Aoife Kelly: Love Island is starting to make for uncomfortable viewing
In an early episode of Charlie Brooker's dystopian sci-fi series 'Black Mirror' a woman battles for survival in a town where she is pursued by a gang intent on killing her, as members of the public record her every move on their mobile phones. It turns out she is a contestant on a reality show and, having commit a heinous crime, has been sentenced to spend every day waking up to the same nightmare, for the entertainment of the masses.
One might wonder which heinous crime the cast of Love Island are guilty of, beyond a desire for fame and fortune. This week two contestants have come under fire for their behaviour on the hit ITV2 show (it airs on Virgin Media Two in Ireland), which ostensibly offers a collection of young, beautiful men and women the chance to find love by competing for each other's affections.
Longford woman Maura Higgins (28) prompted 486 complaints from viewers to UK watchdog Ofcom following her attempts to kiss fellow Islander Tommy Fury (20) as he lay on a sofa and politely declined her advances by turning his head away. It was incredibly uncomfortable to watch, even for seasoned Love Island fans used to the often forthright behaviour of the islanders, and prompted many references to that 'c' word with which we're all familiar in this era of #MeToo; consent. Meanwhile, catering company owner Joe Garrett (22) has been labelled 'controlling' for requesting that Lucie Donlan (21), with whom he is 'coupled up', spend more time with the female islanders than the male, whose company she prefers. Viewers have made more than 300 complaints about Lucie's treatment by Joe and some of the other women on the show.
Joe is not the first contestant to incite wrath in this way. Last year Adam Collard (then 22) faced accusations of 'gaslighting' and manipulative behaviour in his dealings with fellow Islander Rosie Williams (26), who he spurned in favour of new arrival Zara McDermott (21). The dramatic scenes between Adam and Rosie were incredibly unsettling. She was extremely emotional, he was cold and dismissive, and his behaviour prompted Women's Aid to issue a warning about spotting the signs of emotional abuse in relationships.
The premise of Love Island is to help contestants to find love among their fellow islanders. In reality, they are pitted against each other, encouraged to 'couple up' or risk being ejected from the villa. Often contestants will dupe each other into believing they have a genuine connection simply to remain on the show. New islanders arrive in dramatic episode cliffhangers, prompting clashes, and break-ups and, on occasion, what appears to be genuine heartbreak. If anyone is guilty of being emotionally manipulative one could argue that the series' producers are equally, if not more, culpable.
Love Island has courted controversy since its inception. In 2016 it hit the headlines when the reigning Miss Great Britain Zara Holland was stripped of her title in the wake of having sex on the show. Current contestant Amber Gill is reportedly being targeted by racist trolls on social media while fellow contestant Sherif Lanre was expelled from the villa last week for unspecified rule breaking. He has since claimed he accidentally kicked a female contestant and used the 'c' word (and we're not talking consent).
However, the biggest hurdle for the show came in recent months following the deaths by suicide of two former contestants, Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis. The reasons why people take their own lives are myriad and rarely down to one factor but while the show cannot be directly blamed in these tragic cases, the impact of sudden fame and the duty of care to those exposed to it has rightly come under scrutiny. Ahead of the current series ITV flagged more comprehensive after care packages and support for contestants. There's a sense, however, that this may, in some cases, be akin to handing a packet of Elastoplast to someone who has been mauled by a lion.
It is worth bearing in mind that the average age of this year's crop of original contestants was almost 24. Is anyone an expert in how to handle relationships at 24? Add in the pressure of competing, on camera, for a partner, and facing rejection, again on camera, and even the oldest and wisest of us would undoubtedly find it difficult. And that is before you return from the bright lights of the villa to the reality of life as an ex-reality star, with the possible backlash and other stresses and pressures that may entail.
Of course, the contestants are adults and personal choice and responsibility come into play. They are, perhaps more than ever, aware of the potential pitfalls of taking part in the show before they hop on that plane to Mallorca. They are also acutely aware that a by product of being young and beautiful and beaming into millions of households on a daily basis for three months is, at the very least, 15 minutes in the spotlight and a possible small fortune in sponsorship deals. When you're 20 and feeling invincible it probably seems worth the emotional risk.
If there is any positive to take away from the show as it sails through its fifth series with a record audience across the UK and Ireland, it is that it serves to highlight issues like bullying and abusive behaviour, and to generate discourse. Responding to the complaints about Love Island this week, Adina Claire, Co-Chief Executive of Women’s Aid in the UK, said, "Controlling behaviour is never acceptable, and with Love Island viewers complaining to Ofcom in record numbers about Joe’s possessive behaviour towards Lucie, more people are becoming aware of this and want to challenge it. Love Island viewers are now very vocal in calling out unhealthy behaviour between couples on the show, and this is a positive development."
If you have been affected by any of the mental health issues raised in this article please contact Samaritans helpline 116 123 or Aware helpline 1800 80 48 48 or Pieta House on 1800 247 247. Women’s Aid can be contacted on their national helpline 1800 341 900. Support for men who experience domestic violence is available from Amen on 046-9023718.