l say it every year: this summer I’m not going to watch Love Island† I’m a grown women! I have better things to do! I’m too tired to think about the ethics of the reality TV genre! Unfortunately, in the words of Davide, one of this year’s contestants, I am a “liar, actress”. It turns out once again that there is quite a big gap between the person I want to be (culturally distinctive, socially active on weeknights) and the person I really am (someone who watches) Love Island†
There is one consolation: this is the best series of Love Island in years. In fact – dare I say it? — it might be the best thing to watch on television this summer, period. I refuse to wage psychological war on myself over this. I’m addicted and I won’t apologize. And actually, maybe it’s time we stopped being ashamed of reality TV in general. The genre is a bit like Shakespeare: you can do it in many different ways, and it never, ever goes away. And when it’s done right… you’ll probably enjoy it. You might even learn something.
So why has it been bugging me for so long? There’s definitely some internalized snobbery about the guilt I feel for watching them – that these shows are approachable and frivolous, and therefore among all of us in one way or another. (The fact that women are the main audience for reality shows makes contempt uncomfortably gender-based.) I’ve also always been a little wary of the producers; the knowledge that what we are looking at is made and is not reality at all. And there is inevitably real moral confusion. These shows expose ordinary people to unprecedented levels of fame and fame, and not everyone is cut out for that.
In addition, the templates get tired. There was a soulless sense of corporate complacency about it The X Factorwhich was finally put out to pasture last year after almost two decades. Love Island started to suffer the same feeling of churn. In previous years, I usually started to regret this about a month later. And yet, always, always, like a depressed and bloated Pavlovian dog, I returned to the TV every night, resigned to my fate until the end. It bordered on sadomasochism. Last year in particular, the drama — and the ensuing discourse — just felt a little creepy. Maybe it was just a reflection of the mood at the time. We were halfway between the Covid pandemic and the normal course of business, so we were all feeling a little lousy – but still, every night at 10pm the credits would roll and I’d be on edge, not sure if I was contributing to the downfall of civilization.
But this year… it’s different. It feels softer, but incredibly observable. Chaos is around every corner. Loyalties are fragile. The guys are really needy: Gemma, daughter of former football player Michael Owen, confessed that Luca frequently wakes up at night and whispers things in her ear, like “Gemma… you’re just unreal”. Everyone keeps saying, “I’m open to getting to know you,” as if it were a bachelor’s degree networking event. And one word: Ekin-Su. She’s been the queen of the villa ever since she crawled on all fours to have a secret kiss, a glimpse of knowing chaos in her eyes. At first, I was afraid that making her the foremost merchant of drama would unjustly expose her. But the more I see of her, the more convinced I am that Ekin-Su — who is basically an actress — is having the time of her life and playing the part she knows the show needs. This week Tasha asked the wise guru Ekin how you would know if they were falling in love. She replied with great authority that you become “obsessed” with new things “like his scent. Or his BO scent.”
It’s an important turnaround; people have been cheering for Love Islandhas been dead for a while. It suggests that the producers of the show, which has been the subject of so much turmoil, have been listening. In the 21st century, reality shows must have a conscience to survive. Along with extensive duty-of-care protocols for islanders, the show has banned its much-criticized partnerships with fast fashion brands and partnered with eBay, encouraging a sustainable, second-hand approach to clothing rather than a cheap, constant conveyor belt. Tasha has become the first deaf contestant on the show. And in the opening episode, viewers decided who would be paired with whom — certainly a sensitive way to avoid the repeated scenario of black girls being picked last.
These details are important because: Love Island – and reality TV in general – has a formidable power to influence its young viewers. The fact that it has become something of an influencer factory means that these choices can have a legacy long after the show. “Influencing is modern advertising – but the crazies have become part of the product,” writes Amelia Tait, reviewing the memoirs of the Final Boss of Influence and former Love Islander, Molly-Mae Haag.
With that influence comes responsibility. Scenes in the show start national conversations. A young audience watches and learns about what makes a healthy relationship. On a handful of occasions, the Women’s Aid charity has made statements about its behavior on the show, pointing out what it viewed as examples of behavioral control and “gaslighting.” Commenting on Danny Bibby’s behavior towards Lucinda Strafford last year, it said: “This isn’t what a healthy relationship looks like. These are all tactics used by abusers.” This year, fans on social media are already expressing concern about it. the way rugby player Jacques has spoken to women, telling Gemma (who happens to be his ex) to “keep quiet” and calling her a “clown”; Paige, with whom he couples, was called pathetic and told him to fuck off.
However, let’s be real. The main reason we watch reality TV is because it’s very, very entertaining. As suspicious as we are of “the producers,” it’s worth remembering that it takes skill to evoke the specific alchemy of a great show. You need good casting, a good pace and a sense of when you might need to step in to make certain decisions. A recent episode of Love Islandin which the participants wobbled on each other’s laps while wearing tiny costumes and tried to get each other’s heart rates up, feminist ancestor Mary Wollstonecraft is said to have turned in her grave.
It made me scream. It was perfectly pitched: utterly ridiculous, with a dash of drama at stake. Plus, with his daughter in the villa, we watch the whole thing happen under the humorless shadow of Michael Owen, which is never going to be funny. To the ick I say: goodbye.