Love Island: A Metaphor For Democracy?
People love to hate Love Island, but beyond the petty drama and shallow conversations lies something arguably profound: insights into human nature, behaviour, relationship management, and a metaphor for democracy.
A British summer is not complete without a clear argument for why one couple is more “genuine” than another, or reasons why you’d be happy if one Islander won the whole $50,000 solo. Who is a game-player? Who is the most attractive? Who is only there to jumpstart a career as an influencer? Sometimes, trivial questions give rise to significant ones: Are some races discriminated against more than others in terms of ‘attractiveness’? With the producers yielding so much control over the direction of the show, is Islander mental health prioritised enough?
This article will not examine all the questions that watching two months of Love Island gives rise to. Rather, it will focus on comparing activities in the villa to how they resemble the three pillars of democracy as outlined by Michael J. Perry: 1) the human right to democratic governance, 2) intellectual freedom and 3) moral equality.
1. The Human Right to Democratic Governance
Some parts of Love Island are dictatorial, like who gets to go on the Island in the first place: producers have the final say. While anyone can apply, it is well known that good connections are a huge advantage: Molly Marsh’s mum has worked various roles for ITV’s hit show Coronation Street, while Amber Wise is the daughter of Dennis Wise, a former Chelsea footballer. Over the years, Islanders are known to be a tight-knit community, often interconnected with participants from other seasons. Other parts of Love Island, like who gets kicked off, are democratic in that they allow viewers to vote to ‘save’ their favourite couples. Voting is open to anyone and only costs 35p. ITV is quite transparent with the process, advertising a clear deadline (normally 15 minutes after an episode airs, 10:15pm) and publishing voting results on the app. In a way, ITV adheres well to Perry’s definition of this first pillar, which relies on definitions given in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Everyone is given the right to take part in the vote; everyone has, more or less, equal access to the voting mechanism (through the App Store or Google Play); and who stays on the show is ‘governed’ by ‘the will of the people’. Votes are even held secretly, so as to encourage voters to vote true to their opinions. It seems fair to say that the Love Island voting process is pretty democratic; however there has been speculation that producer ‘favourites’ are often saved from a dumping, with some former Islanders and executives going so far as to admit that bosses meddle directly with votes. Despite this, producers are aware that voting is an important selling point in the show’s narrative. To this extent, viewers should at least be led to believing that their vote ‘counts’.
2. Intellectual Freedom
How do producers make viewers believe they have a say on the show, whilst guarding a potentially carefully constructed narrative and saving ‘favourites’? Editing. Everyday, viewers see less than an hour of edited footage, cut down from over twenty-four hours of filming. This gives producers lots of leeway to decide which Islanders to give more or less screen-time to. When Molly Marsh returned to the villa after a shock dumping, ITV received over 300 complaints as viewers voiced their concerns on Twitter that her return was ‘unfair’ and ‘cheating’- in later episodes, it seemed that her screen-time was reduced, and more emphasis was placed on other Islanders. Furthermore, the producers do not shy away from creating explosive drama within the villa. The Casa Amor, Movie Night and Grafties segments are all seemingly designed to add fuel to the fire. It didn’t seem a coincidence that producers sent in both Ella B and Ouzy, bombshells who knew Ty and Ella respectively, as a way to test the strength of Ty and Ella’s couple. Islanders have also previously complained that the editing can paint arguments as overreactions, given a lack of context. In Season 7, Sharon Gaffka kicked off at Hugo Hammond’s comment that he didn’t like “fake girls”. After leaving the show, she clarified that what seemed like an unnecessarily explosive reaction was not what it seemed, and that there had been ‘unseen bits’ (pun intended) that had led to that moment. Perry cites Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights for his definition of intellectual freedom: it includes the right to hold opinions without interference, the right to freedom of expression, the duty to respect the reputation of others and to protect national security, public order, health and morals.
It is the right to hold opinions without interference that Love Island deals most directly with. The nature of the show, how it is filmed, edited and discussed on social media, means that our opinions are obviously interfered with, albeit in a harmless and fun way. But perhaps a deeper question arises if we compare our perception of Islanders and their dramas with something akin to politicians and their politics. It is not unusual for one to be loyal to a particular source to stay updated on the news, whether that be a newspaper, podcast or YouTuber. The need to pay for subscriptions often limits our sources. How might the ‘producers’ of these sources change the way we perceive global affairs? The answer to that question is beyond the scope of this article, but it is something to think about.
3. The Human Right to Moral Equality
What exactly does it mean to have ‘a right to moral equality’, and what symbols of moral equality are in Love Island? Is it something like how Kady McDermott defended the Season 10 winners, Jess Harding and Sammy Root, by saying that ‘No one deserved to win more than anyone else, the finalists all deserved to win equally’? Perry’s definition of ‘a right to moral equality’ involves references to Articles 1 and 2 of the UDHR. He argues that democracy as ‘in the spirit of brotherhood’ entails the ‘right to moral equality’, in the sense of Articles 1 and 2 of the UDHR: that ‘[a]ll humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ and that everyone is treated equally regardless of ‘race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’. One thing Love Island has often been criticised for is the consistently unfortunate fates of contestants who are women of colour. Yomi Adegoke, writing for The Guardian, pointed out that the first four women to be dumped in Season 7 - Shannon Singh, Rachel Finni, Sharon Gaffka and AJ Bunker - were all women of colour. This year, Whitney Adebayo had potential to become the winner after being voted the public’s favourite couple alongside Lochan Nowacki, just weeks before the final. She would have made history as the show’s first black winner. Unfortunately, the couple fell short, coming in second place. Love Island has also been accused of double standards. In Season 5, Sherif Lanre was dumped from the Island for “accidentally kicking fellow contestant Molly-Mae Hague in the groin during a play fight and then jokingly referring to it as a “c**t punt”. The use of the c-word was deemed inappropriate by producers. And yet, Season 4 saw Ellie Brown call Georgia Brown an "ugly c**t" with intent to insult, and the producers aired the scene. Following Sherif’s dumping, he revealed that an unnamed Islander had repeatedly used the n-word in front of him while rapping Drake’s Over My Dead Body. The unnamed Islander was given no repercussions.
The right to moral equality on Love Island may be further threatened by how producers often encourage conflict between contestants to increase entertainment value. Several Islanders have spoken out about how being on the show has had an unprecedented negative impact on their mental health. Zara Holland, an Islander from Season 2, was stripped of her Miss Great Britain title after a scene of her having sex with fellow contestant Alex Bowen was aired. Holland’s reaction to the news that she had lost her title was also aired. Two years after the show, she still felt anxious and depressed, having noticed a ‘massive change in [her] personality’. She was later referred to a psychologist and put on antidepressants. Sharon Gaffka, an Islander from Season 7, spoke out about how she was worried for fellow contestant Faye Winter’s mental health due to the backlash Winter received over a scene where she yelled at her partner at the time, Teddy Soares. Gaffka expressed how she had seen a different side to Winter and highlighted that moments on the show can be one-dimensional and overplayed. In an interview with the Guardian, Gaffka also expressed that despite the support she received, she understood why some contestants took their own lives. Sophie Gradon, Mike Thalassitis and former Love Island host Caroline Flack all died by suicide within a period of twenty months. Producers have since introduced duty of care procedures to support Islanders before, during, and after they go on the show. Despite this, it is argued that the basic premise of Love Island, which thrives on airing conflict and moments of psychological distress, is simply at odds with protecting mental health. Love Island raises uncomfortable questions about biases concerning attraction, prejudice and mental health. It also raises questions about how far a producer should go to produce good TV. Perhaps watching the show reveals some level of understanding over what exactly the ‘right to moral equality’ means in scope and in practice - something that might actually mean something purposeful in one’s daily life.
Love Island may not be a perfect metaphor for democracy, but there are certainly some interesting philosophical questions that watching the show gives rise to. Although the winter season of Love Island has been cancelled this year, maybe next summer it’ll be worth watching an episode or two. Don’t judge too quickly - you may find interesting parallels between the show and our political institutions.