The problematics of the most addictive show on television
Are there implications to the sun, sex n influencers that we know and love, or can we guiltlessly enjoy the controversy that is Love Island.
by Kezia Rice
'the sun, sex n influencers, controversial-but-we’re-glued-to-it-anyway reality TV series known as Love Island was an early lockdown casualty that will not be gracing our screens with its addictive drama this year'
I began writing this article on the 11th of June, a time of year when normally the promise of summer would be stretching ahead of me, with its long evenings and river swims and late nights crowded round the tables of a pub beer garden. Lockdown put paid to a lot of these things, and as the UK finally opened up a bit, I have been desperately and joyously reclaiming them.
There is one signifier of summer, however, that has not returned this year. On this very weekend at the end of a long and disappointingly rainy July, we would ordinarily be witnessing two individuals join in the holy matrimony of being crowned the most loved-up couple that a villa in Mallorca had to offer. But the sun, sex n influencers, controversial-but-we’re-glued-to-it-anyway reality TV series known as Love Island was an early lockdown casualty that will not be gracing our screens with its addictive drama this year.
Me and my best friend talk nostalgically about summers gone by using the markers of Love Island series’ to navigate: if you’re in need of a catch up, let me talk you through them. (I have never watched Love Island season 1 - I missed it at the time and have never had the chance to catch up, so apologies for this admission. I’m not going to dig too hard into what went down before I do manage to watch it myself - read this Tab article for a summary if you like.)
So, we’ll begin with 2016: I didn’t watch this series as it happened either, but binged it later on Netflix after I’d caught the Love Island hype. This series was all sex and drama, before editing came in to ruin the fun: Malia was removed from the villa for physically fighting with Kady, Malin and Terry argue over a toastie, he dumps her for Tom’s ex Emma, Malin returns to the villa for a staged yet very heated argument, the couples shag every which way at night and Cara and Nathan are crowned veritable winners.
2017 was the year of Amber and Kem’s win: key moments include Camilla and Jamie’s resplendent love story (the couple now have a baby on the way), everything about Theo and Johnny’s rivalry which gave us meme-able moments to this day, Chris and Kem’s video call from Stormzy and the perfect combination of savage challenges and unedited bedroom antics. This was my first introduction into the world of Love Island, and I was soon hooked.
'By 2019, prospective contestants surely knew what the Love Island hype was about: starting their career as an influencer'
2018 was an iconic summer for its heatwave and World Cup, and Love Island did not disappoint. Jack and Dani emerged as early winners, perhaps taking the tension out of the Love Island journey, but what seems to have stayed with me from this season is several one-liners, from Georgia saying ‘I can’t, Caroline babes’ after being faced with a difficult relationship decision, to Megan telling Eyal his personality was boring and him responding ‘you’re not exactly Jim Carrey either’, to the gif of Dr Alex upturning his pram and dislodging his (thankfully fake) baby.
By 2019, prospective contestants surely knew what the Love Island hype was about: starting their career as an influencer. Consequently fewer seemed to be looking for love, and only one couple (Tommy and Molly-Mae) still stands. Still, the drama remained in the form of Amber’s brutal dumping by ‘chaldish’ Michael, before he admitted to wanting her back and she rejected him and moved on to Irish gentleman Greg as a nation rejoiced in front of their TV screens. Also unforgettable was Maura overhearing Tom describe how ‘it would be interesting to see if she was all mouth’ when they got to the hideaway, implying that he expected their relationship to be consummated because she had been open about her enjoyment of sex. Maura’s consequent takedown of Tom as he desperately tried to backtrack his comment was TV gold, and her refusal to be shamed for enjoying sex, especially when male contestants boast ‘numbers’ into the hundreds, was critical viewing.
We have also already had a Love Island series 2020, dubbed Winter Love Island, which brightened up the dark, cold days of January and February this year. This series was generally considered more wholesome than previous ones, with several couples formed (many are still going strong) and the bromance of Luke T and Luke M being a fan favourite. Drama was stirred a bit by Rebecca, and Shaughna’s rejection by Callum made for painful watching, but it is the heartwarming moments of friendship that I remember more from this season. Perhaps Love Island is becoming kinder? Or is it just losing its dramatic touch?
As you can tell from the detail involved in these descriptions (I also barely researched any of this knowledge. Love Island could easily be my Mastermind specialist subject), I LOVE Love Island. I love it for its escapism, its drama, its sense of summer sun and freedom and friendship and flirtation. I love it for its communaility, the sense of a nation watching together, the evenings spent round my friends’ houses discussing the contestants and gasping as the drama unfolds onscreen. The fact that there’s no Love Island series this summer is obviously understandable (social distanced dating would not make for particularly saucy viewing). I’m sad that there’s no summer escapism on our TV’s during a summer so many of us are desperate to escape from, but I think during this moment of pause, Love Island viewers should take a moment to consider both the good and bad elements of this magnetic and addictive TV show. Because whilst I love it, there is no denying that Love Island is problematic.
'That three individuals involved in the same TV show could take their own lives seems no coincidence'
The issue to address first and foremost is the tragic suicides of previous contestants Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis, and host Caroline Flack. That three individuals involved in the same TV show could take their own lives seems no coincidence. Reality TV pitches you a certain way, and forces you to live up to that caricature. For Mike (who appeared in the 2017 series), he was cast as a bad boy who was deemed ‘Muggy Mike’ by fellow contestant Chris Hughes for taking his ‘bird’ Olivia Attwood. He was also involved in drama following his departure from the show with Jess Shears and the tabloid press’ allegation that the pair had slept together, despite Jess being in a romantic couple with Dom Lever. Sophie (of the 2016 series) was involved in a tumultuous relationship with fellow contestant Tom Powell, and after a brief romance with Katie Salmon (the only same-sex pairing in the show’s history, but we’ll get onto that) she chose to leave the show to pursue Tom once again. I rewatched some YouTube clips of Sophie’s time on Love Island to remind myself of her trajectory, and they made for difficult viewing in light of how her story ends. The sense that she was ‘desperately unhappy’ to be trapped in the ITV bubble of staged drama is emphasised by her mum’s comments that she made 'several attempts' to leave the villa before she was allowed. Caroline Flack, long time host of the show, was hit hard by the tabloids in the weeks leading up to her suicide. Following a domestic argument with her boyfriend, she was due to appear in court and was replaced as Love Island’s presenter by Laura Whitmore. Amidst Flack losing her job and navigating a court case which no doubt laid strain on her relationship, newspapers such as The Sun pitched her as a national laughing stock. Their vicious and cruel stories have since been edited after her suicide in attempts to divert accusations that they were the key cause of Flack’s distress.
The connecting factors in these three devastating suicides are the tabloids and social media - two ingredients in the machine of Love Island fame that maintains individuals’ relevance long beyond their TV appearances. The issue of social media is a double edged sword: Instagram posts are a key way ex-Islanders make their profits as influencers, yet the trolling they receive on both Instagram and Twitter is bullying based on the way Love Island has chosen to portray them. To have your identity rewritten for you by reality TV, and then reinforced by the tabloid press to the point where you are trolled online by strangers who know nothing about the reality of your life is an unimaginable prospect for many, but it is exactly what Gradon and Thalassitis experienced. Flack was thrust even further into the tabloid spotlight, and similarly had her story of a singular domestic argument rewritten into one of ridicule and blame. In my opinion, it is undeniable that the tabloids and social media are accountable for these suicides. (The solution: don’t ever give the tabloids so much as a page view - get your news elsewhere. Also be kind on Twitter and Instagram, and don’t judge anyone too quickly.) But Love Island is the platform responsible for the initial story that casts contestants as fuckboys, frigid, slutty, desperate and inherently good and bad in equal measure. 2016 contestant Zara Holland has called for the show to be cancelled because of the control producers held over her decisions and storylines, saying ‘a voice in a wall tells you what to do’. Is cancellation the answer, or is there a way for the series to keep its watchable magic whilst also allowing its contestants to show all sides of their multifaceted, human personalities? This is a question that executives must find answers to during this hiatus.
'there needs to be contestants who don’t have the same ‘type’ of a petite Caucasian female or tall, not-dark-but-tanned male, the idealised European standards of beauty'
The Love Island team have a lot of work to do in other areas too: the casting of contestants has been criticised for not including enough people of colour, as well as restricting the body types of female contestants to a size 6, 8 or 10 at most, and the men to six foot Adonis’ with muscles you can practically see from space. 2019 contestant Yewande Biala has since called out Love Island viewers and contestants alike for their inherent racism. She describes how viewers messaged her on Instagram telling her her skin tone was ‘too dark’, how the tabloids portrayed her as an ‘angry black woman’ despite her never raising her voice in the villa, and how male islanders were after ‘blonde and petite’ women. This issue of racism is nuanced: black male islanders seem to fare better than black women, and colourism also abounds, with darker skinned women facing discrimination while those with lighter skin are passed off as ‘exotic’. This extends to men too: the female contestants often proclaim they want a man who is ‘tall, dark and handsome’. What they are not saying in so many words is ‘but not too dark’: mixed race men are popular in the villa, but 2019 contestant Ovie Soko (a six foot six black basketball player), who was loved by the public for his chilled out attitude and impossibly handsome looks, was not snapped up by the female islanders as you’d expect. Similarly, black male contestants Marcel Somerville (2017) and Sherif Lane (2019) were not picked in the initial recouplings; as Meera Sharma writes in the Independent, when women lust after ‘dark and handsome’ men, what they actually mean is ‘tanned and caucausian’. Sherif was later removed from the villa unexpectedly and his departure brushed over in the show; whilst producers released a statement explaining that he was expelled for saying the word ‘c**t’ after accidentally kicking Molly-Mae Hague in the crotch, viewers were savvy enough not to believe that excuse, and multiple alternative theories abound. The reason itself falls foul of hypocrisy: the year before, Ellie Brown called Georgia Steel an ‘ugly c**t’ during an argument, and faced no repercussions from producers. Furthermore, during Winter Love Island 2020, photos surfaced online of contestant Ollie Williams standing by dead animals and he was disgraced on social media for promoting trophy hunting. Due to this controversy, producers chose to remove him from the villa but gave him a romantic storyline to exit with, telling viewers he was still in love with his ex-girlfriend - a stark comparison to the dismissal of Sherif the year before. Even executives' inclusion of a few more people of colour in the 2020 Winter Love Island line up fell flat, with black contestants Leanne and Mike, and Nas, who is of mixed Pakistani and Carribean descent, all chosen last by their fellow islanders in the first coupling ceremony, which, as the islanders have only just met, is undeniably based purely on looks rather than personality. As well as casting more people of colour, it seems there needs to be contestants who don’t have the same ‘type’ of a petite Caucasian female or tall, not-dark-but-tanned male, the idealised European standards of beauty.
'The women should be slim but not flat chested, surgically enhanced but natural, with a curvaceous behind but a flat stomach: the paradoxes are real'
This brings us neatly onto the second issue of Love Island casting: the types of bodies that the show depicts in all their swimsuited glory. The women should be slim but not flat chested, surgically enhanced but natural, with a curvaceous behind but a flat stomach: the paradoxes are real, and whether they fit the body type brief or not, trolls will find something to critique. Former contestants including Malin Anderson, Montana Brown, Kady McDermot and Olivia Buckland were part of the Glamour campaign #BlendOutBullying surrounding this very issue. After appearing in this advert, Brown was later branded a hypocrite after she called 2019 islander Anton Danyluk ‘ugly’, the very word she herself was trolled with. Whilst there has been a growing awareness surrounding female body image issues (whether those issues have been resolved or not), the pressure on men to have a muscular physique is less discussed. The recent Guardian article ‘The Rise of the Ripped Teen’ describes how teenagers such as Charlie, 13, are obsessed with working out. In Charlie’s words: ‘I push myself until I can barely breathe and I’ve got a headache. Then I go downstairs to have some food, and then go back up again [to work out further].’ There is abundant evidence to show that the bodies depicted on Love Island contribute to several teenager’s desire to sculpt their bodies in pursuit of this idealised image. Psychologist Kimberly Wilson coined the term the
‘Love Island Effect’ to refer to ‘the impact of viewing images of 'perfect' bodies on individual self-esteem’, writing that ‘research indicates that scrolling through hundreds of social media body images increases body dissatisfaction and watching hours of image-focused reality TV may do the same.’ A YouGov survey revealed that almost one in four people aged between 18 to 24 say that watching reality television makes them feel worried about their bodies. A further paradox is created here: a whole generation of young people watch reality TV that is damaging for their mental health, but so addictive they cannot look away.
Another issue with the Love Island machine (the more I write, the more problematic this one TV programme becomes), is its depiction of a singular type of love story: a heterosexual one. The very construction of the show is built upon male-female pairings that will leave one contestant not chosen at the recoupling ceremonies; the the possibility of introducing same-sex pairings into this mix would indeed cause havoc. But perhaps it is a havoc that might lend the show a sense of unpredictability and excitement (arguably lost in the most recent season), and loosen the producers’ control over the recouplings in which they seem to stage manage various contestants’ exits. This is exactly what happened in 2016 when Katie Salmon rejected the boys on offer and chose to couple up with Sophie Gradon, forming the first Love Island same-sex couple. Despite this seemingly progressive move, the pairing didn’t last; Sophie ended things to continue her romance with Tom, and has since said her interest in Katie was ‘faked’ and that Katie knew that Tom was her boyfriend. Katie also faced criticism from LGBTQ+ viewers who questioned the validity of her bisexuality, leaving her hurt that her coming out on national television was not celebrated by members of her own community. As Alexandra Pollard writes in the Independent, ‘a boon for bisexual visibility this was not’. A 2018 study found that 66% of Generation Z identify as exclusively heterosexual - the lowest for any generation; in order to truly represent its viewers, Love Island would do well to divert from the heteronormativity it historically depicts. Executives are, however, closed minded and slow to make changes: ‘The format doesn’t really allow it,’ said ITV boss Paul Mortimer, whilst producer Richard Cowles agreed it would have to be an entirely separate show. ‘For a dating show, you need everyone to fancy everyone,’ he added ‘so if you have gay and heterosexual in the same place, they’re not going to fancy each other.’ As Pollard points out in her Independent article, this is an entirely unvalidated excuse: introducing bi contestants would only increase the chance of attraction, and, in my opinion, the unpredictability might be just the shake up the format needs. Producers, take note.
'The Love Island look is about as unsustainable as fashion can be: contestants frequently wear ‘faster fashion’ brands - think Pretty Little Thing, Miss Pap, Oh Polly, about a hundred other replicas that reproduce lycra in several-shades-several-ways for under a fiver'
And now, finally on to the issue that I originally put finger to keyboard to write about (before I got distracted detailing the million and one things Love Island could do better): the series’ promotion of fast fashion. Fashion and Love Island are intricately connected: the majority of former contestants make their money as Instagram influencers who promote clothing brands and bring out their own ranges. The Love Island look is about as unsustainable as fashion can be: contestants frequently wear ‘faster fashion’ brands - think Pretty Little Thing, Miss Pap, Oh Polly, about a hundred other replicas that reproduce lycra in several-shades-several-ways for under a fiver. The series perpetuates these looks through its sponsorship deals with specific fast fashion brands (Misguided in 2018 and I Saw It First in 2019 and 2020 respectively) which are massive boosts for the retailers: Misguided saw sales spike 40% as a result of their Love Island partnership. To have the female contestants frequently wearing the same brand of clothing means viewers can easily purchase their own Love Island-worthy outfits; when items don’t come from that specific brand, Instagram accounts that refer viewers to the exact pieces abound. When contestants leave the villa and rely on Instagram sponsorship to make their money, fast fashion brands are promoted to their fans even more enthusiastically on social media. In several cases, former islanders form lucrative deals by creating their own ranges: 2019 runner up Molly-Mae Hague earned £500,000 for her Pretty Little Thing deal, whilst the winner of that year Amber Gill made £1 million as the face of Miss Pap. Instagram is a key factor here: the impulse to create new content - i.e. new pictures of yourself wearing new clothes - has filtered down from high celebrity to influencer to everyday girl. The pressure to update your wardrobe as fast as your latest Instagram post is bankrupting Millenials and Gen-Z’s alike; whilst many individuals wear items once before returning them (in an ethically-questionable practice known as wardrobing) or use buy-now-pay-later platforms such as Klarna, turning to faster fashion with its low, low price tags offers a solution to this first world problem. Pandora Sykes’ essay Get The Look dissects this obsession with newness, quoting the American economist Theodore Levitt who theorized that ‘People don’t want to buy a ¼ inch drill. They want a ¼ inch hole’. In Sykes’ words: ‘It is not just a new dress that women want. They want to feel new.’ How long does ‘new’ last? Once you’ve Instagrammed it, the feeling of new-ness associated with an item of clothing dissipates like bubbles in the air, impossible to recapture. These once ‘new’ items are rendered worthless.
Is this a Love Island problem, when it is the fast fashion brands rather than the TV show who are the ones producing a never ending cycle of clothes? The fact that an integral part of the Love Island machine involves churning out endless influencers who make their money through promoting fast fashion means that I do hold Love Island in part accountable. It currently seems impossible to imagine the contestants showing up in vintage or charity shop pieces for their small screen debut in front of millions of viewers. But as well as an increased amount of aftercare for contestants adjusting to their post-Love Island lives, and changes to the racist, heteronormative and fat-phobic structures of the show, I would like to see an end to the faster-fashion-reality-TV love affair that has been promoting unethical consumerism for the past few seasons. Some readers might be wondering why, if I find Love Island so problematic, I choose to watch it at all? Call me a hypocrite, but guilty pleasures are guilty for a reason, and I am not willing to boycott Love Island just yet. The show’s viewers are dismissed by many as air-brained Gen Z’s who are so desperate for fame that more of them applied to appear on Love Island than applied for Oxford and Cambridge combined. Despite Love Island’s many failings, I rail against this criticism. To dismiss someone’s interest as trash suggests a division of culture into highbrow and lowbrow, with reality TV, and those who consume it, falling firmly into the latter category. I’m not pitching myself as a staunch follower of anything and everything highbrow, but I watch plays and documentaries and always have a book on the go, and very often, my brain needs a break. It needs a comforting, addictive, predictably dramatic and regularly scheduled series that can be shared with friends and strangers alike. Love Island has a lot of work to do during this hiatus in the realms of diverse casting, contestant aftercare and ethical fashion, and producers owe viewers and Islanders alike a more considered and ethical reality show. I hope that changes are made, and that my guilty consumption of Love Island can become more of a guilt-free addiction. Because I’ll admit it: I miss Love Island. And come 2021, I’ll be watching.
Kezia Rice is the Founder and Editor-in-chief of imprint mag.zine. As well as running imprint, she makes a podcast @kezsbookshelf, and can often be found taking scissors and a sewing needle to her clothes or having a refreshing dip in one of Lancashire's rivers.