“Love Island: from gaslighting to racism, the reality show raises vital issues, but we need to handle them better”

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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Joe Garratt is the latest Love Islander to find himself accused of gaslighting - but should we be more careful with the way we handle these discussions, asks Moya Lothian-McLean?

Last summer Love Island went stratospheric. Although dedicated Island scholars would probably finger the 2017 crop of young wannabe Romeos and Juliets as the moment the show tipped from ‘just another reality TV programme’ into ‘cultural phenomenon’, it was the following year that saw it become the kind of show even politicians would cite in a bid to seem relatable.

Love Island was the most tweeted about show of 2018  and its final episode – which saw Dani Dyer and Jack Fincham crowned winners – recorded ITV 2’s highest ever ratings, with over 3.6 million viewers tuning in. 

Combined with the World Cup and what felt like eight weeks of glorious, uninterrupted sunshine, Love Island became baked into the mythology of summer 2018, a unifier that brought individuals from wildly disparate social groups together at 9pm to shout at sunburned 21-year-olds on the TV every night.

With all this extra attention came increased analysis. Love Island has become a sure-fire conversation starter, the pop culture prism through which discussions around topics like emotional abusesexual double standards and racial prejudice in dating have reached an audience who otherwise may have been unlikely to engage in such weighty discourse. 

Gaslighting, for example, a somewhat obscure psychological term that describes a particular sort of emotional manipulation, is now a commonly cited phrase – and Google searches for ‘gaslighting’ first spiked after contestant Adam Collard was accused of the behaviour last June by Woman’s Aid.

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Joe and Lucie

Fast-forward to 2019, and a new generation of contestants hoping to find love are now into week three of the competition. Before this year’s crop had even spent their first full night in the villa, conversations online sparked heated debates about fatphobia and the comparison of black contestants.

But most recently, people have been falling over themselves to discuss the dynamic between Joe ‘The Sandwich Man’ Garratt and his Cornish surfer partner, Lucie. 

For context; the climax of week two saw Joe pull Lucie aside to discuss her friendship with fellow contestant Tommy Fury. 

“The whole thing with Tommy, I’m not happy with it, it is strange […] on the outside world I would find it disrespectful,” he told Lucie.

“You were with him for a good hour. You know I like you so much but I do doubt things at times,” he continued, before requesting Lucie stopped spending so much time with Tommy and instead tried ‘harder’ to join in with the other girls.

For her part, Lucie insisted her friendship with Tommy was nothing more than that and fled, crying after telling Joe he couldn’t “make her do the things he wanted her to do if it’s not [her]”.

Joe, unsatisfied by the encounter, took to the Beach Hut to double down on his desire for Lucie to ‘change’. “I need her to understand where I’m coming from and hopefully adapt to the situation,” he said. 

And so the wheel of blame started to spin once again, this time with Joe’s ‘possessive’ behaviour in its sights. 

Opinions of Joe 

Shortly after Joe and Lucie’s conversation, the wheel of blame started to spin once again – this time with Joe’s ‘possessive’ behaviour in its sights. There were even complaints made to Ofcom about Joe’s behaviour.

“Controlling behaviour is never acceptable,” Adina Claire, Co-Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, told Stylist

“With Love Island viewers complaining to Ofcom in record numbers about Joe’s possessive behaviour towards Lucie, more people are becoming aware of this and want to challenge it. Abusive relationships often start off with subtle signs of control, so it’s important that it is recognised at an early stage. Love Island viewers are now very vocal in calling out unhealthy behaviour between couples on the show, and this is a positive development.”

Claire is right: this is, undeniably, a positive development. But how much do viewers take into account the realities behind creating, and editing, reality TV shows? 

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The realities of reality TV

If you star in a show like Love Island, millions of viewers will watch you for weeks on end – and your appearances in national newspapers, at the top of Google searches and on broadcast media will ensure that those who haven’t will soon know who you are. You become the most talked-about person on social media, with everyone convinced they know you inside and out. And this newfound fame can be difficult to manage.

“The problem with reality fame is that it’s so instantaneous,” TV psychologist Emma Kenny previously explained to Stylist. “You haven’t cultivated a wider understanding of how fame impacts on your life.

“People will suddenly have opinions on you who have never and will never meet you, who know nothing about you. And it’s based on a very, very small amount of information, which has often been edited in a way that’s meant to present you as a certain character.

“Dealing with that takes the highest level of resilience.”

Two Love Island contestants have taken their lives since appearing on the show; families have spoken of the post-programme pressure they felt and Love Island itself updated the aftercare it offers due to the twin tragedies.  

As has been widely reported in the national press, two Love Island contestants have died by suicide since appearing on the show. Their families have spoken of the post-programme pressure their loved ones experienced, and, in response to this, the Love Island team released a statement outlining an updated three-stage support system: pre-filming, filming and aftercare. 

“Care for our Islanders is a process the show takes very seriously and is a continuous process for all those taking part in the show,” it read. “We ensure that all of our Contributors are able to access psychological support before, during and after appearing on the show. The programme will always provide ongoing support when needed and where appropriate.”

Montana Brown, a fellow contestant and friend of Mike Thalassitis – who died by suicide in March 2019 – shared an emotional tribute at the time of his death, saying he was ‘misunderstood’ and his media-given nickname ‘Muggy Mike’ was the opposite of the ‘thoughtful, caring and loyal’ human being behind the persona. 

Other contestants have spoken at length about the way appearing on Love Island affected their mental health and the torrent of abuse many of them faced once they logged onto the phones that were confiscated for the duration of the programme. 

In May 2019, Adam Collard, the man who launched a thousand thinkpieces when he was accused of gaslighting Rosie Williams, spoke candidly about the pressure placed on him by the way he was presented during his time on the island, drawing parallels with Mike’s experience at being cast as the resident lothario. 

“Me and Mike Thalassitis [were] both portrayed as this [alpha male] persona on Love Island, even though that’s not what we’re like in real life,” he said.

“This made it hard for me to speak about my mental health because people assumed I wasn’t ever bothered about anything. You think, ‘I can’t come out and say I’m upset about something because it’s just not really the done thing.”

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Monitoring our own behaviour 

As an audience, we often descend to a baying mass. I’m guilty of it too – one of the great joys of Love Island is the ability to join in with ongoing chatter on social media, firing off blanket statements and jokes. 

But social media is the death of nuance and the diagnoses we make on there are hardly qualified ones. There is a huge gulf between acknowledging Joe’s attitude towards Lucie is a difficult watch, and casting him as ‘abusive’. There is an equally massive gap between saying that newcomer Maura Higgins’ attempts to kiss Tommy Fury were uncomfortably persistent and labelling her a sex pest.

Watching situations unfold on the show is clearly kick-starting important discussions that otherwise might not happen, but Love Island is one edited hour of entertainment, and the amount we don’t see is staggering. That’s not to excuse Joe’s behaviour or say the conversations about gaslighting and control it sparked aren’t valid. They are. But these contestants are far more than 2D binaries of good and evil. We need to keep in mind the ease with which we cast heroes and villains – and the effect that has on the ordinary people in there when they emerge blinking into the real world.

Because, in the light of the recent noise about the damage our preconceptions can do to the Islanders and their mental health, we’d do well to remember that instant responses and rigidly sure reactionary comment calling for contestants to get kicked out, based on 10 minutes of airtime, might be doing just as much harm.

Samaritans (116 123) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. For confidential support call the Samaritans in the UK on 08457 90 90 90 or visit a local Samaritans branch. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org.

Mind also provide advice and support to anyone experiencing a mental health problem. They campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding. You can find more information on their website.

Images: ITV/Rex Features/Instagram


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Moya Lothian-McLean

Moya Lothian-McLean is a freelance writer with an excessive amount of opinions. She tweets @moya_lm.

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