If you know any British people, or have recently been exposed to British social media even at all, you will know that there is something called Love Island. Love Island is a popular TV dating/reality show, which airs every summer on the ITV2 network, six days a week for two months.
But Love Island is hardly just a popular TV show. Since its inception in 2015, Love Island has grown and grown to become an almost irreducible part of Britain's collective psyche — like association football, or Brexit. In Britain, it is only possible to be “not interested” in Love Island in the same way that it is possible to be uninterested in something like soccer — huffily and performatively, as if you are trying to substitute your disdain for a personality trait.
But why? Why is Britain so into Love Island? It seems important for Americans to understand this — not just so you can develop a better understanding of the nation whose healthcare system you will shortly be buying and making as violent and terrible as your own , but also because you will, shortly, be getting a Love Island of your own.
Obviously, the format is perfect. Every year, a dozen or so toned, preened young people in swimwear and haircuts enter a villa in Mallorca, and form themselves on sight into couples — one girl, one guy. They're all single, and are supposedly there to “find love.” Standard reality TV rules pertain: no contact with the outside world (Islanders have phones but they can only be used to receive messages from each other/the producers); no books or other sources of entertainment; everyone sleeps in a big room together, two to a bed; and the only activities on offer are some gym equipment, a pool to lounge by, and hanging out. Their actions are narrated in a sort of cheeky, knowing, ironic tone by the Scottish comedian Iain Stirling. Occasionally there is some organized fun with party games, and sometimes a couple will be sent either on a date or to “The Hideaway,” a sort of concealed bunker where they can go to fuck in private (although obviously the cameras will still be rolling).
Every week or so, the show will introduce one or two new Islanders into the villa, upsetting the gender balance — there then usually follows a “recoupling.” (Not all couplings have to be romantic ones: indeed, in the early stages, the strongest couples often comprise two friends, pledged to stay loyal to each other as they wait for the appearance of someone they actually fancy). Single Islanders left out by each round of romantic musical chairs are then usually forced to leave (although sometimes the producers will intervene by staging a public vote or whatever in a bid to keep the people who make the best television in). In the final week, the surviving couples are gradually culled, before the final few — supposedly, the ones most compatible with each other — face a public vote to determine the winner.
More than anything else, what makes the show work is the regularity with which it airs. Every evening is a repetition of the same basic pleasure: watching a bunch of confident, conventionally attractive, typically affluent young people squabble between themselves as they attempt to get laid, increase their post-show reach on Instagram, and maybe win £50,000.
In the “Culture Industry” section of Dialectic of Enlightenment, which because of the person I am and the experiences I have had is unfortunately pretty much the only resource I have for understanding how light entertainment shows work, Adorno and Horkheimer note that “Entertainment makes itself possible only by insulating itself from the totality of the social process... perversely renouncing from the first the inescapable claim of any work, even the most trivial.” The total, radical idleness of the Islanders in the villa helps makes watching them a piece of perfect light entertainment — pure escapism.
But, as Adorno and Horkheimer also note, the “escapism” of light entertainment is never all that escapist. “Entertainment is the prolongation of work under late capitalism. It is sought by those who want to escape the mechanized labour process so that they can cope with it again... the off-duty worker can experience nothing but after-images of the work process itself.” The same goes for dating and relationships — as indeed is reflected in the language that the Islanders use between themselves. Contestants “graft” on other Islanders in a bid to get them to fancy them; they express their affections by “laying it on thick,” as if completing a heavy chore. Already this year, the male Islanders have begun responding to any set-back by repeating the phrase: “It is what it is,” a mantra of blank, absolute fatalism — the contestants resigned already to a reality which, as far as they can tell, simply cannot be questioned.
The Islanders, on paper so generic that they may as well be clones of each other, come to feel in their little differences like hated enemies, or beloved friends.
Indeed, the audience knows that for most of the contestants, appearing on the show very definitely is a sort of work — some of them have proper jobs (one last year was an NHS doctor), but most aspire to become full-time social media influencers, or make their money by doing personal appearances at provincial clubs and student unions (a handful of very lucky contestants end up getting cast in their own TV show). Love Island thus allows us to escape work, mostly guiltlessly: by showing other people doing an impression of not working, while actually working incredibly hard.
As with any reality show, the viewer will become attached to favorite individuals and couples — and the mass popularity of the show means everyone can then express their preferences to a large audience on social media, howling outraged at every little twist and turn and posting memes. But the regularity with which the show airs allows it to feel like a part of one's own life: the Islanders, on paper so generic that they may as well be clones of each other, come to feel in their little differences like hated enemies, or beloved friends. Last year everybody loved sweet, fun Dani (the daughter of popular actor Danny Dyer — a lot of the Love Island contestants have relatives who are also in some way famous themselves; the social media era has its own stage families); they grew to despise “the hated pink doctor” Alex, perpetually sunburnt and unable to talk to women. I still think fondly of Chris from two years ago, who for some reason was intent on turning basically any social situation into an excuse to start rapping, which was honestly much stranger and far less annoying than it sounds.
There is an element of personal identification in how viewers respond to the Islanders. Every year, there is a predictable spree of thinkpieces about how young people — shock, horror — are more likely to apply to go on Love Island than to study at Oxford or Cambridge . For most people, going on Love Island would be a fantasy — but it is a fantasy that feels in some way attainable (Love Island appeals to a very wide audience — but the archetypal Love Island fan is a member of what gets called “Fiat 500 twitter”, i.e. a young woman mostly interested in social media, clubbing, and going to the gym — thus, exactly the sort of person who could potentially be picked to go on the show).
Of course,at least some aspects of how the entertainment industry appeals to its fans have changed since Adorno and Horkheimer wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment in the 1940s. In the chapter on the Culture Industry, they claim that entertainment products help “cripple” the faculties of “imagination and spontaneity.” A sound film, in particular, “debars the spectator from thinking.” With them, “the power of industrial society is imprinted on people once and for all. The products of the culture industry are such that they can be alertly consumed even in a state of distraction.” For Adorno and Horkheimer, then, entertainment precludes analysis — indeed, the ideology of the entertainment industry positively insists that “fun” and criticism, or connoisseurship, are mutually opposed to one another: amusement must never be taken at all seriously.
In a typical episode of Love Island, hardly anything will happen — but what does happen can provide almost infinite material for discussion.
But Love Island doesn't work like that; indeed, the importance it has assumed in British culture is in many ways a function of the fact that it serves not to preclude analysis, but rather to generate huge quantities of it. Last year, Love Island aired over here at the same time as the soccer World Cup — episodes would start just as World Cup games were ending. This helped enhance the show's popularity (people were already watching TV because Poland vs. Colombia had been on) — but it also helped emphasize the way that Love Island, with its various strategies and sudden, unexpected twists, its faces and heels, was really rather like sport. And just as with any popular sport, Love Island has become basically completely inseparable from the analysis and that gossip that permeates all media around it; from the various memes that different twitter subcultures come up with to poeticise it (consider for instance the black twitter meme “OluwaJack”).
In a typical episode of Love Island, just as in a typical game of soccer, hardly anything will happen — but what does happen can provide almost infinite material for discussion. Last year Adam's abusive behaviour towards Rosie led to a national conversation about gaslighting; the show's depiction of Megan triggered a discussion about slut-shaming; the pink doctor Alex became an “incel icon.” The show became viewed as a microcosm for Britain as a whole. For this season, VICE UK is even dedicating a whole section of their website to discussing it.
Some people, of course, object to this — the belief that light entertainment should “just be a bit of fun” remains strong. But what this misses is that in a deeply reflective age, in a country where a majority of young people can now claim at least some form of higher education, the reflection itself is part of the fun — over-analysing Love Island is its own easy, light entertainment joy. Indeed, Love Island is far from the only pop cultural product which now does this: films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Game of Thrones, Fleabag and the like are all are consumed, at least in part, through the analysis that they generate in other media.
This might of course sound like a big improvement on the sort of entertainment that Adorno and Horkheimer were concerned with — for them, the elimination of the power of reflection in popular entertainment was a way that capitalism enforced a sort of intellectual conformity. But there remains a danger: because contemporary pop culture, in facilitating reflection, is also able to absorb it. In the case of Love Island, people have expressed real concerns about a lack of diversity (people of colour are in a clear minority in the show, and seem at times to be disadvantaged both by the way the process works, and how a majority of viewers are inclined to see them), and of course the show's fundamental perpetuation of compulsory heterosexuality (although in practice a lot of the most compelling relationships are between contestants of the same gender, and in many ways the show serves more than anything else to make heterosexuality seem wildly unappealing).
However these issues might ultimately be settled, the mere act of discussing them becomes part of the show, thus part of the show's success. This phenomenon has taken on a still more darker tone in the wake of the suicides of two former contestants since the last season aired: real concerns about the mental well-being of the contestants, and how well or badly they are able to adapt to the sort of fame they will now be exposed to, have become just another topic for Love Island thinkpieces to discuss.
Obviously I can't myself pretend to have in any way transcended this. And quite frankly, the endless thinkpiecification of a light entertainment show is a joy — the perfect distraction from work which of course, if you do the sort of work that I, or anyone else writing about Love Island, does, can itself become work, can make one into an even more effective worker. But at the risk of becoming one of those people who is hounded and despised for saying that people should be a bit more suspicious of the entertainment products they profess to enjoy, we must be wary of what we are doing here. We live in an age which is characterized by a crisis of political agency: there is so much, so obviously, that needs to be done — and yet we despair of finding any way to do it. As this season's contestants would say: “It is what it is.” The assimilation of reflection by the culture industry is a big part of that. Britain loves to think about Love Island — but it needs to learn to think more suspiciously as well.