, although the show is a microscope through which to unpack some of these issues.

Overlooking any cultural differences, we still consume television like the ANC just got unbanned. There's an idea that Black people are only into certain types of content and certain channels, and the same is true of White, Coloured, Indian and Asian people. It's an idea that's been shoved down our throats subtly since it became illegal to be explicitly exclusionary.

We're still stuck on this idea that Black people need to "stay in their lane" and stop "trying to get into White spaces", as a lot of Black people tweeted when the Love Island SA drama unfolded on social media.

Pray tell, besides Orania, what on earth is a "White space"? Because it isn't a TV channel – your decoder doesn't request a special entry code if you're Black and pressing the buttons 1-0-1 on your remote.

So, when Black people quite rightfully demand to see the true demographics of the country reflected in the media we consume, why is one of our knee-jerk reactions to tell other Black people to "stay in [their] lane"?

Why can't we also be on Love Island SA? It isn't just a silly dating show – it speaks of and continues to influence what's considered desirable (the conventionally "attractive" bodies on shows like this and Temptation Island are an issue for another day), and we know that Black women in particular are at the bottom of that totem pole. Thimna's first few days in the house – before Libho showed up, gorgeous knight in shining armour that he is – drove this point home.

This is not to say Black people are underrepresented in South African media – of course we're not. Yes, Black people are catered for. But what type of content caters to us? What kind of representation are we getting?

Watching Love Island SA has made me wonder: besides entertaining the viewer, what is the role of the TV producer (and in general, the media practitioner)? Is it to merely reflect our society, or is it to push it forward? Is a producer's job to reinforce people's beliefs, or to challenge them? To confirm bias, or to change it?

And does everything have to be that deep? The answer is yes – to pretend otherwise would be disingenuous.

I'm glad we live in a world where it's not "just Twitter", where a vocal minority of the population (lazily dismissed as the "woke mob") can drag media kicking and screaming into a more inclusive and representative world. Even if it means we (as media practitioners) do it purely because we're afraid of being ripped to shreds on social media.

I've been watching Love Island SA since episode one – I quite enjoy it and look forward to every episode – and I'm glad to see the representation is getting better, albeit slowly. But it should have been better from the beginning, because first impressions are the most impactful and telling. When it comes to target markets, psychographics are starting to overtake demographics, and it's time we caught up.

It's not all doom and gloom – M-Net shows like Legacy and Inconceivable are an excellent example that representation doesn't dilute entertainment value or compromise storylines.

It's fantastic that we can watch a show about an interracial family in South Africa without it feeling like it's shoved down our throats ("look at our Rainbow Nation"). The storyline is believable and engaging without being on the nose. And it's also commendable that shows like that (including Lioness) aren't used as some sort of reconciliation tool, where racial dynamics are focal to the point of it feeling like a PSA rather than a darn good drama.

I'm choosing to look at Love Island SA as a misstep from a channel that has been trying to do the work of slowly dismantling racially-segmented viewing in the country (I mean, the first Bachelorette in Africa is a black woman, hello!).

Yes, it can be a difficult balance to strike, trying to be both socio-politically aware and entertaining, but difficult doesn't equal insurmountable.