While studying abroad in Dublin last fall, I finished almost three seasons of Love Island. It was a source of laughter and excitement during a period of situational depression. Out of a desire not to fail all my classes, I didn’t venture back into the world of Love Island until deciding to watch the most recent season with my mom this summer. So, we embarked upon a months-long odyssey of drama and romance.
Love Island is a British dating show in which 12 singles travel to a villa in Mallorca for a summer of fun, hoping to find love (and possibly win £50,000). Over the course of eight weeks, the islanders mix, mingle, and hopefully form relationships. New islanders are introduced, as others are dumped. Eventually, a public vote crowns one couple the winner.
Having someone to bounce emotions and commentary off of made the whole experience more enjoyable. If you ever want to get to know your mom on another level, watch Love Island with her. It was hysterical exchanging thoughts and observing each other’s reactions.
But my Love Island enthusiasm was also met with criticism. A friend’s mom said she couldn’t tolerate reality TV because it objectifies women. My brother, when he saw us watching an episode, said, “I don’t understand how you can be a feminist and watch this show.”
I won’t claim that Love Island is overtly feminist. But I do take issue with the calling into question of my feminism solely because I watch Love Island. Reality TV doesn’t have to be anti-feminist, and even aspects of a silly dating show like Love Island can be empowering.
The most recent season of Love Island took a few steps forward from earlier seasons by making conscious choices to avoid promoting gender stereotypes.
Firstly, the producers objectify both male and female cast members. This may not seem like a positive, but at least they’re being treated equally! Slow-mo shots pan over both men’s and women’s bodies, and viewers are treated to frequent close-ups of islanders exercising, eating suggestively, or emerging dripping wet from the pool.
However, just because they’re all eye-candy doesn’t mean they’re insubstantial. This season’s original cast featured a professional ballroom dancer, an air hostess, a pharmacist, a firefighter, an eyelash technician, a chef, a gym owner, an aircraft engineer, a surfer, a professional boxer, and a scientist seeking to cure cancer.
The inclusion of cast members with careers that don’t always correspond to gender stereotypes—for example, a male ballroom dancer and a female scientist—is undoubtedly a positive step forward. However, it is anti-feminist to judge people based on their career choices. Previous seasons have been very model-heavy, which has led to dismissal or derision from viewers. Valuing certain cast members less because they’re models or beauticians or have other traditionally feminine careers plays into misogynistic stereotypes. Are those who are feminine less serious or less worthy of respect?
Love Island revels in drama, conflict, and judgment. The crucial difference lies in how you watch: Do you analyze and discuss whether you agree with their choices, or do you blatantly “slag off” (as the islanders would say) the women you feel have chosen wrong? Doing the latter encourages the judgement of women who don’t conform to standards or who openly defy them.
Women make bad choices. Men make bad choices. Everyone makes bad choices. That’s not to say they don’t deserve to be criticized, but criticism doesn’t need to amount to a vitriolic personal attack. A knee-jerk reaction stemming from a sexist implicit bias deserves to be called out.
It’s also important to recognize sexist or toxic behaviors when they appear on screen (as they always do). Thankfully, this season’s cast members often did that for us.
In one memorable incident, Tom Walker shows off to all the boys by saying, “Let’s see if she’s all mouth,” right before he was supposed to take his partner, Maura Higgins, to the hideaway for some alone time.
Maura is a vocal feminist who doesn’t shy away from talking about her sexual desires. Unluckily for Tom, she unabashedly calls him out and refuses to join him in the hideaway as retaliation for his disrespect.
Amber Gill couples up with nice boy Greg O’Shea over toxic Michael Griffiths, who chose another girl over her, took his frustrations out on her, and flip-flopped on his feelings until declaring his lingering love when it was convenient for him. She knew her own worth and acted on it, and eventually she won the entire show.
Strong female friendships are a source of affirmation, love, and strength. And women standing up for each other is invaluable. For the most part, the women handled conflict with each other maturely, with very minimal cattiness. It’s natural to be jealous when someone else is flirting with the guy you’re interested in, but the girls accepted that that was simply part of the game. Upon leaving the villa, many girls said that they found valuable relationships with lifelong girlfriends, not just romantic love.
This season also featured healthy male friendships, refreshingly devoid of toxic masculinity. The guys are often shown giving each other fashion or love advice. The bromance between Curtis Pritchard and Tommy Fury was the highlight of the season. The pair is not shy about cuddling or showing affection, and they often have intimate conversations about their feelings. They are a model for what male friendship could look like when separated from societal constraints.
While the cast is great, feminism does not claim that all women are infallible. Not all women are good people, just as not all people are good people. Feminism advocates treating women fairly and not subjecting them to elevated levels of criticism based on their gender, but it does not prohibit criticism in general. Holding women up on pedestals is part of the problem.
Feminism can be complex, particularly when it comes to interests that I have been told are anti-feminist. Women are “supposed” to like beauty products and shopping and romance novels because society at large believes that is our place. As feminists, to defy societal standards, we’re apparently supposed to reject these things. But rejecting feminine things for the sake of rejecting them means denigrating femininity. Feminism means creating the social space for women to have a wide range of interests, whether those be traditionally feminine or not. Femininity is not lesser; femininity is power.
Feminism empowers women to make our own choices, including, at the very least, what TV shows we watch. Of course, you shouldn’t applaud blatant misogyny if you claim to be a feminist, but you also can’t reasonably denounce a TV show without watching it first. That being said, it makes absolute sense to boycott the cultural output of creators found to be misogynistic, predatory, or abusive. If you’ve seen Love Island and still think it’s anti-feminist, then you’re entitled to your opinion because feminism means respecting diversity of thought. My issue lies with those who condemn the show, and by extension its fans, solely because it’s reality TV.
I like Love Island because it’s a mindless, laugh-out-loud funny form of escapism, but watching it doesn’t mean I suddenly abandon all of my closely held feminist principles. If my feminism could be shaken simply by watching a reality show, I’d have bigger problems.
Two weeks ago, my mom and I were cuddled up watching one of the final episodes of Love Island. All of a sudden, my brother quietly sat down next to us on the couch. My mom and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows, but let it pass without a word. Three episodes later, after a dramatic confrontation, he interjected, “Oh my god, I can’t believe she did that!” My mom smiled over at me slyly. “He’s hooked.”
Image Credits: Emma Francois