Last night, after what can only be described as “some” anticipation, Love Island returned to our screens in all of its bronzed glory. Certain aspects felt new: Iain Stirling cracking COVID gags, the house’s makeover (although it literally looks the same) and new Islander Sharon’s philosophy that all men who wear white jeans have big egos, which – now she mentions it – feels scientifically true. Elsewhere, not much is different: stunning underboob, addictively inane conversation and, perhaps most glaringly, a representation of gender and sexuality which continues to feel more antiquated than a Jane Austen novel.
For me, as a queer person, this last point is one of my favourite things about the show (hear me out). “It’s like a cattle market,” observed my nan as we watched the opening episode, in which male and female housemates select their partner from a lineup with barely any words exchanged and during which the show’s host, Laura Whitmore, actually said the sentence: “If you want to hang on to your man you’ve got to work harder!” For the next six long, hot weeks, in the aquarium of heteronormativity that is The Villa, everyone will continue to perform almost absurdly stereotypical versions of what it means to be female or male. I have – in the past, at least, before it became ethically dubious to watch the show at all given its track record on mental health – enjoyed watching Love Island with a kind of pure fascination. I mean, it’s a show so binary it makes gender reveal parties look progressive.
Still, while it gives some of us a glimpse into how the other half live, watching Love Island in 2021 – six years on from when the revamped show started and 16 years since the original aired in 2005 – there doesn’t seem to be much growth when it comes to diversity. The producers have cast PE teacher Hugo, who is living with a disability (which feels positive but has been slammed as “pure tokenism”). But as for gender and sexuality, Love Island’s hyper straight and cis setup just doesn’t reflect how young people actually hook up today. The number of people who identify as heterosexual is consistently falling, with one YouGov study from a few years ago finding that almost half of 18 to 24-year-olds do not identify as entirely heterosexual. There are no good statistics on how many people identify outside of the gender binary in the UK but new research finds that there are 1 million non-binary adults in the US, while 41% of Gen Z have said they identify as neutral on the spectrum of masculinity and femininity. Clearly, Love Island’s not representative, but the question is: Does it have to be?
Over the years, the show’s producers have turned this question over themselves. Producer Amanda Stavri sparked debate online earlier this year when she stated that including gay Islanders would be a "logistical difficulty" – a term some gays then joyfully appropriated, while others shared their outrage. We have, after all, been perceived as a “logistical difficulty” for centuries and are quite tired of it. Touching on the very real challenge of making the show’s oppressively binary format more inclusive, Stavri explained: “Although Islanders don’t have to be 100% straight, the format must sort of give Islanders an equal choice when coupling up.”
It’s true that LGBTQ+ Islanders have entered the villa: Sophie Gradon and Katie Salmon coupled in 2016, and 2018 Islander Megan Barton Hanson openly identifies as bisexual. But due to the strict male/female nature of the coupling on the show, their bisexuality was sidelined, something that Barton Hanson has pointed out in the press: “I think with the whole tokenism thing, the girls just end up with the guy, maybe to stay on the show longer, I don’t know. If they had an all gay line-up, it would just be so much more interesting to watch.” The show is “too predictable”, she concluded, adding that an LGBTQ+ Love Island would make the show “juicier”.
As someone who gawped at Megan in a bikini for six weeks it may be hypocritical for me to say this but her statement, for me at least, nods to one issue with putting LGBTQ+ people and particularly queer women on the show: Would it be fetishising? And would the LGBTQ+ Islanders’ behaviour come to be taken as representative of queer people everywhere? Worse yet, would the drama derive from discrimination? In the past, women on Love Island have been slut-shamed, Black women have experienced racism and colourism in the Villa, and critics already worry about how Hugo will be treated. Could we run the risk of watching homophobia, biphobia and transphobia play out on screen too?
The fact that these questions are concerns is – paradoxically – exactly why we need more dating shows that actually reflect the culture we live in when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation. They do exist – there's 2019’s sexually fluid series Are You The One? and 2018’s The Bi Life on E! – but their viewership just does not compare to Love Island, which is all the more reason why there’s so much pressure for our most popular show to diversify. It’s been 20 years since we voyeuristically watched straight relationships blossom on TV’s other greatest reality monolith, Big Brother, and there’s been no same-sex relationship equivalent since.
It’s no wonder we still live in a country that supports same-sex rights on paper, that’s hooked on Drag Race and cherishes its LGBTQ+ pop stars but which is still prickly when it comes to seeing actual LGBTQ+ romance or affection. We know this because people complained about CBBC depicting a same-sex kiss, despite the channel airing many straight ones. We know this because two thirds of British LGBTQ+ people say they don’t feel safe holding hands with a same-sex partner while walking down the street. We know this because, anecdotally, so many LGBTQ+ people – including myself – have been heckled or attacked specifically for kissing the person they love in public.
So, should there be an LGBTQ+ Love Island? On the one hand, I want to spare queer people this show but I also want the mainstream representation. I’m torn. What I do know is that if Love Island goes queer, the producers shouldn’t try to over-formulate it or impose a rigid binary. The world of sex and dating today is more fluid and free. It’s common for women to casually explore sex with other women, to experience your gender as not-so-binary, and for gay and straight people to form friendships without discussing their differences. For these reasons, I’d like to see the Islanders subverting the show on their own terms, coming out or making out. I long for one pumped-up Jack the Lad to sidle over to another one and say: “You’re a bit of me.”