Love Island’s Lessons For Girls
This article will begin with a confession. On the platform at a recent and serious speaking engagement, in the nervous minutes before standing to talk, there flashed up on my phone an embarrassingly noisy message from a friend. Imagining offerings of sisterly encouragement, I smiled inwardly before squinting at the actual words on the screen.
“OMG I was wrong about Wes! He just wants to be seen as a nice person. That’s not the same thing as being a nice person!”
In a hurry to set the thing to silent, I tapped back frantically:
“About to speak at a bloody feminist meeting - can’t believe you’re messaging me about Love Island!”
To which came the ever supportive reply:
Love Island is a fascinating modern allegory of the battle of the sexes, and anyone still labouring under the misconception that feminism has somehow achieved its goal of liberating women from men’s dominance is, in my opinion, in need of a good sharp dose. On this sunny island, social and sexual relations between men and women as seen and normalised by the wider society are played out in all their horror. Here our social norms as enacted by a group of cookie cuttered out pretty people can be viewed under a highly magnifying glass. What better and more entertaining way in which to witness the sheer contempt in which women are still often held by much of society, and the psychological damage inflicted by the internalisation of this contempt by women themselves.
Most criticism of Love Island has, this year, so far focused on the conduct of Adam Collard. A tall, dark and over confident Geordie with a smooth air of superiority and a penchant for discarding women like used tissues as soon as something else shiny catches his eye, Collard’s callous treatment of fellow contestant Rosie Williams, which included laughing at her distress and disbelief at having been so brutally discarded, and then blaming her for his refusal to treat her with any respect whatsoever, saw chief executive of Women’s Aid, Katie Ghose, issue a warning to young women that behaviour like his could form a pattern of emotional abuse.
Certainly it could. But on the programme Collard is essentially a cartoon character: an instantly identifiable baddy and completely two dimensional. Charming bastard is his only trick. What is missing from the focus on him as an individual is a much wider truth that the Adam’s of this world do not exist in a vacuum, but are cogs in a larger misogynist machine — one that cannot operate without the attitudes and collusions that oil and smooth its running.
It is these attitudes that see Adam’s status amongst the rest of the men in the villa rise with each woman he tosses aside; that see his popularity increase, not in spite of his terrible treatment of women, but because of it. Male sexual success is equated with dominance and masculinity to the extent that Jack Fincham, a blindingly toothed pen salesman from Essex, breathlessly describes Collard as “like a god” as he watches him move without so much as a backwards glance onto his next mark. Meanwhile it is 2018 and the woman in his wake is left agonising over how viewers and fellow contestants might judge her for the quick hand job under the covers indulged in the night before. Her humiliation and upset, rather than prompting any disapproval from their male peers, only seem to confer onto Adam yet more admiration and power. And while we may see some quiet reserves of solidarity amongst the women, along with perhaps some wider public pity for Williams, it is her presence on the island — not Collard’s — that is soon felt as awkward, leading to her swift departure from the villa.
It is these same attitudes that allow — in the face of Adam’s more obvious cruelty — the subtle manipulations of Eyal to slip by unnoticed. Eyal Booker is a man who describes himself as “deep” and disliking of superficiality. Clearly he considers himself fascinating, yet confronted with a partner unimpressed with his schtick, soon loses his temper. Hayley doesn’t make enough time for him, doesn’t ask him enough questions about himself. Does Hayley even know what star sign he is? Eyal thinks Hayley ought to “give more.” Hayley, to her credit, can’t be arsed — not even to pretend. It isn’t for her, this idea that women must be endlessly attentive and centre mens egos at all times. She may not know much about Brexit, but quickly gets the measure of Eyal. “You’re boring,” she says, uncooperatively. But uncooperative women are considered about as desirable as women publicly shamed and rejected by alpha idiots, and Hayley is as well soon dumped from the island.
At this we see Eyal turn his cosmic energies towards ensuring new girl Megan has no opportunities to spend time with anyone but him. He love bombs, smothers, and piles on the pressure, continually interrupting her mid conversation with others, and engineering physical contact she did not ask for or expect, to deliberately occur in the vicinity of other men he considers competition. Megan, for her part, looks skittish and worried. She is aware there is more than one man in the villa feels entitled to a piece, and she has learned well societies lessons that the responsibility for managing these men’s behaviour lies with her. And so she smoothes and appeases and pretends to like people she doesn’t much, in a desperate attempt to avoid a scene.
Once Eyal has had his way and they are an official couple, there is then a conversation in which he tells Megan of an ex who chose to end the relationship two weeks after they had gone away to Paris. “Well out of order,” he growls, clearly still angry, for Eyal, you understand, is only zen up to a point. He does not consider women as having the right to end a relationship whenever they choose. He believes that if he has spent money and effort on a big romantic gesture, then a woman owes him. Women who do not wish to provoke his anger must avoid taking any power from his hands, because scratch the surface and Eyal Booker is a controlling, angry man.
Lastly, we can examine how these same attitudes cast Alex George — a more socially awkward and less suntanned doctor — in the role of Mr. Nice Guy. Alex is “respectful” and “caring” and therefore criminally overlooked by women, because if there is one thing society agrees on, it is that the bare minimum of basic decency in men must be rewarded with sex and devotion. The lovely doctor deserves a female body to play with while equally single Samira — a woman blessed with high levels of intelligence and motivational energy — is expected to wait passively hoping to be picked. Her decency, caring, and gentle good humour apparently entitle her to nothing much.
And so egged on by the other men, we see Alex finally engineer a conversation and subsequent lunge at new contestant Ellie Brown, who looks distinctly uncomfortable as Alex is cheered from the sidelines as having finally claimed his winnings. Ellie, to give her her due, makes clear that she feels unsure. She feels, “under pressure to be a couple.” She tactfully explains the kiss, “felt a bit staged.” On their first night together as a couple she then gets into bed with her jeans on. Ellie doesn’t trust Alex and when she finally plucks up the courage to tell him clearly she does not wish for things to go further, one can understand why.
For Alex is furious. Ellie has been “playing games.” She is “rude.” She is “disrespectful.” She is all of these things just because she has the audacity not to want him. Alex has been nice and now Alex wants his prize: the one he’s been led to believe he’s entitled to. He picked her, was “ready to treat her like a princess,” and she has shown him insufficient gratitude. And so always ends the trope of Mr. Nice Guy.
Through the medium of reality television, all three of these men are reflecting back at us the same societal attitudes towards women that have always existed and continue to flourish, despite the claims of many that we have moved on. Products of the same culture, cogs in the same machine, the Alex’s and Eyal’s we meet do not like or respect women any more than do the Adam’s: they simply express their hostility differently.
For young women, Love Island is shot through with teachable moments. Nurture friendships with the Dani’s of this world, take your counsel from the Laura’s. And if, or when, you pick a man to couple up with, may you recognise well the ones to avoid.