The Exquisite Ekphrasis of 'Love Island'

Recently, two prestige TV shows have featured characters bingeing the British hit. But what, precisely, makes it different than other reality shows?

by Emma Specter
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Jul 30 2019, 6:08pm

There's a scene in the most recent season of Orange is the New Black in which Natalie Figueroa, the embattled ex-warden of the prison that serves as the show's hub, is seen splayed out on her couch in the universal posture of a TV binge. The show she's mainlining is none other than Love Island, the British reality show about which she says, "I want the hot glistening bodies to zap away my brain and my day."

Orange isn't the only show to extoll the virtues of Love Island; the most recent episode of the HBO series Euphoria finds protagonist Rue numbing a bipolar depressive episode with endless Love Island episodes.

Not to be outdone, Lena Dunham penned a Guardian essay this weekend about her love for the show, asking, "What is Love Island if not college minus the academics and with the emotional temperature turned all the way up?" When you put it that way, the show sounds both perfect and mildly horrifying, which is consistent with my (admittedly limited) viewing experience thus far.

The confusing thing is, though, the cult of reality TV is hardly a new one; after all, the reality genre was birthed in 1983 with "An American Family," the PBS documentary that is considered the first "reality" series on television. Reality dating shows, in particular, date (hehe) back to ABC's The Dating Game, which premiered in 1965. From The Bachelor and its many spinoffs to MTV's Next to Are You The One? (shoutout to the all-queer, "sexually fluid" season!), televised hookups that grasp at true romance are nothing new. So what is it about Love Island, specifically, that inspires so much ekphrasis?

If you aren't familiar with ekphrasis, it's commonly defined as "the use of detailed description of a work of visual art as a literary device." John Keats's poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is ekphrasis; so, I would argue, are Orange and Euphoria's deputizing of Love Island into the prestige-TV discussion. (Don't forget, TV is art now, and it's also books.) After all, Love Island is being welcomed into the conversation to show that these TV characters whose writers want us to believe are real are, in fact, just like us, in that they consume artificial depictions of reality on TV. Does your head hurt yet?

The question of why Love Island is suddenly everywhere in pop culture is actually a philosophical one, having to do with the very meaning of "being." While Parmenides taught that reality was a single unchanging Being, whereas Heraclitean had it that all things flow: he wrote that "we both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not’."

This state of being and not-being is essential to understanding the role that Love Island performs in pop culture. It's trashy, but it's sincere, unlike Next, which was pure sleaze; it's funny, but it's sorrowful, unlike The Bachelor, which just skews sad; it's over-the-top, but it's surprisingly simple in concept, unlike Are You The One?, which relies on a complicated prearranged matching system that the contestants are forced to run around guessing at blindly, like the proverbial chickens with their heads cut off. Like all reality shows, Love Island is fake, but it feels real—the young, hot, cavorting U.K. villa residents are so earnest! So pure in their desire for love, or at least good chat!—and that uncanny-valley-exploiting truth might account for its success.

My best friend is besotted with Love Island to the extent that she recently ordered the show's custom water bottle, and when I asked her why via GChat, she thought for a moment before typing her response.

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Love Island gives more than its fair share of airtime to budding romance and clandestine villa hookups (even though often, the latter is mistaken for the former), but it truly shines as a rejoinder to toxic masculinity. Men steal women from each other (yikes), but women do their share of decision-making too, and sometimes the nation gets to weigh in on these 1970s-key-party-reminiscent "recoupling" ceremonies.

Love Island lets gentle British bros (or "bruvs") develop genuine care for one another under the guise of competing for women's affections; this, of course, gets into an Aristotelian definition of friendship, wherein the philosopher distinguishes between friendship of utility and pleasure-based friendship; it would seem that the men of Love Island are engaging in a friendship of utility, but if you really look, there's pleasure in there too.

These are young men learning about themselves and each other, and if it happens to take place in a heavily bikinied, pool-float-studded villa in Mallorca, who's to say that can't be a place for self-enrichment to flourish? As Seneca the Younger once wrote, "Friendship always benefits; love sometimes injures."