Image credit: Mhairi Montgomery

The appearance of yet another season of Love Island on our screens this winter stands testament to the prominent position it currently holds in pop culture. At a time of political upheaval and social instability, what does our obsession with the lulling sound of ‘I’ve got a text’ and the ‘do bits society’ tell us about ourselves and the world around us? The recent seminar event hosted by Oxford University’s Women’s Studies course, titled ‘Love Island: Feminism, Postmodernism and Late Capitalism’ faced this question head on. The event focused on the poetry anthology ‘On Paper: An Unofficial Love Island Anthology’, published by the ‘post-internet’, ‘metamodernism’ magazine SPAM. On the panel were the two co-editors of the anthology, Livia Franchini and Denise Bonetti, discussing whether this pop culture production can symbolise something of our age, merging ‘digital culture and late capitalism’. 

Livia Franchini is a writer from Italy, her novel ‘Shelf Life’ has recently come out in paperback and she is completing a PHD in experimental women’s fiction at Goldsmiths. Denise Bonetti is the Editor-in-chief of SPAM with numerous published poetry collections including ‘20 pack’, ‘Probs too late for a snog now:-(((‘ and ‘Chairs are for sitting on’. The Facebook event page posted seminar ‘readings’ before the event which included a Financial Times article by Cordelia Jenkins on ‘Shakespearean advice to the “Love Island” finalists’, and an ITV YouTube video titled ‘The Most Explosive Arguments of all Time’. After readings from the poetry anthology, the discussion began. 

The editors talk about the choice to publish a poetry anthology on Love Island, Franchini recalls a long summer spent in London instead of her home country Italy, calling the show a break in the evenings. They specifically point out their personal interest with the show; they are both originally from Italy, English is their second language. Franchini says this gives them a ‘cognitive dissonance’ which makes British TV a linguistic act, encountering British cultural identity that is new to them. This created a fascination with viewing the show Love Island from a sociological perspective.   

It is true that Love Island is indeed sociological, but the rest of the talk goes on to discuss it as much more. Many people would class ‘Love Island’ as low-culture, something that requires little intellectual or emotional attention but as the anthology and seminar points out the show generates complex responses and discussions about the show as a reflection of our society. Franchini says that as a writer, the categorisation of high and low culture is worrying, casting classist value systems on to our culture. The marketisation of artistic creation, she argues, is limiting output by demanding content be more easily digestible. Anything that is able to capture the attention of the masses, whether approval or distain, is worth investigating from an intellectual and artistic point of view as it reveals something about our cultures relationship to media and performance. They call the show a ‘fertile ground’ for these cultural thinking practises and artistic creation. 

The conversations that Love Island draws from its viewers, making moral categorisations of the figures, judging their relationship choices and ‘chat’, allow us to form social bonds with other watchers. In discussing the sides we took on arguments and outlining whose behaviour we thought was unforgivable, we uphold social contracts between us and reaffirm what is right and wrong. 

The panel also discussed the way that Love Island demonstrates the constant surveillance of our current society. We watch figures who are both constantly filmed and aware that they are being filmed. Yet they note that the storylines followed in ‘Love Island’ are in opposition to post-modern tradition; they esteem a unity of character, truth, and traditional heteronormative values. ‘Islanders’, it is argued, follow pretty strict social scripts of what kind of person you can be, be that as a male, female, or lover (and more or less restricted to these boxes), not to mention the set of desirable aesthetics it endorses. While these values are being filmed and distributed through modern mediums like TV, apps, and social media, Love Island ultimately is marketing traditional attitudes centred around heteronormativity. They quote from the aforementioned article by Cordelia Jenkins which sums this up eloquently: “in fact, it resembles something much more sinister: a postmodern, total-surveillance version of the Elizabethan court. There are eyes everywhere.”

Bonetti argues that it has gone much further than postmodern, into a “metamodern” location where it oscillates between “postmodern irony and sincerity”. The contestants live in an environment with hyper awareness of being watched, of performing, of replicating past characters, existing in a world that is not reality; clocks are covered and watches banned, such that “you don’t even know what day it is”, according to Kady McDermott, a 2016 Love Island contestant, the ‘islanders’ can only leave the villa on a Saturday, and the internet and all social media accounts are off limits. Yet similarly, they are totally aware of the world outside the villa, that a world is watching them, voting on them, and where a £50,000 cash prize and social media career could be waiting for them. 

There were more insightful comments from the seminar than could be put into this article. From a personal perspective, the ability to take what is culturally significant and to deconstruct it critically, while maintaining the appreciation for its entertainment quality, allows significant enquiries into our cultural and political moment. The organisers, a group of Women’s Studies students at Oxford, are organising three more seminars this term. The events, which can be found here on their Facebook page, are fortnightly, covering topics of #MeToo, feminism in China, and the dimension of gender in the climate crisis.