News from Nowhere: Summer of Love
The success of the Love Island franchise, of its essential meaninglessness, is hardly the cause of this sorry state of affairs, but it is a particularly insidious symptom of it. It certainly contributes to the dumbing down of culture.
It’s terribly easy to fall into narratives of cultural decadence. It’s lazy thinking, and, like any form of stereotyping, it can be highly misleading. The western world isn’t a single degenerate monolith; western societies contain strands of extraordinary invention and vibrancy, and, like any society, they also include elements indicative of complacency and decline. Back in 1978, the cultural philosopher Edward Said, in his classic study of Orientalism, argued against the way that western cultures saw ‘the East’ (and, in particular, the Middle East) as a homogeneous cultural block; and it’s similarly important that we avoid the error of conflating the diversities and divergences of the so-called ‘West’ into an indivisible entity.
Yet, having acknowledged that caveat, there are moments when specific cultural products may make one despair for the future of an entire civilisation. One such instance is the phenomenal popularity across the United Kingdom of the television series Love Island – a show whose superficiality seems almost designed to attest to the imbecility and philistinism of contemporary Britain, a piece of apparently compelling documentary evidence to confirm some of the very worst prejudices nursed by other nations against the UK.
The programme’s premise is excruciatingly simple. A group of young women and young men are isolated together in a luxury villa on the island of Majorca in the Spanish Balearics. There, they flirt with each other, couple off, and share beds together. They lounge by the pool and sip cocktails on the terrace. Contestants are slowly voted off the show by the audience and by their fellow competitors. New contestants are then introduced. All are young and fit; most are narcissistic, hyper-sensitive and cosmetically enhanced, their beach-ready bodies sculpted into caricatures of commoditized flesh with the aid of silicone, steroids and punishing exercise regimes. Few exhibit any obvious signs of intelligence (not even the medical student or the PhD candidate) – although, in their defence, one suspects that the programme’s editing is designed to highlight their inanities. Their conversations tend to be limited to the subjects of their romantic relationships within this artificial bubble. We never see them reading or discussing their favourite works of art or cinema. The show’s only discernible content is an endless reflection of itself. It’s a soap opera bereft of any news, knowledge or awareness of the outside world, taking place within an epistemological void, one whose only topic is its own petty psychodrama of self-aggrandisement, self-pity, self-loathing and self-love.
The series fosters the infantilization of its participants and its audiences alike, demanding precious little in the way of focus or thought. Indeed, such is the vacuousness of life in the villa that, when any of its residents display any emotional self-awareness whatsoever, they seem by contrast almost to assume the sophistication of Jane Austen’s Elizabeth and Darcy in a household of Kitty Bennet’s. With its cutaways to characters speaking directly to the camera, it’s like watching an episode of Modern Family without the actors or the scripts.
The show airs six nights a week, and its most recent season (with its finale on 23 August) endured for a soul-destroying eight weeks. As it strained to maintain some semblance of momentum, the producers did their best to stoke the melodrama by exposing the participants to erotic temptations and by releasing images and footage of their very worst conduct to stir trouble amongst them. It’s more entertaining than watching paint dry, but not much. It’s like watching milk curdle.
Yet, despite all this, Love Island has been the UK’s most popular television series among its target audience of viewers aged between sixteen and thirty-four, the generation to which the country will look for future leadership and creativity. The series provokes enormous controversy in the tabloid press (even generating front page stories) and in social media, where its stars are ruthlessly trolled. One incident alone in the latest season prompted nearly 25,000 complaints to the UK’s broadcasting regulator. In the last three years, two of its former contestants, and the boyfriend of one of those contestants, as well as its former presenter, have all taken their own lives.
Created by the UK’s ITV Studios, the format has also spawned American, Australian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Nigerian, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, South African, Spanish, Swedish and New Zealand versions. It may qualify as Britain’s most pernicious export to the rest of the world since its nineteenth century empire, notwithstanding the boy-band One Direction and Covid-19’s alpha variant.
The problem with reality television is that, despite its absolute lack of depth, it poses as a replacement for material reality itself. The French sociologist Jean Baudrillard – whose work inspired the Matrix movies – argued since the early 1980s that the world was being overtaken by a virtual version of itself. He famously supposed that such devastating conflicts as the first and second Gulf Wars were designed as spectacular media events staged for the benefit of American TV audiences. By the time of his death in 2007, the year after Facebook had opened to full public access, he had proposed that the old reality had receded so far that the new hyper-reality had become the only iteration of reality we now knew. Baudrillard was the prophet of the cultural emptiness – the ‘desert of the real’ – that has been propagated by the saturation of reality television, fake news and social media which silo and distort human experience.
In 2016, the year that reality TV’s Donald Trump was elected American president and Britain voted to leave the European Union, the twelve months that seemed to validate western populists’ strategies of political fabrication, Oxford Dictionaries announced ‘post-truth’ as their word of the year. It had been a dozen years earlier that Jean Baudrillard had presciently declared that we were living in a world that ‘no longer has any need to be true. Or rather it is true, absolutely true, in the sense that nothing any longer stands opposed to it.’ This is, after all, a world in which online anti-vax saboteurs deploy images from the film Planet of the Apes to demonstrate that Covid-19 jabs will turn people into chimpanzees, and in which, earlier this month, the screenwriter of Hollywood’s I Am Legend felt obliged to explain that vaccinations wouldn’t turn people into zombies: ‘It’s a movie. I made that up. It’s. Not. Real.’
The success of the Love Island franchise, of its essential meaninglessness, is hardly the cause of this sorry state of affairs, but it is a particularly insidious symptom of it. It certainly contributes to the dumbing down of culture; but, more so, it signals quite how extraordinarily far that dumbing down has gone. In recent years, the show has spread across late-industrial Anglophone and European nations; this year, it has extended its influence to the continent of Africa, with new Nigerian and South African varieties of its brand. By comparison, it makes the cultural colonialism of Hollywood, McDonalds and Coca-Cola seem remarkably innocent and benign. They may have given us obesity, cardiomyopathy and unrealistic expectations of the American dream, but at least they didn’t make us stupid.
One cannot, however, condemn an entire culture on the basis of a single artefact, and the existence of one television series does not prove the inherent or irreversible corruption of a whole civilization. Yet the viral spread of its popular appeal through both broadcast and social media suggests the readiness of populations across the world, and peoples of remarkably diverse backgrounds and heritages, to adhere to its simplistic and shallow perspectives, to culture’s lowest common denominators and its paths of least intellectual effort; and this may in itself usefully remind us of the immeasurably greater and ongoing global threats of demagoguery and the accompanying tyrannies of mindlessness and casual cruelty.
But all is not lost. Very far from it. The fact that Love Island’s viewing figures this year have been slightly down on its previous season’s may also represent some cause for hope, though the loyalty of its core audience appears robust. And, Although YouTube and Instagram may continue to erode viewers’ attention spans, British popular television remains a dynamic and influential force. The UK’s public service broadcasters persist in screening a robust range of insightful, imaginative, challenging and well-crafted productions, including (so far this year) such original dramas as It’s a Sin, Line of Duty, The Serpent, Baptise, Stephen and Time, as well as such innovative comedies as Inside Number 9, This Time with Alan Partridge, Motherland and We Are Lady Parts. The Covid-19 crisis has meanwhile prompted millions of viewers to flock back to the stately, reliable form of the BBC as their most trusted source of relatively balanced and informed news, a welcome antidote to the partisan ranting of certain other media organisations. And, at the age of 95, the iconic figure of David Attenborough, energised by his passion to fight climate change, has brought his life’s work documenting the natural world up to date with A Perfect Planet.
In this sense at least then, Baudrillard was, thankfully, wrong. So long as a society retains such benchmarks of cultural integrity, it can continue to recognize for what they are the simulations and dissimulations with which it has become suffused; it can still value depth, and distinguish the truth from the lies. The various incarnations of the Love Island franchise – like Trump and Johnson’s banal brands – can serve in their patent absurdities to remind us that there are, after all, better and truer things out there that are still worth striving for. In a curious way, we might perhaps be grateful for that.
These trivialities are hardly trivial. Popular television is important. A report published this month has shown that Covid-19 lockdowns resulted in British people spending nearly a third of their waking hours watching TV. Our broadcast viewing habits radically affect the ways in which we see and interact with the world. The subtleties of our entertainments inform the sensitivities and refinements of our perspectives. Such nuancing is increasingly vital, existentially so. As we negotiate our way through the global crises of the pandemic and climate change, we urgently need to start to be smart again.