Throughout the history of Western popular culture, recurring binaries of women have been used to present a simplistic vision of femininity and to reinforce gendered power structures. These depictions can often be linked to religion, aiming to categorize women into ‘good’ VS ‘bad’ girls or ‘sinners’ VS ‘saints’, with the labels being determined by a woman’s sexual behavior. Whilst the ‘good’ girl abstains from sex and is ‘chaste’ (the ‘Madonna’), the ‘bad’ girl is sexually active (the whore, the femme fatale). Of course, within Christianity, Eve represents the original ‘bad girl’, implying that female sexuality is both dangerous and untrustworthy. This dichotomy is heavily present in the mainstream music industry, with many songs being dedicated to “good” VS “bad” types of women. For example, Avril Lavigne’s ‘Skater Boi’ tells the story of a ‘bad’ girl who thinks she is ‘better’ than Lavigne’s love interest, leading to her inevitable loneliness and regret at her decision to reject him. The song concludes with the ‘good’ girl (Lavigne) ‘winning’ the man’s affection and providing the audience with a moralistic lesson about the dangers of ‘friend-zoning’ men. Lavigne sings:
Another example of this can be seen in Pink’s “Stupid Girls” which cites “porno paparazzi” girls as being a “disease” or “epidemic.” Here, the suggestion is that women who engage in traditionally feminine practices – the video shows heavily made up women getting spray tans and pedicures – should be belittled and considered one-dimensional, fickle and unintelligent. Indeed, both songs replicate the virgin/whore dichotomy by positioning ‘smart’ girls against ‘feminine’ girls, the suggestion being that the latter are always overtly sexual and – consequently – “bad.”
ITV’s ‘Love Island’ is a reality TV show based upon single-tons finding ‘true love’. The contestants are filmed living in a picturesque villa for seven weeks as they try to find a potential partner. Each week, the contestants are told to ‘couple-up’ with their love interests. In the final week, the public ‘choose’ who their favorite couple is (which couple they believe to be genuinely ‘in love’) and that couple wins a cash prize. Each summer, my friends and I become genuinely obsessed with the show (we even have a group chat dedicated to analyzing each episode/character development) and there are parts of the show which are compelling and heart-warming. For example, contestants form tight friendships and are shown being generally silly and carefree together.
With most reality TV shows, backlash is based upon the frivolous and self-centered nature of viewers and participants (often accompanied with a warning about the apparent generational shift towards rampant individualism). For example, Piers Morgan referred to the cast as “cretins” and that the show was designed to “scramble” our brains. Whilst, of course, there are some narratives which potentially reproduce societal power structures (to be discussed throughout this blog), it’s important to note that reality TV doesn’t represent the “downfall” of relationships and so-called “millennial entitlement”…sometimes it is enjoyable to switch off and watch people being carefree on TV.
Despite this, the virgin/whore dichotomy is deeply entrenched within Love Island’s narrative, with the men often debating which women are “wifey material” (one contestant, Kem, is often heard pondering which woman he would be able to “take home to his Mum”). Again, such discourse categorizes the female contestants into good VS bad, the suggestion being that one “type” of woman would be welcomed into a family environment, whilst another is reserved only for fulfilling sexual gratification. For example, during a game truth-telling “spin the bottle”, it was revealed that Amber once had sex with two men in an evening. Despite some of the male contestants revealing that they had taken part in four-somes, this revelation left Kem shocked – and seemingly – disgusted, telling the camera:
Consequently, Kem’s attraction to Amber was partly based upon a perceived innocence or sexual naivety, which presumably he hoped to “school” her in. His reaction to Amber taking part in “promiscuous” sexual activity with other men suggests that he now views her as “tarnished” or “broken goods.” In contrast, unsurprisingly, Marcel’s revelation that he has slept with “around” 300 women was met with rapturous applause and laughter from the other contestants. In another scene, Camilla encapsulates the balancing act of the virgin/whore dichotomy by stating that she follows the guide of being a “lady in the streets” but a “freak in the sheets.” Indeed, this is seemingly where Amber went wrong; a woman’s promiscuity is expected to be kept private in order to stop men feeling uncomfortable, but should be unleashed when it is “appropriate” to do so. For example, in recent episodes, Camilla has been pressurized into “coupling up” with new-boy Craig.
Such sexual double standards could be seen in 2016’s series, in which Zara – a former Miss Great Britain winner – had sex with Alex Bowen on their first date. After Zara confided in Kady (who “promised” not to share her secret), Kady is seen telling the other contestants and calling Zara an “absolute idiot” and a “stupid girl”, whilst Olivia jokes “Miss GB fucks on the first date, you sure?” The women laugh as Olivia states that she “would never do that.” Here, Zara’s reputation as a pageant queen –historically presented as “pure” and “virginal” – is juxta posed with her “bad” sexual behaviors, positioning her as a possessing contradictory characteristics of both “Madonna” and “whore.” Indeed, this contradiction led Zara to be stripped of her Miss Great Britain title, with the organizers claiming that her behavior was “unacceptable” of a pageant winner. In a later interview on Loose Women, Zara stated that she was “dealing with the consequences” of her actions and was repeatedly asked by the hosts if she “understood” the severity of her behavior In contrast to Alex – who was shown laughing bashfully with the other male contestants – Zara continuously apologized on air, repeating that the incident was “really not like me at all” and that it was a “mistake.”
However, this series, the storyline with the most prominent virgin/whore dichotomy is that of the love triangle between Camilla, Johnny and Tyla. Camilla – who studied at Loughborough university and currently works for an explosive ordinance disposal unit – has been continuously represented as “not the type of girl” to appear on a reality TV show, with articles suggesting that she is “too classy” to be on Love Island. Such language works to create a hierarchy of women within the villa – whilst Camilla is categorized as “classy”, the other female islanders are subsequently recognized to be “trashy.” Indeed, this discourse has centred around Camilla’s character development on the show. For example, initially, Camilla was “coupled up” with Jonny. However, after new contestants entered the villa, Jonny decided that he wanted to “re-couple” with Tyla. On the “Love Island Reactions” Facebook page – a forum for fans of the show, where admins post their reactions to occurring scenes – many of the posts were based around this love triangle, such as the following:
Whilst Camilla does seem like a genuinely lovely and intelligent person (a highlight of the show being where she defended her feminist views in an argument with Johnny), the categorization of women in this fashion only works to reproduce damaging power structures. The suggestion here is that Tyla entered the villa with the intention of “stealing” Jonny from Camilla, positioning her as sexually “predatory” and consequently “untrustworthy” and/or “disloyal.” Likewise, the implication that Tyla is “cheap” in comparison to Camilla (continuously referred to as the “nation’s sweetheart”) is intertwined with classism; Camilla’s label of being “too good” for Love Island is often cited alongside her seemingly privileged background, as well as the rumour that she dated a Prince Harry.
Overall, it is important to analyse reality TV’s representations of femininity and sexuality. Such shows often follow simplistic narratives – for example, Big Brother always ‘needs’ a villain to soak up the audience’s collective “hatred” – which can often lead to lazy gender binaries playing out throughout the show’s story-lines. However, one interesting element of Love Island, is some of the resistance that can be seen towards the virgin/whore dichotomy. In one episode, for example, Olivia stated that “it’s 2017 (…) if I want to sit on a dick, then I’ll sit on a dick”, whilst the 2016 series showed Sophie reading a poem about the sexual double standard endured by Zara. Most importantly, shows such as Love Island exist within the mainstream and draw in large audiences. Thus, conversations surrounding gender and sexuality can be amplified through such shows in a way that is relevant and interesting to some young people. Consequently, it is essential that the shows are deconstructed and are not snubbed as being a pointless focus of research interests (as many “soft” subjects are within academia).