Love Island has come a long way from its mid-noughties origins, fitting squarely in the shadow of Big Brother which was unquestionably the biggest reality show of the time. It is now a behemoth of British television, averaging an audience of almost 4 million per episode during its last season and breaking ITV2 viewing records along the way. It won a Bafta award back in May for best reality and constructed factual programme, and the plethora of young singletons seeking love in the villa, to a backdrop of glorious sandy beaches has continued to rake in the viewers.
However, the real world has come a long way since the mid-noughties too. Audiences are more aware, sensitive and quick to criticise than ever before. With spiraling popularity comes increased and heated scrutiny, and Love Island is no exception. Many have pointed out the show’s apparent reluctance to diversify its contestants when it comes to body type, ethnicity and age.
All the male contestants are blessed with six packs that look like they were carved by Zeus, while all the women have skinny and toned figures. Uncomfortable questions have been directed towards the show’s producers, asking whether they refuse to cast those with curvy figures or otherwise “imperfect” (more realistic) bodies. Put bluntly, where are the dad bods in Love Island? There is nothing inherently wrong with having muscly or skinny contestants on the show, but when it feels like everyone is there to comply with an outdated view of what eye candy looks like, it is fair to ask why different kinds of bodies are not seen on Love Island.
Ethnicity is another issue that has been highlighted, in particular when Samira left the show so she could be with eliminated contestant Frankie Foster. When six new men were herded into the villa at the end of June, Samira was not on the shortlist of partners for any of them. Paula Akpan, social media editor at Gal-Dem, told the BBC that, as a black woman, “you often know that you won’t be seen as a person who’s attractive especially when you’re compared to other beautiful women on the show who embody the Eurocentric ideals”. These ideals are apparently held up by Love Island – a spokesperson for the show said that they “strive to reflect the age, experiences and diversity” of the audience but the lack of Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) contestants on the show is glaring.
Then there is the question of age. At 29 years old, Laura caused something of a ruckus in the villa this year when she hooked up with Wes, who is nine years younger than her. Cue a barrage of unfair comments and accusations sent Laura’s way, claiming that Laura lied about her age and that she was too old to be on the show. Because 29 is apparently ancient, and Love Island could not possibly bring anyone older than thirty onto the show could they? Otherwise, older people might start watching. You can hear the producers shuddering from here.
What does ITV’s digital controller do in response to criticism? Acknowledge that the show could do more and outline plans to rectify the situation? Nothing of the sort. Instead, Paul Mortimer said that “”I think on the body image thing, we cast very attractive people, it’s a sexy show… in the same way Hollywood casts a certain type to get bums on seats in theatres or other shows”.
Mortimer’s response is uncomfortable at best, and outright disgusting at worst. Rather than answer the critics, he lazily wafts the hot air away with a backhand of excuses and finger pointing that he hopes will allow Love Island to remain unchanged. Mortimer needs to go back and expand his narrow definition of attractiveness. Is he implying that only muscular, thin people are attractive? If so, its an archaic opinion. There are plenty of people out there confident enough in their own skin who can show Mortimer that there is not just one version of an attractive body. Looks alone don’t make one attractive, but comfort and confidence in your looks can, and maintaining that there is some golden standard of good looks will only hurt those not filled with such confidence.
Mortimer may retort that the show is aspirational, and that these thin, fit young singles are proudly displayed simply because they embody the aim of good health. There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to be healthier, but surely a more encompassing, inclusive aspiration is that someone can appear on national television and not have to fit a certain mantra? To appear on the small screen and face no risk of Twitter trolls ripping them to shreds for whatever reason? It’s a much more basic wish than a six pack and there is no reason it cannot be just as attainable.
Right now, Love Island is not solely promoting attractive, enviable bodies. It is promoting a uniform look with its foundations uncomfortably rooted in our ethnocentric ideas of what is sexy and what should be aimed for. The likes of Mortimer may not openly say it or even notice it, but reality shows like Love Island are in fact not reality at all. They are fantasies born from pre-existing norms and expectations. In this case, to be sexy is to be seen through a racist, sizeist and agist lense that many do not even notice, but is felt by those who suffer injustice because of it. The male gaze feeds off shallow programmes like Love Island.
What makes this frustrating is that it is a simple fix. Deliberate diversification and inclusion, not commented on heavily during the show but simply allowed to exist for what it is, is a solution that could easily be introduced. Yet Mortimer and ITV show a disappointing reluctance to do so. This is not about buckling to the pressure imposed by a few loud-mouthed millennials,this is about doing what should always have been done from day one.
It is not too much to ask that Love Island makes a concentrated effort to have people of all ages, sizes and ages living in a villa together, all looking for happiness and with a genuine chance of attaining it. Because surely that – not a size eight – is the a healthier ambition.
Image: Matt Madd via Flickr