Caroline Flack’s passing has once again highlighted the growing concern for the safety of those involved in reality TV. Yet the suicides of three individuals connected to Love Island raises the question as to why that show appears to have a toxicity all of its own.
While there can be no conclusive evidence that Flack’s death was directly connected to the ITV2 show, a third suicide in two years suggests that more needs to be done behind the scenes to prevent such tragedies. Over the course of the last two series, Love Island has attempted to clean-up its mental health image - it axed its lie detector test after the death of Steve Dymond some days after appearing on The Jeremy Kyle Show. However, whilst Dymond’s suicide resulted in the immediate termination of The Jeremy Kyle Show, Love Island remains on air.
This may be down to pure statistics: Love Island pulls in more viewers, but it must be acknowledged that there is a significant difference between a suicide occurring a few days after a TV appearance and a few years, which from a corporate standpoint allowed Love Island to distance itself from the deaths while The Jeremy Kyle Show could not.
But this does not answer the question of why Love Island is more associated with suicide than other reality TV shows. Many commentators have cited the way it presents a certain body image as the ideal or the instantaneous fame it presents to the Islanders as reasons for the connection, but these things are the norm for major reality TV shows aimed at young people. MTV shows ‘Ex on the beach’ and ‘Geordie Shore’ have similar narratives in this respect, yet have not been connected to suicide in the same way Love Island. Instead, we must look to the formula of Love Island rather than the themes it presents.
Love Island is simple in theory: A dozen single people enter a villa in a bid to find love (and £50k) over the course of an eight-week period of living and spending every moment with each other. It seems, in premise, like an updated version of Big Brother to suit the social media age. On the surface it is similarly primal, an anthropological study of love and power for the masses. But beyond this, its television slot of almost daily prime time TV (it is only off air on Saturday nights) allows it to present viewers with the façade of ‘real-time’ entertainment.
Thus, to some viewers, Love Island's content really does seem real. Over the course of its six series this impression has slightly faltered as archetypal characters seem to reappear with each new iteration. But at its roots, Love Island is still the same authentic-seeming show that has always been more about human connection than true love and has retained its popularity and influence for nearly half a decade.
Whilst this daily real-time format has allowed the show to be one of reality TV’s most realistic seeming shows, in terms of human interaction, this may also be its downfall. This is because Love Island has been made for the twitter age. With less ostensible power placed in the arms of producers, viewers are able to cast judgement based on the ‘real’ characters of contestants rather than their TV constructed personalities. Love Island producers seem deeply aware of this perception of the show and mundane conversations about favourite crisp flavours seem to add validity to the idea that the show really does bare all.
Love Island is interactive to social media in a way no other reality TV show has really been before it as it gives the power to the viewer to determine its contestants' careers. Twitter feeds into this as it thrives off spur of the moment value judgements treated as fact by those who tweet them. Love Island trends daily on Twitter, a significant factor in considering its toxicity. 2020’s Rebecca Gormley’s refusal to eat avocado on toast made for her has been regarded as ungrateful by twitter viewers and has now become part of her public persona.
For Love Island’s 2017 contestant Mike Thalassitis, social media curated a new internet identity of ‘Muggy Mike’. Thalassitis was the second contestant to commit suicide from the show and the catalyst for cancellation calls but Love Island has kept its TV placement by maintaining the impression that it presents the facts and audiences make the judgements. Its similarities to Big Brother rely on its sense of reality in motion; Love Island is happening as it is airing so contestants are clueless to their audience perception until they re-enter society in real-time and by that point their reputation is largely solidified.
Where this applies to its former presenter, Caroline Flack, who took her own life on 15 February, is that by being associated with the show and its cancel culture judgements, any scandal of hers will be treated in the same vitriolic way. Whilst Twitter has this effect of accountability on all public figures to some degree, associating with a show born out quick fire judgements meant that Flack was extremely targeted amid allegations of assault. One day prior to her death, The Sun published a since deleted online article of a valentine's card parodying her alleged assault which shows the extremities of ridicule she endured in all walks of life. She may not have initially been a victim in her assault case, but she certainly became one as Twitter attacks erased all nuance to her story.
Love Island has been pushed so far away from its producers that they cannot control the culture it has created. It is ethnomethodology in reality; a constructed idea that takes on life of its own. All safeguarding measures won’t stop the fast-paced audience judgements that the show has thrived upon online and the abuse its contestants face long after air date. As 2020’s contestant Jess Gale repeatedly states; “Actions speak louder than words” and the actions of those connected to Love Island speak volumes about the toxicity it has enforced.