If I screw up my eyes for a second, I can imagine what’s going on in the minds of Love Island dissenters. They think that those of us who care about the manipulated relationships of a handful of bikini-clad 20-somethings are being sucked into a void of inauthentic interaction on which we become dependent for excitement and fulfilment. They would be wrong. In fact, we are being sucked simultaneously into two voids of inauthentic interaction on which we become dependent for excitement and fulfilment. Love Island does not just happen on TV – it also happens in another dimension, on Twitter.
Perhaps this seems even more incomprehensible. Love Island is now in its seventh season and reached its viewing peak with more than three and a half million viewers in the final episode of 2019. It has been analysed and dissected, criticised and lauded; viewed by some as a postmodern masterpiece on the human condition and others as an evil, capitalistic corruptor. It has not only been the centre of conversations on who’s shagging whom: it has been discussed through the prisms of mental health, race, gender politics, social media. Yet even having been put through the wringer of discourse, it continues pretty much exactly the same as before, with its formula – of coupling and uncoupling, “Casa Amor” and nights in the Hideaway – never getting tired, including the part that involves talking about it endlessly for three months of the year.
But if Love Island’s format is invincible, what is there left to say?
Twitter’s nightly hour-long flood of armchair analysis of the latest villa happenings is not equivalent to meaningful critical engagement – not because people on Twitter aren’t capable of it, but because the brevity, immediacy and community of social media naturally encourage feverish excitement and flippant comments on the live broadcast of each episode, rather than a nuanced unpacking of the series as a whole. That said, part of Love Island’s endless relevance is undoubtedly in the relationships, and the issues they present to an increasingly politically engaged audience. Last week, contestant Hugo (probably the most endearingly well-meaning of this year’s cohort) told the group that his biggest turn-off was “fakeness”, riling women in the villa who have visibly undergone plastic surgery. They pounced on him in a manner not unlike social media users implementing an online cancellation: he needed to “educate himself”, they said, on “why girls get work done”. In the other dimension, the chorus was quick to point out that while surgery may be an understandable response to insecurities induced by unrealistic beauty standards, it is not a radical act to further perpetuate those standards by conforming to them. (What’s more, Hugo is the show’s first disabled contestant and therefore has his own experiences of non-conformity.)
Though the politics of cosmetic surgery is a newer topic for both contestants and commentators, the broad debates sparked by the show – both in the villa and among viewers – remain the same year after year. Every year there are concerns surrounding the show’s negative impact on body image, and every year men and women who look like – and sometimes are – swimwear models are chosen regardless. Every year there are complaints that the villa’s black women are overlooked or treated badly, and yet every year it happens again. Every year, despite desperate pleas for everyone to “be kind”, contestants are relentlessly bullied on social media about everything from their looks to their jobs, which make the kindness campaigns feel more platitudinous every time they happen, (especially after the deaths by suicide of two past contestants and former presenter Caroline Flack). And, most importantly, every year we watch it anyway.
As well as exposing what ITV producers consider to be bulletproof TV (muscular bodies lathered in tanning oil and whipped cream) and not worth bothering with (almost anything else), this is also symptomatic of a broader stagnation in culture. Love Island reflects contemporary sensibilities and anxieties back at the audience to debate, and, like any piece of mass-marketed culture, has a symbiotic relationship with its viewers: it gives us what we want, which makes us want more of that thing. But this feedback loop means that rather than continue to engage with it as a distinct entity, we have come to flatly accept Love Island’s presence in our lives, no matter how problematic we find it.
Over the past five years, former contestants have also come to dominate UK Instagram, in an omnipresent wash of I Saw It First sponsorships and porcelain veneers. Love Island is simply part of this new, bland world of self-monetisation and viscose halter-necks. Applying to be a contestant is still touted as a way to find love and win £50,000, but the more cynical among us understand that it also provides a reliable path to making a living by endorsing products online. Even if many viewers might disagree with the unethical labour practices and environmental damage of fast fashion, the combination of our affection for people with whom we’ve spent more time over the summer than our best friends and blind acceptance of a stubbornly individualist online culture means that, just like the show itself, this new career trajectory goes pretty much unquestioned. Some might say: it is what it is.
Like the reality TV that shaped the British pop culture landscape in the 2000s and 2010s (Big Brother; The X Factor), Love Island has now become an immovable, unchanging cultural monolith. We see this in its rigid nightly schedule, repetitive storylines, the contained set of the villa itself, its unique, self-referential culture and customs (contestants pull people for chats and suck on their monogrammed water bottles as though it were their lifelong dream) – and in the fact that an attempt to shake things up with a “winter” season flopped. At this point, the viewers’ dedication is about tradition: every year, Twitter explodes with nostalgia for past seasons.
It is accepted that Love Island is escapism: an opportunity to become absorbed by other people’s lives, other people’s problems; to fixate on toned physiques and beautiful faces and white teeth; to watch women we want to protect put on their make-up, and men we don’t trust do bicep curls. But as this experience has become routine, it has also become untouchable. In the increasing lack of meaningful critique there is an implicit defensiveness: how could something be bad when we love it so much? What’s the problem with something being amoral if it provides individuals with comfort?
Where I have previously just dipped a toe, this summer I confess I am fully submerged in Love Island. I could talk endlessly about the heady relationship of Jake and Liberty, the popular-girl facade of Chloe, the joy of hearing Faye quip drily about the M3. I barely know where I end and the villa begins. That’s why there will always be something for us to say about Love Island. What remains less clear is what Love Island says about us.