Love Island and Gaslighting
Siân Cleary, CCCU Sociology Year 3
Imagine: it is 2019 yet programmes like Love Island show viewers that the modern woman still cannot raise her voice, question a man’s behaviour or display anger without being told she is in the wrong! As series 5 of the popular tv show ended this summer, we have seen several cases of gas lighting, a term defined as the manipulation of a person through psychological means, into doubting their own sanity. Although gas lighting is not a new phenomenon, the term has been being used a lot more frequently since the current series of love island has begun. Both men and women can be the victims of gaslighting and other forms of emotional abuse, but this blog discusses the issues arising through a male use of gas lighting and how it just one demonstration of toxic masculinity, which is a recurrent problem today.
One of the more apparent ways gaslighting appears in the show is when the male contestants make the female contestants think they’re ‘mad’ for having doubt in their relationships. Gaslighting someone literally means undermining their reality by denying the facts and manipulating them into thinking they’re crazy for believing something other than the version of reality (usually an untruth) that you’re trying to project. In Love Island it seems to happen typically to women when they suspect their partner of straying but then the partner turns their concerns onto them and either tells them outright that they’re crazy, or makes them believe they are. Last season’s Adam Collard brought this to light in his treatment of Rosie, when he essentially made her believe that she was the reason he fancied Zara over her.
There are three main highlights of gaslighting that I noticed during series 5. Firstly, Maura was a major topic of discussion, loved and hated across the country for her honest, open and at times, sexual conversation, as well as not standing for anyone who goes against her feminist principals. I personally adore Maura and think she has been a display of what society needs: a woman who is not afraid of her own voice and will demand respect from her male peers. However, this was frequently unwelcomed by fellow male islanders. Tom was far from impressed by her sexual ways and said that she was loud and at times he was ‘embarrassed’ by her loud and OTT behaviour, which made him ‘cringe’. She has also been labelled as ‘hurricane or storm Maura’ for voicing her concerns for not only herself but also the treatment of fellow female islanders. Because of Maura’s outspoken nature which is at odds with normalized femininity, she was an easy target of gaslighting. Tom was able to turn his concerns about their relationship against her, instead highlighting her behaviour as ‘unfeminine’ and ‘abnormal’ in efforts to detract from his own poor conduct towards her.
Another instance was the love triangle of Michael, Amber and Joanna. Michael made Amber believe that she was the reason he strayed to Joanna (allegedly she hadn’t made him feel secure in the relationship prior to Casa Amor) and he then made Joanna feel she was crazy when she left the villa for doubting their relationship and his feelings for her: recall he said he had ‘found what he was looking for in the villa’ but didn’t leave with her, so she called him a ‘snake’, and then he claimed he ‘simply’ wanted to stay to finish the journey with his friends, shortly after which he tried to rekindle his relationship with Amber, telling Amber that his comment of ‘I’ve found what I’m looking for’ in the villa, was subject to a different interpretation (i.e. her!). Michael effectively encouraged both women to doubt their perceptions of his intentions towards them.
A third example of gaslighting in the show that came relatively late-on was Jordan’s gaslighting of Anna. After asking Anna to be his girlfriend he quickly U-turned towards new-girl India. He later attempted to deny this U-turn to Anna when she called him out after he was quickly friend-zoned by India, by trying to make Anna look ‘mistaken’ and ‘crazy’ in her claims that he was attempting to cheat on her.
In a society that claims to be addressing equality, it is important to recognise the role men have in repeatedly gaslighting women. Connell says that gender inequalities are embedded in a multidimensional structure of relationships between men and women.’ Toxic masculinity is a commonly used term used to describe the way in which traditionally masculine norms and values can be detrimental to themselves, women and society in general. Male performances of gaslighting are often seen as acceptable since they attempt to reinforce and maintain these traditional feminine ideals. Gaslighting might be a relatively new term but it plays into a long history that has charged women with being naturally inclined towards madness and ‘hysteria’. Where doctors medicalised women’s plight for being ‘emotional’ or out of control because women were oppressed and wanted freedoms, today toxic masculine norms enable gaslighting to continue to be an effective source of women’s manipulation. In Maura’s case, even her attempts to draw attention to gaslighting ended up reinforcing toxic masculine norms: her calling out of Tom’s behaviour was met with claims of her being ‘OTT’, hurricane-like and cringeworthy. His poor actions were subsumed under her ‘abnormal’, unfeminine conduct. This was much like Anna’s anger towards Jordan, which was arguably a legitimate and proportioned response, but was also subject to much backlash from Jordan himself and the wider public for failing to uphold feminine standards (of being a doormat!).
We can look at gaslighting through another lens of ethics and intervention. Since issues like this can be detrimental to islander’s mental wellbeing, it can be argued that the show is at times unethical and that interventions should be made to protect contestants. Additionally, it comes into question whether displaying these examples of gaslighting in the public eye to easily influenced, impressionable, young viewers is acceptable. These examples of gas lighting might seem like normal behaviour for viewers who witness toxic masculinity performed in the villa in ways that replicate wider social norms about what’s considered acceptable behaviour for men and women.
With the tragic suicides of previous islanders, Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon, it can be questioned whether the island is a setting for wider toxicity that takes place in the villa walls. Contestants are placed in a secluded, institutionalised environment for weeks on end, forced to choose a partner and there is no escape from fellow islanders, despite many arguments and upset occurring in the villa. It wouldn’t be beyond reach to argue that the ethic of the show mirrors that of the famous Zimbardo experiment. The Zimbardo experiment demonstrated one of the most extreme cases of experimental demonstration which shaped behaviour, personality, attitudes and values when research subjects are placed in an unusual, institutionalised environment, separate to wider society. The Love Islander villa can be considered one of these environments and its attributes often have detrimental effects.
This leads to the question ‘should interventions be made?’ Are scenes of gas lighting, emotional abuse, struggles in relationships a cause for producer intervention? Due to the abnormality of the villa setting, it may be wise for producers to take more appropriate action to protect contestants, for example, withdrawing them for some ‘time out,’ or disciplining islanders for inappropriate behaviour. Perhaps the fact that the villa provides space for outspoken women to challenge typically female behavioural norms, and the very fact that the concept of ‘gaslighting’ is now something that viewers are familiar with and are ‘calling out’, might mean there is hope for the villa, after all.
Love Island – Why do we care so much about people being ‘authentic’ or in ‘real’ relationships?
Elizabeth Richards, CCCU Sociology Year 2
Love Island is a reality TV show that has grown immensely since 2015, now in 2019, 18.5% of all TV viewers watched this year’s launch. This means that the show’s popularity has been intriguing for many, and although the contestants may appear ‘down-to-earth’ and convincing, to what extent can we really trust the personas they portray to us?
One particular contestant from this season’s show, Molly-Mae, has been a particular subject of such controversy over her authenticity. Molly’s feelings for boxer Tommy Fury have been consistently scrutinised by viewers as well as other contestants amidst claims that she’s ‘faking’ her feelings for fame. Recent comments by former winner Amber Gill over her and Anna’s friendship being the only ‘real’ relationship to come out of the villa has been picked up by various media outlets as a snub at Molly.
Goffman’s sociological work on symbolic interactionism and the presentation of the self argues that there are some unwritten rules of interaction between individuals that form their identities and that the way in which someone moves, speaks or expresses themselves, displays a sense of their personality to others. He calls this ‘impression management’. Therefore, contestants on the show could be acting or speaking in a certain way to make themselves seem ‘more real’ or ‘authentic’ to gain the public’s trust, since a lot of events on the show are based on public votes.
Impression management is difficult on a show like Love Island though because despite attempts to appear a certain way, contestants are also at the whims of programme editors who give more screen time to villa residents they want to promote and see as drawing in viewers and less screen time to others. Selective editing of scenes and subtle behind the scenes manipulation also makes impression management difficult.
Adapting or changing behaviour and appearance in order to be liked by the public makes us question the authenticity of residents and the relationships they form. This may include attempting to conform to the male and female stereotypes or expectations of their time – such as the girls doing their hair and make-up together and gossiping, whilst the boys workout or act ‘laddish’ together, showing no signs of real emotion.
I think we, as an audience, care so much about a person’s authenticity on the show because we want to believe that they are ‘just like us’ and are ‘just average people’, when really we need to be aware that people do act differently on camera and although contestants may claim they are on the show for love only, there is a cash-prize involved and a lot of media attention and fame arises for contestants in their lives post-Love Island.
Why do we Love ‘Love Island’?
Jennifer Hardes, Senior Lecturer, CCCU Sociology
There’s something deeply compelling yet also incredibly troubling about Love Island. As a vestibule of modern day voyeurism, we watch on as glamorous girls slink about in bikinis and young men work out their muscles in the outdoor gym, fulfilling conservative gender expectations that echo within the social media chamber of ‘likes’ and ‘followers,’ yet confronting older generations as ‘youth of today’ porn to squirm at, comment on, and reminisce of times before ‘reality tv’.
What is deeply concerning about Love Island is that it also makes for magnetic viewing. Some have drawn parallels to the Victorian ‘freak show’ with its spectacular appeal of the ‘abnormal’ for us to watch on with simultaneous horror and intrigue. But Love Island’s spectacle is antithetical in many ways: it is not a space that puts on stages the ‘abnormal’ but instead presents as an echo chamber of contemporary social norms, each contestant’s persona out-normalising the other. Love Island’s echo chamber is not simply the architectural space of the villa itself but expands to the social media world which envelopes the show and its contestants, many of whom were cherry-picked or touted by agents based on their already high-profile social media or influencer status. The selected islanders are generally those who are regarded as ‘aspirational’ for youthful viewers: they are the ‘super-normal’, the gods and goddesses of ‘the gram’.
Many of our youth’s role models are ‘social media influencers’, ‘ring girls’, wannabe sport stars, the children of other celebrities, or those who have won the genetic lottery of good looks, according, of course, to ‘conventional’ standards of ‘western’ beauty ideals, that shape-shift depending on the other minor celeb promotion of the day – think the Kardashian bum normalisation, or the larger than life duck-lip celebration that literally explode on faces.
But we don’t only see these bodies as aspirational. There are also deep conflicts. Some of us cringe as we see the overt racialization of bodies on display and social norms implode on contestants of colour who get picked to ‘couple up’ last, or are left leaving the villa without love. The dry wit of commentator Ian Stirling as he narrates the lives of the villa residents resonates with viewers as he pokes fun at the contestants. Even the contestants themselves sometimes open up space for criticism: ‘Anton in his ‘natural habitat’ whispered India as she and her fellow contestant Belle spied on Belle’s partner Anton working out and studying his own reflection in the outdoor gym, like Narcissus in the pool of youth.
The careful editing and soft prompting of directors lurk in the background of plastic grass and architecturally laid out space that invites relationships to form, private spaces to stray, and the ease of eavesdropping to ensue. We may wonder, looking on at this, whether this is indeed ‘good’ for us to watch. The bodies on display may be ‘aspirational bodies’ but they are also contested bodies. Is this merely an aesthetic lifestyle of Greek time, or is there something more insidious at work? We all know the problems with society’s deep narcissism, its social media obsession, its inward turn to the ‘self’, and our statistics evidencing increased rates of mental health problems, eating disorders and suicide. While the series has triggered over 2500 Ofcom complaints, has also seen two previous contestants, Sophie Gradon from season 2, and Mike Thalassitis from Season 3, the subjects of suicide, and has been subject to a DCMS inquiry, ITV has confirmed that it will run two series of Love Island in 2020. While suicide was enough to kick Jeremy Kyle off the screen, it seems we still just can’t get enough of the Love Island reality series.
Even those of us who hold these thoughts in our mind, the knowledge of the divisiveness of Love Island, and the personal troubles of contestants, many of us still watch on. Some argue that Love Island viewers are generally drawn in by genuine and emotive desire to see people forge relationships and find love. Who really buys that?
One might argue that, ironically, ‘reality tv’ is only reality in a post-truth sense: it reflects a disconnection and dissociation from reality and real-world problems towards an internalising, focus on the more superficial sense of self, disconnected from others. Others might argue that this is simply a ‘new reality’: ‘reality’ is re-presentation; simulacra. Is there anything beyond representation?
Yet there is a deep concern about reality, that our obsession with the show seems to boil down to. Indeed this very question about what’s ‘real’ and what’s fake, seems to be at the heart of the show. ‘Real love’ versus ‘fake relationships’, and ‘playing a game’ skirt the shores of the Island. Love Island voyeurs are drawn in by the contradictions of the contestants, which demonstrate overtly the deeply rooted social conflicts at present in many of us, between the desire for the appearance of an ‘authentic life’ filled with ‘real’ connections to others and the exposure of the artificialness of the various contestants, their discussions of ‘authenticity’; those who have ‘fake’ or ‘real’ relationships. Love Island is a space that highlights our cultural desire for ‘realness’ against a backdrop of what we perceive to be fraudulence.
Love Island enables us to play out these tensions in our own lives with pawns in a game, subjects of a research environment who can be scrutinused, trolled, blamed and labeled. Our concern with reality also leads to judgment. The calls of ‘fakeness’ reveal a fragility in our own sense of reality that we aim to assert through Love Island. Judgment occurs when we feel a conflict between the actions of others and our own value systems. We are in a judgmental society in a judgmental age because these contradictions and conflicts are ever-more present in a time of instability and ‘post-truth’. Our desire for a grasp on reality leaves these claims to other’s fraudulence wide open. Their ‘signing up for this’ simply puts them on pedestals as easy targets and scapegoats. Their ‘fake lives’ are open for contestation because they aren’t seen as ‘real people’, anyway. Until of course the fragility of their lives is made plain through mental illness and, worse of all, the tragedy of death. Love Island is, then, a Greek tragedy: one that sees gods and goddesses, aspirational but also other-worldly, become the subjects of our fantasies and reach the depths of our despairs.