The show about sex we always wanted (but were too afraid to ask for)

20-year somethings in bathing costumes, six-packs, and unbridled sex positivity getting ready to hook up? Softcore TV gold. Matthew Vella flicks off the moral outrage about Love Island to explore the conversation in Malta on youths, sex, and pretty much us, the viewers, in this new entertainment panopticon about that stupid, crazy little thing called 'love'

“Sex on the TV, everybody’s at it,” sang Damon Albarn in Blur’s End Of A Century, a dirge to the silent, evening TV interaction of a couple and their spent flame. “He gives her a cuddle, they’re glowin’ in a huddle. Goodnight TV...” Here we are – at the end of a week of non-stop tuning in to Love Island Malta, its promises of steamy coupling taking the island by storm, draining the office watercooler, dominating Maltese meme-mery and breaking the Facebook feed.

Oh, and what was that other Blur song? “Girls who want boys, who like boys to be girls, who do boys like they’re girls...” – yet love on TVM’s hit programme (160,000 tuned in on the first night of Love Island Malta) is anything but the stodgy 1990s of monotonous monogamy. For the first time, Malta is seeing its youngest generation revealing how love and dating works.

Malta is the latest market to join the dated Love Island franchise. The British version has had its dark side played out – toxic culture drove some post-Island celebs to suicide; from beginning to end, the formula will create heroes and villains, and the gentle, sweet coupling we saw this week will be short-circuited by ‘bombshells’ gradually inserted into the show, testing loyalties and emotions, all for the quest of a €20,000 prize.

Money – not love – of course, is the bottom line of Love Island or any reality TV contest. TVM and producers Media Exclusive reap the bounty of advertisers lining up for their widest ever exposure on national TV; the contestants willingly participate in being scrutinised, to win the cash, and us the willing public, get to enjoy this gentle, saccharine-sweet purge, to cast judgement on sins and doubts confessed in private, to mock and celebrate. Never has the Maltese TV public been as engrossed in the lives of others as now.

But set aside the exuberance. Love Island is only the last of so many iterations of reality TV. When cable TV came to Malta in the early 90s, MTV was airing The Real World: “This is the true story… of seven strangers… picked to live in a house... to find out what happens… when people stop being polite… and start getting real… The Real World.” Then came Big Brother, and I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! Bung up strangers into a small space of focused adversity and forced performance, and watch them tear each other apart. 30 years going strong, this TV formula never disappoints.

The gaze

The critics on Facebook think they are saving their skin when they tut-tut at the brashness of the confident Dales, Kyles and Svens. But are they reeling in horror and switching off the box, or do they revel in the thrill of watching over these objects of desire?

It is thanks to one French thinker particularly, whose History of Sexuality in 1976 funnelled the history of capitalism and European society through the ‘invention’ of “sexuality” – that is, a relationship of power that conditions all of us – that we can understand the pleasure and punishment of Love Island.

“Foucault essentially shows how, after the social repression of sex of Victorian times, more people started talking liberally about sex. This assumed liberty makes us feel we are no longer under the thumb of this repressive power,” says Dr Kurt Borg, a lecturer in political science at the University of Malta. “But Foucault says we are still caught up in the trap of the ‘gaze’ – the appeal of watching and being watched – and this is the same discourse inside Love Island.”

Borg says reality game shows like Big Brother or Love Island, play to the gaze, which conditions the way people act, and because it is linked to pleasure, these participants enjoy being watched. “It works – just like the Catholic confessional in which we eagerly tell our private sins for the reward of forgiveness – the Love Island participants are willing to confess their desires to us, and we enjoy hearing it, a pleasure that will lead to a prize, or redemption.”

Borg is instantly mistrustful of the moral outrage and paternalism of so many critics on Facebook. “I won’t knock the sex positivity of these participants – on one level, it is excellent. But without wanting to over-theorise, they might believe they are emancipated in this dating game, but the pleasure they pursue is one where their bodies have been commercialised, gamed for profit, and of course it celebrates opposite-sex love only. They become a brand.”

Gen Z’s tinderisation of love

There is no doubt that Love Island’s command of attention also reveals the priorities of its viewers, including those who claim to denounce it. “But they don’t switch off the TV,” Borg says. “At an unconscious level, viewers tune in to its sexual titillation. And Foucault saw sexuality become the gateway mentality for European culture – everything goes through the body.”

Borg in fact places his finger on the thrill of older Maltese viewers suddenly coming to terms with the way love works for Gen Z, a ‘tinderisation’ that has its visuals: the girls rate highly the male physique, fitness regimes, and tattoos. Nothing wrong in this unquestionable positivity on love and sex. But it exposes the gulf with the dating culture of yesteryear. “20 years ago this show would have been impossible. For the first time we see a transformation: the sexual element of sculpted bodies, and the way youths conceive of sex and dating shows us they have been looking outwards. Their confidence is this TV formula’s strength – but critically, Love Island perpetuates a very formulaic and normative notion of ‘fuckability’.”

Great bodies and unabashed confidence to hook up – maybe the ‘envy’ of critics reveals a deeper anxiety about a generation they no longer understand, or whose pleasure they will never get to experience. Maybe we weren’t made for these times; or maybe we missed out on the promise of this new generation.

Naturally enough for Dr Valerie Visanich, a senior lecturer specialising in the sociology of emotions and visual sociology, Love Island offers fieldwork into this not-so-private spectacle of emotional and physical intimacy.

But in this ‘reality TV’ package, coupling is only a simulation of contemporary intimacy. “It highlights the pervasiveness of love or the ‘sexual quick fix’ in the heteronormative representations that dominate the media. It’s fluid love – a casualisation of intimate relationships, the commodification of love and sex, in the continuous search for personal fulfilment.”

Like Borg, Visanich points out the objectification of men and women in swimwear, crucial for the camera lens – our gaze – to inspect sexualised body parts, not the participants. “It perpetuates their dehumanization... while we witness the double standards of spectators: social media hysteria and memes that verge on cyberbullying. The male Islanders are celebrated for their sexual prowess, the women as unruly for demonstrating similar attributes, a situation which contrasts with the aspired cultural shift for greater gender equality in all aspects of life, including the display of intimacy and the expression of emotionality.”

Vilifying young, dangerous bodies

Dr Maria Pisani, a youth worker and University of Malta calls out those who robotically vilify these bright, young, dangerous bodies. “It would be easy to slide into moral panic, reflecting a well-trodden response to contemporary youth culture – of every era going back millennia – but I honestly don’t think this is useful.”

“It offers great opportunities for sociological inquiry and raises political questions... academia should be talking about it too. The public response shows we should engage in a conversation, not a monologue, with young people and speak about issues that matter to them... gender relations, the commodification of sex, class issues and how they intersect with language.” The Islanders’ liberal code-switching from Maltese to English, a major class signifier for Malta, evidently does not raise the Broadcasting Authority’s dander as do minor transgressions of the broadcasting code.

“The relationship between sex, class, and money is nothing new, so what, if anything, does Love Island tell us about our contemporary historical moment?” Pisani asks. “To what degree, if at all, does Love Island reflect the values and ideals of contemporary Maltese culture?”

Be kind... they tell us

Elsewhere on social media, the bonfire of vanities – about PBS’s dumbing-down mainly – appears to be ignored. Pastizziposting on Facebook is stealing the show with memes celebrating the mandibularly gifted Dale, his confidence and geniality. Dale’s tiger-mama has even challenged his detractors online. Punch up, not down – these are teens and young adults. “Be kind,” say the Love Island producers, even though all is fair in the world of profit-minded TV – love and hate. A psychologist has been enrolled to handle any frayed emotions: another confessor, this time to buffer the producers from any fallout on broken hearts, bruised self-image, unlikeability and... unfuckability.

The horror stories from the UK show that negative trolling on social media has led contestants who were once chasing influencer-status, into a dark spiral of anxiety and even suicide. We won’t know as yet what the blind submission of Love Island’s participants to this gilded cage of social media status, will bring.

“They’re fully aware of the cameras, and the audience that follows and judges them... they perform to entertain this audience-consumer. It is what literally keeps them going,” says Professor of philosophy at the University of Malta, Jean-Paul de Lucca.

Here he reminds me of the etymology of ‘entertainment’ – from the Latin intertenere, a sense of ‘holding or controlling each other’ – as if the audience was indeed controlling the participants.

“To the audience, the on-screen reality is more intense and engrossing than the reality of daily life. ‘More real than the real’, says the philosopher who speaks of hyperreality, Jean Baudrillard; or as Guy Debord put it in Society of the Spectacle, reality is replaced by a mere representation of it.

“So ‘real’ participants become actors in a ‘reality’ that is performance, for us, the consuming audience. Precisely because they act, there is no clear distinction between the ‘real/ordinary’ self and the ‘acting/performing’ self. The reality is distorted.

“And to use Baudrillard again, it is both a constructed image of reality and of its understanding – a ‘simulacrum’. Whether we like it or not, reality shows control the way people live, behave and interact. And like any ‘idol’, they are subject to scrutiny. There is no such as thing as mere entertainment – entertaining is always, in some way, controlling.”

Here is a prediction: Love Island’s audiences will be healthy, will dip slightly, then soar for the finale. A second season will beckon. But as viewers get used to the formula, satisifed with what they have learnt, they will gradually fizzle out.

But will any wholesomeness from this first season of love survive into the next editions? As future participants learn the ways of Love Island’s match-making, expect more cruel twists and backstabbing turns as love gets gamified, commercialised, and more ruthless.

And oh... do be kind, big brothers.