The girl code prized by Love Island is just another way to pit women against each other

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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Love Island contestants Megan Barton Hanson and Wes Nelson share a kiss

The ‘girl code’ that Love Island’s women are accused of violating is just another way to excuse men from their bad behaviour.       

There is a particular constitution that has been dredged up in recent weeks, cited repeatedly by the masses to challenge behaviour they see nightly on their TV screens. This set of laws are not clearly defined in any court. They are not written down.

There are some cast iron commandments that anyone could give if pressed for an example - thou shalt not steal someone else’s man, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, whether it comes with glistening abdominals or not, thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour, even if you do think she’s too loud and attention-seeking – but for the most part, these directives depend on context.

They are fuzzy and indeterminate but collectively understood nonetheless as a guide on how to behave as a woman, on right and wrong, on being a Georgia, not a Megan. Girl code. 

Tuesday’s episode of Love Island saw Wes perform one of the fastest romantic U-turns in history, choosing to dump Laura, his partner from Day one, less than a day after fellow Islander Megan told him she had feelings for him. As Megan smirked from afar, giving producers the villain they so longed for, reactions to the drama rolled in thick and fast across social media. The court of public opinion had made their judgement and Megan was found to be in serious violation of the code.

“GET MEGAN OUT X X X X,” tweeted former X Factor contestant Caitlyn Vanbeck, in a post attracting 1,800 favourites. “[Any] girl who goes and breaks girl code deserves no friends and a lonely little existence.” 

“Megan hates Georgia cos she’s so upbeat and loud, I think I would rather be pulling pranks on the other boys not nicking them from the other girls, where is the girl code?????” another user wrote, with 5,600 people agreeing. 

Yet Megan – who just a week ago was being held up as a paragon of girl code conduct, after revealing to dumped contestant Rosie that then-partner Adam had approached her behind Rosie’s back – is not alone in being found guilty of transgressions against female solidarity. Zara, Adam’s now-dumped paramour, was also accused of breaking the unwritten rules when she usurped Rosie’s position as his sacrificial lamb, whilst Rosie and Samira were similarly seen to ‘snake’ over other women during their time on the show. 

Strangely, for rules that exist solely to police the behaviour of women, girl code seems to exist only in relation to men. Bar exceptions like not fraternizing with a sworn enemy of your friend (it doesn’t matter your age, a nemesis will always lurk) the majority of vague girl code edicts revolve mostly around heteronormative dating. Don’t flirt with someone else’s boyfriend, don’t be an attention-grabber around men, definitely don’t date your friend’s ex and so on.

There doesn’t seem to be a girl code that’s based around supporting other women in, say, their careers or mental well-being. Or perhaps it already exists under the guise of ‘friendship.’ 

Intuitive behaviours women undertake to help their peers – saving them from harassment on public transport, walking an unaccompanied woman home at night even if they’re a stranger, pooling testimonies of men to avoid through a whispered chain of industry warnings – aren’t included in the version of ‘girl code’ laid bare by Love Island. Instead, this variant delights in pitting women against other women in competition for – who else – men. 

Girl code rests on a simple premise: men can’t control themselves and that’s to be accepted. Under the tenets of girl code, men are all ID and no ego; little baby boys who can’t help but have their heads turned by every shiny object waved in front of them. So it’s up to the women not to entice the easily led lambs. And if they do, a la Wes and Megan (portmanteau: Mess), the blame is not equally apportioned but instead placed squarely on the doorstep on the female half of the duo. Men are excused; it’s the woman who’s betrayed her sisters, her girls. She has broken the code.

No one quite knows where girl code comes from. Brief polling (of the Stylist office and my nearest and dearest) reveals the phrase didn’t seem prevalent in the Seventies but, by the Nineties, had entered national consciousness, probably via teen magazines. The emotion it’s built on, however, has been around for centuries, since the first Neanderthal ditched his cavemate for Emma in the neighbouring tribe.

Girl code is built on fear and an implicit understanding of the skewed power dynamics in heterosexual dating. Men can’t be tamed, they can’t be blamed and so it is solely up to the women not to ‘screw’ each other over in relationships. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself by not responding to her boyfriend’s limp 11pm attempt at adulterous sexting. Girl code excuses men from culpability.

There’s a significant vacuum where a parallel boy code should be sitting. Sure, there exists a vague ‘bro code,’ primarily a misogynistic American invention, but that revolves mostly around having sex with women… and beer. It’s not a manifestation of what the world attempts to socialize young women into believing: your worth is defined by your ability to keep a man. 

Scrap girl code altogether, I say. Megan’s hugely callous behaviour shouldn’t be seen as a violation of some mysterious ethical standard only women are subject to. It should just be a generally terrible thing to do. Both she and Wes – a man who, just days before, was asking partner Laura to meet his family before discarding her in a matter of minutes – should receive equal flack for their lack of decency.

Female solidarity already exists in a grown-up form – it’s called feminism. Girl code is a hangover from the post-feminism of the Nineties, when ‘sisterhood’ was all the rage without much interrogation into exactly what that entailed. It isn’t inclusive – it’s completely het-orientated – and it’s also passively useless; girl code waits until a line has been crossed before it’s dredged up and brandished in the transgressor’s face.

And if you insist on keeping the title – it’s catchy, I get it – create a girl code that becomes synonymous with projects like Second Source, the collective tackling harassment within the media, or The Girls’ Network, a mentoring programme that coaches young  women from disadvantaged backgrounds in empowerment. Work that actively provides help for women when they actually need it. A girl code that encourages backing other women, be it in a meeting, down the pub or just a heated debate about which Chris is best (official ranking: Pine, Hemsworth, Evans, Pratt). 

But please, bin off the arbitrary romantic ethics that only seem to apply to one gender and get everyone singing from the same moral hymn sheet. First rule of girl code: equality is the goal.

Images: ITV