Like most eighteen to thirty-year-old British adults, I have been watching Love Island since the new season started four weeks ago. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a fan of a well-crafted, slightly trashy television show; after I’ve spent the day working, I want nothing more than to curl up in bed and watch rich, beautiful people live out a not-too-deep, semi-reality on my laptop. Like for so many others, it helps me to switch off the part of my brain that excessively worries about my council tax direct debit, how I’m progressing in my career and whether I call my family enough. Whilst I can’t stand half-hearted sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory and Two Broke Girls, I find it entertaining to watch other people’s potentially not-so-staged relationship issues in twenty-four episode chunks. So sue me.
However, as Love Island has progressed, the light-hearted escapism I’d signed up for seems to be peppered with concerning behaviour and attitudes of the contestants, and it makes me think a lot about womanhood and the perception of women in today’s society. I tend to switch off each episode with more to say than when I started watching, which was the last thing I was expecting from what is effectively my summer fling of a television show. The manipulative behaviour from Adam towards the various girls he has been coupled with led to accusations of gaslighting and emotional abuse from a national women’s charity. Ofcom received over 2,500 complaints following the producer’s decision to show already anxious Dani clips of her boyfriend with his ex in the Casa Amor villa. There are clear examples of colourism and unconscious prejudice against Samira, the only black woman in the villa, who cries when talking to Megan about how frustrating it is that none of the boys in the villa are attracted to her.
It makes me think a lot about how Love Island reflects the issues in our society, and specifically how it reflects the experiences women have in dating, work and their home lives.
I want to talk more about what Love Island implies about attraction, in particular. Watching Samira cry over her confidence being consistently knocked by having no-one express romantic interest in her, then telling herself off for even caring, was difficult to watch. Many darker-skinned black women went on Twitter and expressed how deeply they could relate to this experience, highlighting the pervasiveness of female Western beauty standards and how deeply ingrained they are into the psyche of British society. Many also noted the difference in treatment to the boys Josh and Wes, who are lighter-skinned and seen as desirable by many of the female contestants. The apparent lack of attraction to Samira, which I am certain is due to the selection of male contestants, perpetuates the idea that men don’t find black women attractive. This is concerning, especially considering how many black teenage girls must be watching the show and having those ideas about their own worth subconsciously reinforced too.
In the aforementioned clip, Samira talks to Megan about her frustration and fears about being unattractive. Megan is one of the most desired in the villa, with all six new male contestants listing her as one of the women they’re most attracted to on first impressions. They all seem excited when they mention her name, their eyes light up in the interview segments and you can see their enthusiasm on their faces. But as Megan says to Samira, she’s paid for “fake tits and veneers”, and as many news outlets have reported, Megan has had an alleged £25,000 worth of procedures to change her appearance, from a boob augmentation to lip and cheek fillers and non-invasive liposuction, among others. Whilst articles like this might be inaccurate, it still weirds me out that her carefully restructured face and body, with almost doll-like proportions, is so blindly sought after by every man who crosses her path in the show. I encourage women to do whatever they want with their bodies; who am I to slag off having surgery and fillers when the thing I’m most insecure about is my small boobs? But it’s watching how men react to her, and seeing that complete idolisation of her appearance – that makes me feel strange. It’s so sad that video game character, porn-eqsue female bodies are still put on such a pedestal, and that Megan even got to a mental place that rationalised potentially £25,000 of surgery and procedures to make her love her body more. I worry that Love Island is portraying men as most attracted to a Barbie-like face and body that reminds me of the 50 Cent In Da Club video when all of his perfectly-formed clones are coming out of the machine. Then I worry even more when I think about how the show might just be a microcosm of society’s perception of what makes women attractive in general. Are we still hung up on this hugely unrealistic physical embodiment of archetypal femininity even though we act like we’re over it?
Another thing I’ve noticed come up consistently is emotional manipulation of the female contestants. In the overt sense, the way Adam spoke to Rosie following his pursuit of another female contestant was recognisable to many people who have been emotionally manipulated when dating in the past. He made her question her recollection of past events and accused her of “acting like a child”, carefully ignoring the reasons why she felt hurt by his behaviour. Seeing this display of willful ignorance so blatantly on television was shocking to me, but then I asked myself why I was really so surprised? Domestic abuse affects one in four women and one in six men; it’s pervasive in society. With that statistic in mind, it makes sense that taking a sample of the population and putting them in a controlled environment to start relationships would involve at least one person getting gaslighted.
In a broader sense, I’m getting gradually more weirded out by some of the producers’ choices when it comes to purposefully upsetting contestants, such as when Dani was showed the video of Jack watching his ex walk into the villa. Is it okay to be cruel if it makes good entertainment? I don’t think so, and I think it is more likely a reflection of how little is understood about the effect of this kind of manipulation on someone’s mental health. That “plot twist” would have been signed off by a lot of people working on the show. The lack of regard for the potential paranoia and anxiety Dani might develop says a lot about what we understand mental health to be and our lack of understanding of triggers and general empathy when someone is struggling to keep a hold of reality in an emotionally isolating environment.
On Girl Hate
I want to mention the way women are spoken about in the show, both inside and outside the villa. On the inside, messages of competition between women are I guess to be expected, but it’s worth noting how negative the televised comments are. Whilst we’ve seen some really lovely support from woman to woman, there’s also been clips of Dani singling out Ellie as someone she refuses to be friends with, Laura calling Megan a slut and Megan saying she doesn’t have many female friends as though it’s something to be celebrated. Outside of the villa, Megan is by far the most reported-on contestant, with national newspapers desperately trying to dig out any information they can about her past as a stripper and a cam girl. She seems to fascinate society; people either want to fuck her, shame her or ridicule her. The show has been curated to portray her as an antagonist, and the media is working alongside to ensure that the public sees her as a malicious, boring woman driven by sex. I highly doubt she is any of these things. It freaks me out that she’s probably oblivious to all of this right now, and I worry about how this will affect her once she returns to real life. Again, Love Island becomes a microcosm of a society that vilifies women in the public eye for anything it can.
But I’m Still Watching
Now I’m 1300 words deep, I highly doubt this has turned into a succinct analysis or Love Island critique. It’s more likely a long-winded mental offload that hasn’t really led to any point or resolution, but what was I really expecting? I still love the show, I enjoy watching it and I have grown to love so many of the contestants. I’m following three of them on Instagram already, a sure sign that I’m in too deep already. However, these are some of the things that keep coming up for me and I’m mentally wrestling with them as the show goes on. It would be cool if we can keep talking about these issues as they come up, and be open to exploring what Love Island points out to us about social dynamics in our own lives.