June 13, 2023

Unless you took the sensible precaution of disconnecting your television in anticipation, you might have noticed that Love Island returned to ITV2 last week. The show is — and I should declare a little bit of guesswork on my part here — much the same as ever: the bronzed, bovine contestants, too many and too similar to recall individually by name; their artless strategies of self-ingratiation and deception; the predictable crushes, the crushing predictability.

Part of the show’s appeal, I take it, lies in the near-hallucinogenic spectacle of watching minute variations on a theme playing out within a largely unchanging structure. But failure to change even a winning formula draws criticism. In 2021, when asked whether the programme’s producers would ever consider including non-heterosexual contestants, ITV commissioner Amanda Stavri said — presumably while panicking a little — that although “it goes without saying that we want to encourage greater inclusivity and diversity”, including gay or lesbian islanders might create “logistical difficulties”.

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That such a change would lead to “logistical difficulties” is an obviously sound consideration, and so predictably enough was immediately identified by critics as evidence of rigidly enforced bigotry on the part of ITV and the television industry at large. It was a strange diagnosis; television executives don’t seem the kind to make a stand on a point of principle, even a deeply cherished bigoted principle, if abandoning it could earn them costless approval.

Presumably, the logistical difficulties Stavri had in mind concerned the underlying selection mechanisms on which the drama of Love Island largely depends. Among reality-TV subgenres, Love Island operates firmly within the “state-of-nature” model. Contestants are removed from society, deprived of almost anything that makes life worthwhile — notably intelligent conversation and alcohol — and made to interact. Under these lawless conditions, the threat of forced “recoupling” and manipulative tests of loyalty artificially speeds up the cycles of relationship and break-up, as islanders are forced to divide and unite under close observation, like material in a petri dish.

The ceaseless pressure to find a mate results in a market of romantic goods and, as the intrusive night-vision footage occasionally implies, services. That one sex is interested exclusively in buying what the other is selling, and vice versa, is crucial to the extended dynamic. For example, when a new male “bombshell” hits the island, the calculated effect is that the bargaining power of all the men suddenly decreases. To introduce men who sometimes prefer men to women, or women who sometimes prefer women to men, would likely frustrate some of these effects, and not necessarily in ways that would be congenial to those who were hoping for a progressive display of “inclusivity”.

For one thing, it might alter contestants’ incentives to tactically reveal or conceal information about themselves. Events could make it expedient to match against one’s actual sexual preference, or even to strategically feign or deny a settled sexual preference: not an obviously edifying spectacle. But any alternative to this — for example, a format which offered same-sex pairing options only to certain contestants — would disunify the market, undermining the sense in which all islanders face equal options.

An easy way to bypass these problems, as the producers of I Kissed A Boy, which concluded on Sunday, evidently saw, is to populate the island exclusively with gay men. Like its inspiration Love Island, I Kissed A Boy also exemplifies the state-of-nature paradigm, though it does fleetingly concede something to that other monolithic sub-genre of reality TV: the “sexual re-engineering” format. These programmes — such as Naked Attraction or Married At First Sight — humiliate their contestants under the guise of helping them, usually by violating some obviously sound norm of social life (norms such as “Don’t pick your prospective partner out of a naked human cattle-auction being run by Anna Richardson”, or “Don’t marry strangers”). Their modus operandi is to establish the vague thought that modern romantic life is somehow subtly dysfunctional, misdiagnose the problem, and propose a wilfully ill-motivated solution.

I Kissed A Boy’s twist is to have all the prospective couples, whom they match initially for compatibility, make out with each other before exchanging even a single word upon arrival at the villa. “No small talk, no swiping — it’s all about the first kiss.” It is an oddly confused premise, at least when presented under the guise of a supposed remedy. What alleged problem of gay life is it supposed to be a remedy to? It has never seemed to me that 20-something male homosexuals need any encouragement adopting the shoot first, ask questions later strategy. Unsurprisingly, almost all of the couples hook up sight-unseen without much difficulty, some so extravagantly that one almost expects a comedy crooked-cane to appear jauntily from off camera to drag them discreetly out of shot.

While the BBC-produced I Kissed A Boy neatly dodges ITV’s much-feared logistical problems, it does encounter some telling new ones. A little self-conscious about being the “UK’s first gay dating show”, the programme veers chaotically between meeting the perennial progressive challenges of celebrating difference while emphasising sameness. In the first mode, the show risks being immensely trivial, in the second, oppressively sincere. Celebrating diversity, the producers seem to think, largely involves quite a lot of mandatory dressing-up and catwalk posing in feather-bowers and chapless pants. The sincerity quotient is provided by way of the usual tearful disclosures contestants are obliged to make about trauma in their upbringing, or personal lives, or whatever, which invariably conclude with reflections on the vast importance to society of the work being done on the show.

The problem of subjecting a distinctive group — gay men — to the demeaning attention of reality TV is that it can end up distinctively demeaning them. We watch as the contestants are made to play games like “yas or pass” where they reveal their authoritative judgment on such questions as “Is Lady Gaga a better artist than Beyoncé?” or “Is it fine to send a dick-pic as the first message?”. Later, in a scene so explicit as to leave nothing left to imply, the “boys” take part in a relay race, the crucial stage of which involves each taking turns at clamping a cream-filled éclair between his thighs and thrusting it, through a glory hole, into his blindfolded partner’s open mouth, as the delighted others improvise a crude commentary (“Gareth, are you sure you’re not a bottom?”). Is this, what the final stages of social equality look like? To be fair to them, I suppose, straight people have been forced to do this kind of humiliating stuff on television for years.

The show also struggles to accommodate a rather more interesting kind of challenge. Somewhere in his early diaries, Alan Bennett observes that when a straight couple goes out to dinner and one of them flirts with the waiter, it ruins the evening; when the same thing happens to a gay couple, it becomes part of the shared fun. Bennett’s insight, characteristically well-judged, is that gay life cannot always be relied upon to reproduce the same tensions and obstructions that exist in its heterosexual analogue.

One plausible explanation for this points to a fact more basic than sexuality: it is not that those involved are gay men, but more basically that they are simply men. When it comes to studying evolved mating preferences — factors such as appetite for casual sex, readiness to arousal, the importance attached to a partner’s status or age, susceptibility to sexual jealousy — evolutionary-psychological studies reveal substantive divergence between men and women, but suggest comparatively little between homosexual and heterosexual men. An environment such as that on I Kissed a Boy, where everyone shares characteristically male preferences — and moreover knows that everyone else does — should be predicted to differ in basic ways from the mixed-sex heterosexual alternative. In some respects it might be a much simpler environment to negotiate.

The uneventful course of I Kissed a Boy provides a fair amount of anecdotal data for this prediction. Implicitly co-operative, unpicky about their options, and pragmatically sex-oriented. There is none of the coyness of Love Island. The men realise that pooling all relevant information in a fairly collegiate way makes life easier for everyone. That is to say, they get behind each other. “I want to know who’s tops and who’s bottoms”, one demands as a sensible opening-move. “Get me some cock!” shouts another to no one in particular, first thing in the morning.

Of course, the uncomplicated dynamic that follows means that equilibrium is very quickly reached, and the show’s producers must, in an occasionally haphazard way, introduce more contestants to the house in the hope of restoring novelty and “drama”. The remedy is always short-lived: the new boys are just as willing to cut to the chase as others were. A new arrival, asked to identify his “type”, replies “Can I say all of you?”. (“She’s into group — fair play” is the inevitable, gleeful response.) Another new arrival, asked to select among the men for a date that evening, cuts out the middleman entirely: “Right boys, get your willies out!” he orders, rubbing his hands together.

The uninterrupted atmosphere of bawdy, flamboyant directness is one that is simply impossible to imagine being replicated in an environment also containing women. The men freely joke about “topping” and “spit-roasting” each other, on the understanding that there is, as one puts it delicately, “a whole world of cock to explore”. One pair excitedly realise they live near each other in the UK (“how many metres on Grindr?”). Another two are certain they’ve met before: “I’ve probably sent you dick-pics at some point,” says the first, with a non-committal shrug. No, that’s not it, the other persists — “Do you ever go cruising?” he whispers, covering up his mic in a quite unprecedented show of discretion.

It is much to their credit that the cast of I Kissed a Boy largely defeat the genre’s complacent expectations — more interested in paying lip-service to one another than to the lacklustre conventions of the format. Many of the routes to “drama” and dysfunction are simply short-circuited; the moments of conflict largely anomalous or apparently manufactured; the atmosphere of intrigue that depends on mutual-incomprehension diffused by too much mutual-understanding. It is an amusing spectacle, one which the show’s producers cannot possibly have intended, as it contributes to the show not conforming very well to the Love Island model and its tropes. The “differences” the programme attempts to “celebrate” end up running deeper and in somewhat different directions from those it naively anticipates. It is a satisfying failure, one well worth celebrating.