Award-winning novelist Manon Steffan-Ros steps into the dock in the latest of our series of articles defending modern culture’s maligned gems, with a heartfelt character reference for “lowbrow sensation” Love Island.
There are so, so many things that need defending in our culture. The literary worth of sci-fi novels. The cultural value of the conversations which take place beneath facebook posts. The joyous, acerbic chorus of ‘Shout Out To My Ex’ by Little Mix. Line dancing. Minecraft. ITV Be. Whatsapp messaging as poetry.
You may already be judging me. If not for my tastes, then for my insistence on making a point of it. You see, you’ve already grouped the above list of things into a category, and if you’re looking for a label, you might settle upon “lowbrow”- it seems to have become its own genre. And if we’re talking lowbrow, then Love Island is the undisputed champion of that genre. It is seen as the very lowest of the low; car crash TV, symptomatic of a generation of vain, self-obsessed, vacuous youngsters.
I am guessing that most readers will have either watched it, or they’ve googled it in order to arm themselves with the knowledge of everything that’s wrong with it. But for those of you who aren’t familiar with the premise, it is basically this- a group of unusually attractive twentysomethings are put up in a gorgeous villa in a warm climate, and they’re expected to pair up. The least successful you are at coupling, the more likely you are to get booted out prematurely.
So let’s start with what’s wrong with it.
The lack of diversity is its most jarring fault. Everyone is heterosexual. BAME people are underrepresented. There is no representation of the disabled, at all. Everyone is stunning in exactly the same way (hairless and firm, basically.) In addition to this, the contestants often find the sudden and often unpleasant onslaught of fame to be too much to deal with. The aftercare leaves much to be desired.
I am not going to defend the above at all. There is no excuse. It does strike me, though, that lack of diversity is a huge issue across the entirety of our cultural mainstream. Of course Love Island needs more diversity, but so does Question Time panels; the choice of experts on BBC4 history documentaries; election night coverage and news outlet vox pops. But we are far more likely to call out these failings- and they are massive, unforgiveable failings- if they stem from something we consider lowbrow.
Love Island pleases me. It is a soap opera of who fancies who, and who’s friends with who, and is she going to fancy the new lad more than the one she’s with now because on paper the new lad is EXACTLY her type. It is sixth form romances and the kind of stupid, drunken arguments which are fulled by limerance and cocktails. And there is jealousy and histrionics and hypersexualisation, but there is JOY, too. A group of girlfriends, huddled together, laughing. The first shy smile between would-be lovers. The stilted conversation when a couple is so desperately determined not to say the wrong thing.
Love Island educates me too. I have watched it and felt fury at the cruelty people can inflict onto one another, but then someone on twitter used the term “gaslighting”, and someone else replied with the word “manipulation”, and I realised that we are so used to these things that we can’t always recognize them, even when they’re our living rooms, lit up on huge screens in front of our noses. People across the country have been shown these harmful behaviours, and have been told in no uncertain terms that this is not right, and that this is not acceptable. It is, of course, heartbreaking that we need reality TV to teach us this… But it does teach us.
Love Island is a fantastically popular show- One episode this year drew 6m viewers- and with great power comes great responsibility. It is argued that the physical near-perfection of the contestants add to an already unrealistic expectation of beauty and thin-ness that is heaped upon the already laden shoulders of young people. I can’t argue with that. What irks me is that this pressure comes from everywhere- TV programmes of all genres; the music industry; our own friendship groups. I will even admit to feeling a tad inferior whilst watching Love Island with a tower of Doritos piled on my stretchmarked gut. I long to see a belly fold, a patch of cellulite, the merest hint that women actually have body hair. But other people’s bodies are not my business. People have a right to cut out carbs and wax their nether regions, they are allowed to have boob jobs and botox- it’s nothing whatsoever to do with me, just as it’s no-one else’s business if I decide to let my leg hair grow to look like leggings and live on Bounties and Maccies banana milkshake. Anyway, unrealistic standards of beauty aren’t exclusively featured on ITV2. Rachel Riley, anyone? Lucy Worsley? Do they put undue pressure on women to be both gorgeous and brainy? Of course not. They, as all women, should be celebrated.
And, by the way, if we are having the conversation about the effect of the depictions of women onscreen- if the lives of beautiful women in bikinis on our screens are detrimental to our society, where do you stand on the constant flow of crime dramas depicting violence and the murder of women? What makes you feel more uncomfortable – Love Island or Peaky Blinders?
Love Island doesn’t have to appeal to you, but please, let’s leave the cultural elitism at the villa door. Let’s leave the terms ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ behind, and celebrate the diversity of our cultural tastes. And anyway, if my tastes are lowbrow, at least that brow is allowed to be exactly as I decide – wild and natural, or plucked to perfection.