Last summer, a perfect storm occurred. Kate was living with us. The weather was hot and sunny, despite the fact we were in Britain, making us feel like anything was possible. It was the summer of my self-dubbed ‘year of fun.’ These factors all collided to result in me and Kate (and often Jake too) sitting down together at 9pm every evening to watch… Love Island. Somehow, we made it through almost the entire series, complete with post-episode Twitter scrolling to ensure we saw all the best memes as soon as possible and renaming the house group chat to the ‘Love Island Discussion Group.’ What can I say, guys? I’m human too.
I’m not watching this year. I enjoy trashy reality TV as much as the next person, but I need a person next to me in order to fully appreciate the experience. An episode of bad TV without a savage friend by your side is like a non-alcoholic cocktail – missing the full kick.
However, despite having only seen the first episode of this series (with Kate, of course), I am treated to a constant influx of Love Island updates on Twitter, as the algorithm feeds me British trending topics. The coverage is largely the same as last year: impossibly chiselled wanker is, in fact, a wanker, beautiful blonde girl is salivated over despite not knowing what an earlobe is (courtesy of Hayley, from Love Island 2018) and the distressingly poor examples of communication and mutual respect cause frustration at best and Ofcom complaints at worst.
Another recurring feature of the Love Island discussion is the abysmal job it does of selecting contestants with a body fat percentage over 10% who aren’t white and don’t have enormous breasts or perfectly outlined abdominal muscles.
To start, let’s make one thing clear: I agree wholly and completely with all of the criticism that Love Island is only full of thin, straight, white people and that the show should incorporate more contestants of different races, sizes and sexualities to better represent the beautiful diversity of their viewers and British youth in general. For all the reasons that a lack of diversity is bad, it is bad that Love Island shows such a limited set of bodies.
However, I can’t help but feel that Love Island is broken premise as far as social justice is concerned. The problem is not limited to the tall, muscular models it contains; it runs far deeper than that. Love Island is built on the idea of young people judging each other on sight, forcing people to couple up against their will (including sleeping in the same bed as this person), wearing bikinis 24/7, trading partners every other day or so with the direct intention of causing emotional distress, participating in degrading and explicit challenges and obsessing about how attractive your current partner is and whether you could swap them for someone better. It revolves around the same tired gender and beauty stereotypes that hold back people everywhere, displaying manipulative behaviour so problematic that, last year, a domestic violence charity came out to warn against Adam’s unsettling behaviour. It is a veritable minefield of un-PC actions and choices. Because, of course, the point is not for these young people to meet the loves of their lives and start healthy, mutually respectful, loving relationships. No, Love Island is a heterosexual zoo, designed to offer a summer of drama and entertainment to us and a torrent of Instagram followers to the participants, allowing them to make good money shilling watches and teeth whiteners as soon as they return to life at home.
Campaigning to make Love Island more socially conscious feels like trying to replace the engine in a car that’s on fire. In order to make Love Island a genuinely safe space for anyone who doesn’t conform to our current rigid beauty standards, you can’t just shove them into the villa to be rejected in front of millions of people. Across the last four years of Love Island, the sole black female contestant has been chosen last in the first episode, and it was heartbreaking to watch beautiful Samira crying last year as she wondered why none of the men were attracted to her. Can you image if the producers put a token fat woman into the villa, without starting any conversations about normative beauty standards, fat positivity or social norms (though the likelihood of those conversations coming up is essentially zero)? The vast likelihood is that this fat contestant would be made to feel unattractive compared the rest of the skinny blondes waiting to be chosen, which, I imagine, would be hugely upsetting for the contestant and achieve nothing other than making the producers and public feel less guilty for enjoying a show that is so deeply racist, sexist and fatphobic. The embarrassingly homogenous cast of Love Island is a symptom of a much wider culture that prizes thinness and whiteness above all else when it comes to beauty and romance.
At the point where Love Island is full of a diverse set of people, who treat each other with respect, communicate openly in a healthy way and don’t view each other through the lens of reductive gender norms, the show will cease to exist as it does now. I’m not saying that such a new, progressive TV show wouldn’t be compelling – maybe it would, maybe it wouldn’t – but that it would be a fundamentally different show to the one currently gracing our screens every evening. Creating a space where people of all races, sizes, genders and sexualities feel desired, valued and respected equally would require breaking down entrenched social norms, addressing unconscious biases and dismantling destructive power dynamics, all things without which this show would fail to function. The truth is that healthy relationships tend to be very boring to watch, as they are characterised by a distinct lack of interpersonal drama. Small issues don’t blow up. No one is manipulative or possessive. There are no expectations to always have visible abs and a perfectly shaved pubic region. Disagreements are communicated, discussed and resolved without resorting to any kind of cruel or worrying behaviour. It’s wonderful, special and very boring to watch from the outside. Love Island is not looking for peaceful partnerships any more than it is trying to start meaningful conversations about the intersection of romance and identity.
If the Love Island producers truly want to fill the show with a more diverse set of individuals, then great. They will need to do a hell of a lot more work than just hiring 50% Barbie bots and 50% normal people, though. In order for it work in a way that shows dignity to all contestants and makes even a smidge of social change, this new casting will need to be accompanied by conversations about biases and beauty standards and involve a villa experience less based around an unremitting obsessions with everyone’s physical attributes. Again, I’m dubious as to whether this is possible, but if they really want to try, then wonderful. I’m just saying that it might be a lost cause.