Love Island: a desperate need for healthy escapism in a 24/7 world
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
The ITV phenomenon "Love Island" has sauntered out of the water in its bathing suit for Season 5, and while it has drawn in a peak viewership of 3.7million (Glamour Magazine, 2019) it is as divisive as Marmite. A simple facebook question found a lot of romance:
"It’s my absolute guilty pleasure..."
"It also gives us hope when love is found..."
"...it does give me an insight on how young people relate to each other."
...and a lot of dumping:
"Absolute gutter tv!"
"...a load of adults that acted like school children."
"...vapid people compete to be famous for doing nothing."
You could say "It is what it is" - a simple form of entertainment and if you don't like it, just switch off. But should we be so superficial?
We cannot ignore that two previous contestants committed suicide. While this cannot of course be directly linked to the show, and certainly as a psychologist I am very wary of assigning responsibility for a personal act outside the person, it does perhaps raise questions over the support and aftercare:
- Can contestants ever be prepared for the overwhelming interest (and extreme emotion - both positive and negative) expressed about them? We know how many actors or footballers struggle to cope - and they have often had both training and gradual exposure.
- 24/7 scrutiny. On a Reality TV show, not only is being filmed an unusual situation but the camera rolls while asleep too. This gives no respite. There are no secrets. Worse still, we are not the editors of our own story. 24 hours of footage is condensed, perhaps taken out of context to create a narrative over which we have no control.
- While we discuss and analyse - and produce quite cruel memes and hash tags about contestants - are we forgetting they are people who might see them?
- While the show makes its claims about "love", its set-up focuses rather more on the primal instincts of attraction, sexuality and to some extent strength rather than exploring other qualities we find important - humour, intelligence, talent (Yes, I know there are people who surf and who are scientists, but they are all walking around in swimsuits - they are reduced to the lowest common denominator...I guess, it would be called "The Apprentice" otherwise.)
- Not only that but it is a competition where the winners are a couple, and relationships are hard enough to negotiate without the extra scrutiny of others in addition to a gamesmanship situation where the rules can change at any moment. I notice that the phrase coming from the Love Island corner now is they are 'holding a mirror up to relationships'. I'm not wholly convinced this would be acceptable as a social experiment much less entertainment.
- ...and of course a campaign by "Level Up" revealed that 40% of women ages 18-34 reported they felt more conscious about their bodies after watching Love Island; one in ten considered lip fillers, 8% a boob job, 7% botox.
One thing I would concede is that at least it is opening the dialogue over healthy and unhealthy emotional behaviours...but at what price? As humans we connect with what we see, and our brains have trouble separating fantasy from reality - we can get as invested in soap characters as our own relationships because empathy often means we simply experience the emotional reaction to their story. This can affect us more if we can relate. (As I write, one evicted contestant is in a safe house following audience perception of coercive behaviour).
Inclusion and a shared reality
Those who love the show talk rather less about the contestants themselves, but more about the connection that collective viewing brings them at work:
"...and have a good old chit chat and debate about the superficiality of todays society; their behaviours and reactions towards one another."
"... laughs and chat in the office..."
"...fair amount of analysis and debate..."
Some even felt "left out" at breaks when their colleagues were all discussing it, and praised the show for "... breaking down age barriers."
Inclusion is identified by psychologist William Schutz who created the Firo-B psychometric measurement in 1958. For Schutz, connecting with others was as essential as food and water, but he was very clear that people required differing levels as optimal for them. But I have to ask, if “being included” means I have to “take others down” – isn’t this a bit “Mean Girls”?
Viewers also mention escapism:
"...but good to watch if you want time out and to unwind from your daily routine."
This concept of "...great escapism television" is stated by Mind Coach and TV Presenter Anna Williamson in the Glamour article I cited earlier (and you can read my comments earlier in the piece)
Escapism is not a new concept. The draw of Hollywood's Golden Age was as an escape from war time and depression. While society and its demands have changed, the atmosphere is not necessarily 'happier'. A retreat into a world of sun, sand, and beautiful people is perhaps no different to a contrived MGM movie. Except while situations may be similarly set up the emotional outbursts are real, and the camera continues to roll 24/7 (including night vision) which means viewing could consume our lives as much as those of the contestants.
Further, is a bombardment of, albeit beautiful, people in anguish which also leaves some of us feeling less than adequate in the looks department really the best form of taking a break for our wellbeing? Should we encourage a world where it's ok to take pleasure in the pain of others? Is it healthy for us to try and justify a format which clearly has negative mental health consequences as 'they won't feel so bad with all the money they're earning'...how many stars have also committed suicide?
Escapism is also great, until it becomes avoidance.
Isn't the healthiest 'escape' a time to recharge before taking back the reins of our life - but without the need to destroy others, or do things that feel inauthentic just to be included?
Just because there may be some justifications to some "popular" behaviours, doesn't always make something right.
So, maybe it's time to find healthier methods?
A Healthy Escape
As the author of a book on practical Mindfulness which still appreciates the spiritual heritage through Buddhist mindful meditation (my grandfather taught Buddhism in Malaysia), I am always looking to support temporary escapism. The world is so fast-paced with many demands and pressures, it is essential to find somewhere to unwind.
Many people do indeed choose a good movie, but they may also exercise, they might go for a walk, read a book, meditate, or - as I advocate because it's quick and free - shut their eyes and breathe deeply for a moment...
When I look at the rise in "Meditation rooms" or "Yoga retreats" and articles on "finding your happy place", I have to ask whether shows like Love Island are more of a distraction than an escape? They may be a place to fuel discussion, but that is not peace...and as I've said earlier, the 'discussion' may on fact be nastiness disguised as 'social comment'. At least Game of Thrones which spawned similar is a drama with actors.
Architechts speak of the "1st space": The home; the "2nd space": Work; and the "3rd Space" A social meeting point. Perhaps we are crying out for, as John Goldwyn, Head of Planning and Landscape at WATG London puts it, for a "4th space - a space "to be"" (Goldwyn, 2019, ILA in press).
One of the main reasons for this is that the 3rd space is gradually being encroached upon - a bit like the starry sky through the light pollution. In my 3rd spaces I cannot always find a quite place to sit down, let alone chat, I keep my phone on, and I want to connect, but sometimes the evening is overtaken by other forms of escapism such as drinking to excess in some companions. I find I retreat into my car or onto my own phone - in the toilet. Not what the designers had in mind I guess. I'm no longer as comfortable as I was in a 3rd space, my "happy place" isn't necessarily compatible with the commitments I have in my home or at work, and I don't think it's me that needs to change.
Perhaps this is why many people "escape" online, or remain at home or at work...but that may also leave a destructive undertone, like when Love Island ends and you're left with the black mirror of your TV set.
My "4th space" enables connection (the same emotional connecting of the empathy I discussed earlier) should you wish (with those you want to share), relaxation, activity, entertainment - as you choose, and doesn't make you feel bad about yourself. Like the "green room" for the actor, it allows you to drop the mask, to unwind, and to simply be free. It's a place where I wouldn't want my phone to intrude even if I had it with me. It's also somewhere from which I will return refreshed and ready to face actual reality again.
For me this place doesn't quite exist yet - but that doesn't mean I can't try and create it, with my loved ones, in my actions, in my thoughts. Whether this is a physical space, an activity or simply a mindset, I want to feel good alongside others feeling just as positive. So, rather than sit on the sidelines I'm trying to take action. I'm making my stand, I'm changing my ways, I'm continuing to learn...then, as soon as it exists, that will be my island to love.
As a special wellness gift with this blog, if you'd like to listen to any of the guided meditations that come with The Leader's Guide to Mindfulness, simply go to www.draudreyt.com/meditations and use the password <leaderretreat>
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt