I say it every year: this summer, I am not going to watch Love Island. I’m a grown woman! I’ve got better things to do! I’m too tired to contemplate the ethics of the reality TV genre! Sadly, in the words of Davide, one of this year’s contestants, I am a “liar, actress”. It turns out, once again, there’s quite a big gap between the person I want to be (culturally discerning, socially active on weeknights), and the person I truly 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 just be the best thing on telly this summer, full stop. I refuse to wage psychological warfare on myself about this. I am addicted and I will not apologise. And, actually, it might be time that we stop feeling shame about reality TV in general. The genre is a bit like Shakespeare: you can do it lots of different ways, and it’s never, ever going away. And, when it’s done well… you’ll probably enjoy it. You might even learn something.
So why has it been grossing me out for so long? There’s certainly some internalised snobbery about the guilt I feel for watching it – that these shows are lowbrow and frivolous, and therefore beneath us all in some way. (That women are the main audience for reality shows makes that disdain feel unpleasantly gendered.) I’ve also always been a bit wary of the hand of the producers; the knowledge that what we’re watching has been manufactured and isn’t really reality at all. And there is, unavoidably, genuine moral confusion. These shows expose ordinary people to unprecedented levels of fame and exposure, and not everyone is cut out for that.
Plus, the templates get tired. There was a soulless sense of corporate complacency about The X Factor, which was finally put out to pasture last year after almost two decades. Love Island started to suffer the same sense of churn. In previous years, it’s usually around this point – about a month in – that I’ve begun to feel remorseful. And yet, always, always, like a depressed and bloated Pavlovian dog, I’d return to the TV every night, resigned to my fate until the end. It was bordering on sadomasochism. Last year in particular, the drama – and subsequent discourse – just felt a bit nasty. Maybe it was just a reflection of the mood at the time. We were in a halfway house between the Covid pandemic and normality, so we were all feeling a bit ratty – but still, at 10pm each night the credits would roll and I’d be on edge, unsure if I was contributing to the downfall of civilisation.
But this year… it’s different. It feels gentler, but incredibly watchable. Chaos is around every corner. Loyalties are fragile. The boys are really needy: Gemma, daughter of former footballer Michael Owen, confessed that Luca wakes up at regular intervals in the night and whispers things in her ear, such as “Gemma… you are just unreal”. Everyone keeps saying, “I’d be open to getting to know you,” like it’s an undergraduate networking event. And, one word: Ekin-Su. She’s been the queen of the villa since she crawled around on all fours to have a secret snog, a glint of knowing mayhem in her eyes. At first, I feared that making her the main merchant of drama was leaving her unfairly exposed. But the more I see of her, the more I’m convinced that Ekin-Su – who is, in fact, an actress – is having the time of her life, playing the role she knows the show needs. This week, Tasha asked the wise guru Ekin how one would know if they were falling in love. She replied, with breathy authority, that you become “obsessed” with new things “like his scent. Or his BO smell.”
It’s a significant turnaround; people have been cheering for Love Island‘s demise for a while now. It suggests that the producers of the show, which has been the subject of such turmoil, have been listening. In the 21st century, reality shows need to have a conscience to survive. Along with comprehensive duty of care protocols for Islanders, the show has banished its much criticised partnerships with fast fashion brands and teamed up with eBay, encouraging a sustainable, second-hand approach to clothes, rather than a cheap, constant conveyor belt. Tasha has become the show’s first deaf contestant. And in the opening episode, viewers decided who would be coupled up with who – surely a sensitive way of avoiding the repeated scenario where Black girls get chosen last.
These details matter, 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 the modern advertising — but the madmen have become part of the product,” writes Amelia Tait, reviewing the memoir of the Final Boss of influencing and former Love Islander, Molly-Mae Hague.
With that influence comes responsibility. Scenes on the show start national conversations. Young audiences are watching, learning about what makes a healthy relationship. On a handful of occasions, the charity Women’s Aid has issued statements about behaviour on the show, flagging up what it deemed instances of controlling behaviour and “gaslighting”. Responding to Danny Bibby’s behaviour towards Lucinda Strafford last year, it said: “This is not what a healthy relationship looks like. These are all tactics used by perpetrators of abuse”. This year, fans on social media are already voicing concern about the way that rugby player Jacques has spoken to women. He told Gemma (who happens to be his ex) to “shut up” and called her a “clown”; Paige, with whom he is in a couple, was called pathetic and told to “f*** off”.
Let’s be real, though. The main reason we watch reality TV is because it’s very, very entertaining. Suspicious as we may be of “the producers”, it’s worth remembering that it takes skill to conjure the specific alchemy of a great show. You need good casting, great pacing, and a sense of when you might need to step in, to make certain judgement calls. A recent episode of Love Island, in which the contestants wiggled on each other’s laps while wearing minuscule costumes, trying to raise each other’s heart rates, would have had feminist foremother Mary Wollstonecraft turning in her grave.
It made me scream. It was perfectly pitched: utterly ridiculous, with a pinch of drama at stake. Plus, with his daughter in the villa, we’re watching the whole thing under the humourless shadow of Michael Owen, which will never not be funny. To the ick, I say: farewell.