The most controversial series yet of ITV2’s Love Island has reached its long-anticipated conclusion. Headlines everywhere spotlight its staggering impact: from reports of the 4.1 million viewers of the show’s finale, to the 4000 complaints to Ofcom. No one is left unaware of Love Island’s popularity and notoriety.
Issues surrounding body image bring Love Island into disrepute. All contestants are young and adhere to high standards of beauty and fashion. Many have undergone great lengths to attain their good looks, such as cosmetic surgery, as well as laborious beauty and gym regimes. The scanty swimwear they wear leaves nothing to the imagination. It is thus hardly surprising that the show has received heavy criticism on account of its representation of an unattainable, ideal physical appearance.
Despite this controversy, however, it took more than the superficial garb of toned and tanned bodies to make Love Island a winner. Contrary to the ‘brain-dead’ zombies that Piers Morgan described, the islanders were full of life, emotion and character. Although there is no escaping how contestants are chosen for their mainstream attractiveness, this year’s series demonstrated that personality and behaviour determine their success in the public eye.
One of the most witty and memorable outputs from this year’s Love Island was the ‘Do Bits Society’: a spoof organisation founded by contestant Wes Nelson to discuss bedroom activity. The joke met with such discussion and laughter that retailers, such as Primark, even released society merchandise. Other humorous moments caught public attention, including the male islanders’ wacky parody of soaps set in Northern England. Admittedly it’s not the most sophisticated comedy, but moments like these testified to the fun and light-hearted charm of this year’s contestants. It was their lively entertainment, as opposed to their outward appeal, that attracted the public and provided unforgettable entertainment.
Meanwhile, audiences adored 2018’s winners Jack Fincham and Dani Dyer for their large personalities. They were true crowd-pleasers, receiving a landslide 79.6% of the public vote. From Jack’s sharp-witted impressions that went viral on social media, to Dani’s blunt one-liners, the couple brought the villa and the programme to life. Besides their humour, the pair were admired for their sincerity and openness. Viewers followed the development of a genuine, loving relationship, filled with heart-warming exchanges. The couple were not afraid to say what they thought, nor did they gossip behind their friends’ backs. By the same token, their faithfulness to each other while Jack resided in Casa Amor (Love Island’s subsidiary villa) melted the hearts of fans.
The couple’s honesty about their own bodies also gained public approval. Although said in fear that Jack would stray in Casa Amor, Dani recognised herself as not just ‘some girl with a nice bum and boobs who hasn’t eaten cheese toasties every night’. Jack’s image, on the other hand, induced perhaps the greatest quote from this year’s series. During that unforgettable video chat on the ‘meet the parents’ episode, the actor Danny Dyer praised his daughter’s new boyfriend: ‘I tell you what I love about you. I love the fact you got a little derby [short for ‘Derby Kelly’, slang for belly], you’ve got so much charisma. Listen, it takes a brave man to bowl in that gaff, they’re all ab’ed up and they ain’t got nothing about em.’ Clearly Danny Dyer, alongside the audience, appreciated that Jack was full of character and wit, traits that won him and Dani the public vote.
The value of personality over looks made itself felt early on in the series too. Niall Aslam memorably cheered viewers with the analogy he drew between himself and ‘the rainbow fish’ from a children’s story. Believing himself superficially unimposing, he hopes that the right partner will unravel his inner rainbow colours. Moreover, Niall comically confessed that next to fellow islander Adam Collard’s ‘sledgehammer’ of a body, he stood as a ‘pickaxe’ of good chat.
Although Niall’s time in the villa was short-lived and his relationships unsuccessful – leaving within the first two weeks – his strength of personality continued to attract fans. In a viral Instagram post, he opened up about his diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome, thanking the British public ‘for the love you have all shown me over the past few weeks, it has been overwhelming.’ He ended the post declaring ‘[n]ow it’s time for this rainbow fish to dive deep into the big blue ocean and show the world what I’m all about – there’s more layers to come!’ Viewers were won over by ‘the rainbow fish’ not for his pretty face, but for his sweet and funny nature, alongside his courage to speak so openly.
Other contestants were keen to display their honesty and authenticity. Ellie Brown maintained that ‘[t]he best thing about me is that I’m honest and real’, though she confessed that this positive trait results in her having a ‘resting bitch face’. Megan Barton-Hanson described herself as ‘very honest’ as well, going onto suggest why this quality might seem so important to young people today: ‘[a] lot of people our age play games or put across an impression of how they want to be seen, and then their true colours come out.’
In our age of technology and social media, there are few obstacles to young people presenting an ‘untrue’ image of themselves. It is unquestionably easier to lie or bend the truth online than in the flesh. That being so, it is no wonder that ‘fake’, ‘two-faced’ and ‘snake’ are some of the most prevalent and hard-hitting insults thrown between young people today.
Despite the outward flaunting of perfect beach bodies, authenticity is fundamental to Love Island’s public acclaim. If the audience and islanders were truly shallow, caring only for the beauty pageantry, why would the show’s producers throw in the curveball of the lie detector test? Why would they think it necessary to determine which islanders were genuine and which were false? Outward appearances were of little consequence to viewers who invested their time and emotions into the development of relationships on the programme.
On the other hand, personality could work to the detriment of a contestant’s public appeal, especially when that contestant seemed too desperate to prove their authenticity. Memes and trolls ripped into Georgia Steel for her constant reiteration of the word ‘loyal’, so much so that ‘I’m loyal, babe’ and ‘I’m real’ rapidly became two of this year’s most popular Love Island mottos. Audience commentators went from expressing their agony for Georgia after Josh Denzel’s tense recoupling with Kazimir Crossley, to voicing outright annoyance at her behaviour. It seems so long since social media users counted Georgia alongside Jack and Dani as Love Island favourites, even though the change of heart occurred virtually overnight.
The internet and tabloid press likewise created a rapid sensation of the controversial islander, Megan Barton-Hanson, for her conduct in the villa. At first a hopeful partner to the once-adored Dr Alex George, public backlash soon hit hard against ‘Muggy’ Megan after her advances towards Wes, who, at the time, was partnered with Laura Anderson. From then on, Megan received waves of condemnation for her past and present actions, often the subject of slut shaming and bullying. These reports filled tabloids and news feeds, while memes ridiculed her sex life and indecisive character.
There exists a double-edged nature of fault-finding by critics on social media. We claim to be living in a sexually liberated society, but the Love Island audience took a dim view of promiscuity. Popular opinion was quick to rebuke Megan and Adam for being self-seeking and inconstant in the villa, with the latter assigned the title of token villain. In the same way, commentators praised couples once their relationship became official. This included Megan and Wes, whose newfound popularity secured them a place in the programme’s finale.
Even so, it was a dead certain that the public would grant Love Island victory to Jack and Dani. Because the pair remained together from the beginning and were never tempted by other islanders, their romance seemed the most loving and sincere (perhaps a naïve assumption). Granting them four-fifths of the vote, Love Island viewers held faithfulness and personality in high esteem. And yet, it is doubtful that this reflects real-life relationships in mainstream youth culture. After all, the series presents what is probably only a distorted reality, moulded by its producers.
In the end, it was the show’s lively entertainment that attracted viewers to Love Island, not the toned abs and perfect bikini bodies. Many commentators risk overthinking the programme’s influence. While it is undeniable that young people are exposed to ever more one-dimensional standards of attractiveness and pressures to look that way, Love Island cannot hold individual responsibility for this problem. Fashion and ideals of human beauty have always existed in society, and people have always either chosen to conform or ignore them. Moreover, the impact of social media on disseminating an unattainable physical appearance is far greater. If Love Island existed solely as a parade of young and beautiful bodies, it would quickly lose its widespread following. The programme may be popular entertainment that does not take itself too seriously, but it is far from superficial. It thrives on an audience who cannot resist some light-hearted drama about love, heartbreak and friendship.