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Katie Byrne: 'Love Island isn't about love and lust - it's about social acceptance and rejection'



Michael and Joanna were rejected by the public

Michael and Joanna were rejected by the public

Michael and Joanna were rejected by the public

It's all kicking off on Love Island, as a series of tiffs, twists and tantrums finally gives viewers the drama they've been waiting for. I only started watching the show last week, and while I'm still trying to get my head around the culture and customs of the Majorcan villa, I'm also struggling to understand why I'm glued to the screen every night.

Am I invested in the fledging relationships and rooting for a happy ending? Or am I waiting for a chill wind to blow in and knock everyone off kilter? Am I laying claim to the couch at 8.58pm every night for fun and flirtation? Or is the death-grip of my fingers around the remote control a sign that I'm tuning in for something more primal?

On Monday night, I got my answer. As the couples lined up for dumping, I realised this show isn't really about love and lust - it's about belonging and rejection.

Let's look back for a moment at what unfolded when Michael and Joanna were voted off by their fellow Islanders before a dramatic twist. Michael's eventual decision dominated water-cooler chat the next day. Should he have stayed in the villa, or should he have packed up his Speedos and followed Joanna out the door?

It's a reasonable debate, but we seem to have overlooked the context. Michael and Joanna were identified as a "vulnerable" couple - along with Jordan and Anna - when they received the fewest public votes. That's gotta hurt, but not any more than getting voted out by your peers, as they were a few minutes later.

Game theorists will tell you that Islanders are either looking for love or money. And while that's a thrilling idea - and as good a reason as any to tune in - we ought to remember that contestants can't vie for love or money until they've met their basic needs. And the most basic need in any social dynamic is a sense of belonging. After all, you can't play a game when you haven't been asked to join in.

Michael was eventually voted back in by his fellow Islanders, and rather than following Joanna out of the villa, he decided to stay. Cue a furious backlash and all sorts of speculation about his real motives.

What people seem to have forgotten, however, is that Michael was rejected by the public and rejected by his peers before he was accepted back into the tribe. He didn't choose love or money - he chose the warm and fuzzy feeling of belonging, even if it meant rejecting Joanna in the process.

We can tell ourselves that reality TV shows have premises, but take away the stunts and the challenges and the prizes, and they all come back to one thing: our need for social acceptance.

Sure, you could argue that Love Island has sun, sex and scantily clad contestants, but what it really delivers is complicated social dynamics - in spades.

We might not be able to identify with a group of oiled-up, unevolved twenty-somethings, but we can all relate to the challenge of finding our place in the world, and coming to terms with the sting of rejection.

Ostensibly Love Island is about coupling up but, actually, it's about fitting in. The Islanders have to negotiate the dominance hierarchy, build social cohesion and establish a sense of belongingness before they can even consider the possibility of true intimacy.

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And that's precisely what makes it so compelling.

Peel away the veneer of suspiciously dark tans, outlandishly white teeth and "trobbin'' vaginas, and you begin to realise that Love Island is tapping into something much, much deeper.

It's a study - albeit a vicarious one - of social inclusion and exclusion. And in a world where rejection is a largely taboo topic, you could argue that it's therapeutic for us to watch these scenarios getting played out on the small screen.

We all know how it feels to be romantically rejected, especially in an era of 'ghosting', 'orbiting' and 'benching'. We all know how it feels to be professionally rejected. Scratch the surface of even the most confident-seeming person and you'll uncover a childhood experience of exclusion, a nasty run-in with a school clique or, worse, a memory of being picked last for the team.

We don't really talk about these experiences, but make no mistake, they are still there, in the recesses of our minds, when we tune into this show.

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