The deep, abiding immorality of “Love Island”

One of the most famous moments in ITV’s “Love Island” series came three years ago, in 2019. A young woman, called Amy Hart, who’d admitted before going on the series that she had never been in a serious relationship before, made the very grave error of taking the name of the programme she was on seriously. She fell, if not in love, then deeply in affection with another contestant, a fellow by the name of Curtis Pritchard, with whom she is pictured, above. The rules of the show are designed to ferment bonding between couples: They share a bed, they are partnered together for all activities, the public votes for them, by and large, as a pair.

The problem is that people being happy and contented is bad television. And so, the whole premise of the series is that new people are tossed in at regular intervals, and couples are encouraged to consider whether they might not be happier with someone else. Alas for poor Amy Hart, this was the conclusion that Curtis came to. The scene where he “broke up” with her is one of the series’ most watched. If you watch it, you can see – without requiring vast amounts of empathy to do so – that her heartbreak is very genuine. She left the programme, of her own volition, the next day, having entertained the public by having her emotions shredded for a viewing audience.

In 1598, during the reign of James I, the Governors of St Mary’s hospital, Bethlem – better known to us today as “Bedlam” – decided that to raise money for the care of their patients, who were suffering a range of mental ailments, to put them on show for the public. Up to 96,000 people, every year, paid for the privilege of walking the halls, and observing the poor and the demented as a form of entertainment. Though we might find that, by modern standards, horrifying, it is perhaps not so very far from the basic principle of Love Island.

Love, after all, has little to do with it. The “stars” of the show are not, truly, seeking love, but fame. In their hearts, they must know that the odds are against them. Even the most successful alumnus of a show like Love Island can hope, at best, for a few months of celebrity appearances in provincial nightclubs, and perhaps a stint guest-hosting a d-list trash TV show themselves. Every year, a new crop arrives to the Love Island villa, tanned and toned and entertainingly vacant, prepared to at least consider copulating on television if it will buy them a hint of Kardashian-style fame and a chance at the objectively stingy £50,000 top prize. Every year, almost all of them are disappointed.

Most of them, in fact, are little more than children. One of the remarkable things about modern culture is that if a 50-year-old TV executive were to take advantage of a 23 year old woman’s desire for riches by seducing her into his bed, he would be roundly denounced as an exploiter and an abuser. But if that same executive seduces that same woman with the promise of fame, by getting her to simulate sex acts for a national audience, we have very little problem with it. In both instances, the power dynamic, and the common sense imbalance, are the same. The consequences of Love Island might well be worse.

Three former contestants have died by suicide. To alleviate the viewer’s guilt, the show now has therapists on hand to guide those for whom it is all too much.

All of this, by the way, before we even talk about the message that the show sends, or doesn’t send, to the viewers. For many, it’s just harmless fun – a chance to sit back, with a glass of wine, and look at the stupid people embarrassing themselves on the television, or perhaps to sympathise with their favourite character, or boo the perceived (and carefully presented) villain. But at the very heart of Love Island is the idea that relationships are primarily transactional – useful for as long as they benefit the parties involved, and disposable when that changes. The transient fame of the contestants, year after year, tells a new generation of young people that physical beauty – or to be more precise, perceived sexual attractiveness – is a cheat code that opens a door to glamour and riches, and of course, does its bit to depress those not possessed of it. It presents sex as everywhere, and always, a harmless bit of fun, and not something that regularly produces – as many adults have learned the hard way – messy emotional consequences.

Most of all, though, the show takes something sincere and good – Love – and reduces it to cheap and crass entertainment. It turns the audience into voyeurs, stripping away empathy and sympathy, leaving us there, sipping our wine as we watch a young person’s heart get broken for our viewing pleasure. There’s little good about it.

We tend to look back, in our enlightened age, with horror at the fact that thousands of Roman citizens with families and children used to go to the Colosseum of an afternoon and watch slaves and criminals get eaten by Lions. The next day, one imagines, they’d troop off to work, and talk about it. “Golly, that Greek fella put up a decent fight, didn’t he? Did you see the German pee himself?” For us, it all sounds horrifying. For them, it was just a perfectly normal show.

Watching Love Island, one wonders how far we’ve come. Not very, I’d suggest.

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