Stuck On Love Island

Annaleese Jochems on why, after so many seasons of sadism and superficiality, Love Island is still her favourite show.

As the current UK season of Love Island comes to a close, news broke recently that the much-hyped NZ edition has been canned, and many Kiwis are dismayed. Duncan Greive described it as a parable for the state of New Zealand’s media. Annaleese Jochems is just genuinely sad. Why, after so many seasons of sadism and superficiality, is Love Island still her favourite show?

Last year on Love Island UK, Eyal tried to tell his partner Hayley that the show was a game and it couldn’t be held against anyone if they behaved competitively. Hayley asked if he was playing a game, and he said no. It’s not a game then, she said. But it definitively was, and Eyal became upset at the implication that by considering it to be one, he wasn’t playing fairly.

It’s never said explicitly, but Love Island is a competition to fall the most in love. Five sets of men and women pair up, and new contestants are regularly introduced to destabilise existing pairs. Unpaired contestants are left vulnerable to elimination throughout, and in the end the public vote for their favourite couple. This is a perfect formula, at least in theory, because the victors will be the most heartfelt and genuine and the losers will be the people who don’t deserve to win.

Are these feelings authentic? Is it possible to play such a game competitively and fall genuinely in love at the same time?

The show consists almost entirely of conversation. Contestants discuss how they’re feeling, regurgitate reports on how others are feeling and rehearse important conversations in groups before having them alone with the relevant parties. They speak in stock phrases and are often visibly bored. While not scripted, exactly, the scenes are carefully orchestrated by producers. Conversations, even breakups, are often shot multiple times. No one on the island is allowed access to music, outside contact or reading materials. Their only source of meaning is each other. They’re both performers and audience. The source of dramatic fascination for them as well as us is: are these feelings authentic? Beneath that question lies another: is it possible to play such a game competitively and fall genuinely in love at the same time?

These questions aren’t constrained to the current season and its participants: prior contestants have charged this year’s batch with faking feeling; front-runner Tommy Fury’s ex has publicly accused him of being an abuser and a careerist; and on a different plane of commentary entirely, previous participants have spoken in the media about the producers’ manipulation, cruelty and lack of after-care. But all of these developments are natural extensions of the game. Business is good; viewership is up 10% from last year. Remorseful public statements were issued after this year’s bout of criticism, but the show’s voiceover has continued its routine of joking about small manipulations – waking contestants up early, arranging seating to maximise drama – in a way that implies bigger ones are still taking place off-camera. ‘Don’t worry,’ voice-over guy Ian Stirling tells us, ‘we’re not that bad.’

The show’s narrative voiceover is as vexatious as any laugh track, and achieves a parallel purpose. Slavoj Žižek writes that a sitcom’s laugh track “is relieving us even of our duty to laugh – is laughing instead of us,” and that even while we assume it’s included for someone dumber than we are, it’s working on us. While watching Love Island I feel obliged to be cynical; I assume the mocking voiceover is for someone who naively believes in the show’s reality and is consequently shocked and amused by its irreverence. Meanwhile it satisfies its purpose: it lays the most obvious cards on the table, professing that the whole thing is a stupid, fake, human rodeo – and in doing so leaves me free to weep and over-invest in the show’s trivial developments.

I suspect the bald cruelty and manipulation of the show’s producers has a similar effect on contestants. They may have signed up with pragmatic goals of furthering their careers as models and influencers, but they find themselves in a genuine moral hinterland where it’s necessary to feel for and support each other – i.e. primed to fall in love.

Falling in love once is obviously good game strategy, but for many conditions are ripe to fall for more than one person. On Love Island appearances count, and – here the show becomes grimly reminiscent of ordinary life – the newest arrivals, insofar as they’re only known by their superficial characteristics, are seductive to older islanders who have spent many uneventful hours with their partners by the pool eating toasties and gaining weight.

The third wheels are made to squeak. Episodes are punctuated with close-ups of competitors in bed with one other, and in bed alone. These lingering night-cam shots are intoxicating, maybe because in many of them the contestants are unconscious, and so uniquely unconscious of being watched – but also because of the sadism of such images being taken at all. Here’s where the reality of the show departs from it’s idealistic formula; where it becomes ironic: Almost every participant will prove too malleable, to passionate, too vulnerable to perform genuine love in a convincing way, to win.

The incessant arrival of new, alternative bed-partners means that competitors are obliged to repeatedly re-assess and re-state their feelings for one another, and each statement becomes a sort of climax. At re-coupling ceremonies the relief of being picked to remain in the competition bleeds into each contestant’s joy at who in particular has picked them. With Micheal and Jordan we’ve seen the inverse of this phenomenon: their affection for their partners has diminished as they’ve lost proximity to winning the £50k and the love of the public.

To be exposed for such fickleness of feeling is to be infantilised. Michael the fireman, with his sparkling eyes and ardent inability to express himself with any consistency whatsoever, is a prime example. He has all the self-importance and (feigned) helplessness of a toddler, swelling with heroism at each pronouncement of his desires, and – towards the end of the season – at the magnificent height of the obstacles to attainment (which are largely self-created: he’s treated both objects of his affection with selfishness and dishonesty, so they despise him). Watching him we understand how the satisfaction of declared feeling can be indistinguishable from feeling itself.

People who don’t enjoy reality TV think fans watch out of sadism and superficiality – and they’re right, that’s how we’re drawn in. But that doesn’t explain why I keep watching.

Love Island is a game of announced emotion, like BDSM. The contestants are never at a loss for what to say because the conditions of their speech are pre-negotiated. No one who’s read Story of O will disagree that such games can be monotonous and boring – and I think Love Island’s fans will admit the same – but the boredom of the actors and even of the audience is immaterial, because after a point the game is about more than entertainment.

People who don’t enjoy reality TV think fans watch out of sadism and superficiality – and they’re right, that’s how we’re drawn in. But that doesn’t explain why I keep watching long after the monotony of Love Island has started to bore me. I continue because each event and each participant have places within a structure and I get to be on the outside looking in. This game is being played for my benefit. My position gives me a sense of power, and validates my deepest and most shameful cynicisms, yes – but more than that it gives me a perception of order and meaning. I’m not the girl being made a fool of, or the boy who’s too stupid to understand his own feelings; instead, from my position each event appears inevitable, even if I didn’t actually see it coming. I watch calmly, whether or not I am shocked, and even while I cry.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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