why is love island so good?
A primer on the British TV show ahead of tonight's finale.
In the final series of Girls, Lena Dunham’s character finds Riz Ahmed’s character refreshingly, yet annoyingly, earnest. When he says, “It’s so much easier to love something than to hate it, don’t you think? Love’s the easiest thing in the world,” she responds with “Yeah. But all my friends in New York define themselves by what they hate.”
What’s that got to do with Love Island, which has returned to screens in the UK after its most successful series yet? I define myself not only as a lesbian, but one who isn’t into Love Island. The concept seems problematic to me: Instagram-beautiful straight strangers, meeting at first sight, pairing off with one another and then having sex. The kitsch-bizarre tasks, filmed in slow-motion, are pure Club 18-30 tackiness, featuring men wrestling in paint and women slut-dropping onto a row of balloons in a bid to pop them all. And the slut-shaming of Zara Holland, the former Miss England, stripped of her title after she gave another Islander (Alex Bowen) head in the 2016 series because, well, what else do you do to make someone fall in love with you -- seemed woefully 1970s.
“On first viewing, the intense, immaculate conventional beauty of every single -- and they are single - Islander sends the message that unless you’ve scraped and plucked every extraneous hair from your rippled body, you’re not worthy of docking your landing craft on Love Island.”
“It’s about love, though!” is what friends -- both straight and queer -- say as they try to sell it to me. “And all the contestants, even the boys, really want love!" One lesbian friend was at a viewing party for the show’s return, and re-watched the entire last series in preparation. She’s fine with the Islanders’ pairings looking nothing like her love life, because: “You end up watching for so many nights that you literally feel like you know them and you get really invested in if they will work out.”
On first viewing, the intense, immaculate conventional beauty of every single -- and they are single -- Islander sends the message that unless you’ve scraped and plucked every extraneous hair from your rippled body, you’re not worthy of docking your landing craft on Love Island. Even the self-confessed ‘unattractive’ ones are above the national standard for good looks, and partial nudity seems contractually obliged. However on the plus side, everyone’s generic good looks mean that even if someone is rejected on the basis they’re not fancied, it’s never to do with them being ugly, they’re just “not my type”. With the bar set so high (or so low, depending on how much you value body diversity) the Islanders are left to discuss their hot take on loyalty, trust, care and love. Viewers might not relate to these typically beautiful people looks-wise, but love-wise, it’s a different story.
Obviously, no one goes into the show looking for real love, they go in aiming for the big £50,000 win, and the timeless prize of fame. And we’re not watching it to watch them fall in love, we’re watching it because -- well, put any living organism under a microscope and you can’t help but be entranced by its behavior, it’s human nature to watch human nature: it’s a simulacrum of the basis of all life, shagging. Yet, along the way, a lot of feelings happen. Within the rigid confines and rules of Love Island, traditional gender roles get flipped: boys turn bitchy and cry, the girls are able, if only for a little bit, to exert their sexual power over everyone. Women can become friends as well as competitors, 2017’s Chris was the ditziest himbo alive, and Marcel was a darling to women he didn’t even want to sleep with. Sure, this is nothing compared to one night at any queer disco, watching art school graduates and creatives contorting gender and sexuality in ever-new ways. But, contrast it instead with ITV’s other landmark reality show, TOWIE, which sees men speak so abusively to their girlfriends that Woman’s Aid has given an official statement decrying this normalization of toxic masculinity, and it’s something. Love Island’s influence is far bigger too, now it’s overtaken TOWIE in the ratings stakes, and the Islanders seem to know that.
To date there’s only been one same-sex hook up, in 2016, when Sophie Gradon and Katie Salmon paired up. However, the rules of the show won out, and they were ordered into hetero couplings. And besides, Sophie eventually went on to confess to doing the entire thing for attention, tweeting: “After Tom [her longest pairing on the show] left I played the game. Nothing about me and Katie was genuine at all, thought she was a cool girl -- but that's it. Katie knew I was playing the game to win for me and Tom.”
It’s a shame, because it’s important for people -- both queer and straight -- to see queer people -- real queer people, on TV, to realize that their love is just like any other love, that it comes with the same heartaches and thrills, just a few more obstacles sometimes. But queer couples won’t work on a show built on straight dating behaviors.
First, it’s never been done before. There have been queer people on British reality TV for decades (Brian Dowling, in Big Brother 2, who was notable for becoming the UK’s first out gay kids’ TV presenter as a result of his stint in the show), but we have never, however, seen a queer relationship unfold on mainstream reality TV. There’s always rumors of course -- like Danyl Johnson and Lloyd Daniels on The X Factor 2009, and Shabby and Caoimhe engaged in a tumultuous flirt throughout their time in Big Brother 10, but in both situations, the main hurdle to love seemed the very show that put them together in the first place. Shabby complained the cameras were affecting her mental health, and, well, the theory -- unproven -- goes that, at 16-17, Lloyd was far too young to be sexualized in a gay way with 26-year-old Danyl (this was a whole nine years before Call Me By Your Name won an Oscar). Though Queer Eye and RuPaul’s Drag Race are both well-watched reality shows putting gay men front and centre, it’s a case in point that reality TV is all over certain queer people’s culture, just not their love, lust and sex.
Would queer Islanders and their fans feel comfortable with them being similarly defined as box-ticking stereotypes? And will straight viewers even recognize the stereotypes of butches, power bottoms, hard femmes and high-femme queer queens?
The show relies on British stereotypes which help set the identically beautiful people apart and make the story vaguely recognizable: Eyal’s the pretentious posh one, Jack’s the cheeky big lad, Wes is a northern sweetheart, Alex is the hard-done-by nerd, Niall is the nervous chatterer and Adam is the ravishing seducer. Would queer Islanders and their fans feel comfortable with them being similarly defined as box-ticking stereotypes? And will straight viewers even recognize the stereotypes of butches, power bottoms, hard femmes and high-femme queer queens?
Making the villa single-sex could put off whichever sex isn’t represented, yet featuring concurrent couplings of lesbians and gays all in the same house, apart from maligning other people under the queer umbrella, would mean not everyone is invested in the same game of love. And the whole point is that everyone’s in it together.
The practicalities are that if the show does anything to lose viewers, it loses budget, and it needs a huge budget to give us the high-res slow-motion videos of people walking as their bits jiggle, the huge villa and the night-time cameras.
Queer love’s proper representation is undeniably important and long overdue and queers deserve their own show that works alongside their own magic. And besides, Love Island shows universal aspects of love’s trickiest moments -- betrayal, rejection and heartbreak -- which anyone can relate to.
As Riz Ahmed’s character said, love really is the easiest thing in the world, and in the space of seven weeks, the Islanders do a lot of loving. Underlying it all, though, is the real reason that we carry a unilateral love for the show. It teaches us not to be judgmental. Who am I to judge those who judge? Who is a BBC reporter to tweet that more people applied this year to go on Love Island than study at Oxbridge? Refusing to engage with a cultural phenomenon based on scraps of second-hand knowledge, which when patched together, create a picture of problematic-ness, is a necessary byproduct of a culture where we’re constantly inundated with new things to love. I cobbled together some misapprehensions to avoid watching the show. It’s not perfect, but within its constraints, each Islander defines themselves by the people they love, not those they hate. And if they’re all up for giving each other a go, why don’t I give them all a go? Not in the sex way, obvs.
follow Sophie here @sophwilkinson
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.