I started watching Love Island, a British reality television show about beautiful singles betraying each other on a compound in Mallorca, as a post-breakup balm. The breakup was already five months past when I started watching, but I was still wondering which of us, if either, had betrayed the other. Love Island captivated me, perhaps because it gestured so gleefully toward the inevitability of endings, the prelapsarian promise of fidelity.
On day one of Love Island, five single men and five single women “couple up,” choosing someone with whom they share a bed and complete “challenges.” Over the course of eight weeks, contestants swap partners in regular but erratic “recoupling ceremonies.” Those not “saved” by the voting public or by the other islanders are “dumped,” expelled from the villa and replaced by new men and women who arrive in slow-mo montages to find chemistry with lonely islanders and “turn the heads” of those who have already committed themselves. The purported goal of Love Island is to find love and the other goal is to win the infrequently-mentioned prize of £50,000.
It is very important, it turns out, not to mention this prize. Contestants and the public are eager to sniff out islanders who are “playing a game” — that is, there for the money, when the only sanctioned reason to be there is for love. “I don’t believe in Tinder or Bumble or any of that,” says Greg who arrives in the last two weeks and goes on to win with week-one hold-out Amber. “I wanted to see if I could come back in here land meet someone organically.”
When couples are dumped from the island as a pair, they insist they are already winners: “I’ve found what I came here for.” When only half of a couple is sent home, it is always floated that the remaining partner might follow of their own volition. No one ever does — instead, they stay on to wallow in their heartbreak before learning to love again.
Joanna, upon being dumped, hisses to Michael, “If you found what you wanted, you better leave mate, but you clearly aren’t, so you’re a fucking snake.”
“Nobody said I wasn’t leaving,” insists Michael, who has heretofore not said anything about leaving. “What have I got to stay for?” he asks, mystified.
“You’re here for the experience,” Curtis consoles Michael after Joanna wheels her monogrammed suitcase away. Then, with the puffed-up look of someone about to utter a really good line: “Because it’s not friends you’ve made here, it’s family.”
In order to remain on the show for any reason — for the “experience,” to find love, to win the prize-that-shall-not-be-named, to prolong one’s presence on television — islanders must be in strong and satisfyingly passionate couples. As the public is only instructed to vote for its favorite couple, the parameters of success are inexact but appear to be a combination of both members of the couple (1) being complementarily attractive, (2) having good personalities, and (3) being there for the “right reasons,” which is to say, committed.
There is thus a strong incentive to voice commitment early, to codify flirtations into sanctioned (bed-sharing, challenge-completing) couples. “Coupledom is a performance art,” writes Adam Phillips in his slim, aphoristic book, Monogamy. It is performed for oneself, one’s partner, and the world at large. To be (and to appear to be) in a sustainable relationship, couples on and off Love Island must exhibit certainty, consistency. Any lack thereof might send a partner packing for greener pastures, or, on Love Island, risk losing the faith of the audience. Looking happy is part and parcel of being happy.
Apart from the recoupling ceremonies (orchestrated by text message, as if by the hand of God), more intimate commitment rituals take place daily, as islanders promise each other their “head[s] won’t be turned” despite whatever belle du jour is next introduced to tempt them.
They talk about ideal partners as those who would “tick all [their] boxes,” as if one could list the personality traits desired in a partner and check off each as it is perceived. If it is acknowledged that no one could tick all boxes (this is reality television, after all), islanders describe their current matches as asymptotes which draw ever closer to perfection without intersecting: “There’s no way anyone that walks in could tick as many of my boxes as you.” The boxes create a framework through which desires can be made comprehensible, consistent, adherent to a broader model. They make the process of heads turning appear logical rather than emotional.
“What if someone comes in who literally ticks all of your boxes?” islanders ask each other, although it is unclear if this a measure for the strength of their relationships or for their honesty. “What would you do?”
Mostly, islanders demur: doubt, waffling, anything less than full-throated confidence is not admitted. Those who moderate their expectations, like Yewande, fall like Cassandra, their prophecies never believed. When her partner, the intolerably eager Danny, insists that his head will never be turned, she rebukes him saying he doesn’t have the authority to make that promise; how can he know how he will feel later? But when later comes, and his gaze shifts to leggy Arabella, Yewande cites his earlier promises, packing her emotional wounds with the gauze of moral outrage. It’s not about the rejection, but the lack of honesty. It’s not that his head turned, but that he said it wouldn’t. (“What goes around comes around,” Yewande tells him once dumped: her final prophecy.)
The boxes become grotesque when they are made less abstract. Two days after asking Anna to be his girlfriend, Jordan gripes to Curtis that he has developed feelings for newcomer India. Curtis pensively inquires: “Are you saying India has everything Anna has and” — a pregnant pause — “a little more?”
It is the task of reality television to make drama by pitting our desire to inhabit (or at least our tendency to describe) a static world against the reality of our changing one. People are by nature inconsistent although our imaginations often fail to account for it (we think of them rather as an assemblage of ticked boxes). If you keep a camera on someone 24 hours a day, they will be unfaithful to themselves, they will break character, they will begin to seem insincere.
What Love Island does so successfully is pair this with the parallel structure of the monogamous relationship, which in its most restrictive forms, similarly demands conspicuous consistency in tandem with absolute transparency.
While language on the show is tempered to avoid bombast (as Lena Dunham notes, the strongest declaration on Love Island is often “I want to get to know you better”), the commitments of the “couple” weigh heavy. As much as the couplings-up can seem like antiquated but unavoidable obligations met to appease producers, they sneakily attach to each pairing the special powers we attribute to monogamy in the outside world. Couples assume all the entitlement that accompanies officiality.
This raises the stakes substantially. “As religion once did,” monogamy makes the “larger abstractions” (“faith, hope, trust, morality”) real, like a magnet, Phillips writes, “that collects our virtues and vices.” Monogamy is a system of rules, an order that can be imposed upon chaos to alleviate our fear of change (infidelity). Its rules can make even the most earnest of defections deceitful, by tugging on our sense of injustice, outrage, invoking a higher (moral) power than our own hurt feelings. In keeping its contestants ever-committed, Love Island draws out the drama already present in our cultural anxiety surrounding commitment. Love Island distills relationships down to these rules, divorcing coupledom from the other usual tenants of commitment (long-standing rapport, depthful connection). In so doing, it reveals the lofty expectations of commitment and the very practice of fidelity as an action which fulfills only itself. While monogamy attempts to corral infidelities, its explicit rules only serve to give name to their breaking: betrayal.
When Curtis abruptly declares his disinterest in his mum-and-dad-of-the-villa relationship with Amy, he can’t seem to put his finger on where he’s gone wrong. “Everything’s been going amazingly with Amy,” he confides in his bros, looking for someone to tell him on camera to follow his heart, “but then why do I feel this way? Why am I attracted to [Vogue Italia model] Jourdan?” He propositions Jourdan, who says no, and then confesses to Amy.
“I realized that I’ve been lying to myself,” says Curtis, “I’ve been lying to everybody, and worst of all, I’ve been lying to you.”
“I think,” Amy says later, leaning on that old tactic of saying terrible things only to hear your lover deny them, “You never liked me. I was an acceptably average place-holder while you waited for someone better to come along.” Deny them, he does not.
While the dating pool on Love Island is limited to the 6-8 people (of the opposite gender) on the island, our dating pools in real life are claustrophobically finite, limited to the people we know and meet. (“Every marriage is a blind date that makes you wonder what the alternatives to a blind date are,” writes Phillips.) We aspire to an idealized “Real Thing,” imagining a “perfect partner,” who can be an alternative to always “thinking of alternatives.” The partner we end up with is generally as close as we think we can get. Are we their “place-holders”? Are they ours?
When someone leaves a relationship, we say it is because they have been unfaithful — either to themselves by thinking they wanted what they do not, or to their partner, to whom they pretended to want what they do not. In monogamy, as in reality television, we are betrayed — by our own preferences and desires — with the added drama that in monogamy we can also be betrayed by the preferences and desires of our lovers. Enemies come in from all sides.
It is difficult to write about monogamy without seeming “either cynical or naïve.” (We should not, warns Phillips, ask, “is the author right, but is [s]he bitter?”). As Dunham notes, it is impossible to watch Love Island without thinking of one’s own wounds, of betrayals doled out and received. In the would-be hours of silence I filled with Love Island, I saw clearly at least my own betrayals: I had no faith. I had trusted neither him nor myself. How much longer might I have staved off the fall, if only I hadn’t believed that it would come?
By the end of the show, after all the couplings and decouplings and recouplings, the wind-swept members of Love Island appeared to me less like the Instagram models they are and more like castaways blown ashore, a ragtag crew that dared to dream, suffered, but evaded disillusionment for one more day.
At last, there are only two couples left: Molly and Tommy, one of the first couples to solidify and the only one to make it through Casa Amour (“a monument of continuity among the promiscuous ruins,” Phillips might say) and Amber and Greg, a new couple, Amber having been left high and dry by flip-flopper Michael only a few weeks before. Although Molly and Tommy are much more established (they’ve been cooing I love you’s for several episodes), Amber and Greg win.
They have one more hurdle to overcome, a final segment called “Love or Money,” in which only one member of the couple wins the big, unmentionable prize and can then choose whether or not to share it with their partner. Greg wins. It is a tense moment. Amber says she’s here for love, Greg says he’s here for love, the audience has watched them closely for signs that they are here for love and has voted for them accordingly. Of course he will split the money, of course he will! And yet? My stomach drops to think of it. Does everyone’s? I remember the last time I waited with baited breath as Amber rounded the corner to see that Michael, with only minimal prompting, had left her for Joanna. In love, we are all islands. “Of course I’ll share it,” Greg says. Cheers erupt; a knowing relief.
Our romantic life “is an attempt to make a politics that is too good for the world” and it is the struggle to live up to this mandate which makes watching the islanders so excruciating and inspiring. The show is premised not around finding someone worthy to commit to, à la The Bachelor/ette, but around committing to someone before you know if they’re worthy (when could you ever know?), or rather, committing to someone despite all the evidence that neither of you are worthy. If we read our inability to acknowledge the inconsistencies of ourselves and others as optimistic rather than foolish, we can see something beautiful about the Sisyphean task of fidelity, of committing and recommitting against all reason.
This is why Amber and Greg win after all: it is her faith after Michael’s desertion which is the true emblem of monogamy, the hopeful forward-looking face. What fanatical hope we carry from one relationship to the next, every new lover striding toward us in slow-mo, ever more perfect than the last.
When I started writing this piece, Amber and Greg were still together, but as I finished, the news broke that their relationships has ended (via text message, Amber claims) as the two concentrate on their careers, the maintenance of the superstardom the show launched them into (love or money?). “I’m disappointed that it’s over,” Amber said on a talk-show, “but I’m booked and I’m busy. I’ll be fine. Onwards and upwards from here.”
The next season of Love Island will air this winter, with contestants from the UK whisked away to film in South Africa. Applications are open until November 30, 2019. There is, actually, a £50,000 prize.