Sophie Woodward and Laura Fenton
We write this in lockdown, a time in which conducting relationships remotely has never weighed more heavily on people’s minds. While the direct experience of sustained physical distance may be a novel experience for many, the phenomenon of indirect distance is anything but. People have been viewing the relationships of others from a mediated distance for centuries, whether through poetry, novels, and since the twentieth century, radio, film and television. Reality television adds a different dimension to this viewership. It is a site for people to observe and be drawn into the relationships of other people, as well as to reflect upon their own relationships.
What is particularly fascinating about reality television is that it bridges the real and the fictional. As we argue here, there is two-way traffic between reality and fiction: the symbolic and material properties of each come into contact and reconfigure the other in a variety of ways. Love Island, the example of reality television that we consider here, is a programme that centres love and the heterosexual couplings formed by contestants, as well as less explicitly the friendships they form. Contestants live together on a sun-soaked island and are tasked with forming romantic heterosexual couples to stay in the programme, and have a chance at winning the £50,000 prize, plus the sponsorship and media work that is likely to follow. A new contestant is put in, and other tricks introduced, couples break up, new ones form, and un-coupled individuals have to leave the island. We focus here on the heterosexual intimacies formed in Love Island to explore love and the notion of return – what love gives back for the Love Island contestants, and in turn what this might tell us about what love gives back in everyday relationships.
The game-like features of love on the programme simultaneously fascinate and repel viewers. This is evident in the introduction of Casa Amor in each series: women and men (already in couples by now, some of which are well established) are separated into two villas (one of which is the new Casa Amor) and the relationships are tested by an influx of single men and women. The new single contestants have to couple up in order to stay in the show. Viewers are drawn in as these are often the most popular (and dramatic) episodes in the series , as well as voicing complaints through Ofcom and online fora (e.g. Twitter) as the manipulations of the programme both fascinates viewers as well as appalls them. Love Island makes ‘the rules’ of love as a game explicit. And yet there are clear connections to everyday relationships (such as who pays on a date, how soon couples have sex). Love Island reminds us that everyday love has game-like qualities. To successfully find love in everyday life means we know what these rules are.
The dramas that play out on the programme mimic and mime many of the tensions inherent in the negotiation of everyday love, such as the disquieting doubt expressed in the question ‘What if there is someone out there who is better for me?’ When contestants voice concerns of this nature, their conduct is often held up to greater scrutiny. In the 2019 series this was articulated in the perennial question that several of the male contestants asked each other ‘could you be happier?’ before encouraging the contestant to dump his current partner to pursue someone else. Implicit within this question is both the possibility of a better connection and also that another coupling can give greater returns (keeping you in the game for example).
The intentions of potential suitors are challenged by other contestants as well as by viewers at home, who question on Twitter who is being ‘real’ in their feelings. A contestant in the latest series, Eva, was derided for choosing another contestant, Nas, to stay in the game as he was popular – not due to having genuine feelings for him; Eva was swiftly voted off the show by viewers. Honesty and authenticity are held up as the true tests of personhood and love. Viewers know that going on the programme will result in fame and financial return for many contestants but if they do this without finding love then they are derided; Natalya in the winter 2020 series of Love Island was derided for not finding a connection with anyone and only wanting a Pretty Little Thing contract. While it is often alleged that contestants participate in the programme for money and fame, the performance of authenticity and integrity is vital to their ability to stay in the game. The boundary zone between contestant and ‘player’, in its common usage, is narrow and laden with traps.
Love Island reminds us that forging romantic connections in our own lives rests on our ability to say what we mean and mean what we say; to act in ways others accept as genuine. Players only win when their performance matches expectations of veracity and authenticity. In this sense, a performance must be seamless; it must deny the conditions of its own production. It cannot be viewed as a ‘performance’ at all. Molly Mae – in a couple that stayed in until the end of the series last year – was questioned constantly as to whether she really loved her partner Tommy in the face of his gushing declarations of love to her. What was judged was the authenticity of her performance – her body language, gestures, facial expressions as well as her words. Viewers scrutinized her performance, and claimed it to be inauthentic, reflected in the comments made on social media and then mirrored in news headlines. It led to Molly Mae having to defend her feelings after the ‘headline challenge’ on the show and after she left the island.
Viewing also reminds us of the troubling complexities of everyday love. How do you say what you mean when your own feelings are unpredictable or elusive? Intentions are rarely singular; they shift, slide, and come in and out of focus over time. In everyday love, pragmatic considerations can be central to formation and conduct of romantic relationships (Carter, 2013). These considerations, in different ways perhaps to Love Island, centre practicalities of how love might work, such as living arrangements, as well as the returns it will bring. Happenstance plays a key role in how and when connections are formed. The timeframe of Love Island means there is little space for doubt or deliberation. Contestants have to be certain, as well as having to show that they are motivated by love and not by their desire to win the game. In this and other ways, the programme bears a strong resemblance to the plots of some of the novels of Jane Austen: contestants strive to demonstrate virtue while seeking an intimate connection that has a return, as this is what will keep them in the competition. The couple itself is the unit of currency that generates a return, not the individuals composing it. The example of Jack and Dani is a case in point; coupled-up from the early weeks, they were seen by viewers as a real love story. Viewers believed in the love story; when the couple were separated in the Casa Amor plot twist, Jack slept alone outside as we came to see how authentic their feelings were. The greater the appearance of authenticity, the greater the rewards.
Sophie Woodward is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester who researches material culture, everyday life and has a particular interest in fashion and consumption. She is the author of several books, most recently Material Methods: researching and thinking with things (Sage, 2019).
Laura Fenton is Research Associate in Sociology at the University of Manchester. She completed her PhD in Sociology at Manchester in 2018 on the place of alcohol in the day-to-day lives of three generations of British women. Her research interests include youth, gender, and creative biographical methods.
 Thank you to Graeme Kirkpatrick for pointing out the parallels between Austen’s work and Love Island in a conversation with one of the authors.