Amelia Jacob considers the implications of Love Island and similar reality television for the intersectional feminist movement and wider society, questioning whether these programmes help or harm the formation of inclusive societies.
Love Island is the most primal show on television, and all the more popular because of it.
Each year since its revival in 2015, its popularity has only grown; now a summer cult of adoring viewers are eagerly glued to the TV as soon as they hear the familiar jingle ring across the living room. For around eight weeks of the year, people absorb themselves in the day to day interactions – myself included – of a bunch of conventionally attractive and heterosexual singles wafting around a villa in a mixture of arousal and abject boredom.
Yet there is an uneasy dichotomy present in the reception to Love Island. I found after I finished watching the show this year that I was troubled by my relationship with it. Is Love Island freeing women from the shackles of misogyny, or throwing away the key?
The Spectator dubbed Love Island as promoting “physical transactionalism”, a neat term which encapsulates the capitalist beast the show has become. At its conception, Love Island existed in a different world: “influencing” was not a career, social media was in the nascent stages of monetisation, and people didn’t go on reality TV expecting to become household names. This social context has vastly shifted in recent years, which is necessary to remember. Love Island is now a business undertaking, with alumni now aspiring to lucrative car deals, modelling contracts and appearances on TV after their stint in the villa. Former female Love Island contestants using their platform for good include Olivia Attwood, who recently fronted an excellent documentary series on ITV about the benefits and pitfalls of sex work in the UK. Appearing on Love Island has vastly facilitated her career, allowing her to contribute to a genuinely insightful and measured piece of work with women in the forefront of the narrative.
Despite this, the contents of Attwood’s documentary clearly fit within the narrow restrictions of the fame Love Island has given her: the female contestants of Love Island more often than not undertake careers where their looks and bodies are tantamount to success, and Attwood’s documentary series underscores that her fame is linked to the perception of the female body and her complicity in this culture. We cannot forget this when analysing Love Island’s relationship with misogyny.
It is not controversial to point out that the men on Love Island don’t hold a candle to the women, who are captivating, for their humour and warmth with each other just as much as the frank exhibitionism of their bodies and sexualities. Unfortunately, it is often the politics of their bodies that initiate the majority of discourse surrounding the show’s impact on female rights. This is instigated by the fact that during the entirety of the women’s stay they wear bikinis that often toe the fine line – or fine string – between propriety and public indecency. Their bodies are politicised in a way the men on the show’s can never be, as vessels of desire, jealousy and often cruel judgement.
Perhaps female followers are also attracted to the female contestants, or maybe they connect with them in an aspirational sense. However, it is undeniable that more heterosexual men follow female love islanders than anyone else. Why? It’s clear: their online content is set up in a way that is desirable to heterosexual men. The male gaze is a constant presence during the show, whether producers intend this or not, as the women parade around in clinging bikinis that emphasise their figures and take part in challenges that involve smearing cream on themselves or giving each other lap dances.
The men on the show often perpetuate the stereotype that their “type on paper” should have “blonde hair and blue eyes”, with little to no emphasis on personality. In the case of women of colour – whose appearances on the show are already limited compared to their white counterparts – there is often harsher judgement from the Internet, and the uncomfortable feeling that the producers are not investing as much coverage in their personal journeys or relationships during their time on the show.
In Pandora Sykes and Sirin Kale’s excellent podcast UNREAL, the penultimate and final episodes are dedicated to unravelling the morality of Love Island. Misogyny is discussed in relation to trolling online, as well as the treatment of women of colour on the show. Rachel Finni, a contestant from Season 7, recounts her feelings prior to appearing on Love Island. She was the first black “bombshell” (a term referring to contestants brought in to shift the dynamics of the cast) : “Yes, I had seen how black women were treated in the previous series, and naively I said […] they’re not me, and I’m not them”. After her arrival, two men in the villa expressed their interest in her, and Rachel chose the man she felt she had a greater connection with. The next morning, after the cameras stopped rolling, the man informed her he was no longer interested, and no-one afterwards expressed an interest in Rachel either. She describes feeling isolated among the other women in the villa, and “out of place” as a “spare piece”.
The implications of internalised racism are hard to ignore, a subtlety that is perpetuated by the Love Island producers rather than tackled head-on. ‘Black women are often picked last in re-couplings or selected by the public to couple up with solely black men. Rachel Finni’s account of her experience is heart-breaking, and leads us to think: why is Love Island playing into such a narrow definition of desirability? The internalised prejudice of such encounters is not a phenomenon created by Love Island, but I have a sinking feeling the show is happy to do the bare minimum when it comes to diversifying the series and truly investing in women of colour. Misogyny is interconnected with racial prejudice, an issue Love Island has seemingly given little thought to.
Whilst I do not wish to patronise the choices of female contestants to appear on the show, the presentation of femininity on the show is clearly a complex issue. I am not alone in thinking that there needs far greater thought and responsibility from the producers of Love Island to unpack what their show means to the general public.