Prayvaganzas, Recoupling Ceremonies and Excess Baggage Confessionals – oh my!
“I was loyal to you, my God. I stood by you…”
It was a disquieting scene: the young woman had remained in the house for four days, waiting to find out her fate. She had even gone so far as to sleep in the garden, so as to ensure that her loyalty wouldn’t be tested. And yet, as it transpired during the Recoupling Ceremony, her steadfastness was not enough: she had been replaced.
There was a new Ofjosh in the villa.
I jest, of course: Georgia Steel’s heartbreak during ITV2’s 2018 series of Love Island is hardly comparable to that of Elisabeth Moss’ character in The Handmaid’s Tale. And yet… well, whenever I stumbled across people chatting about last year’s series of the popular reality dating show, I immediately assumed they were talking about Margaret Atwood’s dystopic drama.
Until, you know, they mentioned that someone has been “muggy”, or “salty”, or “extra”. Then I was right back in the room.
On paper, the idea of men and women having to scramble into pairs to ensure their (figurative) survival sounds exactly like it has been lifted from a secret dossier in a nuclear bunker. But I get the appeal of romanticising post-apocalyptic world re-population – I really do. Bloody hell, if First Dates, Take Me Out and Ex On The Beach have taught me anything about matters of the heart, it’s that they’re so much better when a) they’re happening to someone else, and b) being drip-fed into my television schedules via neatly-edited (and incredibly dramatic) episodic instalments.
Naturally, Love Island has always trumped the competition with its plethora of bikinis, perfectly tanned bodies and luxury villa-setting in sun-soaked Mallorca. It’s dating on steroids, as far removed from our own paltry lives as we can possibly imagine. It’s a sugar rush for the eyes. And it’s become something of a cultural phenomenon, too, infiltrating our day-to-day lives and becoming valuable social currency: woe betide you if you turn up at the office without watching last night’s episode. You will be “sent to Coventry”, and become pretty much invisible to everyone around you… which is, essentially, the dream for introverts like myself.
As such, I have always gleaned my Love Island knowledge via osmosis (otherwise known as ‘eavesdropping on my colleagues’). This year, that means I know, much like I know there will be another day tomorrow, that Amber is everyone’s favourite. That getting “pied off” is a bad thing. That Lucy’s never gonna make “bev” happen. However, it also means that I have a slightly more detached view of the show than those who watch it religiously – and I’ve noticed some strange parallels between it and The Handmaid’s Tale.
Don’t believe me? Well, let’s start with last year’s Excess Baggage Challenge, shall we?
Masquerading as a “sexy kissing game”, the challenge saw the Love Island 2018 contestants faced with a number of suitcases – each filled with a “scandalous secret” about someone present. The aim of the game was to read the secret, kiss the person you believed it belonged to, and then use the handily-attached luggage tag to expose the truth.
“This girl can’t remember all the names of the men she’s slept with,” read one.
Another said: “This girl claims to have dated a well-known Hollywood movie star.”
And yet one more promised: “This girl has only ever slept with one other person.”
Yes, I know what you’re all itching to inform me: this was just a clever tactic to get contestants smooching, in a bid to titillate viewers and tip them into the ‘repeat watchers’ category. But didn’t it remind you, just a teeny little bit, of the very first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale? You know, the one where the Handmaids gathered in a circle at the Red Centre and listened as Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia listed off their past transgressions?
Yeah. Instead of receiving a kiss from a guy who’s “my type on paper”, though, Janine (Madeline Brewer) was slut-shamed by Aunt Lydia and coldly informed that everything that had happened to her up until that point was “her fault”. So, you know, some differences.
Last year’s excess baggage aside, there’s more… and it continues even now. Think the fact that Handmaids and Love Islanders alike are forced to share a dormitory (the former sleep side-by-side at the Red Centre, the latter at the Spanish villa of their dreams). The way they all blindly follow commands from on high (wear the robes, wear the wings, smile, lick liquid out of a girl’s belly button, suck another person’s toes…). The wonderfully weird vernaculars they have created and leaked into the real world, infiltrating our day-to-day conversations with sayings and -isms like “praise be,” “under his eye”, “may the Lord open”, “he pied me off”, “he’s such a melt”, “she’s got the ick”, and so on. The heavy emphasis that is placed on finding a partner (in Handmaid’s, being given a Wife or a Handmaid is a sign of massive respect; in Love Island, the ‘best couple’ is awarded the £50,000 prize). The way people are punished for refusing to conform, obviously in far less extreme ways (those who end up single in Love Island are sent home; unmarried women in Handmaid’s, meanwhile, are forced into a life of sexual servitude and surrogacy… or sent to work, and die, in the radioactive wastelands outside Gilead).
Then there’s the uniformity of the costumes (Handmaids wear red habits, Love Islanders don bikinis / ripped jeans). The clever way the producers use music to convey emotion (a pan of the villa to a mellow dance anthem in one; a stripped-back version of Blondie’s Heart of Glass in the other). The location (both Handmaid’s and Love Island are set, primarily, in one impossibly large and luxurious house). The all-too-natural separation of the sexes: Handmaids and Wives do not mingle with the Commanders without proper supervision, while, over in Love Island, everyone splits into groups of boys and girls whenever there’s the slightest sniff of drama (one lot by the fire pit, the others at the bar, unsubtle open-mouthed staring and whispers of ‘snakey’ behaviour from both sides).
And, of course, there’s the way every single episode, no matter which show you’re watching, ends on the cliffhanger from hell.
If you’ll indulge me a little while longer (I promise, I’m almost done), let’s roll all the way back to the first episode of Love Island 2018. Back then, we knew very little about the women involved, other than their first names and their jobs back in the real world (a dancer, a model, an actress… you get the picture). We saw them eye one another up, suss each other out, have a chat – and wait.
For what, you ask? For Caroline Flack to bounce into the villa with a bevy of topless men in tow, of course.
Sounding every bit like a cattle farmer in a Wild West frontier town, Flack invited the boys to step right up to inspect the flesh on offer. And yeah, sure, the girls had some agency: they were allowed to take a step forward if the boy in front of them took their fancy, for example. But ultimately, the guy got to choose his Handmaid – sorry, partner – at that moment.
Ofwes, Ofjosh, Ofadam… the tables were turned later on in the show, when they were allowed to swap and choose partners at whim. In that moment, though, the power balance seemed clear.
Of course, the shows differ in lots of ways as well. The Love Island women are sexually empowered and free to make their own decisions, and nobody ever suggests that they all get together and stone one of their fellow contestants to death (thank Christ, eh?). They live their lives in bright, bold, beautiful hues – as far removed from the suffocating shadowy world of Handmaid’s as can be. Sex is optional. Unmarried sex is actively encouraged, however much Flack protests otherwise (“We don’t want Love Island to be a grubby show. Yes, we include some sex scenes, but the truth is, sex is part of relationships and part of every couple’s journey. We’re not interested in the act itself, more why the couple have decided to take their relationship to the next stage and how it might impact the rest of the group.”). It challenges us to examine real world issues, yet still offers us something akin to escapism – whereas each episode of Handmaid’s leaves us pale, trembling, on the verge of tears and desperately, desperately afraid for the future.
Held up against the liberty and light-hearted escapism of Love Island, the Handmaid’s Tale feels all the more shockingly removed from our everyday lives. But both shows tap into the anxieties, fears and pressures of what it means to be a woman in the modern world. With its depiction of a dystopian world where women’s bodies are rigidly policed, The Handmaid’s Tale feels strikingly relevant in a time when women around the world are still having to fight for reproductive rights.
Love Island, meanwhile, continues to highlight the problem of gaslighting in relationships; the latent racism experienced by dark-skinned women on the dating scene; and the nagging sense that there is still a clear gender imbalance when it comes to romance.
As a pairing, the two shows seem counter-intuitive – yet, like cheese and fruit, they complement one another perfectly.
Image: Channel 4 / ITV2