Love Island can’t hide from its ugly past – what place does the series have in 2023?

Dani Dyer crying on ‘Love Island’ (ITV)
Dani Dyer crying on ‘Love Island’ (ITV)

Has Love Island finally given us the ick? As ITV2’s annual celebration of sun, skin and snogging returns, it’s a question many of us are asking. For the past eight years, this dating show has dominated the discourse – plonk a bunch of hot twentysomethings in a Mallorcan villa, and their actions will spark debate about everything from racism to gaslighting. Now back for its 10th series, there’s more scrutiny on Love Island than ever, but little sign it’s going anywhere either. Should Love Island change, just because society has? Or is it asking too much to want a show, where attractive gym bunnies lie around in skimpy swimwear, to be politically aware, too?

Love Island has always had problems. Casually misogynistic comments about “body counts” to denote the number of people a person has slept with, unattainable beauty standards and Miss Great Britain losing her title for performing a sexual act on TV all underscored the earlier series. Over the years, that straight-up sexism became less obvious. And as affection for the show grew, loyal fans defended it from snobbish critics who rolled their eyes and suggested it was “low brow”. There was a willingness to let bad behaviour slide, and appreciate the series for what it was: horny, drama-packed telly.

Everything changed, of course, as the show’s issues spilled over the villa’s walls and out into the real world. In 2018, Women’s Aid issued its first statement about emotionally abusive behaviour being presented on Love Island (something the charity has done again since). The suicides of two former contestants, Sophie Gradon in 2018 and Mike Thalassitis in 2019, as well as the suicide of former presenter Caroline Flack in 2020, showed that the fun wasn’t as harmless as it seemed. Contestants thought they were having a fun summer gossipping by a pool, but left the show to find themselves national hate figures, their social media feeds flooded with abuse. The air had been sucked out of the villa, its toxic ripple effect now impossible to ignore.

ITV has made big moves to protect the mental health of the islanders. Every series brings with it more in-depth duty of care procedures, with this summer’s contestants trained on unconscious bias and recognising coercive behaviour in the villa, as well as how to handle their finances when they leave. But while ITV can try to prepare the islanders for their future on the other side, even the most rational applicant cannot truly comprehend the impact of a show like this on your life, and how irreversible that change will be. I’ve spoken to a lot of former islanders over the years, and no matter how long it’s been since they were on the show, they’re still unable to leave the house without being recognised and feeling surveilled. That would take its toll on anybody, I think.

But it’s not just the contestants who are affected by Love Island – what about us mere mortals, deciding whether we want to spend another summer watching this show every day for the next eight weeks? In an age that ostensibly champions body positivity, Love Island’s continued celebration of conventional hotness, of pert, chiselled bodies available in a skinny to slim size range, is exasperating. Contestants who aren’t white, particularly Black women, are often poorly treated by the other islanders, with former Black cast members saying they felt like “tokens” on the show. No matter how much ITV talks to the islanders about colourism and unconscious bias before they go in, these problems are never going to go away without a drastic overhaul.

There are, at least, other places to look for a more diverse take on the dating show trend. Casting is currently open for Davina McCall’s new series The Romance Retreat (described as “Love Island for grown-ups”), promising an older, more experienced group of singletons looking for love. For a less hetero take on things, BBC Three recently launched the UK’s first ever gay dating show, with I Kissed a Boy. Netflix’s dating show spin-off The Ultimatum: Queer Love, meanwhile, features a cast made up entirely of women and non-binary people. ITV was ripped apart in 2021 for saying that LGBT+ contestants would be “logistically difficult” to include in Love Island, but they were right. This is a show stuck in the past and for all its attempts to bring it up to date, it just can’t fully get there.

Jessie and Olivia on ITV’s ‘Love Island’ (ITV)
Jessie and Olivia on ITV’s ‘Love Island’ (ITV)

Which brings us back to Love Island in the year 2023. This show has been as much a feature of every summer of my adult life as beer gardens and bad Hinge dates, but while me and my fellow fans have grown up, Love Island has remained static, suspended in time. For all the changes behind the scenes and minor tweaks to the format, this is basically the same show as it was pre-MeToo in 2015 – one not built to cater for a more diverse cast or better mental health provisions.

It’s not just attitudes that have changed in that time, too. Gone are the days of water cooler TV and monoculture watching. Viewers have infinite choice and are looking for reasons to say no to something. For all the explicit problems with the show’s earlier series, they made for properly gripping, brilliant reality TV, filled with unforgettable characters like best mates Chris and Kem and countless hit-pause moments (who could forget season three’s Olivia diving in the pool, fully clothed?). Were Love Island to return with a series as genuinely exciting as those golden days, perhaps it could win us over (you could argue that Ekin-Su, a drama-loving Turkish soap star born to be on reality TV, nearly got us there last summer).

But besides the odd flashes of fun, each series of Love Island plays out the same. That’s not to say people would stop caring about the issues Love Island highlights, but would be more likely to challenge and call them out, because we want the show to be better. If it’s not willing to adapt and just not that fun anymore, perhaps it’s time Love Island got dumped.