Make no mistake. Love Island is a vain, vapid television show that celebrates physical beauty and instant attraction. No matter what my next thousand words will tell you, the statistics do not lie.
You are overwhelmingly favoured to reach the grand finale and a chance at £50,000 if you pick a partner during the first episode, based on appearance alone, and stick with them. Extend that to the first week and the ‘re-coupling’ that comes with it, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to hit the final if you keep it in your pants from thereon in.
But let’s rewind.
Love Island is a television phenomena that has swept the United Kingdom. It is a show, closest in format to Big Brother, that sends young singles to Mallorca and asks them to find love. Three seasons later, the concept has won a BAFTA and an audience record for host channel ITV2, with 3.4 million viewers watching the launch of the 2018 season. An Australian version, recently completed on 9Go!, drew a much smaller crowd, but the debut was celebrated at the Nine Network, with plans already underway for another.
The guise is that the singles must always be ‘coupled-up’ to avoid eviction, and that their every move is recorded by CCTV-style hidden cameras.
In Big Brother, there is an expectation that a couple will form, or at the very least, a budding romance. But nothing is guaranteed, and it’s acknowledged that the show is a game for the cash prize. But in the Spanish villa, there is no pretence of any Big Brother-style entertainment or distractions. The contestants are here to find love, and everything else is stripped away.
There is no pausing or putting off hard conversations.
This is what makes the viewing public uncomfortable, namely the prudish English literary-critic or breakfast television host, who fly directly towards Love Island like moths to light.
“Love Island is blissfully free of intellectual snobbery,” wrote Giles Coren for The Times of London. “I have never seen 12 stupider people in my life. Bone-idle and dog-thick to a man, not one of them has had the benefit of any sort of education at all, let alone a rarefied, elitist one.”
Giles looks into the mirror, held abreast by Love Island, and sees a show bereft of intellectual snobbery. God forbid that you are not educated. God forbid your education was not of the Oxbridge ilk. God forbid Giles ever watched the show. But he still did! And that is the beauty of a show such as this—it enticed poor Giles and kept his attention long enough to count the contestants (using both fingers and toes, the Oxbridge way), and to add this snide parentheses: “yeah there’s one who claims to be a “doctor” but I’m not buying it”.
Disregard the fact that one Islander IS a doctor, and another a nuclear systems engineer. This parting sentence from poor Giles is less suited to column space in the Times and more to a text message that he wishes he had friends to share with.
I repeat: The contestants are here to find love, and everything else is stripped away.
There is nowhere to hide in Love Island. Real world concerns are stripped away, the characters reduced by their shiny, hairless bodies, to swimming, sitting, or supine lumps of emotion. Lumps of flesh-bound emotion trundling around in the sun.
The arrival of Jack Fincham, who does not have a six-pack, and who wears a shirt covering his chest in each publicity photo, potentially hits too close to home. He becomes too relatable, and this dream-world collapses. But the bodies of those others in the villa are so alien to us that we are forced to humanise their emotions instead. And what could be a better sight for young viewers—especially young men—than these characters being forced to confront their emotions and openly admit them in direct-to-camera monologues to the nation.
In the Mallorcan villa, there is no escape, there are no distractions of daily life. There is nothing to do but ponder your feelings towards your partner or crack on with someone new. The Islanders are forced to own their emotions and actions and honestly admit their attraction or lack thereof to their partners. There is no pausing or putting off hard conversations. Islanders are punished—first by the other islanders, then by the show’s producers, and then by the voting audience—for their emotional sins.
The island ends up becoming a mirror for our own emotions and actions and how we perceive ourselves. Giles is repulsed by the lack of intellectual hierarchy. Others are transfixed by the stream of blossoming romances, relating to the rush of emotions when you just ‘click’. Some of these romances quickly head south, as heads are ‘turned’ by new arrivals. In perhaps the most relatable moments, some couples do not survive at all, ensuing separations amicable and destructive, all occurring under the one roof. The continuous cycle of crushes, insecurity, rejection, and love are all too universally relatable for the viewing public to resist.
There is no acting, and the real Islanders are exposed under the strain of their relationships.
The show is quickly becoming part of the zeitgeist for a British youth who take their escapism with a side of sensitivity and hard lessons. And far better a lathe Instagram model in Mallorca go through these emotions than the teens watching at home—as Joel Golby wrote in The Guardian, “it’s basically impossible to sustain an act in as intense an environment as the Love Island villa— and, if nothing else, relationships expose the real you anyway.”
Adam Collard, a contestant on the current UK series, was much maligned both in and outside the villa for his treatment of partner Rosie. Women’s Aid, a UK charity, called his actions unacceptable and cited them as examples of emotional abuse. They noted that “Rosie called out Adam’s unacceptable behaviour on the show. We ask viewers to join her in recognising unhealthy behaviour in relationships…”
There is no acting, and the real Islanders are exposed under the strain of their relationships. The real Adam was exposed, and thousands of teens across the UK saw a woman who was no longer willing to put up with the emotional behaviour of her partner. Again, young male viewers saw behaviour that they may have idolised, may have seen their own behaviour reflected in, and had it deconstructed on a national scale. The youth of Britain are undergoing an emotional education, through an hour of television, six nights a week.
Is this not a worthy education after all?