Having spent the past 18 months trudging through one lockdown after the next, this past summer and its laissez faire attitude towards Covid restrictions proved more of a challenge to my weakened social muscles than I had initially anticipated. In searching for a solution to taking my once well-oiled social skills out for a test drive, I wanted something that would allow me to stay in the state of languishing I had become so accustomed to throughout the pandemic, while also giving me some small hope of having some conversational prowess when it came to outdoor pints and any other form of socialising which I had become so unaccustomed to over the past year. My knight in shining armour came in the form of a reality television programme, an example of heterosexual exellence; or what I can only imagine to be what the straights, if you will, might consider ‘culture’.
What started as a bit of a laugh, soon became something that I was sure I was not actually emotionally invested in, but that did leave me awake at 3 o’clock in the morning after a night out streaming the previous night’s episode to catch up. If only to be able to glance at Twitter without the shock of a spoiler; “boy meets girl, boy cheats on girl on a naff island off the Spanish coast in a so-clearly staged series of events in which boy does not actually cheat on girl at all, but merely considers the existence of another woman in the presence of a camera crew” hitting me across the face, and it being, shock horror, a couple I actually liked.
The thing that struck me the most about my first adventure into the fascinating world of Love Island, was not the worrying displays of what I now understand the heterosexuals must consider to be romance, nor was it the the parading of gender within such strict confines so as to make a challenge of it—although I will touch back on this point later on—but rather the sheer dedication the straight population of Love Island, and presumably too the producers, seem to have in creating drama out of such a strict set of rules around dating, love, and sex.
Of course the thing with Love Island that is crucially interesting is the manner in which the confines of the show—the set, the ever-diminishing numbers of the cast, the challenges, and naturally the aim of the game; money for the most convincingly authentic or likeable couple—challenge the ways in which the straight contestants operate in the wild.
If, for example, you were to take a group of 30 odd Queer folk and strand them on an island with (limited) booze, food and sun a-plenty, and expect them to fight it out to be crowned ‘the best monogomists of the bunch’ I expect you would find quite a different result. Not because us LGBTQ+ folk are filthy, sex-obsessed, ethical non-monogamists (although many of us may well be), but rather because the confines of the show—the ever-diminishing cast of contestants, the unavoidable friendships with someone who may be dating your ex—are not so different from our natural habitat.
A friend (partner? Who can say…) once said to me, “It must be so easy for straight people, they can break it off with someone and never see them again, simple as that.” For Queer people on the other hand, the threat that your ex’s ex’s ex’s ex might soon be your current partner, in such a close-knit community, is ever looming. This is exactly what interests me so about Love Island. The contestants, all straight due to the producers’ belief that including LGBTQ+ people in the show would provide too many “logistical difficulties”, are not used to operating within such slim parameters. So, while they grapple with the reality that who is today a friend may tomorrow be a foe, the show clings to whatever else remains of what the contestants are used to in their natural world: Gender.
The show, now understanding that it has purposefully deprived its straight contestants of their right to walk away and never see their ex-partners again, falls back to re-enforce what the cis-heterosexuals do so well; the gender binary. Encouraging a sort of ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘girls will be hysterical’ narrative, the reality programme engineers challenges which emphasise the importance of performing your gender ‘well’ so-to-speak. The challenges either humiliate one group, exposing infidelity or gossip, and enrage another, or manufacture simultaneous humiliation and outrage, in a bid to maintain balance between stereotypical notions of boy-meets-girl.
In short, my fascinating glimpse into the epitome of straight culture has shown me that we live in two quite separate worlds when it comes to dating. In suspending our disbelief that the entire show is not staged, which I am fairly certain it is (or at least partially scripted), we see contestants crack under the pressure of such a small dating pool (Faye, Toby, I’m looking at you…). While I do not envy for one minute contestants who do not even have access to the time of day on the island, I wonder would we Queers fare better, given half a chance? Or are the parameters of reality television enough to force even the Queerest of the bunch into gender subjugation?