Loving Vicariously

On ITV2’s Love Island

There was a point during the last season of Love Island, as there is in every season, at which I resolved to never watch an episode again. Two characters, Millie and Liam, had reunited after the show’s format had briefly separated them. He’d returned to the villa alone, signalling his apparent loyalty to her. The producers arranged for Millie to embrace him, her relief to develop and build, probing her joy for just long enough for it to come crashing down, as the presenter introduced the woman he’d been unfaithful with. Manipulated tears, hurt and pain followed. Twitter grieved and fumed in equal measure. Why do we do this to ourselves, I wondered. Why do we do it to them?

Just like every other season, I returned. My initial guilt faded as the thrills and drama of the season continued. Millie and Liam reunited, and were eventually voted the winners of the series. The villain won his love back, the public crowned him. Why do we do this to ourselves?

That episode was not unique in its cruelty. There was the drip-feeding of misleading information to breed insecurity and manufacture conflict, furious fights, betrayals and recoupling. “The first seasons were reality TV but now it’s become darker… brutal” reported a broadsheet newspaper, which footnotes articles on the show with adverts for the charity Samaritan’s, in an apparent acknowledgement of the suicides which mar the program. Why do we do it to them?

Watching Love Island is a stigma. It’s low culture, epitomised. Salacious, inane, vulgar. Columnists depict “a symbol of our vapid, rotten culture” and “representative of everything that is depressingly soul-destroying about the modern world… the absence of morals, the something-for-nothing culture.” Such writers rarely differentiate between their disdain for the show from the mass culture emblems it features; fake tan and “strappy sandals” amongst others. Perhaps they’re unsure of the distinction themselves.

Despite the media criticism, the striking thing about Love Island is the steadfast moral narrative surrounding it. It is a prosocial, or at least pro-discursive show, the majority of viewers I know watch Love Island with their partner or close friends. News feeds brim with harsh public condemnations of disloyal behaviour, while the kind and trustworthy are rewarded with unwavering support. The characters who approached the most recent season as a “lad’s holiday” were widely mocked, as were those who used being “true to themselves” as justification for pursuing endless flings. Must an audience’s motivation be the same as its producer’s? If the show represents vapidity and cruel manipulation, the story of Love Island is the viewer virulently rebelling against it, demarcating right from wrong, willing relationships to succeed despite everything.

Perhaps, for Generation Z, Love Island serves to counter the solipsistic search for sex and individualism inherited from previous generations. It reminds us that others hurt too, and that hurt matters. There is no single character in Love Island, no lewd championing of libertine hook-up culture, just a series of couples, broken and reformed, whose stories are defined by stages of commitment; entering relationships, the “I love yous”, meeting the partner’s family. When a new contestant enters the show, they are not afforded a back story, but introduced as an evident threat to the couples we’ve been conditioned to support.

I wonder whether we seek the novelty of these scenes, or their deep familiarity. Whether we find ourselves in those characters. We articulate our latent feelings through them. We find the relationships we lost, and lose them again. Love Island offers some objectivity, it carves out a space to understand ourselves, to make discussing our experiences, or at least proxies of them, possible.

Psychoanalysis has a term for this. Projection. We attribute those deeply-held aspects of ourselves and our pasts, which are too uncomfortable for us to confront, and identify them in others. Lacking access to social media or media interviews during the series, the contestants become mere characters of this mythos, defined by our projections, caricatures for the stories our collective subconscious needs to tell.

If Love Island serves as a vector of our past hurt and mistakes, perhaps the public response provides the frank reassurance we struggle to engender privately. As one viewer put it, “for an hour a day, Love Island made Twitter a kind place to be.” Every ridiculing tweet which defends those hurting characters also cloaks a message which resonates with us. We long for that kindness. We unite in it. Akin to self-compassion therapy, we find value in expressions of sympathy we had not previously directed towards ourselves.

In On Photography, Susan Sontag comments how photography has changed our relationship with the world; “photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention. To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged, to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting, another person’s pain or misfortune”. Maybe reality television is the modern equivalent of photographic voyeurism. And perhaps there is comfort in that, in seeing that these things happen, that beautiful people also hurt. Perhaps there is value in learning that this is the way of the world, and that sometimes, we are powerless to change it. By repeatedly watching heartbreak, passively, it becomes familiar. And so it becomes tolerable.

The psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim argues that the appeal of fairy tales lies in their ability to allow children to reckon with difficult emotions and urges in a world reassuringly removed from their own. Parental abandonment, separation anxiety, urges to rebel, fables explore dark themes which are too difficult to confront directly but comprehensible through distant character, setting and narrative. Maybe Love Island provides similar, a prism through which we can process our primal fears of abandonment or betrayal, or reconceptualise the difficult experiences of our past. Love Island; it is distanced, contained, in a location we can visit and leave behind, characters we can learn from but ultimately forget. “A sort of hyperreal world”, as ITV’s creative producer describes it.

In Daughter of a Ghost, Leslie Jamison recalls her young step-daughter using fables to navigate their step-mother daughter relationship. “Fairy tales are more forgiving than sentimental novels”, she writes. “They let darkness into the frame. Finding darkness in another story is so much less lonely than fearing the darkness is yours alone”.

Isn’t that what all stories allow us to do, to live vicariously? They create spaces to tolerate the feelings we buried, provide characters to illuminate truths we knew but could not articulate. Through stories we learn where we did wrong, where others did wrong to us and where things went wrong without explanation. Maybe this is what also what is most cruel about Love Island, that we expect naïve twentysomething contestants to serve as the villains and victims of our past, objects of our own pain and guilt. Perhaps that is too much for anyone to contain.

Sontag, incidentally, never wrote about love. “It takes courage to write about love because one feels embarrassed, as if people will know something about you that you don’t want them to know… I’m shy about it” she told an interview. We cannot write about such things. We cannot discuss them. And so we create modern, adult fairy tales. Tales which become social folklore we can adore and rage at together. We respond with vicarious comfort and reassurance, acts which would be far less bearable without our shared cast of caricatures.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps Love Island is actually about the drama, the thrill of captivating TV. Maybe it’s the taboo of love stories – love stories which don’t fit the traditional narrative we see in Rom Coms – in the light of day. Maybe it’s the thrill of watching beautiful people love. Maybe this essay is actually about me watching a series of Love Island during a breakup. But isn’t that also the point? We find what we want to find, feel what we need to feel.

Love Island’s success suggests a more compelling appeal than salacious voyeurism – the internet offers many alternative sources of that. It is little surprise that sociologists find the greatest factor motivating viewers to watch reality TV is a longing to develop self-awareness. It is also no coincidence that when scientists study the brain regions associated with vicarious emotion, they ask participants to watch clips from reality TV while monitoring the activity of their brain. We don’t think, we feel.

In recent seasons, the most vitriolic public responses to Love Island have been reserved for those contestants who are deemed to be faking it, judged to be gaming what is ultimately a TV game show. Why is this? Do we simply recognise the hurt this deceit can cause others, or are we also deprived? Such contestants dare to break the artifice, close the distance, step out of character. We lose the chance to revisit those lovers, missed-lovers and no-longer lovers of our past. They cheat the fairy tale.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we do it to them? Watching Love Island is catharsis. It is romance, uncompromised by the messiness of our own stories. It is learnt lessons we didn’t know we needed. It is reminiscing, repairing and hoping for something better. It is making the hurtful, tolerable, making the personal, shared. Watching Love Island was never about them, those contestants whose names we’ll forget. It was about ourselves.  

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