It starts with one person shuffling into the office kitchen, taking their chances and asking under their breath: ‘Did anyone watch Love Island last night?’
Wherever you work, it’s going to be a mixed bag of responses. There are the die-hards, the intrigued, the never-would-I-evers, the I-only-watched-one-and-now-I-can’t-stops.
There are 3 kinds of Love Island viewers in our office:
1. The target audience
Twenty-something, not taking it too seriously, just along for the ride and some braindead reality television. Where’s the harm in that?
2. The horrified parent
Hoping this is just TV melodrama, rather than reflecting anything morally or culturally about the world in which their kids are growing up. Please.
3. The experimentalist (Why am I here? Why can’t I leave?)
Too intrigued in cultural phenomena to stay away. Says things like ‘I mean, from an anthropological perspective it’s fascinating.’
Despite also having our fair share of Love Island cynics, we can’t deny that the show has fuelled us with lots of interesting ‘waiting-for-the-kettle-to-boil’ conversations. So if, like us, you want to justify having watched 48 episodes of reality television over the last 8 weeks, here are a few things to think about that almost make it all worthwhile.
The structures behind tech, social media, and public opinion
Embedded into the framework of the show is a really interesting relationship between the contestants (‘Islanders’) and technology. Although we’ve seen Islanders sneak off for a cheeky Instagram photoshoot or look forlornly over selfies taken with recently evicted members, the premise of the show sees them cut off from both the real and online worlds. Stripped of their computers and personal mobile phones, they experience — probably for the first time — the true horror of going Wi-Fi-free. This is seemingly designed to intensify the real-world social and physical aspects of early relationships (love blooms when we put our phones away) but the way that these relationships develop is far from organic. Where social media, instant messaging, and dating apps are removed, the show itself stands in to replace them.
A few weeks back, some of you might remember (spoiler!) one couple being given what was repeatedly referred to as ‘the ultimate test’: leave the Love Island villa as a couple, or break up and stay in the running to win that £50,000 prize. This ultimatum, along with a number of other hard-hitting updates, was delivered via text message. Without Caroline Flack to deliver bad news with a dash of human sympathy, the Islanders are left to compete against the show’s dating structure itself. When they fight back (the aforementioned couple break up, but then refuse to comply with the nature of the show and ‘couple up’ with newbies) they’re quickly and quietly put in their place.
Put like that, it sounds borderline Orwellian. Does this digital delivery of difficult information normalise the infamous break-up text, or dramatize it to make a point? Would that be giving the show too much credit? If you’re an ‘experimentalist’ viewer, the ‘Hang the DJ’ episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror makes an excellent companion piece to these thought-nuggets.
Funhouse mirror or crystal ball?
Speaking of companion pieces, last week I read a short story by John Lanchester, posted on the London Review of Books’ website (available to read here). The story takes its title straight from the show, offering an alarmingly uncomfortable interpretation of its format. Contestants’ initials are revealed to spell out ‘IN HELL’, and the protagonist says the following of hearing her fellow Islanders laugh:
[I]t didn’t sound like laughter at all. It sounded like the noise made by souls in torment; by beings undergoing torture; it sounded like screams of pain and anger, like nails on a blackboard but in physical form; it sounded demonic. There was nowhere to go outside this noise.
I think Lanchester makes his stance pretty clear.
The show is most commonly criticised for its questionable moral compass. You’ve got it all: unhealthy portrayals of relationships with minimal consequences, constructions of drama to boost TV ratings, and a distinct lack of diversity in terms of race, body type, disability, sexuality, and gender presentation.
These criticisms are justified, and it’s disappointing to see the showrunners do so little over the years to address them. However, this disappointment relies on the idea of the show having an agenda, setting out to influence, or even acknowledging responsibility in the influence it has over young viewers. That might be one assumption too far.
Could we be comfortable with the idea of Love Island as merely taking what already exists in society — racial prejudice, unrealistic body standards, etc. — and projecting it back to the viewer? Of course not, because then we’d have to acknowledge that Love Island isn’t just a crystal ball, showing us what lies in wait if we don’t change now. The show is actually far more akin to a funhouse mirror, serving us a twisted and ridiculous version of the reality we’re already living in.
‘Give the people what they want!’
This year saw the introduction of the Love Island app, which viewers can use to vote to keep their favourites in the villa, participate in polls and quizzes, and watch exclusive content. You can even shop outfits as seen on the show, with links to various items from Missguided (the show’s official sartorial sponsor).
Ultimately, the secret behind Love Island’s success is that it’s giving viewers exactly what they want. They want to be able to buy the clothes they see on the television, they want to be able to vote and influence the media that they’re watching, and they want something light to watch together in the age of the 24-hour news cycle.
With the alienation of young people in much of modern politics, a show that keeps them front and centre — even in such a shallow way — is bound to be attractive. Maybe it’s not surprising that more people applied to be on Love Island this year than to go to Oxbridge.
Not being the target audience shouldn’t completely exclude you from the consumption of particular content. Working in the kids’ industry, we know this all too well — if we stayed in our own bubbles of media, we’d spend all our time watching Game of Thrones and The Great British Bake Off, and wouldn’t know where to start when it came to kids’ entertainment. If you want to understand a group of people — whether that’s pre-schoolers or the Love Island generation — digging into their media is a great place to start.
It’s been interesting to see so many different people giving Love Island a go, from those that are diving in head first to those that prefer a more cautious approach, watching tentatively from the outside. Even people that are stubbornly avoiding the show love to talk about it; everyone seems to have an opinion, one way or another.
I’m a firm believer that it’s important to interrogate the media we consume — to consider both its social impact as well as what it reveals about its context of production. And when you’ve got something an omnipresent as Love Island, it’s worth trying to look past the trashy exterior of popular reality TV to dig out the interesting stuff that lurks beneath.