With the latest season of Love Island kicking off last week there has been much media focus on Hugo Hammond, the villa’s first physically disabled love islander. In the past, the show has received heavy criticism for its lack of diversity. With this in mind, is his inclusion just a classic case of tokenism? 

Sun, sea and superficial choices

As the show gained popularity the criticisms began to stack up. But what makes it so popular? There is a comforting level of escapism that comes from immersing yourself into a group of strangers’ love lives. The arguments, re-couplings and love triangles leave viewers not only entertained but also reassured by the fact that their own life isn’t so exhaustingly dramatic. But one criticism has been the lack of body diversity, leading some to argue that this kind of car-crash TV is nothing short of superficial. Richard Cowles, the creative director behind the show, previously argued that ‘it’s an entertainment show’ where the producers naturally ‘want them [the contestants] to be attracted to one another’ — implying that diversity is not the key issue in mind when selecting the islanders. 

With each new series, more attention has been paid to the cast and the type of boxes they tick. But the continuous selection of cookie-cutter bodies has kept the viewers rolling, making it easy to see why the producers would be reluctant to break the mould. Hammond, despite having been born with a club foot, hardly goes against the grain in terms of physical appearance. He is a PE teacher with the usual slim, athletic body sported by the male contestants. That being said, once we start discussing the extent to which a contestant’s physique is different enough to qualify them as ‘breaking the mould’ it feels as though we are only contributing to the problem rather than addressing it.

The dangers of tokenism 

Given all of this criticism and three suicides clouding the reputation of the show, it is understandable why some have questioned the producers’ choice to include a physically disabled contestant as the ‘main attraction’. It could easily be seen as a hollow and transparent attempt to prove that they don’t discriminate against people based on their physicality. 

It’s sad but true that people with disabilities are often vexingly portrayed as somehow ‘brave’ or ‘inspiring’ just for existing, regardless of their personal achievements. The general media reaction to Hammond falls into this patronizing tendency. But does it necessarily mean that he was only chosen to fill a quota? 

Regardless of whether Hammond was chosen to be this year’s main attraction, what remains true is that tokenism is a dangerous practice that Love Island seems to be partaking in given its predilection towards able-bodied, white-washed, size 8 cast members.

Changing times?

Hammond’s inclusion is arguably a positive. Granted, he still fits that narrow ‘Love-island look’ but his disability does affect his physical appearance. The first few episodes avoid mentioning his disability. After all, if he doesn’t make it his overriding feature, why should anyone else? Even with the best intentions, placing too much emphasis on the fact that Hammond was chosen on the basis of his club foot carries the danger of making it his defining characteristic to an audience who might otherwise never have noticed. 

Tokenism is a very real thing, but we should be careful of labelling something as tokenistic just because it’s there for the first time. This only ‘others’ those who participate in TV shows that normally exclude them.

I do not believe that Hugo Hammond was necessarily chosen out of any authentic desire to break the mould. The discourse around disabilities must change before any real progress can be made. What we need to realise is that people with disabilities are not some sub-category of human beings that we must make an effort not to ignore. They are people who deserve to be praised and criticised just as anyone else.

Only when people like Hugo Hammond stop being seen as an inspiration or a producer’s tool for boosting ratings and approval, will we have genuine acceptance and equality. 

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