Reality television has a tendency to become all-encompassing. Whether through demonstration of talent (The X Factor, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Project Runway), the close observation of an isolated group (I’m a Celebrity, Big Brother) or semi-scripted personality-driven chaos (The Only Way is Essex, Made in Chelsea), this brand of entertainment asks for very little from its audience, while delivering a uniquely involved experience. ITV2’s Love Island is no different. The concept of the show is fairly simple: throw a group of young adults into a Spanish villa, instruct them to couple up, arrange some drama here and there, and the hoards of viewers will tune in nightly, becoming increasingly obsessed with the grafting, bitching, crying and scheming that naturally occurs once straight people are encouraged to find a partner. At the heart of the show, however, is a genuine charm that’s rarely found in reality shows, and a secure knowledge of an audience that has brought this controversial title its fame.
Any fan of Love Island knows that the daily hour spent watching the Islanders’ antics is only the tip of the iceberg. Memes, hashtags, and viciously opinionated factions explode across the internet, providing ample content with which to pass the time between episodes, or even during ad breaks. The producers encourage this interaction, with the Love Island Twitter and Instagram accounts updating frequently to note key developments, and the voting portion of the show being entirely based within a downloadable app. The essence of experiencing this immensely popular show relies on a shared viewing event – even if the people you are sharing it with are situated miles away.
This year’s series has provided more than its fair share of iconic moments. When misplaced doctor Alex George tripped over a step and sent his plastic baby flying, the resulting image spread across the internet, becoming an instant reaction photo for many a situation (see Exhibit A below). The constant declarations of loyalty by one-time fan favourite Georgia Steele rapidly became a punchline for both supporters and retractors – “I’m loyal babes, that’s just me,” she declared frequently, and the audience response was akin to that of a gently mocking friend. But perhaps the best addition to the roster of Love Island memes was the formation of the Do Bits Society (more commonly known as the DBS), an exclusive group that an individual may only gain access to if said individual has “done bits” – that is, sex-but-not-quite-sex. This rapport between the boys, in particular, received thousands of tweets worth of appreciation, as their laddish humour entertained audiences for eight whole weeks.
Not all audience participation has been positive, however, and not all elements of a social phenomenon lead to solidarity. “Fiat 500 twitter”, an insulting moniker intended to describe the populist masses who talk only of boyfriends, Chinese takeaway and make-up, has been frequently weaponised when examining the state of the fanbase. The reason Kaz & Josh are in the bottom two most popular couples? Fiat 500 twitter. The completely unnecessary hatred of Samira? Fiat 500 twitter. Sauceless Doctor Alex somehow making it to the final five? Definitely the fault of Fiat 500 twitter. This arrangement of fans into one faction or another stimulates genuine debate and petty infighting alike – and while many of these discussions may descend into the very bitching that the Islanders themselves partake in, even negative interaction creates passionate opinion. Ultimately, viewers find themselves increasingly embroiled within, not only the drama of the island itself, but within the drama of an audience that takes each point of argument so very seriously.
And here is the crux of Love Island’s brilliance – this is a show which generates an unexpected platform for social issues that directly affect an audience who may not otherwise vocalise such worries. Between sex work, emotional abuse and ageism, Love Island has covered a variety of topics and opened a casual space for these often taboo issues to be discussed. Young people who may be unaware of the threat of emotional manipulation are here provided an opportunity to recognise the signs of such behaviour through examination of islander Adam Collard’s appalling treatment of women. Ex-stripper Megan Barton-Hanson has openly discussed her issues with self-esteem particularly in relation to her past career; her boyfriend, Wes Nelson, has declared multiple times that he respects these choices, and feels no shame in introducing Megan to his parents when they return home. The eldest of the female contestants this year, Laura Anderson, has battled her way through two break-ups, several falling outs with friends and a self-aware set of insecurities regarding relationships. At the age of 29, she seeks a husband to settle down with, and the response to this desire both on and off-screen has sparked a thousand conversations surrounding ageism.
For an audience that is so often insulted for a lack of social awareness, the target viewership of Love Island – that is, young women – entangle themselves in these debates whenever they sit down for their nightly catch-up on the Islander’s lives. Whether through the consideration of Megan’s struggles to combat misogyny, or empathy with Laura as she continues to do right by her friends, fans find their previous ideals changed, purely through the observation of these people in (almost) real time. The encouragement of debate outside of the programme itself additionally provides for an extra space in which to examine the prejudices of the producers; this is not an audience that will blindly accept all decisions. One example of this can be found in Samira Mighty, a charismatically awkward West-End performer and this year’s only black female contestant. After a complete lack of romantic attention for weeks on end – despite her good looks, impressive talent and great sense of humour – Samira finally paired up with Frankie Foster. Their relationship, however, was portrayed as entirely one-sided by the producers, leading to audience confusion at Samira’s tears when Frankie was voted off the island. It emerged not long after this that Samira had actually shared a night with Frankie in the villa’s secluded hideaway, and that their relationship had been mutually close – something which the producers had cut almost entirely from the main show footage.
The response to this was mixed; while one half of the fanbase couldn’t stand Samira in the first place (a mass opinion largely racially motivated), many were outraged, and cited this biased use of editing as one of the reasons for Samira’s comparative unpopularity. In an environment where systemic racism is not often taken seriously, many viewers were forced to face up to their own inherent bias and the realities of racial prejudice within television. While not all will have changed their stance, the issue has nonetheless been brought to light, and a serious, necessary conversation has been sparked from something as seemingly innocuous as a reality television series.
As Love Island wraps up for yet another year, there is no doubt that the mocking of its popularity will continue on. The falseness of the show is something that even voiceover Iain Stirling incorporates into his daily jokes – Love Island is nothing if not self-aware of the shallowness of its premise. Nonetheless, many outside observers present their criticism with a patronising bite, believing there to be no merit at all to television that caters purely to a younger generation. “Finally,” says the elitist who is bored of young women enjoying themselves, “now we can talk about things that matter.” Little do they know – or care – that the light chatter they wish to silence is vitally interwoven with some of the most important social considerations of our time.