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What Reality TV Tells Us About Life in the UK

Once upon a time, television was a communal affair. People squashed against each other to watch the same thing: first, whole streets, then, whole households, then, whole nations. The 1986 Christmas Day special of soap opera Eastenders was watched by thirty million Britons—a viewership record that will likely never be broken. The majority of the population watched the same show at the same time. Anticipating watching the show, actually watching the show, and then discussing the show defined in part what it meant to be in the culture.

Nowadays, most shows don’t only stand no chance of hitting these figures, they also remain a largely private experience—people watch shows alone, at times of their choosing. Whilethe contemporary reality show Love Island might attract far fewer viewers, it has broken through the individualized experience of TV. But rather than just defining a cultural experience or a cultural moment, Love Island manages to incorporate the discussion of the show—its watercooler moments—into the franchise itself. Its story is one that tells us how British pop culture has changed, in ways we wouldn’t quite expect.

Love Island‘s first series aired in 2005, and the format was repeated the following summer. Twelve single celebrities spent five weeks on an island in Fiji. In 2015, the show returned, this time with non-celebrities and relocated to the less exclusive Mallorca. It was in 2018 that it first really dominated UK summers. In 2019, the second year of its dominance, it has not quite reached Eastenders’ figures. Its most-watched episode, this year’s finale, captured a mere 3.6 million viewers. While these figures pale in comparison to the heights of TV’s cultural hegemony, 57% of everyone 16-34 in the UK tuned in at some point. The nightly hour-long episode is followed by extra content on TV and online, a dedicated app, lively discussions on twitter, fashion brand tie-ins, and an army of thinkpieces. The format has proved particularly successful: there are now Swedish, Australian, and American versions. There are two series planned for next year. What the show lacked in raw viewing figures, it made up for in its proliferation of ways you could engage with it. If you were looking to avoid hearing about the show, you’d be hard-pressed to do so.

The show’s premise is simple: attractive young people are collected into a villa on a Spanish island with nothing to do except look sadly and/or languorously at each other. The contestants are known as ‘islanders’ despite being more or less confined to their luxurious dormitory. Their days of flirting are broken up by games which run the gamut from junior high to bachelorette party and the arrival of presenter Caroline Flack—a woman whose fame and charisma seem to exist primarily in the minds of the show’s producers and whose every on-air action therefore seems to lack the relevant authority—and the central show mechanism of “recoupling,” when their partnerships are made and remade, and after which single islanders are booted off. In the final week, a public vote decides the winning couple.

You might think that a show in which a group of twenty-somethings romance each other on an island would be chock-full of sex. Not so. In fact the show, at least since 2018, has contained an almost impressive lack of the stuff. When desire does fleetingly appear, it reads from a traditional sexual script. Men always want more physically, and women always want more emotionally. Men are the only active sexual agents, pushing things forwards, and women are the gatekeepers of desire—their function is to at least initially, to reject advances. Even the few moments when women do instigate flirting, this, while welcomed by fans at home, is presented on the voiceover as borderline laughable. This season, Maura’s forwardness became the stuff of shock tabloid copy along with a clogged timeline of memes, variously mocking, affirming, and thirsty.

Superficially, Big Brother—first shown in 2000—and Love Island are similar. Both see a small group of people filmed in the same house with housemates/islanders and the public voting out unpopular contestants. Cameras watch housemates/islanders all day and their every word is recorded. In Big Brother, however, contestants were presented as taking part in a social experiment, the interruption of which would be somehow a disservice to the scientific principle of publishing even failures. Contestants prepared their own food, wandered round the house, had sex in the jacuzzi, and got into screaming arguments that lasted for weeks. Contestants’ behaviour was much less inhibited, flirting less stylised, and displays of sexuality much more brazen. Big Brother contestants were routinely incredibly inebriated. On Love Island, islanders are limited to two glasses of wine per evening. It is very hard to get drunk on this amount of alcohol. In one notorious incident, a Big Brother contestant from 2005 named Kinga masturbated with a wine bottle in front of two other housemates. After Channel Four aired the episode in question, 259 complaints were made to broadcasting regulator Ofcom, noting that children could have been watching, claiming that the act was offensive, and that injury could have occurred. These complaints were not upheld on the basis that the show was “dedicated to showing viewers what actually occurs within the house (however unpalatable that may be).” On Love Island, contestants are banned from masturbation at all, with or without bottles.

Love Island is a tightly managed ship. The show proceeds as a series of conventional romances, and even-more conventional acts of minor cruelty. Its flexible production, attuned to the needs of both production and consumption, is vastly different to the style of earlier reality TV. The cameras are always on, the mics are always on: each day an hour of content must be produced. The contestants are woken by a burst of sudden light to their shared bedroom. They are sent outside, swimwear-clad, to produce the kind of TV audiences will want to tune into. The show isn’t scripted, but the pressure to produce enough TV, and of the right quality, means producers step in to encourage certain courses of action: “perhaps you should talk to her,” “do you know what he was telling everyone yesterday.” Contestants are actively discouraged from talking about anything other than what has happened in the villa. When they talk about anything else, they are told over loudspeaker to stop.

The only respite from their gruelling schedule of tedium is trips to get their hair cut or their nails done, and for brands to drop off clothes in the hope that contestants might wear them. If enough content has been produced in a day, the rules on what can be talked about are slightly relaxed. The series format is demanding, but flexible—the sudden announcement of a recoupling for example can be announced without warning. The producers have one eye to the content filmed that day for airing on the next, and one on the narrative of the show as a whole. The contestants try desperately to triangulate between their own feelings, their interpretation of the suggestions given by producers, and what they imagine audiences at home might be thinking.

Why are there so many restrictions on behavior? At first glance it might seem nonsensical—don’t the producers want to stir the pot, causing as much drama as possible? One answer is that the show is intensely worried about criticism of the treatment of islanders. The show has not been uncontroversial. The suicide of two former contestants triggered a “national conversation” and a parlimentary enquiry into reality TV, and the suffering imposed on the contestants in the name of good television. The show receives a large number of complaints, primarily about the well-being of contestants. Last year, 2,600 such complaints were made to Ofcom when a contestant was shown misleading footage of her boyfriend’s ex who had just been brought onto the show. This year, complaints have mainly been about controlling or non-consensual interactions between contestants. Its lack of diversity (and indeed, the treatment of the few contestants of color), has also come in for criticism.

Contestants on Love Island are treated like employees. This is not, of course, to say that they are necessarily treated well, but that the way in which they, the producers, and audiences at home understand the point of reality TV has changed significantly since the early 2000s. Islanders are reminded by producers that they are there to film a show, and beyond that, a certain kind of show. Their interactions are geared towards producing the kind of content that audiences want to see (the possibility for moral outrage without shock, for the appearance of genuine affection) and the kind of content that will keep their future sponsors sweet. While 100,000 people applied to be on Love Island, most contestants are handpicked by producers outside of the regular application process. During filming, islanders have a “psychological consultant” at their disposal. After the show, a new aftercare package including therapy and financial training will be given to contestants. This is to be welcomed—the treatment of reality TV stars, especially those suddenly thrust into fame, is often exploitative.

Another demand for control comes from contestants themselves, who want to control their own images—their future sponsorship deals are at stake. Increased concern for contestant welfare and contestants’ desire for image management both point to the professionalisation and the management of the process of creating reality TV stars—this is a conveyor belt, if one with better mental health support. Entering the show is more akin to entering job contract than the wild west days of early reality TV. Indeed, many contestants are already smallish influencers, big names on their local party scene, sellers of tummy teas, promoters of protein shakes, and their agents are looking for even more sponsorship, lining them up for club nights while they flirt their way through the villa. The chance of winning the £50,000 (about $60,600) prize in the finale is nothing compared to the lucrative deals popular contestants can wangle on their exit. Last year’s villain, Adam, made £300,000 from his first round of club night appearances alone.

The show is designed to maximise its own sponsorship deals. Clothes and hair products are dropped off for contestants to use, viewers can purchase individual items on a dedicated app, the show seems to have about four different sponsors. The show’s labour process is slow for contestants—in fact, they are unable to even tell the time, the producers making sure that the exact time is unknowable by changing all the clocks—and dominated by waiting. The process of editing and producing the show, however, is flexible and fast. It operates on a similar model to that of fast fashion. In the garment factories producing the clothes viewers are expected to purchase, there is the seamless speeding up or slowing down of the production of certain garments to meet demand, and the commensurate increase in precarity, informal employment, and dangerous conditions. We can imagine that the working conditions for the camera crews, editors, producers etc for Love Island are much less precarious and much less dangerous, but the pace of their work, and the content they produce, is reactive to the perceived demands of the audience. This is paradigmatic of contemporary supply chains: the extraction of raw materials is regularised, workers are employed casually, with contracts that allow them to be fired or have their hours reduced in low times, and to have those hours increased when demand is high. On Love Island, the raw materials of personality are regularised through the headhunting of contestants, and the monitoring and prodding of their interactions by producers. Demand is monitored through clicks on the feed and the app, and popular narratives and contestants prioritised. Production can be sped up or slowed down with the announcement of a recoupling.

Given these limitations, why would anyone want to watch Love Island? What exactly is it that makes the show so captivating? On one interpretation, its viewers—young and female—are simply looking for a consumer fix. Their heartstrings are easily pulled and their wallets easily lifted. However, given that the islanders more or less wear bikinis most of the time, the idea that viewers are tuning in for style inspiration is dubious. Nor is it a fantasy of luxury and conspicuous consumption; an intrusive voiceover remarks upon the mundanity of the show. Even the expensive cosmetic alterations that the islanders have undertaken, giving them all a homogenous look—lip fillers that give the mouth a slightly wet appearance, muscles that teeter over the edge of legally-acceptable steroid use—are not out of reach of viewers. If the show functions as escapism, it’s not into imaginary lands of wealth, beauty, and leisure, but into the minutiae of romantic human interactions. The reason the show is so compelling is because it allows viewers two things: the chance to determine whether a relationship is authentic or not, and to participate in the praise or condemnation of different contestants.

These activities aren’t necessarily straightforwardly separable from the process of selling goods. But the commodified ways in which these processes occur take second place to the process of narrativization and analysis—from group chats to thinkpieces—that surround the show. This kind of dissection is a hobby normally shared between friends—Love Island raises it to the level of a national sport. Audiences want to know if what they’re seeing is the real deal: are couples really in love, or do they just want to stay in the show for as long as possible?

Is it possible to fall in love on Love Island? This might seem like a strange question, but imagine yourself in the place of one of the show’s contestants: you are never away from the object of your desire, but also never alone with them and you are not allowed to talk about anything except the goings-on in the house. Conversations about your respective lives, interests, hopes and ideas are expressly forbidden. Islanders, despite spending a claustrophobic amount of time together, barely know anything about each other.

Love, real love, or even real desire, is suffused with longing. Being in love, even really fancying someone, is bound up with waiting to see them, wondering if they’re waiting to see you, feeling intensely happy when someone else says a word that sounds even a tiny bit like their name. On Love Island, the contestants wait till content of the right kind has been filmed for the show. They do not wait for each other. Roland Barthes characterizes the knowledge of love as the experience of waiting:

Am I in love?—yes, since I am waiting. The other one never waits. Sometimes I want to play the part of the one who doesn’t wait; I try to busy myself elsewhere, to arrive late; but I always lose at this game. Whatever I do, I find myself there, with nothing to do, punctual, even ahead of time. The lover’s fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits.

On Love Island—except for the brief interregnum in which the original household is broken up, with half sent to another villa—there is no waiting. The show moves to the beat of content, to the production of the next show, to the demands of sponsors (current and future) and audience. There is waiting in this process, but it is not the waiting of lovers.

Beyond that, love, actual love, the process of falling in love, does not make particularly interesting TV. Falling in love is regularly embarrassing. You are left unable to eat, unable to sleep, unable to think about much else, good for nothing more than swooning. It is also an intensely private affair, even though from being in love the whole world seems altered. For one thing, it seems impossible (wrongly, perhaps) that anyone has ever loved anyone as much as you love the person you love. Sometimes it is sweet to see in others, mostly baffling.

Heartbreak does make good TV. It is more visible, drawing the formerly-loved out from the secluded world of two. Love Island is most powerful in showing the misery of realising you’re less important to someone than they are to you. It is worth sparing a thought for the islanders who’ve been dumped or spurned—imagine being broken up with without the ability to listen to music, to wallow in bed, to listen to your friends come up with the worst possible names for your former partner, to text the worst people you know in the middle of the night—it’s unthinkable. Of course, for the islanders, being broken up with can work as a lucrative bit for future sponsorship deals. This year, one contestant, Amy, dramatically left the show after the person she was coupled up with revealed he was having doubts about their relationship. Bravely and through tears declaring that they would be the best of friends and she was happy for him, she left the show, launching into the public figure of a Woman Spurned and straight into lucrative nightclub appearances.

Contestants are aware that they are being judged on how authentically they are acting. The worst insult that can be levied is that another islander is “a fake,” a “snake,” that they are lying about how they truly feel or are playing a game. When accusations of fakery are made the effect they have is explosive—extreme anger and outrage. Indeed, one contestant from this year’s series, was quarantined from social media by the production team on her exit because of the extent of the criticism she has faced online. This criticism was almost exclusively about her being inauthentic. In the villa, what is important is to be yourself. Of course, what the islanders seem to mean by this is that in everything you do you are expressing yourself, and that there could, or indeed, should never be a gap between you and your actions. It is used to excuse inexcusable behaviour: sleep with your wife’s sister? Just being yourself. Accidentally run over a child’s cherished pet? Just being yourself. This self is most truly realised in the process of coupling up with the right person. The search for love is the decisive elaboration of self. This conception of the self and the strategising that goes along with it are encouraged by the format of the show.

The idea that we are our truest selves when we are in love and exclusively with the person with whom we are in love is probably nonsense. It is, of course, a belief held outside of the walls of the Love Island villa, even if it’s not being used as a defence of romantic indecencies. Actions become authentic when publicly declared as such and their agent all the more authentic for having declared them. It’s a practice that Love Island contestants and online influencers share. Faced with competition from consumers and the ever-deepening advance of capital into all elements of human social life, it is not enough for influencers to share something—they have to show they have felt something. The confession of deep and sincere emotion—the appropriation of oneself as a form of capital—makes early critiques of the affective toll of contemporary capitalism seem naive. Contestants create authentic brands from the stuff of their lives in the hope of being selected to go on the show to show their sincere authenticity, culminating, hopefully, in the display of further authentic feelings to make money. It is not their reputation or fame as an islander that secures their future income (as was the case with the first generation of reality TV stars), but their ability to produce more and more authenticity, to reveal more and more of their innermost selves. Under contemporary capitalism, we are not supposed to endure work, looking forward to the leisure time it might allow us, but instead enjoy work, live the “values” of the company we work for, on and off the clock. Similar demands, at an accelerated pace, are placed on influencers it is no longer enough to say you like a product to be able to hawk it on Instagram, your followers must have seen your suffering, your deepest joys, or, at least, something that looks like them.

In the affective demands placed on contestants, and the affective intensity Love Island aims to stimulate in its audience, in short, the expropriation of social life for profit, along with the flexibility of its production process the show maps perfectly onto the sinews of contemporary capitalism. Moreover, it does so whilst rearticulating reactionary modes of gendered relations and of sexuality. Capital’s tendency to burrow deeper and deeper into the social body is perfectly able to coexist with seemingly outmoded ideas about gender and sexuality, containing rather than displacing them. As it becomes more popular and more profitable the show is likely to become less watchable; sponsorship more deeply embedded, the production of more and more content designed to make viewers feel connected to more and more contestants, is likely to exhaust rather than excite audiences. The rapid expansion of the format is likely to lose the element on which its profitability is based—its supposed authenticity. Capitalism, hungry for immediate profit, devours its long-term profitability, it eats itself.

Amelia Horgan