'Stick or twist': The Love Island dilemma. Blog #4
Camilla Fitzsimons. Maynooth University, Ireland.
I watch Love Island. There I said it, I’m a feminist and I watch Love Island.
Season after season, for one sacred hour each evening, I tune into ITV’s summer dating show where a group of singletons, or ‘Islanders’, are thrown together in an apparent quest for true love. The show starts with an original cast of around ten people who must ‘couple-up’ with each other. No sooner have they learned each other’s names, the lives of these ‘OGs' gets regularly interrupted by the arrival of new Islanders, or ‘bombshells’, who are strategically 'thrown in' to stir up the group dynamic. Regular 're-couplings' enable new partnerships to form. Because Islanders don't know who will arrive next, there is a constant air of instability as people often hold off on their initial attraction in case someone even more gorgeous than their current 'partner' walks through that door. Half way through the show, contestants are put through 'the ultimate test' when men and women are separated with one group or the other sent to a separate villa (Casa Amor), where they spend time mingling with a brand new crop of 'Islanders'. They must then decide whether to 'stick' in their existing couple, or 'twist' by bringing one of the newer contestants into the villa.
Across eight weeks, as many as 30-40 contestants ‘crack on’ with each other, compete in challenges, and entertain us with their daily exploits. There’s audience participation too as, for viewers based in the UK, regular public votes help decide who gets ‘dumped’ from the villa. The public also chooses the winning couple who then split a cash prize of £50,000.
There’s lots of things to like about Love Island; the escapism, the unpredictability of often ill-matched couples, and the pure fun of it all. And then there’s the romance. There have been Love Island marriages and even Love Island babies. There’s also the sense of community it inspires through hours of wrap-around content via dedicated podcasts, Reddit discussion boards, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter. Together we cast judgement on complete strangers, crave inside scoops from 'dumped' ex-Islanders, laugh at contestant's good humour, revel in their mistakes, appraise their behaviours, comment on their style, and speculate about their romantic compatibility. It's great.
I’m not alone in my guilty pleasure. Nearly three and a half a million mostly female viewers tuned in to watch Ekin-su Cülcüloğlu and Davide Sanclimenti be crowned the 2022 winners; and that’s just the ITV estimates. I cheered aloud when they beat Luca Bish and Gemma Owen - daughter of Michael Owen aka Doughnuts from The Masked Singer UK season 3 (or legendary English footballer and Ballon d’Or winner, depending on your interests). Love Island is so popular, more people apply to be Islanders than apply for university at Oxford or Cambridge.
Of course, there’s nothing ‘real’ about the show, something that can be said for much reality TV. After all, what’s ordinary about locking people away in a sun-baked Spanish villa, surrounding them with cameras then directing them in what they can and cannot do. Although not technically scripted, most fans understand that showrunners and producers mingle amongst Islanders. Viewers appreciate their power in selecting what to air and what not to air as they carefully curate storylines by interfering with Islander dynamics with the express purpose of increasing the levels of drama. We know about 'the voice of god' intercom system that guides and even reprimands Islanders for such seemingly innocuous actions as sitting in the wrong part of the villa or talking too much about a topic deemed boring. Let's face it, if producer prompting didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be a show to air.
Viewers also know that contestants don’t enter to find true love rather the reality TV contestant dream revolves around Instagram followings and that all important influencer identity. When Molly Mae Hague (season 5, runner up) became brand ambassador for PrettyLittle Thing (PLT), she reportedly received £0.5 million for the trouble.
It’s not just older viewers like me that understand the artificiality of the show. Research by relationships and sexuality educators Jannette Porter and Kay Standing found 13-21yr olds mostly watch the show for the fun of it and “were critical of the 'fakeness' of the relationships shown and the fact that it is a game show with a financial incentive”. The researchers also played-down media hype about the damage the show can do to young, seemingly impressionable viewers claiming people learn how to behave from a variety of sources and mostly from what they experience at home.
So what's the dilemma?
Watching Love Island doesn’t mean I’m blind to the shows well-documented ethical shortcomings, weaknesses that no amount of jokes about ‘feminism leaving my body’ can excuse. Some changes have been made such as the decision to ditch fast-fashion sponsors and 'recouple' with online marketplace e-bay (more about this later). However, little has been done to address other important issues such as the show’s hyper-cis-heteronormativity which privileges straightness and gender-binaries as the norm. When challenged on the exclusion of LGBTQI+ cast-members one producer blamed logistical difficulties in forming couples. Former-Islander Katie Salmon (season 2) must have missed that memo when she chose to 'couple-up' with fellow female contestant Sophie Grandon.
In terms of body diversity - there is none. No woman above a size 12 has ever been cast and the default islander is perfectly groomed, taut and tanned. The job description for men likely demands regular trips to the Island gym to maintain muscular biceps and perfectly chiselled abs. Again producers justify this by claiming (rather bizarrely) that contestants "need to be attracted to each other". Physical attractiveness as the number one criterion on deciding who to ‘graft for’ is repeatedly reinforced by Islanders who describe ‘their type’ as either ‘blonde’ or ‘brunette’. Personality traits are rarely mentioned. This narrow framing of desirability fuels persistent accusations of racism. It took four seasons before Samira Mighty became the first Black woman to be cast. She left the show prematurely and of her own accord following weeks of rejection from fellow, mostly white, male islanders. A similar pattern recurred in season 7 when Black female cast members endured repeated declarations that their potential suitors ‘preferred blondes’ - an epitome of beauty that endorses racist aesthetics. As bell hooks puts it “within white supremacist culture, a female must be white to occupy the space of sacred femininity, and she must also be blond”. Former Irish contestant Yewande Biala explains the impact this had on her like this,
“I personally struggled a lot because every man who came into the villa said their type was ‘blonde hair and blue eyes, I just sat there like, 'obviously I missed the memo because I’m not blonde and I definitely won’t have blue eyes.' It was a struggle and I cried so much.”
Black female contestants have also run into micro-aggressive difficulties with other contestants. Yewande describes how Lucie Donlan repeatedly mispronounced her name claiming it was "too difficult". Things aren’t quite so pronounced for Black male contestants with Danielle Dash explaining, "white society has not been trained to see black women as attractive in the ways we have been taught to see black men or mixed-race men and women".
If homophobia, body-shaming and racism aren’t reason enough to switch off, there’s the persistent division of female contestants along that ever present Madonna-whore complex. Take how Kem Cetinay (season 3, winner) singled out some women as people he could ‘take home to meet his mum’. Or how paramedic Paige Thorne (season 8) was persistently described as ‘wifey material’ for her seemingly passive demeanour. At the other end of the spectrum there are repeated criticisms of women for innocuous actions that pale in comparison to much of what their male counterparts get up to. This ‘slut shaming’ has leaked beyond the show. In 2016 Zara Holland (season 2) was de-crowned as Miss GB for having an intimate relationship with Alex Bowen. In 2022, the spinoff show 'Love Island Aftersun' allowed a regular contributor Darren Harriott to disrespectfully admonish innocent behaviour by eventual winner Ekin-Su in a most derogatory tone. His sexually explicit comment, encouraged by the show’s host Laura Whitmore, sparked almost 500 complaints to TV watchdog Ofcom (one of which came from me). Alicia Denby sums things up neatly when she writes,
"the stigmatization of sex-positive women in Love Island demonstrates the existence of a sexual double standard wherein male contestants are celebrated for their sexual prowess, while female contestants are shamed and deemed unruly, by virtue of their sexual dominance."
Amongst all of the important topics raised by Love Island, the one most talked about is the show’s ongoing tolerance of gender-based emotional abuse – abuse that has been so extreme, Women’s Aid UK have issued statements about gaslighting, manipulative, and controlling behaviours by some men in 2018, 2021, and 2022. The regularity of these statements, alongside promises by producers that they will tidy things up, are now a predictable part of the show that viewers are adept at homing into. Women’s Aid UK’s most recent statement was in part because of "being tagged into a stream of Twitter posts, with viewers highlighting the misogyny and controlling behaviour being shown on screen". When season eight's ‘Snog, Marry, Pie’ challenge led to over 1,500 Ofcom complaints alleging misogyny, the UK charity Refuge stated publicly that it was “increasingly concerned about the misogynistic and abusive behaviours being displayed".
There have also been complains about abusive behaviour by female contestants most infamously an angry outburst by Faye Winters (season 7) which resulted in a record nearly 24,000 Ofcom complaints (again including one by me!).
An ongoing discussion-point surrounding most reality TV shows is whether they create or merely reflect much wider, deep-rooted social problems. Love Island doesn’t create sexism, misogyny, ableism and racism and these aren't simply individual traits held by bad people. The reality is that these 'isms' are stitched into the fabric of society permeating our education, health, welfare, justice and media institutions. These systems are extremely powerful socialising agents that ultimately determine what each of us can achieve in society. The discriminations created aren’t independent of each other rather they are intersectional meaning they interlock and feed off each other. Black women fare worse in the villa because they have to deal with the compounding impacts of sexism and racism. In fact the beauty writer Sheilla Mamona is amongst those to argue Love Island does Black women a favour by not casting them, supposedly saving them the humiliation of competing amidst “a western society [that] often idolises Eurocentric beauty ideals above all”.
This doesn’t mean that we don't have some agency and that people shouldn’t challenge bad behaviour just as Rosie Williams did (season 4) when she gathered the Islanders around so they could witness her call out Adam Collard for playing women off each other.
Reasons to 'twist'
One reason to stop watching is because it is not enough to leave it to Islanders to address each others actions rather the long-term solution to inequality means changing the structures that organise the way we live, even when we are locked away in a sun-baked villa. This involves turning our gaze towards the dominant cultures within mainstream television; a for-profit domain which occupies a dwindling but nonetheless dominant position in popular culture.
Islanders don't emphasise heterosexuality on their own. There are editing decisions that reinforce this. Take Sharone Gaffka’s claim that her discussions about bisexuality and the challenges of mixed-race dating were left on the cutting room floor (season 7), or season four finalist Megan Barton-Hanson's claim her application was initially rejected when she identified as bisexual then embraced when she played it straight. There are also persistent claims that certain Islanders are given favourable edits to improve their chances of winning. Producers have also been accused of optimising middle-class, reasonable control in white women whilst deliberately portraying Black women as angry.
There are other, often serious accusations about how the shows makers have acted in a way that detrimentally impacts contestant well-being. Rachel Finni, Love Island’s first Black ‘bombshell’, has accused producers of “playing her” so they could stave off real-time criticism about a lack of diversity. She explains how she was suddenly introduced to the villa, then immediately put into an unenviable predicament when she was forced to choose between Brad and Chuggs (both white) who clearly weren’t interested in anything outside the blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty standard discussed earlier. Rachel explains,
"I don’t ever want to come across as if I’m bitter but … don’t put me in a show where you make it uncomfortable for people to say ‘I like dark hair, I like dark features’ … I got told by people that work at ITV, that I got put in at that time because there was so much backlash for lack of diversity. Bear in mind these people know what my type is, they know what Brad and Chuggs type is, but they gave me that entrance because they thought, ‘okay this is going to shut people up’, they were just ticking boxes. They had someone who was disabled, tick, someone who was from the NHS, tick, two people who were Asian, tick. They only care about ticking boxes.”
She chose Brad, who promptly rejected her for another, 'blonder', new arrival. Rachel stayed just eleven days and never managed to make a meaningfully connection with another contestant. It seems clear that the producer's efforts to respond to critics lacked any concerted effort to truly address deep-seated racism.
There have been other examples of real-time neglect from a show that interferes with almost every other aspect of Islander’s lives. Take their failure to respond to live statements by domestic charity organisations about behaviours the affects of which are notoriously difficult to articulate when you are in the thick of it. Promises to 'do more' doesn't help the contestant who is actively kept in harm's way. For example, although Jacques O'Neill (season 8) did eventually leave the villa, this was a full two weeks after he labelled Paige Thorne "pathetic" when she attempted to express her feelings. His abusive actions let to numerous Ofcom complaints but no immediate action by producers.
As Orlaith Condon, creator and host of the podcast My Pod on Paper, put it,
“We all learned about gaslighting on Love Island some four or five years ago, many of us for the first time and we have been calling it out in many different scenarios and varying levels of intensity since then, this is not a new issue, we’ve seen it every year…We are seeing behaviours here, constantly throughout the whole series, in the same kinds of situations all the time and we are seeing no acknowledgement of the wrongdoing at all, and that to me is just infuriating to watch.”
Love Island has also come up against criticism for inadequate post-show supports. To date there have been three suicides associated with the show: ex-Islanders Sophie Grandon (season 2) and Mike Thalassitis (season 3); and former host Caroline Flack with their deaths reportedly leading to improvements in the type and duration of supports ex-Islanders receive. Other reality TV shows have also been associated with suicides including the death of a contestant who failed a lie detector test on The Jeremy Kyle Show. Love Island promptly dumped that aspect of their show in response.
Although the reasons behind any suicide are likely complex, Sophie’s death has been linked to post show struggles in coming to terms with being catapulted from obscurity to high levels of media attention. Her boyfriend Aaron Armstrong also died by suicide soon after her death. It has also been reported that Mike Thalassitis had financial problems, an important consideration given repeated implications that Islanders can make millions once they leave. The reality is that this only happens for a select few. For every Molly Mae, who is estimated to be worth £6 million, there are hundreds of Islanders who earn little more than the c£250 a week they are paid whilst participating in the show. There can also be a financial cost to Islanders. For example, Jade Aflick (season 6) reportedly spent £3,500 getting aesthetically ready for a show she lasted just three days in.
Making money may be hit-and-miss for contestants but we should never forget that it is the ultimate aim of the television corporation. One of its most successful financial endeavours has been a toxic relationship with a fast-fashion industry that manufactures cheap, on-trend clothing that are designed to be snapped up at the height of their popularity, then discarded soon afterwards. Love Island doesn't simply buy fast-fashion, it drives the industry forward. It has even enabled interactive sales whilst the show airs. In 2020 the underwhelming winter show delivered huge profits for I Saw It First who ran the Love Island look instantaneous campaign.
The increase in sales the show generates is unprecedented. When Dani Dyer (season 4, winner) donned a stylish crochet dress by the brand Misguided sales soured by 9,300 percent. Not to be outdone, competitor Boohoo made three out of four female finalists from season five their brand ambassadors. In return, these women: Molly Mae Hague, Maura Higgins and India Reynolds, push sales of their disposable clothing to millions of Instagram followers.
Fast-fashion causes significant damage to the planet. When Dani Dyer-esque dresses were discarded, many of them likely ended up in the ever expanding clothes mountains that have become a permanent feature of some poorer countries most of which are in West Africa and particularly Ghana.
The fast-fashion industry is also guilty of exploiting its mostly female workforce. The terms and conditions of employment for some of the industry's lowest paid workers was starkly revealed to the world in 2013 when the Rana Plaza in Dhaka collapsed killing 1,132 garment workers, many of who had asked to leave in the days leading up to the collapse because they feared for their safety. In the UK, a factory owned by the Boohoo Group were recently exposed as paying workers £3-4 pounds per hour.
Several ex-Islanders to leave the villa in 2022 cashed in on opportunities offered by these companies. Gemma Owen has signed a six-figure deal with PTL (which is owned by BooHoo). Ekin-Su Cülcüloğlu signed a £1million deal with US fashion brand Oh Polly. Click on their website and you'll find evening wear for a tenner. It's not only female contestants that profit. Davide Sanclimenti is set to follow in the footsteps of Tommy Fury (season 5, runner up) with a lucrative deal with BooHoo Man.
Reasons to 'stick'
One reason to stick is its potential to be what Jessica Bateman describes as “the best educational tool we have right now about healthy and unhealthy relationships. Hands down”. I get where she is coming from. More people will have learned about feminism from a different Camilla (Thurlow, season 3) than from me when she explained to Johnny why we still need feminism; a clip that has been watched nearly 650,000 times on YouTube.
We need all the educational tools we can get given how dreadful the Irish sex education curriculum is. There is practically no focus on consent, scant, if any attention to the commercialisation of erotica, and an ongoing exclusion of people whose genders and sexualities fall outside of hetero-norms. I can definitely imagine the usefulness of a problem-posing approach that could deconstruct excerpts in well-managed, participatory learning spaces.
Some popular culture content creators have filled a gap by creating educational materials themselves. For example, in 2022, the podcast My Pod on Paper broadcast a bonus episode with Women’s Aid Ireland’s too into you campaign which educates mostly young women about intimate relationship abuse.
Some Islanders also use their platform positively and with an educational dimension. Take Dr Alex George (season 4), who entered the show with just 280 Instagram followers, then left with over one million. Alex did initially embrace monitory opportunities by signing ambassador deals with car and TV companies. However, he returned to medicine during the pandemic and worked in the frontline despite being one of the most followed doctors on the internet. In an interview with Pandora Skyes and Sirin Kale, Alex explains how rather that plug the many products he could have sponsored, he used his Instagram to post positive mental health messages. He discloses, "I could have made lots of money doing a night club PA [public appearance] and I haven't even done one. Because it’s just not me". And continues,
When the pandemic came along, I felt a real sense of responsibility...it was almost like a moment of like, this is my calling, this was to be my one job - to be a voice to young people. I am now working in a role as youth mental health ambassador, that is my priority. I am aware that I am able to influence in a way that is genuinely meaningful and can help people"
Other ex-Islanders have used their platform to empower people and shine a light on the impacts of discrimination. In 2022, Yewande Biale drew from her experience of racism in the show to write a book called Reclaimed which, amongst other things, explores white privilege, racism, colour-blindness, and black-fishing. Tasha Ghouri (season 8), the shows first Deaf contestant, consistently uses YouTube and Instagram to education people about her "superpower". Her 1.4 million fans have learned about cochlear implants and the challenges of lip-reading. Her partnership with the chocolate maker Cadbury informs people about "the missed moments experienced by the Deaf community", and teaches people simple British Sign Language phrases.
There are also some signs of change regarding fast-fashion and Love Island’s new partnership with e-bay is great news. But this falls short of what is needed given that ex-contestants continue to sign lucrative deals. Some have bucked the trend. Tasha signed a brand deal with e-bay and Indiya Pollack (season 8) is the new ambassador for PLT Marketplace. However, PTL Marketplace has been accused of greenwashing meaning they present a veneer of change whilst nothing substantive is actually altered. E-bay also continues to mostly trade in new goods.
Perhaps next year's show will double down on its newfound eco-values and make fashion deals less appealing overall and not leave this responsibility to ex-Islander Brett Staniland (season 5) who staged a protest outside the launch of one of Molly Mae's fashion lines.
Whether by accident or design, the show does raise important issues that, at the moment, are left to podcasters, fans, past-Islanders, and people like me to analyse. What if producers embraced this role too and not leave it to fans to point out the irony of having a Deaf contestant but no interpreters. Why are clear warnings not given for gender-based and racist abuse? After all, the confessional nature of the beach-hut has all the hallmarks of the Big Brother Chair. The same chair where, in 2015, Ken Morley was formally warned for persistent racist and misogynistic behaviours. He was eventually thrown off the show in part because of 200 Ofcom complaints, a mere fraction of the 2,000 complains about the bullying Tasha endured. Other reality dating shows have embraced this opportunity to name and shame. 'Married at First Sight Australia' (a show that is far from perfect) have called out toxic masculinity by contestants a number of times. In this clip they publicly admonish one 'groom' for “classic stereotypical gaslighting behaviour”.
Opportunities to do things differently are endless and would allow fans like me to focus on the fun stuff.
Will I stick? Probably. What about you?
If you think you are in an abusive relationship and don't know where to turn, contact Women's Aid at 1800 341 900 or text 087 959 7980.
Dr Camilla Fitzsimons is an Associate Professor in Adult and Community Education at Maynooth University. My academic profile explains my interest in education in non-traditional spaces.
References  Porter, J., & Standing, K. (2020). Love Island and Relationship Education. Frontiers in Sociology. doi:https://doi.org/10.3389/fsoc.2019.00079. p. 7.  hooks, b. (1994) Outlaw Culture. London and New York: Routledge p 19.  Shadijanova, D. (2021, June 29). How shows like Love Island highlight racism in dating. Cosmopolitan. Retrieved August 31, 2022, from https://www.cosmopolitan.com/uk/reports/a30564608/racism-love-island.  Denby, A. (2021). Toxicity and Femininity in Love Island: How Reality Dating Shows Perpetuate Sexist Attitudes Towards Women. Frontiers in Sociology. Retrieved September 1, 2022, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsoc.2021.641216/full. p. 1  Cossey, O., & Martin, J. (2021). Women, anger and emotion management in Love Island. Feminist Media Studies. doi: 10.1080/14680777.2021.1980081.  Love Island interview with Rachel Finni, The Murat Merali podcast, episode 64, 'https://open.spotify.com/episode/1o1qMnatZfMYuKb12HM0gO?si=195cf9d3b56643dc  My Pod on Paper, season S4. Ep31, Monday 18 July. 2022 https://open.spotify.com/episode/31xqLUpq22lYbHJ4xENFxy?si=ad216864ae1d4db0  ‘A format in Crisis, the future of reality TV’ Unreal, a critical history of Reality TV, part 2, podcast episode 10. https://open.spotify.com/episode/784sKUAYSsB1O7nTohk7pf?si=4d1c3c82c9064828  'The Influencer Sausage Factory' Love Island Part 1. Unreal, a critical history of reality TV podcast, episode 9. https://open.spotify.com/episode/2xeOEMonOJ97yqy8MP2asc?si=68b2f3727cff4e65  She discusses her book in detail on the Murad Merali podcast, episode 66. https://open.spotify.com/episode/44RzVdVtTKtiz2f1EChub8?si=d30733a48ee940cf