Written by Maeve Barry
I’ve spent quarantine in my childhood bedroom, surrounded by dolls and dog hair and relics of my twelve-year-old self that now smell like mildew; only disrupted by the addition of a heavy-duty vibrator and a pack of cigarettes hidden in my desk drawer. Conversely: I have spent my quarantine in a self-proclaimed ‘luxury villa’ that is certainly large, yet filled with obscenely tacky signage, hot pink throw pillows, and highly unflattering, neon lighting.
My luxury villa is in Spain. It is supposedly proximal to a glamorous beach, but we only ever swim in the pool. We spend the majority of our time in a makeup room, crowding around personalized vanities, gluing on our drooping lashes. Any conversation of consequence is held in an unmarked and dreary hallway that no one has bothered to decorate. It is only a staging area.
During the Coronavirus Pandemic, I’ve been watching a truly abhorrent amount of Love Island UK. I left Brooklyn in March to quarantine with my mom in the house that I haven’t lived in since I was twelve. I’ve now been here nearly four and a half months. Four and a half months, during which I’ve spent roughly 271 hours in a luxury villa, or eleven(ish) entire days. I gained access to my villa through a friend’s Hulu Student account. I found my villa after taking an edible, feeling hopeless and terrified and like I (and the world around me) was spiraling out of control. I wanted something that would make me feel nothing. And so I found myself saying ‘litchrally’ and ‘baantor’ and ‘mugged off’ for four and a half months, surrounded by men whose veins contain not blood but Creatine and women with gravity-defying tits. I found myself on Love Island.
Each episode of Love Island UK follows a distinct and predictable rhythm. An episode never leaves me anxious, but ends with enough suspense that I continue to click ‘Next Episode’ without hesitation, without ever waiting out the credits. Like chain-smoking. The narrator makes the same jokes every night. He is barely funny but makes me smile. He mocks the contestants just enough so I don’t feel crazy; I am not alone in the madness.
The premise of the series is that it barely has one. ‘Hot’ ‘Singles’ live in a house together and hook up and accuse one another of “playing a game” which is literally (litchrally) what they’re all required to do. They are dumped and recoupled and all want to stay in the villa for as long as possible. Because the longer they stay in the villa, the greater their chance of being involved in an Instagram pyramid scheme after leaving, or of winning 50,000 euros.
Here is the beauty of Love Island UK: I am not even remotely interested in participating in the world it presents. In fact, I am thrilled to be far away from a villa with migraine-inducing lighting, filled with enormous and terrifying men who seem mere seconds away from punching a hole through any available walls. The Islanders are constantly sunburned, consistently in conflict, almost always yelling. They are surrounded by people and exchanging fluid and I am not even remotely jealous. I am, for a change, thrilled to be shut away in my room and removed from these shockingly toned, relentlessly confrontational individuals.
When I began my Love Island journey, I found the contestants to be refreshing. They are unconcerned with pretense or with appearing mysterious and restrained. They are loud and bold and unabashedly proud of their bodies. They appear to have healthy levels of serotonin and don’t feel that they must be missing something in order to feel happy. Thus, I am not tasked with ever having to watch or reflect upon myself. I hate my body and consistently worry about seeming stupid. I think about the bars at which I stood uncomfortably in Bushwick, prior to Covid, surrounded by very mean boys wearing very small hats. All they want is to seem like they don’t notice people and to smoke cigarettes very quietly.
On Love Island, all anyone wants is to be noticed. In the first seasons, before it was clear the show would become an enormous commercial success, before anyone was concerned with Instagram deals or regulations or privacy, contestants chain smoked and drank and sobbed and fucked constantly. They were entirely unconcerned with ‘holding back.’ They bought each other tacky and earnest anklets before tearing them off and hurling them into the pool.
This suited me well at the beginning of quarantine. I smoked and cried most of the time. I could hardly make it through the day without an edible. No matter how terribly I was behaving by my parent’s standards (which I was now required to live by), someone on Love Island was behaving even worse. I was a voyeur of their misery, but they also never seemed to feel that miserable. They bounce back quickly because that is simply the arc of an episode. I attempted to follow suit.
During those first few seasons, everyone had sex on camera. I felt like the man in Rear Window as I watched synchronized, thrusting sheets filmed on a grainy, infrared camera. The beauty of these sex scenes is, to me at least, that they aren’t even a little bit erotic. The sex is almost always hurried and missionary; sans meaningful glances, mood music, a lingering hand. It is the kind of sex I’m glad to no longer have the option of participating in.
This stood in stark contrast to shows like Normal People, which I also watched during quarantine, which made me absolutely miserable. In Normal People, the sex was well lit and romantic. It was motivated by feeling and intimacy and complexity. It reinforced every feeling I was attempting to turn off. I unblocked the phone number of an abusive ex for the first time in six months after watching a single episode of Normal People, months of progress spiraling down the drain. I saw my depression and trauma and past relationships and the kindness that I wanted and never received, and during a pandemic could not receive, blaring through my laptop into my lonely childhood bedroom. I clicked out and went back to my island.
A personal trainer recited a five-line, rhyming poem about dating and pie. Everyone cheered and called him a genius. I was okay again. I have never once unblocked an ex’s phone number watching Love Island.
As the show gained widespread public attention, its budget increased and the series became more polished. It lost the chain-smoking and the drinking and most of the fucking. But by this point of quarantine, so I had I. I had found a way to be palatable. I accomplished this by becoming numb. Love Island’s repressing and regulating coincided with my own quarantine transition, one marked by the collective realization that this would last, that our profit-hungry society required that we be ‘productive’ while people died and hurt and were gone without recognition or eulogization. I upped my dosage of Prozac and put on pants in the morning. I re-entered a routine of making phone calls and waiting.
And Love Island was waiting and it stuck to its routine and rhythm and ritual. What I could count on Love Island for was ensuring that I never need feel ‘too much.’
I began quarantine attempting to watch movies with subtitles and the movies that won awards that I pretended to have seen when talking to a condescending former film major in Greenpoint. I’ve always been inclined to rewatch movies and TV shows, to the extent that I have most of my regular rotation memorized verbatim. I always say this is so I need not worry whether they are good. More truthfully, this practice allows me to ensure that a film or show won’t force me to sit and watch my own depression or loss or trauma. If I’ve already seen something, I never run the risk of mistakenly watching an episode that includes sexual abuse and me consequentially spiraling for the entire, following week.
I read on Twitter that re-watching movies/television at this obsessive amount is a symptom of anxiety, which makes sense. It also mirrors my cyclical and obsessive thought patterns that are a result of my persistent OCD. My thoughts cycle to avoid triggers. Cycling through TV/films serves the same purpose. During Covid, however, even my usual cycles of sitcoms felt risky. I’d remember someone terrible who I watched them with or I’d think about an episode I watched while getting ready for what turned into to be a terrifying or glorious night out. My mind wasn’t safe, and neither was most television. The only thing that felt consistently safe was Love Island.
Contestants weren’t furious with themselves for not writing or applying to graduate school or calling their friends back or being in love. They were satisfied doing exactly as they were. I watched parents come to the villa towards the end of each season and cry and tell their children how proud they were of them for chain-smoking and screaming and throwing lawn furniture into pools. I found this to be incredibly reassuring.
During every episode of Love Island, contestant’s very best friends and the potential loves of their lives are kicked off of the Island. Everyone is initially very sad, and then they bounce a scene later. They aren’t allowed the time to repress or to bury or avoid. They are sent into their confessional for a tearful interview, to identify their feelings, to leave them there and behind.
We are living in, and over the past months recognized that we have been living in, a system that not only accepts but necessitates that human lives are disposable and expendable. Contestants on Love Island (of course to a less violent or dangerous degree) reflected this practice of disposing of humans and abandoning empathy in order to function within a game, status quo, or system onto our television’s and computers for the past four months/ten years.
There is a fine line between healthy escapism and numbing ourselves into complacency. The fact of the matter is, there is nothing ‘natural’ or ‘healthy’ about cycling through people like expired cartons of milk or a face cream that ‘just isn’t the right fit.’
Although Love Island is reality television and is obviously not intended to serve as a blueprint for healthy human existence, the reality is that its contestants are people. And I finish each season, I find their Instagrams and learn that Islanders are no longer ‘madly in love’ and that their relationship lasted two months following filming in the most successful of cases. I’ve watched these contestants eat and sleep and fuck and cry for roughly forty-five hours. I forget about them just as quickly as I found them, in the amount of time required to backspace an Instagram handle in a search bar.
Love Island UK began in 2015, but somehow those early seasons feel like they belong to an entirely distant and distinct decade’s past. Season six caught up with me and I was in 2020 on my island and I realized that the host, Caroline Flack, who I love because she always sided with the women Islanders who men called crazy, had killed herself. I then did some Googling and learned that she was the third Love Island cast member to kill themselves this year. Even Love Island was not immune to the loss and the reckoning associated with a year that continues to remind us that there is nothing healthy or safe about our ‘normal’ modes of existence.
After learning of the suicide rates among Love Island contestants, it became more difficult, required more of a conscious effort, to lose myself into Love Island, and to briefly feel okay. Watching the living, former contestants travel to Ibiza and frequent night clubs and dine in restaurants on their Instagrams was no longer silly or charming, but actively violent during a global pandemic that requires distance and staying put.
Watching ‘haul’ videos in which pretty people unload their boxes of luxury dog treats became less comical when placed in proximity to infographics regarding the countless Black people murdered every day by police and people forced to choose between housing and food and healthcare, if afforded the choice at all. And of course this had already been our reality. The contrast was simply highlighted when the collective consciousness of our media made a miniscule, yet notable, step towards reflecting it.
None of this is to say that I have stopped watching Love Island.
I currently fall asleep each night to women complaining about ‘blokes’ or to the slurping noises of ‘pashing.’ We are still in a pandemic and I still have anxiety and therefore return to my predictable island that always opens with a recap of the last episode and then a shutter- speed-close up of a distraught Islander’s face and then a still image of a consistently full moon. Love Island continues to serve its purpose of structure and release and escape, and also remains really fucking good TV. I am reminded, simply, that it should not and cannot act as an end-all escape or solution. Nothing can; whatever it is we’re avoiding will eventually come creeping back up and into our screens, like weeds, until we uproot them.
Maeve Barry (she/her) is a writer and artist who moved from Los Angeles to Brooklyn last year. She teaches creative writing and painting to kids during the day and hangs out with her dogs most afternoons. You can find her on Instagram @maeveharkinscowboyatgmail.com or Twitter @maevethecowboy!