If you thought mid-2019 Britain couldn’t be more divided, you were wrong. Following months of contentious Brexit negotiations, it’s time for an annual ritual: watching a televised finishing school for Instagrammers
, in which the main class is “swimwear”, which serves its viewers as a convenient vacuum for difficult thoughts and emotions. It will further fragment and, for one reason or another, increase the blood pressure of much of the nation. That is to say, Love Island is on.
As Amelia Tait wrote last year, half the fun takes place online. As well as a blow-by-blow analysis of events as they unfold, the internet will be rife with people dissecting Love Island as though it’s the most profound cultural phenomenon of our time, or dismissing it as shallow, escapist drivel.
Yet if Love Island stands for anything, it’s a manifestation of late capitalism in all its fierce mundanity. That it has captivated so many viewers – four million and counting – says more about our need to fill a void than it does about the show’s depth. Yes, it’s a convenient forum for examining relationships. And yes, it’s also quite bleak that so many of us will dedicate an hour of almost all our days for the next two months watching oiled-up strangers snogging by the pool. It can be both: in fact, Love Island is a bundle of contradictions. Like fast food, the show is convenient, pleasurable, and comes with a side order of optional guilt.
Observing 20-or-so people socialise solely with each other every day for weeks on end will inevitably yield some sort of insightful cultural commentary. Love Island’s tightly distilled format – with little to provide a narrative other than so-called private chats and the occasional sexualised parlour game – makes for an unspoiled portrayal of human interaction. Like Big Brother before it, this is the most obvious reason we enjoy watching Love Island, and goes some way in justifying why it is worthy of critical attention.
And such a concentrated depiction of romantic relationships can elevate the discourse around important issues. In the 2018 season, for example, contestant Adam was accused of gaslighting his partner Rosie, with Women’s Aid commenting that he exhibited “clear warning signs” pertaining to emotional abuse, and discussion of the term reaching a wider pool of people than it otherwise might have (though obviously the fact it required Adam’s treatment of women on the show to bring forth the discussion raises its own issues).
Problems arise when the idea that Love Island reflects reality is extended. Regarding the show’s “twists” and “bombshells”, ITV’s Angela Jain reportedly stated that they “[try to] mirror real life” to test the relationships. On its diversity – or lack thereof – creative director Richard Cowles reportedly commented: “We try to be as representative and diverse as possible but first and foremost it’s an entertainment show”. In other words, according to its executives, Love Island is a reality show not bound to reflect reality. Empirically, it showcases one type of heterosexual, athletically built, fully waxed and heavily made-up version of reality.
While these qualities are disappointing, they’re unsurprising. Though we might wish our trusty weeknight companion was more reflective of progressive values, Love Island is both a result and an active encouragement of the aspirational capitalist culture that those values are often in conflict with. Its shameful lack of body diversity in particular is rooted in its bottom line. Love Island might be able to show us human interaction, but it’s ultimately a product that wants to make us buy things.
This is where the Love Island phenomenon becomes interesting. It is an exemplary reflection of modern capitalism, rife with product placement: in 2018 ITV entered into a sponsorship deal with Missguided in which the brand monopolised the contestants’ wardrobes, regularly sending packages of new clothes for them to wear in the villa and enabling viewers to buy the outfits via the Love Island app. Missguided’s sales were reportedly boosted by 40 per cent. A 30-second TV ad during Love Island would set you back around £50,000, according to a 2018 Bloomberg report. After the series, ex-Islanders boast impressive Instagram followings and are in prime positions to secure brand partnerships advertising protein supplements, teeth whitening kits and yet more fast fashion.
This is even more interesting because obviously third parties would not be so invested if it weren’t for the inherently strong brand of Love Island itself. The nature of what Islanders will inevitably call a “bubble” after leaving the villa translates into specific cultural reference points, the most pertinent of which is the lingo that emerges and accumulates year-on-year (“my type on paper”, “do bits”, “graft”, and so on).
This bubble extends beyond the villa to those in-the-know. Occupying it feels like being part of something – which, in a way, we are – and so there is a tendency to hold expectations of relatability that it would not benefit Love Island to meet. The Love Island brand would be diluted were it to reflect reality because it owes its success partly to being so narrowly “aspirational”. It is even more disheartening to witness this (and hear it summarised, in so many words, in a recent statement responding to the lack of body diversity among this year’s cast) because it is at odds with the relatable, mirror-like quality of some of the interactions that makes the show so appealing.
This tension between its relatability as a reality show obsessed over by millions and its restrictive role as a marketing behemoth is what makes Love Island so interesting. Rather than arguing about whether it is intrinsically great or terrible, we should appreciate the many ways Love Island embodies the late-capitalist hellscape in which we all reside.
Does that mean we’re not allowed to enjoy it? Of course not. I know I will inevitably indulge (albeit with my finger poised over the mute button ready for Caroline Flack’s interjections of simpering sycophancy). If anything, living in the hellscape means we are in greater need of mind-numbing escapism than ever before.