This was originally published in July 2018 and updated in June 2021.
I am part of a seemingly small minority who doesn't watch Love Island. I watched it three times in 2018 as I approached my 30th birthday and it made me grateful that soon I’d be free of the angst, insecurity and drama that often pervades our 20s. That alone was not enough to draw me back. It wasn't an easy position to be in, and one that rendered me a social pariah, but a decision I have become increasingly comfortable with over the past few years.
The most irritating aspect about not watching the show is being branded a snob or a prude; the tacit suggestion that I’m missing out on a piece of pop culture or that I’m not getting the irony. I will merrily take on all of those tags if it means not feeling comfortable about watching a group of homogenised exhibitionists compete for each other’s affections, embarrass themselves and bitch about one another, and then to see them be exploited.
Aside from what it says about the audience’s low expectations of entertainment, to say I’m a killjoy or that it’s just a bit of light fun is to rationalise the exploitation of the contestants, whose fame and money will fast run out, as will the support that the show’s producers claim to offer (at least historically) – as said the late Sophie Gradon, a former Love Island contestant, who took her life in June 2019 following a vicious battle with cyber bullies. “They don’t understand how much the overnight fame and the trolling can affect them,” her mother told the Sunday Mirror. “They should walk away, before it’s too late.” In May 2017, fellow contestant Mike Thalassitis also died due to suicide, aged 26. In February 2020, Love Island host Caroline Flack took her own life after an assault charge against her caused a tabloid frenzy. To blame Love Island for these three suicides is wrong; we know that the reasons for someone taking their life are complicated, varied and deep-rooted. What is unclear is whether the stress of being in the show played at least some role in their deaths or whether the fragility of these contestants was part of their initial casting appeal. I am saddened that the franchise still exists given its tragic history, but not surprised. Love Island has netted ITV £12 million before this year's series has even aired, as sponsors and advertisers clamour to become partners.
It is laudable that in 2021 – six years after the show first aired – ITV is amping up the mental and emotional care it offers contestants during and after the competition. This year's twenty-something cast has been vetted to ensure that they are mentally robust enough to deal with their inevitable, but short-lived fame. A welfare team will be on-hand both during and after, and post-show Islanders are each offered a minimum of eight therapy sessions to manage any issues they might need to work through. They will also be given bespoke training on dealing with social media and advice on finance and adjusting to life back home.
For years, all Love Island fans have told me that it’s light relief, escapism in a turbulent world mired by narcissistic demagogues moonlighting as world leaders, and on a smaller scale, a diversion from hectic, stressful jobs. But there’s nothing I find more dispiriting than young men and women finding fame in exchange for humiliating themselves and looking stupid much to the joy of the viewers – who, as most will admit, love its Hollyoaks-esque drama. It’s modern bribery of the most depressing, exploitative form. Here, go be a nonentity celebrity for a few years, all you have to do look like a Barbie or an Action Man and embarrass yourself to varying degrees on national television. If you can feign some sort of emotional journey and a few tears (although not too many, ladies, lest you be seen as mentally unhinged) then all the better. If a contestant seems too balanced or too happy – if he or she has secured the golden egg by finding romance – then the producers will throw in a wild card, perhaps an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend, to poke at any insecurities and emotionally manipulate you to the point where you sob into the camera. After all, we need a mix of humility, vulnerability and a few relationship ups and downs for you to be made a winner. And good luck afterwards - let's hope the short, sharp burst of fame doesn't break you. Love Island elicits the absolute worst in us as people - our dark enjoyment in mocking and gawping at others whom we deem to be embarrassing, lesser or disgusting. It offers a cheap boost to our self-esteem that comes from comparing ourselves to those we consider inferior.
It’s not that I don’t like all reality TV – I love Queer Eye and First Dates. I like them because they have a positive impact on those they feature and, selfishly, that makes me feel good. In Queer Eye, everyone wins. The everyman ‘heroes’ come out bouncing; they walk differently with added confidence; they learn about the strengths and their weaknesses; they become more self-actualised and view life in a more positive way. I don’t want to watch people be hurt or left out, or to see anyone emotionally engineered into feeling a certain way – aside from the ethics of enjoying such ‘entertainment’, it’s all so orchestrated and artificial that any pleasure you might find from the conflict and drama is futile anyway.
With First Dates, we see a realistic portrayal of dating – the good and bad. It’s cringe-worthy, funny and touching, but most significantly, it’s inclusive and says the truth – that love is universal. Love doesn’t discriminate against age, ethnicity, body size, background, sexuality or gender and First Dates promotes that notion whole heartily. Unlike Love Island, its participants are diverse, reflecting a true representation of what it is to date in the UK. Why is that important? My friends who watched the show can’t be the only ones who felt inadequate at the nightly showing of the preened, golden, hairless, generically good-looking people who appeared on Love Island. What the show’s cookie cutter line-up says is that, unless you fall into those homogenised categories, you are not worthy of love. Spare me the guff about it being aspirational and ‘what the people want’ – First Dates and Queer Eye are hugely popular, proving that shows with big hearts and unconventional protagonists do work.
It’s because I love romance, people and love so much that I think Love Island holds such little appeal. The reality is so much better than all that.
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