Love Island: A Modern Tragedy
Unless you’ve been living under a rock since Christmas, the little world of Love Island has probably gained your attention to some degree. Whether it be the adverts of toned men and bikini clad women, it’s hard to escape its tendrils wherever you are. You may be asking yourself, how the hell does this trashy show have any philosophical worth whatsoever? Well, I claim that Love Island can actually find its roots deep within the cultural and historical lineage of theatre and has a lot of meaty philosophical implications. From my perspective, Love Island structurally functions like that of a Greek Drama, whereby we sit night after night within the confines of our own classical koilon horse-shoe stadium to watch the contestants battle with the pleasures and pains of the heart, or at least attempt to contain their sexual impulses. The show for the most part follows what Aristotle terms as the three unities of drama; time, place and action. An episode of the show will take place over three days at the most, the islanders remain continuously within the luxury dormitories, pools and lounges of the mansion, and finally the action centers around the contestants attempting to couple up with one another.
Love Island features a number dramatic/literary conventions established within notable ancient works like a stasima or an episodic divide and the interjection of the chorus which serves to comment on the narrative and functions as a representation of the public within the play, which could be personified through the show’s narrator Iain Stirling. The tragedy eventually ends with the exodus which can be seen as the moment when a contestant finally leaves or wins the competition at the end of the series. We can even view the remote way in which the public vote to keep an islander couple in the competition or send them into oblivion, never to be seen in the confines of the island mansion again as the Greek term nemesis. In Greek tragedy this occurs when divine retribution is sought against the people guilty of hubris in the world of men. Love Island elevates the function of the audience to the role of Zeus, Dionysus or Apollo, whereby we smite down the hubristic land-heir Ollie for his disloyalties or because an islander simply bores us. In Ancient Greek drama the audience sees love, death, anxieties, triumphs and defeats reflected in the spectacle. As viewers, we experience the love triangles, the flirtation, rejections, arguments and jealousies play out through the divide of the screen. While many of us experience these issues throughout our lives, Love Island provides the viewer with a certain amount of theatrical exaggeration on the show, thereby allowing us to outpour our emotions when Islander X “mugs off” Islander Y within the performative space. The show artificially creates conflict between the contestants in order to exhibit these exaggerated interpersonal dynamics and like ‘Oedipus Rex’ to show the internal conflicts or insecurities of its characters.
A French literary theorist and philosopher named Roland Barthes analysed the mechanics of mass-culture and its media spectacles, through discussing the underlying structures and systems of signs that form what he views as mythologies. In discussing the televised world of professional wrestling for example, Barthes states that; “The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.” In my view this also rings true for Love Island, as the average viewer realises that the show creates a facade of reality, it’s “fakeness” doesn’t dissuade the viewer for the most part because truth is not its purpose. As Barthes states; “There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling [Love Island] than in the theatre. In both, what is expected is the intelligible representation of moral situations which are usually private.” The private sphere is broken by the mediating effect of the camera, we gain a glimpse into the private lives of hyper-sexualised people and how they conduct their love lives through their representation on the screen. Just like the actors of Greek Drama and Renaissance courtly dramas; the islanders wear their own masks. It seems at times as if the islanders are contractually obliged to keep a certain amount of their clothes off to show their naked bodies, as a means of constantly reaffirming their function on the show and their objecthood as something to be excessively desired. Barthes states that; “As in the theatre, each physical type expresses to excess the part which has been assigned to the contestant.”
In an article about the show to the Daily Mail, the philosopher Nigel Warburton aptly compared the antics of the islanders to the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s play ‘No Exit, Hell,’ in which the characters find out that Hell is actually a perpetual love-triangle which leads to the very quotable and oftentimes relatable line; ‘Hell is other people.’ Rather than being infinitely tortured that way, the islanders are eventually allowed to leave with the £50,000 prize or get the divine public boot from the show. However, importantly the show allows us to watch these contestants (or narcissism and body ideals in solid form) taste this Sartrean Hellscape on the international stage, while we remotely engage with it from the safety of our seats. We consume each episode, criticise the narcissism and shallow nature of each contestant but something will always continue to draw us towards it. We bracket our disbelief and let our emotions take hold of us for the ride.
Aaron Collier – Philosophy Columnist