If there is a single moment that distills Love Island’s essence, it is this one: The roommates are settling into their seven beds in the shared bedroom of their modernist Mallorcan villa. The lights are out and the cameras installed in the ceiling have gone into night-vision mode. Everyone is cast in a green light, their beady eyes glowing like animals captured by a motion-triggered wilderness cam. As is typical, several couples begin to go at it in their neighboring twin beds, their bodies rhythmically thrusting under the comforters.
Then Adam, who is in bed alone, crouches on all fours, flings off his comforter, and rips a soul-rattling fart. It’s a wet one that lasts a good three seconds.
I’m guessing that at this point the roommates laughed and kept boning, but I can’t be sure because I squealed in shock, doubled over with laughter, and gasped for air. Then I proceeded to binge on the rest of the 44-episode second season of Love Island. This was after I’d already worked my way through the 34-episode first season in the matter of a few weeks. I don’t want to be a person who laughs hysterically at farts, but this is what this year has done to me. It has done Love Island to me.
For the uninitiated, Love Island is a British reality TV show that was rebooted in 2015, but it only started to take off this year in the U.S. after the first three seasons showed up on Hulu. It features 12 contestants, or Islanders, as they call themselves, who show up on day one wearing bikinis or swim trunks, the near-constant uniform of the series. The men are invariably musclebound, the women pouty-lipped, and nearly everyone is bronzed to a crisp. Upon stepping foot in the villa, they are promptly made to choose a partner based on looks alone. Each couple then shares a twin bed in the privacy-free, mass-bedroom of the villa.
Mostly, the Islanders’ days are spent gossiping, chain-smoking cigarettes, applying extensive makeup, slathering on sunscreen, and sunbathing next to the villa’s massive pool as ice clinks in their presumably alcoholic drinks. At night, few let the proximity of their roommates deter them from under-the-covers humpage, which the show catalogs unblinkingly. On several occasions, multiple couples have been shown going at it at the same time, as their roommates crane their necks to see and sometimes even offer commentary as though narrating a horse race.
There are periodic “re-coupling” ceremonies, during which anyone left standing without a partner is kicked off the island. New contestants are introduced to spark new romances and tear apart existing ones. (Often, the additions seem to reflect a precise understand on the producers’ part of key contestant’s “types”—a word frequently tossed about in the villa, and which is reduced, in the contestants’ own words, to things such as “big boobs,” “big booty,” and “tattoos.”) Occasionally, contestants are voted off by viewers. Then, in each season’s final week, viewers vote for their favorite couple, and the winners receive a joint prize of $50,000.
It is a dystopia of brutal and unapologetic superficiality. As Eva Wiseman wrote of the show in The New York Times, “It’s Tinder made flesh.” The actual tagline of Season 2 was “survival of the fittest,” which conveys the series’ cutthroat nature but also has a double-meaning, as “fit” means attractive in British slang. Couplings and re-couplings happen with all of the emotional subtlety of middle school. The most frequently used slang reveals the heart of the show: grafting (trying to attract or seduce someone), mugging off (being made a fool), pied off (dumped), and banter (“to make fun of,” per The Oxford English Dictionary).
Women often get the brunt of this punishing setup. There is a lot of talk of “lads,” a term reflecting a British subculture of, as Wikipedia puts it, “young men assuming an anti-intellectual position, shunning sensitivity in favour of drinking, violence, and sexism.” On the show, women and men are often held to familiar double standards: men’s sexual adventuring is celebrated while women’s bed-hopping is cast by contestants as sad or shameful. The wife/whore dichotomy is also alive and well in the villa, where men routinely endorse the idea that there are “birds” that you bring home to mom, and “birds” that you “fock.” Just when you think the show’s introduced a Good Guy, he goes and slyly has sex with one of his roommates as the woman he’s been courting sleeps obliviously in the neighboring bed.
These dynamics are so bad that during a recent Love Island binge, my husband turned to me and said without any hint of irony: “We’re just watching symptoms of the disease of patriarchy.” And then we clicked to the next episode.
I didn’t begin the year this way. So much of it was spent watching Love Island’s polar opposite within the reality TV realm: Terrace House: Opening New Doors. I was comforted by the six roommates’ civility toward each other, their epically slow-building relationships, all those wholesome “family” meals, and the fact that so little ever happened. Terrace House felt like a refreshing blast of simplicity and calm against the ugly backdrop of American politics, what with babies being separated from their parents at the border and imperilment of Roe v. Wade. Terrace House was a relatively drama-free world filled with delicious-looking sashimi meals and genuine utterances of “Oishī, oishī” (“Delicious, delicious”).
It was quiet, tender, and safe. Hand-holding between crushes was a big deal. Plus, the men cried, and so much. Mostly about how much they loved each other. Not that it was perfect. There was some weird patriarchal shit going on, for sure, including a lot of casual talk about “forced” kisses. But it mostly felt like a balm for the unrelenting chafe of reality.
With the devastation of the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings in September, though, something within me reversed course. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back of my optimism. I no longer wanted to escape with calm, reassuring forms of entertainment. I wanted a shit-show—a shit-show that was not the current and actual shit-show of the United States of America, but one that looked a whole lot like it. So I turned to Love Island, the sexual id of the Trump era—with accents!
Shows like The Real World and The Bachelor have long shown the implications of sex or, at least, the sounds of it, but Love Island goes much further. The show’s producers do not at all shy away from showing a glimpse of butt, tits, dicks, or balls. They air extended audio of grunting and skin-slapping from sex not captured on-camera (for instance, when a desperate couple climbs into a wardrobe). After one pair retreats to an unsurveilled bathroom to have sex, the woman is shown on-camera saying, “My vagina feels like it’s just been hit by a train.” There are extended conversations, paired with vivid gesticulation, about dick size. At one point, a couple women stand around practicing a hand job on a shampoo bottle.
These kinds of scenes seemed to break the conventional rules of television in a manner fitting for the current all-bets-are-off, anything-goes moment. It was a funhouse mirror for a reality that increasingly felt set within the funhouse.
Despite the show’s seeming enthusiasm for sex, the contestants frequently show discomfort with women actually having it. In Season 1, Jessica Hayes, a contestant who fools around early on with her partner, is frequently dismissed by her male roommates as the kind of girl you bone but don’t bring home to mum. When a new guy enters the villa midseason, he tells the guys that his mother specifically warned him off of Hayes after watching the show, which airs concurrently with filming. She’s derided as “slutty” by the fellow contestant who has paired up with Hayes’s former partner. Hayes is also routinely singled out for belittlement, harassment, and, I might go so far as to say, emotional abuse by many of the men on the show.
On Season 2, Zara Holland, then-Miss Great Britain, hops into bed with a new arrival, which prompts some of the women on the show to refer to her as “a stupid girl,” an “idiot,” and “slaggy.” She’s soon notified within the villa that she has been stripped of the Miss Great Britain title as a result. The men—or “boys” as they are fittingly called on the show—get off scot-free.
There are certainly far greater injustices going on in the world, but these particular outrages felt within my control. After all, the show gives viewers the illusion not just of omniscience, given the scattering of surveillance cameras throughout the villa, but also god-like power, what with the ability to vote people off the show. I wasn’t watching the show as it aired in real time, so I couldn’t actually cast a vote, but I still absorbed that sense of power. I could judge, analyze, and anticipate the Islanders’ actions all the same. It was a petri dish of humanity, and there was satisfaction in predicting the worst outcomes.
Like any good horror movie, Love Island let me indirectly confront my fears in a safe way. These were not powerful politicians controlling the future of the country and planet, at least. They were just some attention-seeking young people making poor decisions about their romantic lives.
Toward the end of that first season—SPOILERS AHEAD—watching Love Island started to feel less like a nihilistic indulgence. It became clear that Hayes, the black sheep within the villa, had actually become beloved among viewers. Self-described “lad” Max Morley, the one who arrived midseason telling the boys that his mom had warned him off Hayes, came to fall for her. In fact, producers sent his parents into the villa for a surprise visit and, lo, his mother resoundingly approved. In the end, it was Jess, and Max, who won by audience vote. This felt to me, amid my Love Island daze, like a meaningful karmic re-balancing of the scales.
Not all of the show’s outcasts have found redemption. Zara lost her crown only to leave the villa soon after due to her mother’s health. But part of the show’s appeal is that it gives the audience an opportunity to both identify bad behavior and feel morally superior to it.
The fourth season, which I have yet to watch, reportedly features a guy who so disturbingly gaslights his partner that it has launched a conversation in Britain about emotional abuse. English journalist Caitlin Moran has called Love Island “peerlessly trashy,” but also argued that the show is “doing more for feminism than Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ and Beyoncé smashing a car window with a baseball bat in the video to ‘Hold Up’ combined.” That is a degree of hyperbole that belongs in the villa, but it’s also true that there is some value in Love Island’s distorted mirror. It shows us the worst of ourselves and, in a very small way, dares us to be better. Even in this reality TV hellscape, there is some hope for humanity, which is my official explanation for my recent obsession.
Also, it’s cool to see balls on television.