Don’t look to Love Island for life lessons

Occasional act of assertiveness by a female contestant cannot belie all the self-regard, exterior personalities, sexual predation, bed-hopping and exclusion

Love Island's Maura Higgins shuts down fellow contestant Tom Walker after over hearing comments he made about her. Video: Virgin Media

 

In case you missed it, the past week saw a Longford woman soar in the British television ratings. Following a robust exchange on ITV’s Love Island, model and “ring girl” Maura Higgins, was crowned queen of Ireland by some influential folk on social and print media for reasons non-viewers might struggle to understand.

The 28-year-old told Tom, an idiot boy, to f**k off for making belittling sexual assumptions about her. The message was that just because she was sexually upfront in her language did not mean she was anybody’s.

On her first night in residence, Maura marked her territory by declaring that one of the lads there gave her the “fanny flutters” and she was specific about what she would like him to do to her. That lad was not Tom of course; that would have been far too premature in the plot. But the surprising aspect of the “f**k off” encounter that saw her dubbed queen of Ireland and feminist icon was that her response was so surprising to so many.

This is Love Island, where nothing is real and where the producers are not into the grubby or salacious, they say. Or as a commissioning editor once put it, they were “more interested in the story of the couple who have chosen to take their relationship to the next level”. Which is sweet.

So naturally it begins just as your average relationship begins : in one big communal room of double beds to accommodate 19 improbably sleek, expensively chiselled, mainly interchangeable bodies clothed in scraps of swimwear, all thrown into a claustrophobically artificial intimacy for two months under 24-hour camera surveillance, producing industrial quantities of idleness, smooching, sexual innuendo, sex (real or pretend, who knows), psychodrama (real or pretend), cheating and back-stabbing, all performed with an eye to screen-time.

The Tom-Maura showdown kicked off when the pair were offered a night in a private bedroom, a set-up which idiot Tom and his mates seemed to equate with sexual availability. Since the show is built around bodies, beds and sex with a formula precisely designed to provoke scheming, double-dealing and multiple coupling, it’s all in the eye of the idiot beholder.

In real life, since the dawn of time, from the teen disco to properly threatening settings, girls have been telling lads to f**k off or something similar for making demeaning assumptions about them or for drawing inferences from their language, dress or behaviour. But Love Island defines superficiality. The play is predicable. It would have been downright negligent for any 28-year-old to enter this wholly contrived, sex-soaked arena without a battery of verbal insect-repellents of the kind Maura sprayed on Tom.

The problem here is not the show itself , which entertains millions nightly. The problem is the notion that the Love Island set-up – a show with calculating poseurs in its essence – can also function as some kind of educational tool on feminism or the nature of sex and human relationships.

Integral to the drama is the regular “re-coupling” and formation of new “relationships” with new contestants who arrive as the series progresses, rendering any normal relationship development even less likely. Contestants know that a drama-free relationship formed early on – ostensibly the object of the exercise – is highly unlikely to win priceless screen-time and therefore the £50,000 jackpot, so the idea is to game the partners most likely to help you triumph. All’s fair in love and war, clothing lines, sponsorship deals and all that.

And to help settle them into that sweet “next level” vibe, the boys get to vote a girl off the island regularly and the girls get to do the same to a boy. Such humiliating exclusions with lucrative audience participation is a reliable old convention for reality shows by now and amps up the drama but the idea that any participant in such a set-up could be elevated to some kind of feminist icon is a mighty leap.

Of course, some of the purest entertainment comes in the form of trashy television, with no requirement to be worthy or educational. But it’s worth remembering that the core viewership for Love Island is 15- to 24-year-olds. If grown-ups are suggesting that feminist icons are being carved out of it, then it requires a different kind of analysis. A show that revolves around looks, self-regard, exterior personalities, sexual predation, bed-hopping and exclusion on several levels, is hardly a commendable template for young girls or boys, regardless of the occasional act of assertiveness by a contestant.

Sure, that age group is going to soak it up anyway, many with their “hooked” parents. Better with them than without them. But let’s not pretend Love Island is the key to enlightenment or anything else.

Anyway, go Longford.

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