It is 2019, and the normalisation of people wishing to explore romantic relationships outside of the realm of ‘traditional’ monogamy is steadily growing. This concept, however, is still something relatively new and is not for everyone—which is why we can’t expect it to be depicted in mainstream media, such as reality TV shows like Love Island, any time soon.
For the past two months, Love Island has taken over pop culture. With the show coming to an end next week, I hear people passionately debating on who should win on the tube, and I never fail to ask my colleagues every morning, “What did you think of last night’s episode?” But like any reality TV show, Love Island has its faults. It’s no news that the show lacks diversity, and it has been criticised for failing to represent a range of ethnicities, backgrounds, ages, and body shapes. The show is also predominantly cisgender and straight—with only one instance of a same-sex couple dating back to 2016. And so, this year’s complete lack of representation of relationships outside of what is known to be the ‘standard’ is no surprise.
Love Island also appears to be a strictly monogamous show, with contestants having to ‘couple up’ with one person, while their relationships get tested every week. The audience votes for their favourite couple, and eventually somebody wins £50,000. The problem is, sometimes, Love Island presents a dating culture containing some of the worst, most toxic traits—also known as toxic monogamy culture.
Toxic monogamy displays signs of codependency that manifest in toxic outcomes. Among them are jealousy, the idea that love and commitment should cause you to cease any attraction for anyone else, the idea that your insecurities are your partner’s responsibility and that they should ‘fix’ you, the idea that love overcomes every other practical incompatibility, etc.
Toxic behaviours within romantic unions are prevalent throughout the show. Just recently, Michael got back from Casa Amor, choosing Joanna over Amber, getting his ‘head turned’. Following your heart is no sin—but what Michael did, instead of owning up to the fact that he just likes Joanna more as a romantic partner, is blame his choice on the fact that Amber is childish and made him bite his tongue on some occasions. Instead of communicating these issues with her prior, like a healthy couple should, Michael went on to humiliate Amber on national TV, trying to gaslight her into thinking that she wasn’t good enough for him.
In the villa, there is a distinct separation between men and women. Boys hang out with boys (because of the ongoing toxic masculinity that impacts the ‘lad’ culture of the villa) and girls hang out with girls (apart from that time Lucie didn’t want to be friends with the girls because she just didn’t get along with women, casting off an entire gender being a problem on its own). The two groups mingle and share occasional banter, but the moment that two members of the opposite sex form a deeper, platonic connection with a person outside of their couple, there seems to be a problem, further reinforcing the false narrative that friendship between men and women is impossible.
Last night’s episode is a perfect example of that. Jordan practically admitted to Curtis that he likes India (Jordan is Anna’s boyfriend), Curtis told Maura, and Maura told Anna. Instead of communicating this information to her partner, when Anna saw Jordan sit down next to India, she immediately enraged. “Am I not allowed to have a conversation?” Jordan asked, to which Anna yelled, “You have a fucking girlfriend, you idiot”. This further reinforces jealousy as a factor preventing male-female friendships. Yes, the audience is aware that Jordan’s head is likely getting turned. But Anna isn’t- what she has is simply word of mouth, creating a broken telephone situation, which could be avoided through clear and respectful communication.
Here’s the thing—jealousy has been normalised for far too long. It is not a healthy trait, and it most certainly is not an indicator of love. It comes from insecurity and self-doubt, limiting understandings of mutual trust and boundaries.
Last year’s contestant Zara McDermott wrote in Grazia, “It’s very abnormal and artificial to spend 24 hours a day with a group of people you don’t know. Emotions are SO heightened, you fall in love quickly”. By no means do I mean to invalidate Anna’s feelings—her emotions are valid, and they matter. The issue does not lie with the islanders, but with how we are taught to view relationships. It is difficult to reprogramme yourself to abandon the beliefs of ‘traditional’ monogamy, considering the vast majority of the population was brought up to view this concept as the only valid and appropriate form of a romantic union, often overlooking and accepting certain toxic traits and characteristics.
After coming out of the villa, Joanna told Metro that she had a good relationship with Amber and that they even “did each other’s make up”. But the producers failed to show this, instead feeding into the worn-out ‘Joanna and Amber fight for Michael’ narrative. The same applies to Molly-Mae and Maura fighting over Tommy’s affections earlier in the season, Maura versus Francesca for Curtis, Yewande and Arabella, and the tedious list goes on. Not only do the producers keep portraying women pitted against one another for the affections of a man, but they keep using jealousy as a prevalent factor for entertainment. And when you think about it, it’s really not that entertaining, but rather distressing.
“The key, for me, is the edit”, says Zara. The show makers have to fit 24 hours worth of footage into an hour episode, and of course, a lot gets cut out. The producers also have the power to shape the story in any way they wish, and they choose to display it in the way we see it. Finally, a show in which contestants need to couple up under straining circumstances—knowing they could be instantly dropped by the public for getting their heads turned or failing to commit to a person they’ve only met 48 hours ago—must adopt certain changes. This isn’t only true of Love Island, though, but also of our society and relationships.
I’ve always felt like people define themselves by what they hate, not what they love (me included). And during my last few summers in the U.K., Love Island is this one topic that seems to be right in the middle—some hate on it, some absolutely love it. For the few of you that have been living under a rock, Love Island is a reality TV show where hot young singles (all looking for love) move to a house in Majorca and couple-up with someone in order to survive in the villa. Weekly, the ‘Islanders’ with the fewest votes have to leave the show. The winning couple leaves the island with £50,000.
I only started watching Love Island last year, and although it made me cringe from its initial tacky look and feel at first, I slowly got into it. A year later, you’ll find me on my sofa at 9pm sharp almost every night, ready to watch the daily events unfold. Put people under a microscope for two months and you’ll get viewers. Why? Not only because it’s basic human nature to scrutinise, criticise and analyse other people, but also because Love Island has these added elements of love, dating, ‘grafting’, ‘humping’ and people talking about their ‘type on paper’. What’s not to like?
In a country where Brexit seems to be a main point of discussion, one that is stressful for most of us, Love Island is my distraction. And while it’s important that people call out the show’s lack of diverse representation (after last year’s first black female contestant ever, there have been numerous articles about Yewande Biala, the one black woman on this year’s show), it’s worth thinking about the wider positive effects it has on viewers.
My point is that even though there are a lot of things that are wrong with Love Island, there are also many positive outcomes. Viewers might not relate to the unrealistic body standards or, more precisely, the lack of (body) diversity, but there is one thing everyone can relate to, the Islanders’ need for love. Unlike the other famous reality TV show Big Brother, Love Island is about showing how people react to topics that viewers can easily relate to—rejection, betrayal; abandonment. Talking to Vogue about Big Brother, clinic director of Harley Therapy, Sheri Jacobson said the show had a “tactic of purposely bringing in psychologically unstable (and thus highly vulnerable) people into the mix for entertainment’s sake”.
Let’s make things clear, just like any other TV reality show, Love Island is heavily edited—intense romantic relationships or not, both are manipulated by producers before ending up on our screens. Once taken with a pinch of salt, you’ll notice how the show operates on a different number of levels, creating a ‘theatre’ where Islanders are part of the ‘cast’. And this is exactly why I like Love Island so much, it is one of the best (and longest) plays I’ve seen. I see the show as metatheatre as a half joke and half serious point, with the definition of metatheatre being comedy and tragedy, and giving the audience a chance to laugh at the protagonist while feeling empathetic simultaneously. Sounds about right.
Love Island also clearly defines the complexities of British society. Admittedly, that’s not the reason I started watching it, but anyone criticising the reality TV show for its lack of intelligence should then decide to put their focus on what the show reflects of our society and our way of interacting with each other, not on the bare bums and silly arguments. One of the rules that the Islanders are given before going on the show is that they’re not allowed to talk politics or share their political views. Why exactly is that prohibited? Would it not make Love Island appealing to more viewers by showing Britain’s diverse political opinions, or would it just end in another Sherif drama?
Love Island is definitely not perfect, but it compelled me not to be so judgmental. Who am I to judge people on TV, especially people that just want to find love (and, okay, possibly win £50,000, something that is a big enough incentive to be accepted by everyone as the main goal of the journey, and yet last night Molly-Mae was fuming after being accused of doing that exactly)? The show points out the social dynamics that we also have in our own lives and pushes me to reflect on my own relationships (romantic or not). Maybe you should have a go as well, have a little Love Island therapy session.