The not so Lovely Island: the dark side of reality TV

Love Island is a particularly distasteful manifestation of our appetite for conflict, writes Peter Kelly

  Love Island has become a phenomenon since its rebirth in 2015. It has seen increasing audiences with a record viewership of over 3.4 million in its current series. This is arguably because of its simplistic nature, with various men and women “coupling up” in order to become the final pair standing, and win a prize of £50,000.

It has eclipsed many of its predecessors, such as Celebrity Big Brother and The Apprentice, while oddly still seeming like a combination of the two. However, despite its immense popularity, this show and others like it face great scrutiny and scepticism.

This is because reality TV is somewhat of an enigma. It is understood as a form of television in which ordinary people are continuously filmed, which is to be entertaining rather than informative. Its most valuable characteristic is that unlike the silver screen it does not seek to capture us in a version of the world which “could be” or “should be”. To put it simply, reality TV “just is”. It is something which we take for granted, as a setting which is incontestably a reality.

While the silver screen must work to make us believe, reality television is carelessly taken at face value. This unchallenged belief is what allows reality TV programmes to manipulate us, particularly when partnered with commonly used and deceptive editing tactics.

This could not be more true than in the case of Love Island. When you recognise the simple premise of the show, it is hard to understand its success with it. It relies wholly on simplicity to illustrate the various ways in which glamorous, attractive 20 something year olds seek approval from one and other, and how they deal with that approval. While this format might seem harmless at first, it is an underhanded way of preying on the bitterness and contempt of its viewers to create a captive audience.

While Love Island may appear to romanticise the building of loving relationships with a fun twist, it is really a show which encourages hatred amongst its characters under the thin veil of love. Sadly, this format is not exclusive to Love Island, rather it is a staple of our reality television industry.

Love Island taps into our appetite for vengeance almost immediately. It purposefully shapes our relationships with various characters to be both positive and negative, with the intention of making the show more emotive. Viewers of this year’s opening episode will know that a mystery contestant was placed on the show with the sole purpose of “stealing” a woman from another man.

This misogynistic giving and taking of women clearly upset many viewers and contestants, and immediately tarnished his reputation. To counteract this, many characters, such as Alex or Samira have been shown in the opposite light, facing challenges of rejection and deceit, and have built up a cult following as a result. In the era of reality television we are subjected to the misleading influences of professional editing and filming, shaping our perceptions of real people.

The silver screen creates this contrast of characters through its filming and editing, but it is the way reality TV manipulates these contrasting personas, namely through the show’s competitive atmosphere, which separates it from conventional television. Episodes inevitably culminate in a dispute among characters of different statuses, and as a result pits cohorts of fans and supporters against each other day in, day out.

This is a key instrument of the success of reality TV, as the medium needs to draw the public in, instilling a sense of relatability to its characters and scenarios. It is a strategy which the show carries out well, and usually creates an atmosphere which can only be compared to football fanaticism, with viewers encouraged to pledge their allegiance to various characters, often at the expense or hatred of others.

Clearly this fanaticism is somewhat darker than the conventional football match. It becomes clear that the real power struggles within the show arise from conflicts among its viewers, rather than its contestants. Unlike shows such as The Apprentice, Love Island gives the power to remove contestants to its viewers, rather than its figurehead. It often allows the public to remove the least popular contestants from its villa.

As a consequence of manipulative editing strategies, we are constantly at the whim of the producers, who prevent us from developing positive relationships with characters, and who leave us bitter and seeking a form of “revenge” against those we dislike, despite not even having been wronged ourselves. The average viewer is given the power to allow their hatred and bitterness to manifest into consequences for these contestants. The bloodthirstiness is a product of this manipulative relationship with the program.

This bitter attitude of the show’s viewers is not enough to create a successful reality programme of this nature. It must be matched by the interactions of the contestants, and their interactions can become quite menacing. It is obvious that if the residents of this lavish Spanish villa were to fully enjoy each other’s company, and a conflict free holiday experience, this hatred would not manifest in the first place. There would subsequently be no viewers of this puzzling, damaging programme. As a result of this, many factors must be taken into account in creating a tense atmosphere upon which conflict can flourish.

Sadly, the main reason for this conflict lies with the contestant’s attitudes themselves. On the surface, these characters appear to be both sociable and entertaining, yet after the initial days spent in the Spanish villa they revealed themselves to be nothing more than vain, materialistic, and manipulative individuals.

This vanity and desire for approval is hardly a surprise, with an outgoing social media presence and personality being a casting requirement of all participants. While further requirements of those taking part are unclear, this emphasis on outgoing demeanours makes conflict inevitable, and it is abundantly clear that this confrontational attitude is desirable to those producing the show. Upon watching the show, it became immediately clear that the show was successful in creating this damaging dynamic.

The show is harmful in aiming to illustrate the insecurities of these contestants, as it constantly introduces new characters to the villa. The show immediately affords these new characters the power to upset established relationships. It makes for uncomfortable viewing, as we are often shown the distress and disappointment of those threatened by these acts. The actions directly support this theme of hatred and vengeance, with the controversial acts adding to the reputations of the culprits. Unsurprisingly, it is clearly a price worth paying for the producers of this show. What is more disappointing is that it is obvious from viewing the show that its contestants have accepted that this brutish attitude is a key to being successful on the show.

The most disappointing aspect of the whole experience, which becomes evident during these acts, is the lack of trust within the villa. Much of the anguish which arises comes from the threat which potential suitors present to those already “coupled up”. Many contestants have openly voiced their concerns that their partner would simply leave them for someone else.

In a show which prides itself on helping others to find love, it is abundantly clear that this was never an intention of those residing in the villa, or the producers who encourage such negative behaviour. It is simply an attempt for these cast members to progress through multiple weeks of safety, with a partner who can help them to obtain the £50,000 prize fund. This again promotes a mindset of fanaticism amongst viewers, who are now more wary of those who may upset their preferred relationships.

When these components of vanity, manipulation and a lack of trust are recognised by the viewer, it is not difficult to understand why a tense atmosphere prevails in the villa. When coupled with the hate-filled and vengeful tendencies of its viewers, its popularity is also understandable. Whether these sentiments are understandable or not, they are everything we should strive not to be.

Such was the case for a participant in this years show, Adam Collard, who became notorious for his disrespectful attitudes towards other female contestants. His antics, namely the constant sparking of intimate relationships coupled with his subsequent rejection caught the eye of many, including Women’s Aid who stated that he showed “clear warning signs” of “gaslighting and abuse”. Behaviour such as this is an extremely dangerous influence on our young people, and while this is the most serious example of the anger inducing conduct which is employed by the islanders, it is only one of a long list of occurrences.

The show is based on the false pretences of finding love, with the contestant’s true emotions appearing to be the obtaining of prize money. Confusion mounts when one appreciates that other popular reality shows are based on positivity and self-acceptance, such as the highly successful Rupaul’s Drag Race. Perhaps it is because Love Island does not force its contestants to become productive, offering contributions such as a business idea or talent, but simply encourages them to manipulate and scheme against one another. Regardless, one can only wonder what the point of watching a show feeding on and fostering negative emotion is.

There is an abundance of choice for those who enjoy reality TV, some more positive viewing than others. Sadly, Love Island can be far from uplifting. We need to have a better understanding of why we enjoy it. Shows such as this can be enjoyable for their comedic value, or because they can be viewed as “braindead TV,” which is simply used to pass the time. However, an emotional involvement in a show such as this simply allows and encourages our darker fantasies to flourish.

Reality TV shows such as the Geordie Shore, or Love Island, already raise questions and problems in relation to their portrayal of particular body types and can have negative consequences for the mental health of young people. It is a further failing of our entertainment media to allow negativity and bitterness to be added to the list of drawbacks associated with reality television. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider our nightly pleasure in other people’s displeasure.

Peter Kelly

Peter Kelly is a current Deputy News Editor of Trinity News. He is a Senior Fresh Law student, and a former Senior Reporter.