‘Won’t Somebody Please Think of the (Contestants’) Children?’ Is criticism of Love Island legitimate concern or just snobbery?

So, like at least two million other people, I’ve been watching Love Island.

I try not to say this in a confessional tone, but it’s difficult not to see reality TV as a guilty pleasure when people are quick to display their ‘superior’ cultural tastes and intelligence by telling you what you like is trash. I know this. I love The Wire, I do, but I also think The Simple Life is amazing and wanted Nicole Richie to be my friend until I met Nikki Soo and thought, same difference.  

But beyond the snobbish dismissal of Love Island as television ‘for the hard of thinking’, there is criticism more worth entertaining. This generally falls into one of two arguments based on two separate concerns – that Love Island is bad for the people who watch it, or that it’s bad for the people we are watching.

Bad for the people who watch it

Panic on the screens of London, panic on the screens of Birmingham, there are people having sex on TV…

I’m not going to waste time arguing that Love Island doesn’t really show sex and isn’t really about sex (but it doesn’t, and it isn’t). A more convincing reason for worrying the show is a bad influence is based on what Love Island represents, rather than what it shows.

You won’t need to watch for more than two minutes to see that Love Island is for the young, fit and tanned. There goes my plan to try to get my thesis in before a stint of free Mallorcan sun with a side of constant paranoia next summer.  Love Island has also been criticised for being a straight person’s game, even if producers insist that contestants can do what they want. Boys pick girls, girls pick boys, repeat until contracts end. Clearly these problems are not unique to Love Island, but I understand what this exclusivity says about who is desirable and deserves to find love (or at least, to be seen doing so on telly).

There are also concerns that the show promotes an unhealthy view of relationships. Of course, your view on this will depend on how you think people should date and/or mate. It’s probably not for anyone who thinks Tinder is the fourth horseman of the apocalypse. The contestants may be beautiful, but Love Island has its ugly moments. The chief executive of Women’s Aid warned that Jonny’s behaviour toward Tyla was ‘possessive and controlling’, while Olivia was accused of bullying Chris for chastising him for crying.

The question here is whether these relationships are presented as the ideal, or as cautionary tales. On Love Island nothing goes unframed by the lovingly sarcastic tones of the narrator, quick to mock even if not condemn bad behaviour. Camilla spawned a thousand think pieces when she tried to educate Jonny about feminism, and watching people fumble their way through dating has led some to argue that Love Island could actually educate us. Caitlin Moran described watching the show with her teenage daughters as a ‘valuable life lesson’ because ‘it’s basically an hour of people just talking about their feelings’, where worrying behaviours become learning opportunities.

The argument that the show is educational errs on the side of taking it too seriously (she says, writing 1000 words about it), and may be a self-conscious justification for enjoying reality TV. But this does raise an important point on why fear that Love Island is a bad influence is misguided. Skeggs and Wood’s 2012 book Reacting to Reality Television demonstrates that audiences do not simply swallow what is put in front of them, instead interpreting programmes and the people in them differently according to their own life experiences.

While we’re not all watching Love Island with our mums, I’d bet that most of us are discussing the show with other people. The sex and the ridiculous slapstick games may raise eyebrows, but Love Island really is just a show where people talk, a lot, about relationships. The relationships forged and broken on accelerated Love-Island-time are not normal (and not necessarily ‘genuine’), but as you watch them unfold you will undoubtedly recognise behaviours from your own life and the lives of those around you (yes you, shouting at the screen for her to take his compliments, stop shouting at yourself). This can be interesting, it can certainly be worrying, and it could possibly be useful.

Bad for the people we’re watching 

Image result for love island

‘You’ll have plenty of time to ask more questions, when it’s all normal again’ – Camilla

‘Is it ever going to be normal again?’ – Camilla’s mum

I get the argument that contestants may one day be mortified by what other people have seen, but these days there are plenty of ways to publicly embarrass yourself in a way the internet will never forget. But shows like Love Island have also been accused of exploiting their mainly working class participants for the benefit of viewers’ amusement and producers’ pockets, paying them little-to-nothing then spitting them out to sink or swim.

Reality TV partly appeals because some really do swim. Professor Helen Wood discusses the success some Geordie Shore housemates have had turning their structured reality fame into long-term financial investments, but finds disparity even among the most popular. While the girls rely on appearance-based media work which will eventually fizzle out, the boys are better placed to make a long-term living. Clearly not all former reality TV contestants can make enough money from this exposure to support themselves, and it seems unlikely that a more conventional job search wouldn’t be complicated by their 15 minutes of fame.

While I would argue that appearing in these shows is work (even when it looks like a holiday) and contestants should receive their share of the profits, the jury is out on whether reality TV is always exploitative. Skeggs and Wood’s audience research showed that while middle class audiences were more likely to see contestants as being exploited, working class audiences instead saw them as exploiting an opportunity to escape economic insecurity.

The difficulty for reality TV stars once the show’s over stems partly from the snobbery against reality TV itself. Not only is it perceived as lowbrow entertainment but participants are not seen as having achieved their fame, and ‘being yourself’ is often not seen as ‘proper work’. This means even popular reality TV stars are rarely able to move into more legitimate and economically reliable work in entertainment. All I’m saying is, don’t hold your breath waiting for Amber to fulfil her West End ambitions.

Do you believe in life after Love (Island)? 

With this series coming to an end I’m interested to see what the Islanders will do following the surprising success of the show, and what this might tell us about change in celebrity culture.

Prefacing discussion between two Islanders about the future after Love Island, narrator Iain Stirling quipped that he expected this to comprise ‘an appearance on Loose Women and in Hello magazine’. But I’ll be interested to see whether Islanders are able to build a more sustainable career than interviews for gossip magazines and further stints on reality TV. Some may be able to make money promoting products to the social media audiences which have been growing without them while they’ve been offline. While this is hard work to sustain over time, the interests and work histories of many contestants in fitness and fashion translates well to Instagram, while others could perhaps use YouTube to continue to keep audiences interested in their daily lives and relationships.

Image result for love island i've got a textNever mind what Love Island contestants will do next. What will we do now there’s an hour long gap in our evenings?

Actually talk to our own partners?

Pfft. Quick, someone send me a text.


Politics in entertainment: Claire Dunphy for Council?

You don’t have to look hard to find examples of the porous boundaries between politics and entertainment. Political information is presented in entertainment formats from Buzzfeed lists to satirical news shows, Russell Brand is calling on us to ditch capitalism, and David Cameron wants you to know that he like, totally loves Game Of Thrones.

The way that politics is represented in fiction is something I’ve been thinking about since reading Stephen Fielding’s A State of Play (2014). Fielding looks at representations of politics and democracy in British novels, plays, TV and film, and how these have changed over time. He argues that fiction has played an under-appreciated part in constructing people’s understanding of politics, and should therefore be taken seriously.

The first shows which spring to mind are those which revolve around politicians and their advisors, such as The Thick of It, The West Wing, or House of Cards. But politics can be found in all our favourite shows; sometimes I think I studied politics just so I’d understand the many political jokes in The Simpsons which zoomed over my head as a child.

In 2014, Jonathan Freedland wrote a piece about how popular culture shapes US politics, citing a Republican strategist claiming after their 2012 defeat that they were ‘a Mad Men party in a Modern Family America’. According to Freedland, Modern Family has had a small but meaningful influence on attitudes toward equal marriage, by featuring characters Mitch and Cam as parents ‘as flawed and loving as any others’. Hillary Clinton is often namechecked as a role model by their niece, Lisa Simpson style overachieving middle child and feminist Alex Dunphy. But as well as tackling current political issues, one Modern Family storyline uses the process of politics as its backdrop.

Claire Dunphy takes on the Council

Frustrated by a dangerous intersection near her home, Claire Dunphy (Jack’s miracle) starts a petition to get a stop sign. When she goes to present the signatures to the local traffic committee, she is dismissed by smug long-time local councillor Duane Bailey (Tobias Fünke). When Claire runs into Bailey campaigning for re-election, he has already forgotten who she is. Frustrated at his arrogance, Claire is persuaded by husband Phil that she should run against him. When Bailey finds out he mocks Claire, telling her ‘I’ve won six straight elections and I don’t plan on losing to some bored housewife, so don’t quit your lack of a day job’. This, combined with trouble at home under Phil’s watch, makes Claire doubt that she has the experience to run for office or that she would be able to combine this with caring for her family. Convinced by her dad’s wife Gloria that her doubts are caused by fear of failure, Claire decides to go for it.

In two later episodes, the campaign unfolds. With a local newspaper reporting that voters find Claire ‘angry and unlikable’, her family hold a mock debate to prepare her to face her opponent on public access television. This quickly descends into chaos as her kids point out every unappealing facial expression and gesture Claire makes. At the real debate, Bailey tries to trip Claire up by referring to obscure council regulations, but she has done her homework. Unable to attack her for being inexperienced, Bailey brings up an embarrassing personal incident. Earlier in the season, Claire’s husband Phil had accidentally entered the wrong hotel room and posed naked, in a Valentine’s Day surprise gone very wrong which ended in his arrest. Phil stands up to defend himself, in a cringey outburst which is autotuned and uploaded to YouTube.

When election day finally rolls around Claire enlists her family to help get out the vote, but most screw up their tasks; her dad Jay doesn’t even manage to vote. Claire doesn’t have a much better day herself as her false tooth being knocked out by a microphone just before a radio interview, making her sound like a drunk Ed Miliband impersonator. She loses the election, but does get the stop sign she had wanted in the first place, left by her victorious opponent with a sarcastic note. This moment of regained pride is cut short, when a car speeds straight past the new sign.

Damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t

There were a couple of things about this storyline which caught my attention. I loved the scene where Claire’s family host a mock debate and instantly start giving her grief about her facial expressions; even the Dunphy kids who don’t have any interest in politics have picked up that candidates are not necessarily judged on their statements. But the moral of this story is that normal people, particularly normal women, face an uphill battle for political power. Claire is constantly belittled and forced to prove herself by a long-standing incumbent who does not care about the people he is elected to represent. His arrogance goes unnoticed, but the local press report that her assertiveness is unattractive. Claire worries that if she wins she won’t be able to balance the role with caring for the family her male opponent mocks her for having and uses against her, and while her family support her they ultimately do her campaign far more harm than good.

For political leaders, family life can be a key way of ‘performing ordinariness’. In his book Intimate Politics, James Stanyer (2013) found that coverage of leaders’ family lives has increased over time, and that the extent to which a politician needs to bond with citizens to attract support is one of the factors which drives the extent to which they will willingly reveal personal details. However, this doesn’t work the same way for male and female politicians. Family life is seen as a laudable bonus for male politicians, but an insignificant necessity for women, whose families are more likely to be represented as suffering as a result of their ambitions. Liesbet van Zoonen (2005:91) argues that male politicians are presented as ‘living in an integrated world of public and private duties, while female politicians are presented as living in two conflicting worlds’.

The other side of this is something we see frequently in the media treatment of politicians who don’t have children, something which is emphasised and questioned for women but largely ignored for men. For women with political ambitions, family is both a necessity and a liability. Had the Claire Dunphy character not had children, rather than attacking her for being a housewife her opponent may have questioned her ability to represent local people. A woman without children is questioned about whether she is representative, a woman with children about whether she is up to the job.


While shows like The West Wing have (justifiably) been paid a lot of attention, representations of political issues and the political process can often be found in entertainment when you are not looking for them. Sometimes, even in a wacky family sitcom, these storylines can feel uncomfortably close to real political problems which we’d be better off consigning to history and fiction.

Jonathan Freedland (2014). Hillary Clinton needs Hollywood: Modern Family proves it. The Guardian, 16 May. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/16/hillary-clinton-needs-hollywood-modern-family-politics-tv

Steven Fielding (2014). A State of Play: British Politics on Stage, Screen and Page, from Anthony Trollope to The Thick of It. London: Bloomsbury.

James Stanyer (2013). Intimate Politics: Publicity, Privacy and the Personal Lives of Politicians in Media-Saturated Democracies. Cambridge: Polity.

Liesbet van Zoonen (2004). Entertaining the Citizen: When Politics and Popular Culture Converge. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Joseph Foy (ed.) (2008) Homer Simpson Goes to Washington: American Politics Through Popular Culture. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.

The storyline discussed here plays out over four episodes of ABC’s Modern Family: Season 3 episodes 4, 5, 13 and 19. Season 3 was first shown in the US in 2011-12, and they are now on Season 7. I haven’t made it past 5.