The first time you watch a woman in a cape crush a watermelon with her nearly-bare bum on prime-time British television, your impulses (and/or dad) may tell you that this once proud nation has “gone to the dogs”. But, as with many things in life, your first thought about the reality dating show Love Island should not be your last. Look deeper, and you will discover a show not about sex on the beach, but about society: asking and answering complex questions about masculinity, femininity, sexism and consent. Apart from the watermelon bit. That was just about who could crush a watermelon with their bum.
Since returning to our screens on 4 June, ITV2’s Love Island has attracted a record-breaking 3.4 million viewers for the channel, two of whom managed to cause more noise than all the rest combined. Professional Angry Men Giles Coren and Piers Morgan have slammed the show, the former decrying it as “evil, lowbrow, intellectually apocalyptic megasexist bullshit” and the latter describing it as “brain-dead TV for sex-crazed, money-grabbing, amoral wastrels”. As usual, they’re both wrong.
Love Island takes place on not one, but two screens. After switching on the TV, viewers log on to Twitter, where the hashtag #LoveIsland trends nearly every night. Far from revealing a dumbed-down and decadent nation, this discourse shows a public engaged in critical thinking; a nation of armchair anthropologists.
“The best way to start conversations about people is by watching people,” says Harry Cutmore, a 21-year-old graduate from Exeter University. “Why start a conversation about feminism from a historical viewpoint when every day for eight weeks people are going to be talking about relationships they’re seeing on screen?”
Cutmore recently tweeted about the relationship between Love Island contestants Adam and Kendall. After kissing another woman, Adam told Kendall that he had “done nothing” to make her feel insecure. On social media, Cutmore used this clip to talk about “gaslighting” – a form of emotional manipulation where one person uses denial and misdirection to make another doubt their own mind.
In 2016, Miss Great Britain, Zara Holland, was stripped of her title after having sex on the show. This provoked discussions about sexism, with many asking why her male partner had faced no similar repercussions. This year, Victoria Sanusi, a 24-year-old journalist at the i newspaper, used Love Island to start a discussion about racism. “For a lot of black women, social media is one of the few spaces where they can express their thoughts and be heard by others,” she says. In episode one of this season’s Love Island, the only black female contestant, Samira, was the last to be chosen as a partner by the men. Sanusi argued that this “shows how the world perceives black women”.
“I received a lot of backlash from men saying that in fact [she was picked last] because she is ugly,” Sanusi says now. “She clearly is beautiful, so it just shows again how race plays a huge part in how people see beauty.”
You might argue that Cutmore and Sanusi are anomalies, and that most viewers gawp at the screen and, unthinkingly, mock the show’s contestants (one participant, Hayley, recently speculated that Brexit would mean Britain “won’t have any trees”).
This may be so, but if entertainment that features humiliation is intrinsically wrong, why doesn’t Piers Morgan think we should switch off quiz shows, anything featuring Gordon Ramsay alongside a budding amateur chef, and, yes, football?
Click the Love Island hashtag on Twitter and you will discover a lot of intelligent discussion about consent and male entitlement (alongside some good jokes). Few other shows provoke such a reaction. Love Island teaches us about sex and relationships in a less vulgar way than, say, Channel 4’s Naked Attraction (in which contestants literally show each other their genitals), and it’s less dull than the BBC’s Britain’s Relationship Secrets with Anne Robinson. I would even argue that Love Island can help young people unsettled by #MeToo to learn the boundaries between what is and isn’t acceptable in relationships.
And it’s not wrong to watch Love Island just for a laugh (Hayley, of Brexit-tree fame, recently asked “What’s an earlobe?”). The show offers escapism to a generation desperately in need of it. Millennials are having less sex than any generation in 60 years not because we’re prudes (see: watermelon, bum) but because our economic and living situations don’t allow us to have free and uncomplicated lives (one in four Britons aged 20-34 still live at home).
So, is it any wonder that we want to watch beautiful people flirting on a beach? And now that university tuition fees cost as much as £9,250 a year, is it really so curious that – as the BBC presenter Dan Walker lamented – more people applied to be on Love Island (which has a £50,000 prize) than applied to Oxford and Cambridge universities?
This article appears in the 13 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?