Escape from Love Island

Sophie Lewis

If we are in an age of ‘heteropessimism’, it is fitting that nothing should fascinate us so much as the spectacle of extreme hetero-optimists searching for ‘the one’. The first episode of Love Island UK’s winter season this week pulled in ITV2’s biggest audience since the previous season’s winners, Ekin-Su and Davide, were brought back to talk about their plans to start a family.

Data on the expanding demand for ‘reality romance’ television suggests we can’t get enough of watching love-hungry contestants arriving at the belief that they have found Mr or Miss Right – father or mother of their future progeny – often within a matter of days. On shows such as Indian Matchmaking or Married at First Sight, subjects even get into genuine contracts with the state in live televised nuptials.

According to official figures, the rate of actual heterosexual marriages among Britons and Americans has fallen to the lowest point ever recorded. Nonetheless, when it comes to our mass images of ‘real people’ on screen, we are passionate bride-acolytes and groomzilla-enablers. As Michael Lovelock writes, heteronormativity is ‘resurgent’ in reality TV today.

Do we, the viewers, straightforwardly desire to be these exhibitionist bachelors and bachelorettes, though? Transparently, we are sometimes rubber-necking a gruesome slow-motion human catastrophe. But do we accept that the diamond ring is the holy grail in whose name all this drama and ugliness must go down? Do we really buy the idea that eternal romantic monogamy is the telos of life? Or are we engaging in anthropological scrutiny of the ideological snares and seduction mechanisms of True Love™?

The frightening thing about shows like Love is Blind (in which participants aren’t allowed to see one another until they’ve got engaged) is that it’s just about possible to imagine being in the contestants’ shoes – getting caught up somehow in whatever it is that drives people so desperate to get married that they’ll get married on a TV show.

‘Up next’ on all our streaming services are a hundred-odd instances of an arguably very similar genre: docudramas about life inside religious cults. Just like reality romance, the ‘cult survivor’ documentary genre (Wild Wild Country, Heaven’s Gate, The Family, Bikram, One of Us, The Vow, Going Clear, Prophet’s Prey etc) is a booming category, feeding an appetite for ‘investigation’ into the ‘cult psychology’ that leads to mass experiences of often long-term abuse at the hands of religious prophets and their extreme versions of familiality.

Who is more likely to get you, a cult leader or a spouse? Abuse by an intimate partner or family member is far more common than the ‘stranger danger’ of the sinister guru or groomer figure. We all (at least subconsciously) know this, despite the anti-trans moral panic about the putative paedophilia of queer and trans-affirming youth educators. Our fascination with both the cult-survivor genre and reality romance speaks to the intoxicating affective lure of that far more quotidian cult, the family. Given the right set of circumstances, these TV offerings suggest, we might find ourselves signing up. We might find the recruitment spiel compelling. We might get reeled in. The dream of the family – the conviction that it’ll work out for us, exceptionally – runs terrifyingly deep.

If you’re not a tele-trash connoisseur, it may startle you to learn that the cult documentaries generally have far more sex in them than the reality romance shows. Despite the ubiquitous, superficially raunchy promotional images, a core dynamic in today’s reality heterosex entertainment boom is the shows’ anti-sex morality and profound, counterintuitive erotophobia.

Shows like Too Hot to Handle and Temptation Island promise and pretend to be squarely about eroticism. But far from the soft-porn orgy you might expect, they end up being all about the virtues of continence. Sexual activity is typically punished in the court of audience opinion, as well directly in the show: on Too Hot to Handle, it leads to deductions from the prize-money pot.

The moral arc of a reality romance contestant is supposed to bend towards post-carnal, wedlock-and-procreation-oriented maturity. Viewers are there to cheer them towards this ineluctable goal of growing up, and to act a little bit aghast (though titillated) when they stray hornily from the path. Sexual desire is nothing but drama, this kind of TV insists. You enjoy the carnage it wreaks: it makes for great TV. But you’re not simply after ‘great TV’ when you watch TV, are you? Ultimately, you’re more enlightened than that. You know how to have fun, but you’re a romantic at heart (i.e. you understand your reproductive duty to the market).

Do viewers piously swallow it all whole, or do we rather all know that no one is building fulfilling relationships on these shows? We’re entertaining the fantasy, but we’re also shuddering at the thought of what awaits those poor people, left alone together, when the cameras go away. The universe of the dating show may have this much in common with the universe of the first-person shooter video game: contrary to the fevered extrapolations of policymakers who think gamers cannot distinguish between reality and fiction, it doesn’t actually direct their ethical lives offline. Maybe we’re even watching so much reality romance in order not to pursue it in our real lives.

Heterosexual culture is in a generalised crisis. Many straight women complain about men without quitting men or indeed doing anything else about their dissatisfaction. Heedless of the lack of actual threat or vision in heterofatalist women’s culture, a global pro-patriarchy movement has become convinced that men are oppressed and downtrodden. Incels were up in arms about women’s supposed cruelty towards them well before #MeToo kicked off; some even began ‘going their own way’. Centrists, meanwhile, also appear anxious that a mass exodus from heterosexuality is afoot.

Maybe the wager of a show like Love Island, then,is that Zoomers can be scared back into the old repronormative order with the help of a televisual spectacle that suggests there are far worse alternatives to heterosexual marriage. Anything would be better than the pseudocommunal, cut-throat boredom involved in life as an islander: ubiquitous cameras, 24/7 microphones, only one toilet, no clocks (casino-style), sleep deprivation, no private beds – existence in the hideous poolside compound looks bad enough to make you dream of housework.

Of course, most of the reproductive labour involved in the villa’s upkeep (linen laundering, bedmaking, vacuuming, cleaning, pool-filtering, fridge-stocking, most of the meal preparation) is totally invisibilised. It is performed, presumably, by PAs and set-dressers who never appear on screen. There is only one main reproductive task for the islanders to perform: self-beautification (make-up, hair, tanning, getting dressed and the gym). And they are labouring nonstop while lying around the pool.

Only in a scenario devoid of domestic drudgery might young women decide to enter into economic arrangements with young men in a world in which husbands and boyfriends still, statistically speaking, shirk dramatically on their share of the housework. Love Island simulates conditions in which the private labours associated with capitalist reproduction, in the private nuclear household, begin to seem almost exciting.

So intense is the boredom inflicted on the islanders that eventually the task of caring for a screaming plastic ‘baby’ for several hours, in pairs, seems to some contestants – by now husks of their former selves – not entirely unappealing. In this final, diabolical test (the last challenge before the end of each season), each couple must attend to the bodily needs of a doll, changing its nappy, burping, rocking and nursing it, in response to its randomised cries.

From the hell of Love Island, fleeing into a suburban mortgage with a lawn, tiny screaming robot in tow, makes perfect sense. While we, the consumers of the reality romance genre, look on, nodding, in part in the hope of accidentally learning something. Where are the exits to be tunnelled? What, besides families, might we collectively become?