What that Love Island row can teach us about dating as a feminist

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Moya Crockett
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We never thought we’d see a couple on ITV’s Love Island argue – and then split up – over feminism. But if 2017 has taught us anything, it’s that we should expect the unexpected.

On Wednesday night, the country watched open-mouthed as Camilla Thurlow and Jonny Mitchell, two exceedingly tanned contestants on the holiday dating gameshow, clashed over everything from paying on the first date to whether women really need feminism. Camilla, a 27-year-old charity worker, identifies as a proud feminist; 26-year-old business director Jonny was adamant that he didn’t see the point of it all.

Eventually, Camilla decided that Jonny wasn’t the man for her, and the couple parted ways. But while it’s easy to dismiss TV shows like Love Island as trashy pop culture, Camilla and Jonny’s conversation is worthy of attention for what it tells us about dating men as a modern feminist.

Analysed closely, their tense discussion in a badly-lit kitchen offers a fascinating insight into gender dynamics and sexual politics in 2017 – and a worthwhile lesson, courtesy of Camilla, in how to tell if a man is just not worth your time.

Without further ado, let’s break it down.

The scene opens with Camilla and Jonny standing in the kitchen, talking about first dates. She looks like a Disney princess; he looks like a drawing of a handsome man.

Camilla: Would you pay?

Jonny: Would I pay? I always pay. I was with my ex for five years, I don’t remember her paying for a thing.

C: What?!                               

J: She offered at first, but in the end she just stopped offering.

C: Because you always pay?

J: Of course, I always pay.

Every woman who dates men has probably met a Jonny. A Jonny considers it a point of pride, of principle, to pay for everything. When you reach for your debit card, a Jonny will splutter incredulously.

“What are you doing?” he’ll say. Attempt to protest, and a Jonny will bat your words away. “No, no, no,” he’ll say, gazing over your shoulder and waving his own bank card determinedly at the waiter. “Put that away. Honestly. It’s on me.”

When it comes to dating, the ‘who pays for what’ dilemma is often the first hurdle for the heterosexual feminist. What should be a straightforward financial transaction can quickly become riddled with awkward misunderstandings, disappointments and power struggles – and that’s before you’ve even sat down for your first drink.

Complicating matters is the fact that most women have slightly different ideas about what is, and isn’t, appropriate when it comes to bill-paying. A quick straw poll of straight female colleagues and friends confirms this. “I like a man to offer to pay, then quickly agree to go halves,” is a popular refrain. Other women feel deeply uncomfortable unless they split the whole bill. Some expect the man to get the first round if he organised the date, or to pay for dinner if he suggested a particularly expensive restaurant.

Ultimately, there’s no foolproof way to navigate the politics of money while dating. But if you really want to chip in and a man won’t concede, that’s probably an indication that he’s not actually very interested in what you want, or how you feel. And that’s not a very good sign at all.

Back to Camilla and Jonny!

Camilla: My gosh. But surely at the beginning it’s better to go halves because you don’t know how it’s going to pan out?

Jonny: No. I’d feel almost emasculated if a girl paid.

[Camilla’s eyes widen.]

C: Really?! God, I’d feel so awkward if I didn’t pay half.

J: No, I wouldn’t LET you pay. [Camilla tries not to roll her eyes.] No, honestly, I wouldn’t. I’d find it really fucking awkward.

Jonny… Jonny does not come off well here. Let’s address the whole ‘emasculation’ thing, which should serve as a bright red flag to any woman with a functioning brain. Because men who are constantly worried about being emasculated do not, as a whole, make good romantic partners.

When a man complains about being ‘emasculated’ by feminism (and Jesus, paying for her own cocktail hardly makes a woman Shulamith Firestone), what he actually means is this: ‘I am not really sure who I am as a person, and so I’ve decided I’m going to be a man.’ His idea of what a man ‘is’ is likely based on a mixture of old James Bond films, Dan Bilzerian’s Instagram, and this guy he once saw driving a yellow convertible, and he will cling to this idea with all the frightened determination of someone hanging off a windowsill by their fingertips.

He will either not talk about his feelings at all (because that’s not manly), or use you as an emotional dumping ground (because God forbid he lean on any of his male friends for support). He will expect you to fit within his narrow definition of what a ‘woman’ should be. He will be sent into a tailspin of panic by the sight of you paying for your own chicken katsu curry, because he doesn’t know how to control the world around him, and so he wants to control you.

You probably shouldn’t date this man.

Next on Love Island, we see Jonny bring up the dreaded F-word.

Jonny: You’re a feminist, aren’t you?

Camilla: Shouldn’t we all be feminists? [Jonny snorts.] Surely you believe in equality.

J: Oh, I believe in equality. But I feel like feminism believes almost in INEQUALITY.

This interaction is actually quite funny, until it makes you want to scream into a pillow. Jonny asks Camilla if she’s a feminist in the half-indulgent, half-chastising manner of a jovial uncle asking his niece if she’s got a boyfriend; as though he’s caught her out and she now has to bashfully own up to something slightly embarrassing. Camilla, to her credit, doesn’t take the bait. When she speaks, her voice is calm, but it’s pretty clear that she’s starting to realise that Jonny is a bit of a tool.

As far as Jonny’s argument that feminism believes “almost in inequality” goes… Well, we’ll get to that.

Jonny: The majority of feminists, like REAL feminists, believe almost in like a slope towards them rather than towards men.

Camilla: I don’t think it’s that, but I think it’s difficult for men to see that there have been several generations which have been preferential towards men. And therefore to redress the balance, there has to be in some way an active movement towards equality.

First of all, kudos to Camilla for keeping her cool at a point where many women would have given up and gone to pour themselves a stiff drink.

But let’s examine Jonny’s belief that feminism will result in the odds ‘sloping’ in women’s favour, to the detriment of men. While feminism benefits everyone, not just women, this view – that ‘real feminists’ wants men to lose out – is a common one.

In her 1991 book Schoolgirls, American journalist Peggy Orenstein tells the story of a schoolteacher who noticed that the girls in her class were taking up significantly less ‘verbal space’ than the boys. When she started making a conscious effort to call on female and male students equally, the boys complained that the girls were receiving preferential treatment. “Equality [for these boys] was hard to get used to,” said the teacher. “They perceived it as a loss.”

The reality is that if society is to become more equal, people like Jonny – that is, wealthy white men, who have traditionally occupied a disproportionate amount of space at the top – will have to move aside to make room for more women and other historically marginalised groups.

This will inevitably feel like a loss for some men. But those who really believe in equality, as Jonny claims to do, will understand why it’s necessary.

Jonny next announces that he doesn’t understand what women are complaining about, because we’ve already got it made. Camilla disagrees.

Jonny: Do women not have equality?

Camilla: Absolutely not.

J: How so?              

C: I mean, really? … There are still, like, if you look at the number of females in high-powered jobs, high-level jobs, top-tier jobs – 

J: The Prime Minister’s a woman.

C: Sure, but how many other female MPs are there?

J: I know, but it’s not like it’s a boys’ club. I’m sure they just choose who’s more qualified for the job. I’m not sure if it matters.

It’s funny how the people most likely to benefit from the status quo are often the quickest to insist that everything’s absolutely fine. The Prime Minister might be female, but she’s one of only two women to have ever reached that position – and while there are now 208 female MPs, more than at any other point in British history, that still leaves a male majority of almost 70%.

More importantly, feminism is not just about the number of women there are in positions of political or financial power (who are almost inevitably wealthy and white). It’s also about the gender pay gap, which particularly affects working class women of colour. It’s about sexual assault, domestic violence, and the UK’s abysmally low rape conviction rate. It’s about endemic maternity discrimination and the fact that women still do almost 40% more household chores than men. We could go on.

To respond to Jonny’s assertion that “they just choose who’s more qualified for the job”, I’ll defer to the Everyday Sexism Project’s Laura Bates, who tackled this line of thinking in Stylist’s guide to winning sexist arguments.

If you believe that the right person always gets the job, observes Bates, this must mean that you believe “there are more than three times more men named John qualified to lead FTSE 100 companies in the UK than all the women put together”.

“All the 32 MILLION women combined? Just statistically, that doesn’t make sense.”

Ultimately, Camilla should be applauded for broaching what’s still often seen as a ‘scary’ topic. Talking about feminism isn’t always easy, but it’s often necessary – and we should all have the courage to stand up to men we disagree with, particularly in a romantic context. And who knows: maybe Jonny will still have a feminist awakening yet. 

Either way, it’s not Camilla’s job to hang around to find out.

Images: ITV