The Love Island Men: It Is What It Isn’t
The Love Island men this year are a curious bunch of Alpha bodies and Beta personalities, who reflect a new culture of appearance over reality.
Ah, Love Island. Here we go again. Cue the tabloid frenzy, cue the record viewing figures, cue the ogling, cue the pious outrage, cue the disdain, cue the millions of ‘think pieces’ on what it all means…like this one.
Except, this year things are different. The shadow of the suicide of Mike Thalassitis looms over this series, and it all feels a lot less like innocent, if trashy, fun.
Now, I think entirely blaming the show for that tragic death devalues the problems Thalassitis was clearly facing – here was a man going through grief, financial difficulties and apparently some drink and drugs issues. It also distracts from the importance of providing men with help when they need it; particularly when it comes to grief services for men, who are often assumed to be ok because they hide how they truly feel.
As such, I’m not going to call for the show to be banned as some people have. I’ve noticed such calls are disingenuously posted on social media in order to get thousands of likes, the very medium which is adding layers of added pressure to anyone who appears on reality TV by effectively working as a life-long extension of the show for these young people. The worrying aspect of Love Island is it’s part of a larger issue – it’s a product of a new culture in which we’re all living now, encompassing the social media age, a screen-focused spectator society of constant watching, and a highly advanced “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”-style shopping surveillance (“Are they listening to me through my phone? We were just talking about my genital warts…”), all of which thrive upon the idea that the way you look is what defines you. No matter the reality, life is about appearance – and the economy relies upon it. This Culture of Surface Perfection emphasises conspicuous consumption and (often imagined) conspicuous accomplishment, idolises luxury and wealth, and suggests that not just happiness but power lies in being judged as attractive by other people. The true messy chaos of being a person doesn’t play well with the algorithms, until the weight of the surface cracks and people self-destruct, becoming fodder for the scrolling rubber-neckers.
Like the smooth hairless surfaces of the men’s bodies on the show, Love Island is a reflection of this Culture of Surface Perfection in which all the rough edges of humanity are gone.
Much of this is of course related to body image. With the camera constantly playing over dingles and dales of flesh, the show is principally about the contestants’ bodies – viewers are supposed to look at them, evaluate them, discuss them…their bodies become public property. Last year ITV landed in hot water for its advertising choices during the show, which included cosmetic surgery ads. But in a sick kind of way, it made sense: Love Island is a catalogue where everything you see is shoppable, including the bodies. Literally the only way you can achieve some of those faces and physiques is to buy the same procedures. This year there’d been talk about more body diversity and a plus-size girl appearing on the show, which had people scratching their heads when the first episode came on. Did they mean Anna? The Kim Kardashian one? Wow, really going out on a limb there.
What I found interesting is there was no talk of plus size men going in. It’s seemingly a given that men are supposed to have six packed ripped physiques and other men aren’t bothered if they don’t live up to that. When actually we know actually that men are very worried about their appearances and that male eating disorders rose by 70% in the UK between 2010 and 2016 according to the NHS. The truth is that constant repetition of the ideal male body, which can only be achieved by 4 hours in a gym every day – honestly, looking at Mike you have to assume fireman just work out all day while waiting for a cat to climb a tree – does impact social norms and what is deemed acceptable and unacceptable.
Not that the show’s heads seem too bothered about any of this. Richard Cowles the creative director of ITV Studios Entertainment said broader bodily representation was “not at the front” of their minds when casting. “First and foremost it’s an entertainment show. it’s about people wanting to watch who you’ve got on screen falling in love with one other. Yes, we want to be as representative as possible but we also want them to be attracted to one another.” In other words, no-one would find a fat bloke or fat lass attractive. Right. Fucking hell.
With that kind of outlook, what Love Island most resembles isn’t actually a catalogue but a porn film. The bodies are all porn bodies, the dialogue is very porn dialogue (“What’s your type?” “Plumbers with big plungers”), the sets are porn sets, the producers sound like porn producers…the only difference here is that you’re made to wait a few weeks before the shagging happens.
Most regrettably in this year’s show, this Surface Perfection isn’t limited to contestants’ bodies, but now includes their personalities. Particularly when it comes to the men. It seems they have discovered a code of behaviour which plays the best on Love Island, a show which has worked hard to distance itself from the freak show aspects of Big Brother by emphasising that these people are just looking for love. The way the men have been acting has been all about sweetness and earnestness and an evasive niceness, both with each other and with the women. They are all about Alpha bodies, with Beta personalities. Ordinarily you’d welcome such a thing, but it comes across as bland and a little creepy (as a few of the girls in there have noticed, particularly Amber – “It’s like I’m being constantly interviewed!” she said at one point) and, well, you don’t believe it. It feels like marketing. Bar the seemingly genuine Curtis, the nice guy act seems like as much of a performance as any rooster-ing. The laidback default position of the men, as exemplified by the exasperatingly repeated phrase ,“It is what is”, can’t quite disguise the fact the usual human frailties and competition lie just beneath this surface – it is what it isn’t.
In the first few episodes such frailties were pushed down so successfully that it was like watching some women trapped in a house full of the Stepford Husbands, unnervingly passive robots passing for perfect mates.
However, the show is now beginning to get more interesting as the cracks begin to show and the real people beneath are glimpsed. Some are genuinely Alpha-Beta, including the surprisingly good hearted Tommy Fury, but there are those who just Alpha in disguise, in that they are massively overcompensating for their insecurities. Anton being the prime example. A man convinced of his own appeal as a funnyman and body-god, and who is determined to win the status he thinks he deserves in the house. The horrible way he decided to do this was to try to make moves on Anna, despite her being in couple with the smitten young Sherif. Clearly Anton saw the younger, more “chill” Sherif as fair game, the lad least likely to put up a fight, and he seems to have a similarly condescending attitude to Anna, who he keeps referring to as her having a great personality, with the implication that she may be this year’s not-very-plus-size plus size girl but he’s willing to make her day. To stand there flexing his gym bod while saying to Sherif, “Anna wants someone who’s funny!” and then opening his arms to display himself, was the mother of all dick moves, a giant dick pirouetting into the dick splits. Yeah, this nice “bro” stuff slides off the surface under scrutiny.
But in a sense, this is good. To see some truth, some actual humanity coming through. If everyone’s pretending then how is anyone going to learn anything? You hope in future episodes Sherif will stand up to Anton properly and make him care about the hurt he is causing to other people. Maybe Anton will experience empathy with another man, not just use it as a tool in his women charmer box.
Likewise with Joe. Joe is the boy band kid who seemed to think he owned the prize of Lucie after a day of being coupled up with her, and started pouting and sulking the minute someone else talked to her. Similarly Sherif was pressing Anna on the second day with the needless question “If someone else came on the island who you fancied more, would you go off with them?” – er, that’s the whole point of the show – and then getting all upset when she said, “well, yeah.” Both their Beta acts are paper-thin, as it’s a kind of beaten down Beta in which they’re actually wounded and resentful about not being on top. Only Curtis, with his quite amusing Instagram wisdoms – “you can never truly love someone if you’re not true to yourself”, which sounds like Kierkegaard in the context of “It is what it is” – actually radiates some security in himself which allows him to have a genuine interest in others, making him by far the most charismatic one.
Oh, look, I’ve been sucked in. Why does this happen? Why do people care about Love Island, either to love it or hate it, or more often, a combination of the two? Because it is a reflection of our era. Mental health issues and all.
To watch it is to see an echo of what’s happening in our world today. From the fact that the male ideal is a kind of nervy bland wholesomeness – as echoed in the male pop stars of our day who have taken us back to the pre-Beatles era of simpering syrupy pap – and the female ideal is a much more interesting, outspoken and empowered figure, to the continuing prevalence of racism, even if it’s of a ‘casual’ kind (how else to explain the sidelining of Yewande by show and contestants alike), and the fact that you are judged on the size of your arse above all else. This is the world in which we are all part of, and in which we all collude to a degree, The Culture of Surface Perfection. We love and hate Love Island because it’s like looking into a mirror. In the social media age aren’t we all on reality TV?
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