Ah, Love Island, that place on TV of extremes where the bodies and emotions are ripped, tans are as compulsory as teeth whitener, and make-outs, make-ups and break-ups are a nightly event. Now it has finished and we have a pair of winners with a new roadshow of media appearances and product endorsements. So why has it been so popular and so compulsive viewing? Does it speak for our Brexit Britain as much as the glamorous contestants even if they don’t know what Brexit is – or does deforestation Hayley? Is it idle/idyll escapism to an island paradise or is it simply degrading soft porn as Father Alexander Lucie-Smith suggested in The Catholic Herald?
Brexit Britain but only in Majorca; the UK’s tawdy answer to the US’s already tawdry The Bachelor/The Bachelorette: writing in the New Statesman, Anoosh Chakelian is shocked by the conservative nature of the partnering going on on Love Island. Forget the quartering and hanging out to dry, what is significant for her is the conservative pro-marriage desperation to lock down a partner, to go steady with ‘wife material’ evinced by the contestants of real-life. This is a right wing moral panic that would have made sociologists Erich Goode and Ben-Yehuda proud. As a social anthropologist at Roehampton working on islands and managing island life, this TV Tory Island expedition makes for interesting TV as it shifts the meaning of ‘talent show’ (from Opportunity Knocks, to I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here, to Big Brother, to Geordie Shore, to Ex On The Beach, to Love Island as a luxury relationship version of Survivor).
But have we really moved far from the fantastical imagary of islands and island life as personified through the now more straight forward Robinson Crusoe story and Cast Away reboot, by way of The Adventures of Swiss Family Robinson and Lost? Are these islands fragments of a colonial imagination with now just an eroded sense of empire of BOTs dotted around the globe from Montserrat to the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar to the Pitcairn Islands? Next week, Charlie Hunnam – of Sons of Anarchy fame – will be shown struggling to survive on the penal colony Devil’s Island, French Guiana, in a remake of the 1973 biographic film Papillon. Or does it all go back to The Tempest: ‘Thou strok’st me and made much of me’ sayeth not Caliban but Meghan of Harry – and no, not the Merry new Wife of Windsor one! Quentin Letts of The Daily Mail sees Love Island as a Shakespearean Big Brother in the Balearics with all its ‘tawdry human theatre’, fumblings and Carry Ons.
Love Island may be a constructed and carefully shaped TV show with make ups and break-ups, accusations of fakery – relations as well as the date’s backdrop – but it has gripped the nation with its sunny escapism. This is a steamy Bronte-buster for the Millennial. And far from being ‘apocalyptic megasexist bullshit’, it has become the watercooler conversation point for journalist Amelia Taitt. Indeed, writing also in the New Statesman, she describes us as becoming ‘a nation of armchair anthropologists’. Never mind that that is typically a criticism for us in the business, Taitt recognises that the show is about boundaries: their maintenance and their transgression by the viewers just as much as the contestants. Put a group of people with a similar background in an intense environment, in a liminal sunny space away from home, and the sacred holyday time becomes sacrilegious time of sexcess – more Sun, Sex and [voyeuristic camera and narrator as] Suspicious Parents. Stuck at home, the holiday house becomes a projection of our woes for critics, aspirational for its followers and entertaining for the remainer non-tourists. Love Love Island even if you hate what’s happening back home in Blighty?
Jonathan Skinner is a social anthropologist at the University of Roehampton. He is editor of Writing the Dark Side of Travel and co-editor of Great Expectations: Imagination and Anticipation in Tourism.