It seems the summer of 2020 will be spent at home. With the majority of the British population confined to one time zone perhaps Love Island 2020 would have been the show’s most successful season yet.
Lockdown has created an audience who are in need of mindless distraction. Yet, despite their efforts, the show’s producers could find no way to film whilst abiding to social distancing regulations and were forced to announce that we’d have to wait until 2021 for our next dose of lurid exploits. For many this is disappointing: Love Island has become as much a part of British summer time as over-crowded beaches, mud-caked festivals and using sports spectating to justify excessive day drinking. But as entertaining as the show might be, it has become difficult to enjoy amid the growing number of suicides and mental health issues that have been associated with it. The decision to postpone the programme was a practical one, but it could prove a valuable opportunity for producers to ensure it returns a more mindful and empathetic version of its former self.
Sophie Gradon, Mike Thalassitis and Caroline Flack. Three Love Island stars who have all taken their own lives within the last two years. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to suggest there may be a correlation. Indeed, many contestants have professed to suffer with their mental health in the aftermath of the show: describing panic attacks, body image issues and anxiety.
This is unsurprising: these people experience a whole new dimension of fame. It is a fame that is immediate and ubiquitous but also precariously transient. Contestants are thrust straight from the island into a world of brand deals, partnership choices and ad campaigns and urged to decide quickly so as to preserve their relevance and not fall behind. They must choose wisely too: considering what might be most profitable- not only in terms of monetary value but in maintenance of the public image they seek to present. Already the choice is circumscribed: contestants have been unwittingly characterised by the shows’ selective editing, a characterisation which is quickly consolidated by online commentary, the tabloids and memes. These indelible one-dimensional depictions are difficult to renegotiate.
Returning to normality is not an option. It seems there is a strong sense of obligation that one must stand by their decision to live out their life in the public eye. We, the public, are a fickle and unfaithful bunch- whilst our interest in these stars wanes within months we cannot go cold turkey straight away. Having watched their lives unfold daily we demand continued access to their routines and relationships via their social media channels and anti-climatic appearances in dingy hometown nightclubs. To deny the public clamouring for content is to risk inviting online vitriol, accusations of snootiness and the abrupt suspension of sponsorship deals.
Of course, the producers of Love Island cannot be expected to be responsible for society’s shortfalls. But at the same time, their duty does not end at the door. Whilst they might have made some progress in introducing post-show therapy and adjustment training for contestants, there remain fundamental aspects of the programme which set participants up to be ravaged by the outside world.
The show’s constant appeal to sensationalism sees many of its contestants refused fair representation. They are shown crudely as heroes or villains, shown either in fiery feuds or in fawning romantic bliss. Heavy is the head that wears the crown and the hand that bears the pitchfork and these stereotypes are impossible to continue to live up to in the real world.
Then there are the challenges, some of which are inconceivably problematic. Participants have been made to read out vicious comments about themselves from the tabloids and Twitter, then encouraged to guess who these might be directed at. It is shockingly cruel given that these people have been completely shut off from the outside world and are then left hopelessly agonising about the reception that awaits them.
It seems the producers might well be missing a trick. Whilst there is undoubtedly an unapologetic love of the show’s drama, I truly believe that it is the more tender, honest moments that actually are responsible for its popularity. The baby challenge, where couples are tasked with looking after a fake baby for the day is often heralded as one of the show’s most popular episodes and is also one of its most harmonious. Jack and Dani won the public vote although their relationship was monotonously vanilla. Some of the show’s friendships have generated more buzz than its relationships, maybe by virtue of their more obvious authenticity. It is the delicious slithers of mundane domesticity as we watch the contestants prepare breakfast together or chat idly over tea which are often the most enjoyable to watch.
Perhaps all the public want is the undemanding disconnect of watching ordinary people navigate the same convoluted web of social interaction that we all do in hope of stumbling upon some deeper meaning. For, in spite of their unrealistic beauty standards, these contestants are human beings like the rest of us. Maybe our preoccupation with the programme is reflective of our inherent desire for instruction and insight-watching people who we can identify with grapple with the universal conundrums of human life is a reassuring and didactic experience.
So if Love Island is to return next year, it would do well to remember the ordinariness of its stars. They are people as susceptible to suffering with mental health issues as the rest of us and if the show is in any way responsible for increasing this likelihood it cannot be allowed to go on.
It must blatantly acknowledge the emotional upheaval that takes place in those chaotic eight weeks on the island and in the weeks and months following, and allow space for these feelings to be explored and protected. Love Island has a huge platform, particularly with its regard to its impressionable young audience. Using this platform to encourage and normalise discussions about mental health (alongside taking active measures to safeguard and protect the mental health of its contestants) could be the programme’s redemption.