Love Island is showing young people what disrespect looks like in relationships, and how to tackle it

·5-min read

Love Island has returned as a schedule staple over the next few weeks, promising another steamy summer of sexy singletons shooting their shot in their bid to find true love. Having first erupted onto our screens in 2015, the ITV2 dating show, a revival of an early Noughties celebrity format, has grown far beyond the Instagram influencers, reality TV millionaires (and, of course, the many happy couples) it has created in its six year run.

No longer the nation’s guilty pleasure, Love Island commands the attention of broadsheet think-pieces, academic rigour – and more importantly, more than 2 million viewers, who discuss and devour content from the show every night for nearly two months.

That’s not to say the show is without its faults. There has been a lot that Love Island has got wrong, and arguably still gets wrong. Its previous lack of provision around contestants’ welfare has been rightly criticised (and since vastly built upon by ITV). The same can’t be said about body diversity, with the same finely tweaked and chiselled islanders looking for love every year.

But what Love Island gets bang on each season is showing its audience the trials and tribulations, no matter how ugly, of pursuing romantic endeavours.

The lush Majorcan villa, for all its neon signs saying “vibes” and “crack on”, acts as a microcosm of the dating landscape, with tensions heightened and accelerated due to the intense, pressure cooker-esque environment.

Some of the biggest scenes of drama may be manufactured or possibly prodded along by producers, or remarkably well-timed “bombshells” – but the dilemmas the couples find themselves in are very real.

Take this most recent season as an example. We’re nearly two weeks in and yet we’ve already seen potentially problematic behaviour from the boys in the villa. Brad has been accused of lying and manipulating Rachel, only to jettison her for new bombshell Lucinda (recycling the same cheesy chat up lines in the process). Jake and Toby have also been subjected to scrutiny, with viewers not remaining particularly convinced they’re genuinely attracted to their respective partners Liberty and Kaz, and may possibly be leading them up the garden path. Meanwhile, Aaron’s comments about his partner Sharon being “too career-focused” went down like a lead balloon.

Some may argue that these sorts of interactions are the last thing we should have on TV, and that Love Island is setting a bad example to its young and impressionable audience. But while some of this behaviour is quite ugly and even toxic at times, that doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t be exposed to it.

Unfortunately, these interactions happen in real-life romantic relationships – and Love Island serves as a means to highlight them to viewers, as well as showing people ways to fight them.

Love Island’s primary audience is the 16-34 age demographic, with a study by YouGov in 2019 finding around 43 per cent of Love Island viewers are under 30, but despite their young age, they have likely experienced gaslighting and toxicity in their romantic relationships. Gov.uk found that around 75 per cent of teenage girls, and half of all teenage boys have reported some form of emotional relationship abuse – sadly meaning that the behaviour they’re watching on Love Island may not be anything new.

Love Island as a show is quite neutral, never outwardly celebrating or condemning the negative behaviour to its audience. What it does show, however, are the islanders (in this case, mostly the women), willing to clap back at their partners for their bad behaviour, telling them just what is and what isn’t acceptable.

From Faye’s frank (and foul-mouthed) discussion with Brad after he basically called her unattractive in a toe-curling villa challenge earlier this year, to 2019’s Maura standing up for herself after Tom made crude remarks about her being “all mouth” for her frank approach to her sexuality – even Rosie’s now legendary slapdown of lothario Adam in 2018 – these examples show that these women on Love Island will not stand for this sort of behaviour, and therefore, neither should you.

Fundamentally, Love Island serves as a mirror that can be used to look at our own romantic relationships, and gives us a way to take stock of our own behaviour after recognising its negative implications on screen.

It may be true that reality TV game show Love Island is the wrong format for this, and more should be done in schools instead to educate young people about what constitutes a healthy relationship. But no PSHE lesson, taught to bored teenagers in a stuffy school environment, could ever cause debate on a national scale like Love Island can – a show young people can watch, engage with and frequently relate to.

Earlier this week, for example, Hugo faced the wrath of some of the women on the programme for his alleged criticism of “fake” women, saying women who hadn’t had the odd tweakment were more his type.

The argument triggered a genuinely fascinating and nuanced debate about surgery on social media, seeing people try and ascertain what terms are acceptable to describe those with cosmetic enhancement, as well as the negative connotations of the word “fake”. This sort of discussion would never have had such a wide reach without Love Island and its large audience.

With its reality TV format and its history of negative connotations, it’s easy for the loftier among us to simply dismiss Love Island as problematic and troublesome trash TV. But for teens and young people, it’s a crucial medium for them to learn about relationships – and the importance of respect within them.

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