Love Island has returned to our screens for the winter season, bringing back the glossy drama and soft-porn camera shots that have taken over British televisions for the past few summers. Love Island is one of the most popular cultural phenomena of recent times, even traversing continents with last year’s debut of Love Island Australia. The show’s dazzling promise of the swings and roundabouts of a microcosmic two-month holiday romance seems the perfect antidote to a miserable winter, and it is one of the few reality tv shows to survive the producers’ keen oversaturation.
Winter Love Island has awakened the same incomprehensible vitriol as previous editions, with a host of radical Daily Mail columnists begging the question: “What kind of person goes on Love Island?”.
It’s clear that the show has very real problems. Contestants have been raising issue with the show’s level of aftercare for years. The suicides of two previous contestants have ignited a debate regarding the responsibility of reality television to support participant and last year Love Island responded with a far more comprehensive support system. However, as previous contestant Amy Hart reiterated before the airing of this season’s first episode, the barrage of online abuse is more difficult to protect participants from.
Whether they watch the show or not, most people seem to have some sort of opinion about Love Island. The mixture of perfection and vulnerability of the fish-bowl world of the villa brings out a response which pokes, probes and infantilises the contestants and the question of their “real intentions”. The £50,000 that comes with “true love” for the winners gives critics sexist ammunition to fire at the “gold diggers” of the show, with Molly-Mae Hague an obvious example.
Often ascribed as ‘plastic’ representation of love, Love Island actually reflects a broader range of the excitement, insecurity and vulnerability of dating than any recent reality drama. Whilst the ever-present swimwear rule and sharp editing creates a kind of greenhouse of romantic obsession, their experiences are very much grounded in reality. Already this season we’ve seen rejection, jealousy and the kind of insecurity which could only fester in the unstable environment of a precarious early romantic bond. Each attempt to “crack on” with possible partners is an attempt to find something they truly feel like they’ve been missing. It’s awkward, occasionally mind-numbing and always incredibly human.
Fears of rejection are exacerbated by the producers’ cruel snap ‘recouplings’ – a forced establishment of preference in front of a firepit. The drama of having someone explicitly compare you to others is both riveting and horrifying. We watch in hope that every contestant won’t have to face the forced rejection this ritual imposes, and when they inevitably do the only catharsis comes from the gratitude that at least it’s not us.
And for some, the game becomes too much. This year famously posh contestant Ollie Williams left early in the competition after realising he still had feelings for his ex. Last year Amy Hart left after the man she was hoping to express her love to rejected her with a pathetic array of excuses – and we learned as a nation that hiding emotional cowardice behind mediocre salsa skills is impossible. Both stepped past the veneer of the show to demand that their feelings be heard. It’s impossible to view them as the “archetypal characters” that reality television so often relies on in its narrative arcs.
Perhaps this is what is so enthralling about Love Island. – the question of whether it is legitimately possible for someone to put up and maintain a farce 24/7. The people we are watching are unpredictable and at the same time highly sympathetic because, despite the controlled environment of the Villa, their experiences of trying to find the real thing mirror our own attempts. What may rattle people most about Love Island is that any attempt to distance yourself from the people on it is futile. When we watch people recouple and reject, it’s impossible not to relate to their embarrassment. On-screen or off, the sting still feels the same.
Watching people try to fall in love is fascinating. Like many reality TV shows, Love Island captures the vanity, embarrassment, and pain of the entire process. But despite its wealth of flaws, I still like to think that Love Island gives an optimistic outlook. At least once a year people are willing to expose themselves to national television in their pursuit of love, sharing their flaws and attributes in equal measure. Whether they manage to find true love or not, these people understand that regardless of setting, finding love takes real bravery. They are well aware that they will experience untold criticism for a simple human desire so many of us share. Few of us are willing to demonstrate that vulnerability.