February 21, 2020

It took many years of trying before I finally fell for ITV’s Love Island. And try I did, since the ITV programme, watched by nearly three million at its 2019 peak, was squarely within my sphere of interest as a scholar of dating and gender.

But first attempts repelled me: the contestants seemed a mixture of the dreadful and the barely sentient, and the ‘love’ in question was anything but — that was plain to see. Meanwhile the suicides of former Islanders Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis lent the programme an aura of toxicity and tragedy, further entrenched following the death of its former presenter Caroline Flack last weekend in London.

Boring, appalling, wrapped in tragedy it may be. Nonetheless, persistence yields fruits, and last summer Love Island’s seductions finally worked on me. As well as finding myself increasingly curious about who would stick with or ditch who, I found myself absorbed by the programme’s deployment of gender. Love Island went from deadly dull to the ideal laboratory for observing the status of relations between men and women in our Insta-soaked era.

As the first winter installment of the series reaches its finale on Sunday, I find myself in mourning for its end, and reflecting on what it has taught me. For, despicable though it may first seem, Love Island offers a truly exceptional insight into the state of gender today — and it’s much worse than we thought.

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Relations between the sexes have deteriorated to brinksmanship between foes, and the show’s brilliance lies in starkly underlining the limits of feminism, an important lesson for people who, like me, inhabit the progressive, equality-obsessed metropolitan sphere.

Shorn of airs and graces, the lingo of advanced political correctness, or any ambition at all beyond fame and cash, Love Island contestants embody a raw, stripped-back version of what it means to be a man or a woman, one that accentuates both antagonisms and attractions. This allows for an unsettlingly clear view of how the sexes really see each other. And it’s not good.

There’s a coy, knowing irony in the very billing of the show. The word ‘love’ is on the tin, but the secret is soon revealed to those who persevere: Love Island is really about dislike, a simmering distrust. You could almost call it Hate Island. For lurking just under the lacquered surfaces of the contestants lies the fury of all-out gender warfare.

The landscape of discord and desire is set from the outset, with the gender binaries set in place nice and starkly – and, crucially, with a clarity that metropolitan elites tend to be deprived of. Everyone on Love Island has caricaturish bodies befitting Kardashian-inflected ‘girl’ perfection or tattooed, musclebound ‘boy’ bods.

They must participate in regular contests that play to traditional differences between these groups — strength and the ability to eat fast for the boys, doing bizarre tasks in bikinis for the girls. Noisy outbursts both of giggling hysteria and expletive-laden fury from the girls are de rigueur; the boys slap each other and punctuate key moments by jumping to the ground for a flurry of press-ups. It’s giggles and muscles; tears and tattoos: key planks of gender identity often forgotten by those used to loftier spheres.

Tracing both the emotional pathways of the contestants and the choices of the viewer-voters reveals a sense of deep fatigue and disgust with these enduring archetypes of men and women – while also showing just how entrenched they are.

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In this world, feminism is something the contestants very occasionally refer to from a supine position on a bean bag in the sun, slathered in oil, breasts popping. In this series there was much mirth when Ched asked fellow contestant Finn whether he was a feminist, to be told “I don’t know what that means”. When he explained it was about equality, Finn agreed and said: “I believe in equal rights for men and women… Am I a femininist [sic]?”

In an earlier series, a clash between contestants Jonny and Camilla (one of the poshest contestants ever in the shows’ history), started over the issue of whether a man should pay for a first date, clearly revealed the divide over traditional gender roles:

Beyond being a word to help pass the slow passage of sun-drenched hangout time, feminism doesn’t exist in the villa, where the orthodoxy is that power lies in the biological hand dealt women (plus enhancements), and the ability to hoard sexual power through playing games.

Such power is fiercely, stressfully contested in a world in which men are either romantic lotharios or cheating shits you have to watch like a hawk, and the women are hysterical, manipulative and obsessively on the lookout for insult.

There’s all the modern overlay, of course — the outrageous frocks showing over, side and under boob, sharp-edged female feistiness, the women’s refusal to be made to “look muggy” (made a fool of), the dishing out of terms of female empowerment (especially ‘respect’) among both genders. But the real story is one of failed equality and the rage this failure produces. Witness the jabbering fury when one of the women learns her hubby has either cast his eye over another lady, or — the ultimate insult — divulged even cryptic details to his mates of what has gone on between the sheets.

Love Island reveals the dark heart of our gym and surgery-obsessed age: desperate to look hot and love-ready, the fittest and most dewy-skinned find that they are rather weak when it comes to engaging with the opposite sex as human beings. Women in particular are not really human beings, but bodies with big lips fringed with tar-like eyelashes. As the programme unrolls through tears, anxiety, fizzled promise and ephemeral sparks of attraction, we are reminded that no amount of investment in looks and beauty helps ease the path to love.

It appears incredibly difficult for people locked in the Instagram world of physical perfection to actually make “a connection” — the very thing they say they so badly crave.

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These men and women have invested everything, their money and time, in their sex appeal, from bells-and-whistles gym memberships to pricey Brazilian butt lifts, full-chest tattoos and dramatic weight loss journeys. But when each person sees themselves as an expensive trophy, mistrust comes to underpin all transactions. Trust — won by immediate total honesty — is the biggest trophy and gift on Love Island, and its women, bred to be deeply insecure, crave its assurances most.

Love Island offers a true cautionary tale of gender. Relations between the sexes disintegrate when people fixate too much on bodies, and when gender relations suffer, so does intimacy. However, cut your eight-pack or enormous your breasts, intimacy is shown here as something that has become disfigured with untrustworthy members of the opposite sex, people who hurt and betray you, and leave you scarred and with “trust issues”. This is not what the march of gender equality was meant to look like.

When viewers voted for Amber and Greg to win last summer (the pair broke up via text soon after), they seemed to be voting for an end to tiresome manipulating hunks like Michael, Amber’s ex, and saying “yes, thank you” to the first appearance of a man who seemed — at least at first — to be capable of even the vaguest evidence of sincere feeling.

Yet watch enough Love Island and in it becomes clear that even those who seem like true gentlemen, or ladies, disappoint. For all things, in the end, dissolve into muscle, thongs and fake eyelashes. Anyway, who these days has time for the ups and downs of personhood?

 

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