When Even the Blind Can See
It's a normal Wednesday evening in 1992 and a 20-year-old me is rushing upstairs to turn the TV on with anticipation for Melrose Place. Years later, in my thirties, I became invested in Real Housewives of Orange County - the OGs, if you will, of the franchise. It was something about watching the privileged lives of women in the wealthiest part of California.
Oh yes, Beverly Hills, 90210, The Hills, and there were many others. Glaringly absent from them all was even a hint of racial diversity.
It’s always been clear to me that television shows, particularly reality shows, I spent so much time watching don’t include me and yet I carried a torch for. Religiously. Real Housewives of Orange County didn’t cast its first Black housewife until 2021 - 16 years after the show aired.
With the current season of Netflix's Love is Blind, the exclusion of Black women has sparked heated debate. During trailers, we can spot Black women in the background but they somehow never make it to the show. This show was supposed to be different, not focusing on looks. The contestants don't see each other, until AFTER they fall in love sight unseen. Love is Blind alum, Lauren Speed, called out the show for its lack of chocolate girls. She wed Cameron Hamilton, who is white, in the first season of the show in 2018.
The truth is, I’m starting to become okay with not seeing as many Black women on these shows. Shows like Love is Blind and Love Island miss the mark when it comes to representation, casting Black women without considering the romantic preferences of the other contestants. This makes the whole experience exhausting, because the men on the show don’t see (physically or emotionally) the beauty of Black women.
As a viewer, and perhaps the contestants themselves, now have the expectation that Black women who participate on reality dating shows won’t find love at all. Rather, their social media platforms will blow up. The fact that Black women’s involvement in these shows is becoming practical rather than romantic is just another sad reminder that Black women are too often denied the whimsical love stories so easily achieved by their white counterparts.
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. The Black community gets enough trauma television. We deserve something that showcases joy.
Focusing on the entertainment factor when it comes to reality television is a thing as well. Sometimes you just want the drama for what it is. Watching reality TV is actually escapism a little bit, to get out of the norm. Sometimes you just want to switch off and these shows give exactly that.
As Black women, maybe we watch white-centered reality TV because it is simply less triggering. There is something fascinating about following the lives of people different to us, specifically white women. Maybe that’s why I was so enamored by 90210. Those high school kids were living full-grown lives! They did what they wanted to do and didn’t even need their parents.
Reality TV is not always about relatability; our capacity to be entertained isn’t necessarily diminished by a lack of on-screen representation.
Black women contribute a great deal to the world of reality television. Not just by watching it, but also through contributing disproportionately to the culture like “Black Twitter.”
As Black women, simply existing can prove difficult on a daily basis. When we come home (or log-off) after a day of dealing with microaggressions at work, the last thing we want is to be reminded of that reality by the methods we use to unwind. 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.
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 we see for sure, however, is that Black women are growing tired of racially charged tragedies being used for entertainment.