By Victoria White
I have been watching a lot of “Love Island” lately. For those unfamiliar with the reality dating show, the basic premise is that a group of single people are sent to a gorgeous, remote island villa and must couple up with each other, or else they are voted off the show.
The best (or rather, the most believable) couples have a chance of winning a grand cash prize at the end of two months.
Like other reality shows, it is highly problematic while also being very addicting and entertaining.
“Love Island” and its international spin-offs differ from other reality dating shows in that they forgo the standard weekly episodic format and instead produce daily episodes. This provides more of an inside look into the daily actions of the contestants, but also invites viewers to develop more of a parasocial relationship with the individuals on screen.
Parasocial relationships are one-sided, often between celebrities and their fans.
In the case of “Love Island,” contestants are prohibited from social media use and cannot interact with fans (or detractors) during their time on the show. The casual environment and constant surveillance leaves viewers feeling like they know the contestants, while the contestants themselves are isolated from the outside world.
The show has come under serious fire in the last few years for various controversies.
Tragically, three individuals previously involved with the show have lost their lives due to battles with mental health. Former contestants Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis and former host Caroline Flack committed suicide following their respective stints on the show, causing an uproar in demands for the show’s cancellation.
Prior to these incidents, the show did not prioritize the mental health of its contestants. Since then, the show has employed clinical psychologists to support contestants during their tenure on the show and a year beyond.
But is this enough?
For a show that relies on prefabricated drama and capturing the fallout, the therapy essentially serves the purpose of putting on a helmet after getting in a bike accident.
“Love Island” season five winner Amber Gill received a great deal of hatred during her time on the show, though it was unbeknownst to her until she was done with the show.
“Whilst I was in there, what my family had to deal with was a lot,” Gill said.
Gill was not the first, nor has she been the last, contestant to receive an intense level of hatred and even death threats.
Not only are contestants harshly scrutinized on social media, but many are also subject to manipulative editing by the show.
This is done to purposely mislead viewers by altering footage or placing scenarios out of context in order to negatively portray a contestant and push a certain narrative. This is not a new phenomenon, as manipulative editing is used in practically every reality television show, from “Hell’s Kitchen” to “Survivor.”
A key difference between those shows and “Love Island,” particularly the original UK version, is the heightened social media weight “Love Island” carries. Contestants often come out of the show as guaranteed influencers, garnering a substantial number of followers during their time on the show.
Season eight winner Ekin-Su Cülcüloğlu gained one million Instagram followers while on the show and has since surpassed three million followers. Cülcüloğlu was also one of the most heavily scrutinized contestants of that season. After entering the villa a few episodes in, she immediately stirred up trouble as she had her eye on men already coupled up with other women.
As often occurs when female “bombshells” are injected into the mix for the purpose of stirring up drama and causing strain among settled couples, Cülcüloğlu was ultimately villainized for acting in line with her job.
Refinery29’s Charlotte Colombo considers the show’s editing choices and treatment of women to often be misogynistic.
“The ‘good girl/bad girl’ dichotomy especially is intended to spark critical conversations about women because, quite simply, it’s an easy way to drive up views, discourse and headlines,” Colombo said. “We can act like we’re above it all but slut-shaming sells and we’re all complicit in engaging with it, whether intentionally or not.”
The fact is most of the time viewers are unaware of the manipulation to which they are being subjected. The show is first and foremost designed to entertain, and it is certainly thoroughly entertaining.
The contestants feel real, and as a viewer you get to rally behind them to find ‘the one’ and maybe even revel in their joy with them as they begin to fall for someone. Alternatively, those portrayed as villains provide someone to root against and relish their moments of defeat. The moments of tension are intoxicating, with each episode ending on a cliffhanger to guarantee your return. The crux of “Love Island” is not inherently evil, but a show with this much of a following needs to do better for its contestants and viewers alike.