I was about to draw the blinds last week in case my posh neighbours saw me watching ITV’s annual summer ratings hit, when I saw that they too were watching it. I left the blinds open and settled down to watch my guilty pleasure, vindicated.
As a therapist specialising in groups, I’ve always had a fascination with certain reality shows – Big Brother, Shipwrecked etc. Beyond the voyeurism and vacuity these shows are the compelling human equivalent of nature documentaries, albeit offering up a very narrow subset of society: the young and the beautiful. Sure, these shows have become more scripted, more cynical and way more fixated on looks, but it’s the authentic moments that keep us hooked: the persistent good-guy thawing the heart of the formerly broken-hearted ice-queen or the previously unchallenged, arrogant player getting his comeuppance. Yes it’s a game, confected and manipulative, but some things can’t be faked and the result is as addictive as sugar.
For a show ostensibly about sex, there is remarkable little of it. Instead it focuses on group dynamics, friendships, competition and vulnerability. People tune in for the nubile bodies and sexual banter, but they stay for the soap opera of attachments forged and broken.
Love Island is often derided as trash TV and blamed for an increase in the prevalence of poor mental heath among young people (more on that later) but I argue that there are more layers to this show that it firsts appears and, don’t shoot me, that Love Island is in fact educational.
The show has done more for teaching young people about the unwritten rules and pitfalls of dating than any PSHE lesson could. From the cruelty of gas-lighting (last year’s Adam), the impact of low self-esteem (Yewande) and the power of loyalty (er, Georgia?), to spotting authenticity, understanding your impact on other people and asking for help, Love Island is not only (bronzed) skin-deep. After five series’ we all know that winning this show is not about how you look, but your personality: authenticity and likability – not a bad lesson. Parents need to exercise caution, clearly it’s not for the very young, but for adolescents it’s a far better teacher than sex education via pornography on a smart phone.
There is also something reassuring about seeing these super confident young people such as Anton, now small fish in a big pond and likely so used to adulation on a night out in their hometowns, face hot competition or even rejection when an even more impossibly good looking rival enters the villa to stir things up. It humanises them, teaching them a valuable lesson in humility and perhaps instilling some empathy for future interactions.
The romances are full of intrigue and drama (Lucy and Joe anyone?), but it’s the same-sex relationships that offer some of the greatest and uplifting moments of genuine affection on Love Island. Less of a surprise are the friendships that blossom between the women which are often a beautiful thing (to counter some of the bitching and backstabbing). But seeing these masculine, modern men open up to their friends about matters of the heart with endless hugs, reassuring pats and even kisses without self-consciousness (and barely a ‘no homo’ to be heard) is joyous. Without realising, they are teaching a new generation of boys that talking about emotions and treating women well is in – today’s modern man can be sensitive, articulate and respectful.
And what about Maura?! Proving that a woman can be as sexually liberated as the horniest man but woe betide anyone who mistakes this liberation for ‘easy’ – Tom felt the full force of her articulate rage.
Okay, we do need to talk about the dark side of the show: namely the psychological impact that Love Island has on its vulnerable viewers and on the contestants themselves. It sets a dangerous precedent for body image in young people and they must be taught that these people do not represent the norm – they are sculpted, plucked, tanned and trained within an inch of their lives – and it’s a full time job to look so Insta-ready 24/7. But after the first couple of days don’t most of us see past their appearance and see them as just a bunch of young adults trying to navigate the show without too much humiliation, hoping to find love, but mostly to boost their brand once released as this year’s crop of reality stars? The show is, disappointingly, very narrow in its definition of beauty and it definitely needs to up its diversity credentials to include a wider variety of body types and skin tones, to avoid the alienation of some of its viewers.
Then there is also the uncomfortable truth of the suicides of Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon. I don’t think the show is directly to blame for their deaths, but I think by its nature it attracts damaged people, longing for a validation that can never been given. Such people need to be spotted sooner and offered support, not flung into the Horny Hunger Games and then abandoned. These desperately sad deaths have provided a violent jolt for the world of reality TV and gave viewers a peak behind the curtain: even the most attractive, seemingly happy people we see on TV can be suffering beneath that Instagram sheen. I hope that contestants are now given much greater support throughout the whole experience: more thorough assessments, producers who show restraint in goading contestants into emotional situations that they can’t handle, and, perhaps most importantly, solid aftercare. How is a person suddenly thrust into the public domain, becoming a household name for the summer, supposed to deal with being dropped back into obscurity after their brief but brightly-burning star fades and burns out?
These (big) caveats aside, Love Island has plenty to offer many of us through its universality. It’s not the best example for young people, but it’s not the villain that some insist and has a place within popular culture, alongside other, more wholesome, programming. News that there will be an additional winter visit to Love Island based this time in sunny South Africa will no doubt prove wildly popular too. And as long as kids are encouraged to see beyond the superficial and the show pushes its narrow definitions of beauty, injects more diversity and provides better mental health support, I will continue to enjoy my not-so-guilty pleasure with the blinds open.
Mental illness is a result of misery, yet still we stigmatise it