By Lizzy Carmine (she/her), illustrated by Yi Jong (she/her)
Feature writer Lizzy Carmine explores the nuances of hit trashy reality show Love Island. She questions the looming expiry date of a show existing in a world with evolving definitions of gender and sexuality, the lack of representation, and problematic beauty standards.
The show you love to hate and hate to love is back for a seventh season filled with the usual hyper sexualised heteronormativity we can’t keep our eyes off of.
Welcome to Love Island.
Islanders (contestants) prance around a luxury villa in Spain for eight weeks, searching for a ‘connection’ with one of the many carefully selected and extremely conventionally attractive twenty somethings from across the UK. Along the way new Islanders enter the villa to flirt, fight and ... ‘connect’ with the existing cast, in hopes of coupling up to avoid getting unceremoniously dumped from the island. Basically, there’s a never-ending cycle of new hotties entering the villa to break up existing couples for a chance to become a Love Island celebrity and gain instant Instagram fame. The show ends with the public voting for their favourite couple to endure one final test. They each receive an envelope, one containing £50,000 whilst the other is empty. It is the biggest test in today’s transactional society: take the cash and dash? Or split the money with your lover?
If you’re a Love Island watcher like myself, I’m sure you’ve had to defend your taste to non-watchers. After all, watching hot people talking about their love life does seem a bit daft, but it’s the intricacies of the show that interest me. Love Island is built on monogamous loyalty – long-term, single partner relationships – and the “relationship society” we live in froths it. What’s a relationship society? It’s our society that tells us we would be happier in a relationship than single; take every single rom-com or Disney princess story for example. A happily ever after is seen as the epitome of happiness. Love Island provides us with the end goal of a fairy-tale ending we all long to see, but it also gives us raw and juicy ‘drama’ along the way... at the Islanders' expense.
There’s no doubt, however, that Love Island has its flaws. The show is as heteronormative as it gets, and as the world becomes a more inclusive space for gender and sexual diversity I have to question, will Love Island soon lose its relevance or even become cancelled? Love Island is a breeding ground for heteronormative ideologies that reinforce patriarchal ideas such as traditional beauty standards, gender role stereotypes, and power dynamics. The islanders are first introduced to us in swimwear, a look they sport more often than not on the show. The lack of diverse body shapes is extremely noticeable, and sends a clear message to the viewers regarding perfect bikini bodies and six pack abs. Traditional beauty standards are imposed on the contestants, and women in particular are expected to conform to the feminine beauty ideal, unlike their fellow male islanders. Ex-Islander Aaron Francis (good riddance), expressed that women with hairy arms are his biggest turn off. Sorry Aaron, unsure if you realised but hair is everywhere and so normal, perhaps you should try dating a doll?
Women’s reactions are treated as invalid and out of proportion as a way for men to avoid any form of accountability. This normalisation of gaslighting on a popular dating show is alarming, and dangerous.
Love Island sheds light on the highly unrealistic standards we hold women to. Countless male contestants stress their checklist includes a “natural look” on a girl, but a natural look doesn’t leave space for the real and natural features that women truly possess, from pimples, stretch marks, cellulite, or crusty eyes when you wake up. It’s also important to mention the racism and colourism that creeps its way into the sexual politics of Love Island. The show is populated by a majority of white and blonde women, with the occasional black woman interspersed throughout, which feels undeniably tokenistic. Time and time again, in the first coupling up of the show, black women are picked last and sidelined, from Kaz, Leanne, Samira, and Yewande. The preference for fair-skinned women is subtly or overtly expressed by the men in the villa. With Kaz, the men she’s attracted to constantly talk about her “energy” while ignoring her physical appearance. And what impact does this have on BIPOC watching the show, especially those who are young and coming into their identity? That the whiter you are the more attractive you are? Former contestant Yewande Biala opened up about her experiences and Love Island being a mirror of society. “Black women are never really seen or admired by black men or any other kind of race. We’re always pushed to the sideline and it’s obviously highlighted on a show like Love Island where there’s only like 12 contestants and one of them is black.”
The cisgender space allows gender stereotypes to be easily magnified and characters use these stereotypes against one another to excuse their own behaviour. Alicia Denby analyses how gender stereotypes on the show are used by men to gaslight women.1 Gaslighting is emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their reality because of the abuser manipulating their victim into a new way of thinking. On Love Island, men manipulate women into thinking they are crazy or over emotional to shift blame from themselves when they are chatting up other women. Women’s reactions are treated as invalid and out of proportion as a way for men to avoid any form of accountability. This normalisation of gaslighting on a popular dating show is alarming, and dangerous.
It is not just the male contestants using sexist stereotypes to help their own cases though. Producers emotionally manipulate women through manufacturing scenes that encourage an emotional reaction to create drama for views. Faye and Teddy have been the most recent victims of this type of producing for a second time this season, resulting with Faye swearing at Teddy 125 times while the rest of the Islanders uncomfortably watched the event unfold. This type of producing has viewers criticising Love Island's producing methods and questioning the effect this has on contestants' mental health. Love Island received backlash from fans as the double standard backed by cultural ideologies about gender and race has been applied to Faye’s abusive behaviour. Fans said if roles were reversed and Teddywas the one doing the yelling, he would have been swiftly removed from the villa.
Love Island teaches us that instant gratification has transferred into our dating lives, and many of the Islanders' ability to practice emotional intelligence is low. Most Islanders don’t understand their own personal behaviours and emotions, factors which affect people's dating lives. Islanders are self-serving, they are disinterested in truly understanding their partner but prefer to compare them to their dating 'checklist’. 2019 Love Island winners Molly-Mae and Tommy are the only couple from their season who have remained together since leaving the show, showing that society's romanticism of monogamous relationships typically leads to disappointment. Learning from philosopher Alain De Botton, we can understand that romantic relationships are backed by unattainable relationship standards forced on them by mainstream media, movies, and traditions. Relationships are not crazy attraction, hot sex, and romantic gestures all of the time. In fact, most of the time relationships are boring, ordinary, and sometimes even hellish.
Love Island can be viewed as a cautionary tale for dating. It’s even used by some parents for their young teenagers about what to avoid in the world of relationships. For some, it’s an escape from reality to become obsessed with complete strangers' behaviours and actions. It can also be used as a social commentary for all that’s wrong in the world when it comes to gender dynamics, race, power, and the consequences of heteronormativity. Whatever your relationship with this show may be, Love Island is a testament to how you can enjoy something but also be critical of it as well.