Updated: Apr 16
Representation is vital in all aspects of life. So, why are dating shows choosing to focus on cis-heterosexual romance and disregarding other beautiful forms of love in 2021?
It's that time of year again where we are hooked to our television screens as we watch young people fall in love, jump ship and break hearts, including our own. Love Island is ITV 2's hit series which has entranced the attention of many, spanning six UK series and 26 international ones, including Love Island USA and Australia.
While many are super fans of the show, ahead of its seventh series, airing June 28th, the show has been hit with backlash. The makers of the show have said that having LGBTQ+ contestants have "logistical difficulties". Interviewed by the Radio Times, ITV commissioner Amanda Stavri stated that the producers looked to bring contestants of various sexualities onto the show. She said: "It goes without saying that we want to encourage greater inclusivity and diversity."
This sounds positive until she announced that the production team found issues with the current format. "In terms of gay Islanders, I think the main challenge is regarding the format of Love Island. There's a sort of logistical difficulty because although Islanders don't have to be 100% straight, the format must give [them] an equal choice when coupling up."
The format in questions is the coupling and recoupling, which frequently occurs throughout the show to shake things up. Stavri's statement echoes an outdated outlook on LGBTQ+ love and creates the image that they are an inconvenience. Instead of not including the community from participating in the show, a straightforward solution is glaringly obvious – change the format!
The show is not alien to showcasing same-sex couples, with its first and only appearance in the second series. Sophie Gradon and Katie Salmon recoupled after the former's original partner quit the show after tension arose when his ex Emma entered the villa. Despite following the rules of the recoupling, the producers didn't allow them to be an "official" as it altered the format they insisted on. Eventually, the couple went separate ways, with Sophie leaving the show and Katie pairing off with a new guy.
If only they had changed the format, maybe we would've seen more sexually fluid pairings on screen. After all, the show is all about connection, and if there is anything we have learned over the years, a connection is not only gender-based.
Last month, Megan Barton Hanson from the 2018 series gave her view on how the show can best navigate LGBTQ+ contestants. The reality star revealed post-Love Island that she is bisexual and has a "deeper connection with women". She also spoke about not being chosen as part of the 2017 cast because of her openness regarding her sexuality during auditions. Megan said: "I was super open and said I feel like I'm more into girls, but I think that's what put them off [in 2017]".
At the Cambridge Union, Megan said that the programme should have a "whole gay season" to avoid tokenism and ticking representation boxes. This idea is not far off at all, as another dating show has done this same revamp. Are You The One? is the American MTV reality dating series that sees all contestants pursue their perfect match and split the grand prize of $1 million.
The first few seasons saw 20 heterosexual singles, who went through a "rigorous matchmaking process", placed in a massive house to live together. The goal is to sift through and find their perfect match through dates, challenges, truth booths, and match up ceremonies (similar to Love Island's recoupling but with more strategy). Chaos is a given as they only have one match, and at the weekly ceremonies, they learn how many perfect pairs they have but not which matches are correct.
The show has seen many shake-ups to keep the viewers entertained and allow the show's format to have flexibility. From wild cards and prize fund reductions for failure to find any perfect matches, it's easy to see that programme formats don't need to be so rigid. Even Love Island introduced Casa Amor in the third season!
Previously, producer Richard Cowles said that they would consider creating an LGBTQ+ spin-off. However, ITV's Paul Mortimer killed that idea by claiming that "the format doesn't really allow it". He said: "If you're familiar with the programme, it's about coupling and recoupling. To complicate it with same-sex relationships is to take something away from the format". Hiding behind the structures of the show only highlights the producer's unwillingness to widen the programme's representation.
Season eight of Are You The One? featured a sexually fluid and openly LGBTQ+ cast in 2019. The decision was met with critical acclaim and is one of the show's best series as it had the representation of not just queer people but racial and gender identities. The programme provided the chance for LGBTQ+ viewers to be seen by their community and heterosexual audiences who are super fans of the show. It's refreshing, intriguing and messy – but not messy because of their sexualities. If America can air a sexually fluid dating show, then why can't the "progressive" UK do the same?
The UK dating scene is rich and diverse. To shadow LGBTQ+ relationships only transports us back to a time before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act and Thatcher's reign of terror with Section 28. It's not impossible to show love in all its forms. Stavri's statement tried to persuade us to watch ITV's other dating shows like The Cabins, which she claimed have "much more sexual diversity" and "the formats don't have as many restrictions as Love Island".
The restrictions are a figment of the producers' imagination, and if they don't start appealing to the masses, they might find their viewership declining. Prioritising heteronormative relationships and gender binary identities is creating a divide between the normal and the abnormal. Plus, bisexual contestants who are restricted in their dating pool while on the island is not diversity. They are a novelty and treated like inclusivity pawns.
One of the main reasons the show is so popular is that the contestants are real people. It's Charlotte from school and Jordan, who only lives down the road. If you don't have Sarah, who is non-binary, and Kwame, who identifies as pansexual, then people will go elsewhere to find themselves represented on screen. Here's hoping that Love Island becomes as inclusive as it pretends to be.