TV and film play an understated role in perpetuating racial bias on dating apps

Online dating has a racial  and cultural bias problem, which can highly be attested to the portrayals of people of color in media.
Online dating has a racial  and cultural bias problem, which can highly be attested to the portrayals of people of color in media.
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As someone who is balancing a job, social life, and personal projects, I don’t have a lot of time to spend in front of the TV. But when I do, I mostly stick to shows with a focus on romance. Whether in reality shows like Love Island and The Bachelorette or fictional series like The L Word and Modern Love, I am constantly finding women like myself—women of color—left out of romantic lead roles. Instead of being on the receiving end of a healthy romantic relationship, they often play the friend, the roommate, or the one who is undeserving of healthy love.

Recently I’ve become obsessed with the TV series Love on Netflix. The show follows Mickey, a young (white) woman living in Los Angeles who struggles with alcoholism and sex addiction. Mickey routinely loses jobs, keeps her apartment a mess, and has a habit of exploding on people when she’s upset. Despite her very apparent flaws, she has no problem attracting men and ends up in a relationship with a guy named Gus. The recently cheated-on Gus is newly single and still coping with his breakup. Like other men on the show, he takes a deep interest in Mickey, despite her chaotic lifestyle. But when black and brown women tend to be chaotic in film, similar to Mickey, they are not successful in the world of dating or particularly sought after.

Like many of the rom-com shows and movies I indulge in, Love is lacking in female characters of color. Not a single one plays a lead role in the three-season series.

The plethora of TV shows and films that leave black and brown women out of the picture also speaks to the hardships women of color face in online dating. In 2014, an OKCupid study found that Asian men and African-American women get fewer matches than other members. Furthermore, white men and Asian women appeared to receive the most matches.

In film, Asian men are often depicted as effeminate or asexual, furthering the stereotype that is assumed by users on dating apps. Opposite of Asian men, Asian women are often portrayed as sexually wanton and submissive.

Black women, on the other hand, and other women of color, are depicted as difficult to be with, feisty, loud, and hypersexual. Maybe that’s why black women were respectively rated the least attractive by men across the board.

Matchmaker and dating coach Julia Bekker also sees the impact of these stereotypes (pdf) in her clients’ requests. To better vet selective singles, Bekker always asks her clients to list their celebrity crushes. “Usually [the men] list Caucasian or Latina women, and sometimes biracial celebrities, but it all depends on the man.” She says that at Hunting Maven, a matchmaking service in New York City, most male suitors, regardless of race, request to be paired with white women and, secondly, Asian women. “Jewish men tend to gravitate toward Asian women because they believe they have great family values and are extremely smart,” Bekker says.

Another dating expert describes a similar experience. “Mostly all of our men prefer to be matched with white or Latina women,” says Emily Lesser, a matchmaker at The Modern Love Club in New York City. When asked why she thinks this is, her answer is: racial stereotypes. “One client said he wasn’t open to dating black women because they smoke a lot of weed or can be hard to deal with—which I found to be an unrealistic idea that he probably assumed from media and not personal experience.”

Can these harmful stereotypes be reversed?

Writing for Medium’s Zora, Nylah Burton explores the omission of women of color as love interests in the Amazon series Modern Love. She notes that black and brown women often exist as sexualized tropes and are rarely offered empathy and humanization when their characters life is chaotic. It’s the same kind of treatment I noticed in Love, The L Word, and even Orange Is the New Black.

There are many personal essays and op-eds in which black and brown women explain their difficulties with online dating. On dating apps, which were responsible for a third of marriages in the US between 2005 and 2012 and 39% of heterosexual relationships, these stereotypes in TV and film are directly lowering their chances to find love.

We like to believe that our dating tendencies are organic and unbiased, but a great deal of our preferences stem from the media we consume and the ideas about beauty standards we get from it, whether about character traits or physical attributes. While it’s often easier to date within our own race due to cultural connection or family pressure, when someone says “I’m not really attracted to black women” or “I wouldn’t date a brown girl,” it sounds more like a learned credence than a biological reality.

Optimistically, a wave of new films that portray women of color as appropriate romantic leads are hitting the US market. The Photograph, starring Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield, is set to arrive in theaters in February 2020. From the trailer, we can expect a promising love story about two visibly black characters falling for each other in New York City, just as we’ve seen many white movie couples do. In Parasite, a new South Korean film that is gaining popularity in the US, a steamy sex scene between two Asian characters is the first of few to draw the attention of Western viewers.

Maybe it’s safe to assume that racial and cultural bias in dating will see a downfall as these movies and TV shows see a rise.