Her French-tip nails trace the edges of her electric blue barely-there bikini top, her loose girl-next-door curls exude a never-been-kissed innocence, and her cutoff jean shorts take on a grayish tint against her orange self-tanned skin. The camera travels the length of her body as she thrusts her right hip to one side, arching her back ever so slightly to reveal the “Girls Have Fun” tattoo on her inner thigh. Gemma Owen is making a statement: whether she’s after love or the title of Love Island winner, Gemma Owen is here to stay.
Gemma is just one of hundreds of lustful, conceited, and wildly entertaining contestants who have appeared on the reality TV show Love Island. Each season, the show follows a group of ten single strangers who enter a villa looking for love. During their sultry eight week stay, the islanders must couple up with one another, share a bed, partake in partner challenges, and engage in conversations about favorite sex positions and wildest party moves. Viewers are ultimately tasked with voting for a winning couple at the end of the show. The winning couple is awarded a life-changing €50,000 and the unmatched fame which comes along with the title of Love Island winner.
Gemma stars in Season 8—electric blue bikini top, alleged nose job, and all. A mere nineteen-year-old from Chester, England, she is looking for the love of her life. She wants to settle down. Start a family. Raise four kids in the suburbs. Davidé’s finely sculpted set of abs fill my screen before the camera pans to his freshly-shaven stubble and his sharp jawline. Water dribbles down his red swim trunks, highlighting the muscle in his quads as he saunters out of the pool and toward Gemma. Will they be the first official Love Island couple of 2022, or will they be yet another drama-enticing, throw-his-clothes-out-the-patio-window pair?
I clutch a bag of Dollar Tree microwavable popcorn and pull my knees up to my chin, sitting beside my two college suitemates on our common room sofa.We wait in anticipation for Davidé to either admit he wants to jump Gemma’s bones or hit her with the infuriating “I don’t know who I’ll choose at tonight’s re-coupling ceremony.” My suitemates and I are joined by over 3.5 million other watchers across the globe. We all have a favorite couple, we all scream in despair when our #1 islander gets dumped, and we all secretly wonder how the love of reality TV compares to the love in our everyday lives. With Love Island, this question is only natural. Listening to Davidé tell Gemma that she is “the one” only hours after drooling over the new islander, viewers cannot ignore the similarities to their own monstrous high school exes. To be fair, maybe Davidé was convinced that “the one” implies “the one I’ll take to dinner only because the rest of the guys think she is the hottest islander.” Or maybe Davidé was teaching us a lesson: Love Island contestants are disgustingly self-centered—perhaps even humorously so— but they are unfortunately not all that different from us.
Love Island viewers—52.3 percent of whom, according to a BBC News Survey, are 16 to 24 year old females who watch multiple reality TV dating shows at once—enjoy being exposed to love at its shallowest. Love Island is set in a utopian villa—complete with a heated pool and iced lemonade—designed to ruthlessly expose the human pursuit of love. We—alongside Gemma and Davidé—repeatedly reference our “type on paper,” noting height, skin tone, and eye color as criteria for successful romance. We openly sexualize each other, exchanging glances across the dining hall and when sweat slowly slips down his neck as he steps out of the floor shower. We make strategic plans to woo the newest girl in our philosophy class—until, of course, we get the first kiss. We perform, we act, we romance. Even in a world where the stress of waking up for 9 a.m. classes is replaced with worries of empty Better Than Sex mascara tubes, we just cannot seem to do love right.
My suitemates and I know this. Our suite door supports a large white board complete with colorful tally marks keeping count of our weekly “I hate men” moments. Perhaps the board really should say “I hate love,” but that would seem tragic, as if we were failing at finding heart-wrenching love and wanted a Prince Charming to change our minds. So we settled for “I hate men” instead, conveniently shifting the blame. Of course, this only works because we are a suite of three girls living on a floor with thirteen boys—boys who for some reason just don’t compare to Love Island’s selection of toned British men.
But at least Love Island’s men prepared us for some standout qualities of real men: their inherent knack for sexist comments and ability to approach all romantic interests with the casual: “down to fuck?” Just last night, one of my male floormates drunkenly admitted his philosophy: “Everyone has two goals. One, to be powerful and, two, to be fucked.” All Love Island is doing is taking this to its extreme. Even still, 27 percent of Love Island couples stay together.
Perhaps this 27 percent suggests that there is a sliver of hope for love. I’m not saying I believe in the Hallmark mistletoe moments I grew up dreaming about. No, all I’m saying is that Love Island is refreshing, honest proof that when we put it all on the table—that her red flag is him wearing blue boxers, that he prefers her in full-coverage makeup over her natural face, that she instantaneously thinks he’s a cheater if he chuckles with another female—we might still find “the one.”
Who knows: we might end up like Davidé, who found his wife Ekin-Su on Love Island only after openly explaining to Gemma Owen that she was a “stepping stone.” Maybe that’s the love we should be searching for. But, in the meantime, we will continue to flaunt our suite whiteboard, pausing our episode to add yet another tally.