Lady in the streets, freak in the sheets: challenging the virgin/whore dichotomy on ITV2’s Love Island

Milly Morris likes Foucault and feminism. She is currently chasing a PhD in political science at the University of Birmingham. She is a runner, as well as a lover of chickpeas and Game of Thrones. This essay was originally published on her website during the 2017 season of Love Island

Featured image: Clem Onojeghuo at Unsplash

A foreword from the author in 2018

I wrote this article on in 2017 and, once again, I find myself enthralled in the drama of Love Island. Indeed, I am sad enough to admit that I look forward to 9PM and for the moment that my Love Island-based group chat lights up in debate. I think that this article is still relevant to Season 4, and demonstrates how the virgin/whore dichotomy is an easy trope for those observing women to fall into and reinforce. This year the contestants Dani and Samira, both sweet-natured and loyal, besot the public. On the other hand, Megan, who has coupled up with a number of partners and ‘mugged off’ a few members of the villa, seems to be quite selfish and insensitive to her fellow contestants’ feelings. This is not dissimilar to another contestant, Adam, who has appeared to enjoy the process of stringing women along for the sake of the game. However, unlike Adam, Megan has been consistently criticised for her behaviour in terms of her sexuality, placing her in opposition to the ‘good’ girls of the villa. Comments such as ‘in a world full of Megans, be a Dani’ have circulated on social media. Likewise, there have been numerous criticisms of her ‘fake’ appearance (she has reportedly had numerous plastic surgery operations), creating a binary between the ‘natural’ beauty of Samira and Dani and the ‘deceiving’ appearance of Megan. Not only does this narrative reinforce the virgin/whore dichotomy, it plays into the idea that women who engage in traditional femininity are frivolous and untrustworthy. One meme suggests that Megan is lying to the men because of her difference in appearance. This reflects the different ways in which we discuss and understand sexuality, both of which are equally damaging to men and women alike.

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 categorise women into ‘good’ girls vs. ‘bad’ girls, or sinners vs. saints, with the labels being determined by a woman’s sexual behaviour. 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, leading to the implication 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:

‘She had a pretty face but her head was up in space. She needed to come back down to earth.’

Another example of this can be seen in Pink’s Stupid Girls which describes ‘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, if you don’t already know, is a reality TV show based upon singletons searching for ‘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 members of the island are told to ‘couple up’ with their love interests. In the final week, the public vote on who their favourite 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 have a group chat dedicated to analysing each episode/character development). There are parts of the show which are compelling and heart-warming – contestants form tight friendships and are shown being generally silly together.

With most reality TV shows, backlash is based upon the apparent frivolous and self-centred nature of viewers and participants (often accompanied with a warning about a generational shift towards rampant individualism). For example, Piers Morgan referred to the cast of Love Island as ‘cretins’ and claims that the show is designed to ‘scramble our brains’. While, of course, there are some narratives which potentially reproduce damaging societal power structures (to be discussed throughout this post), it’s important to note that reality TV doesn’t represent (so-called) millennial entitlement and the downfall of relationships. Sometimes it is enjoyable (and even uplifting) to switch off and watch strangers being carefree on TV, hence the success of shows such as Gogglebox.

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 categorises 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 the truth-telling game of ‘spin the bottle’, it was revealed that Amber once had sex with two men in one evening. Despite some of the male contestants revealing that they had taken part in foursomes, this revelation left Kem shocked – and seemingly – disgusted, telling the camera:

‘I can’t believe she slept with two guys in one night (…) that has put me off.’

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’. This seems to be 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 only when it is appropriate to do so. For example, in recent episodes, Camilla has been pressured into coupling up with new boy Craig despite clearly not being attracted to him or his – frankly creepy – behaviour.

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 joked: ‘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 juxtaposed with her ‘bad’ sexual behaviours, positioning her as possessing the contradictory characteristics of both Madonna and whore. This contradiction led Zara to be stripped of her Miss Great Britain title, with the organisers claiming that her behaviour 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 behaviour.  In contrast to Alex – who was shown laughing bashfully with the other male contestants – Zara continuously apologised on air, repeating that the incident was a mistake and ‘really not like me at all’.

However, this series, the story-line with the most prominent virgin/whore dichotomy is that of the love triangle between Camilla, Jonny 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 categorised as classy, the other female islanders are subsequently recognised to be ‘trashy’. 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 scenes as they occur – many of the posts were based around this love triangle, such as the following:

‘Camilla needs to dispose of Tyla like she does those bombs in the Middle East’

‘Camilla dated a prince and yet Jonny is throwing her away for a Sainsbury’s basics version of Michelle Keegan? Nah that’s not on’

‘I swear to god if Jonny picks Tyla over Camilla in tonight’s recoupling I will go drop kick him in the pool and drown him’ 

Whilst Camilla does seem like a genuinely lovely and intelligent person (a highlight of the show being when she defended her feminist views in an argument with Jonny), the categorisation 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: the perception of Camilla as being ‘too good’ for Love Island is often cited alongside her seemingly privileged background, as well as the rumour that she once dated Prince Harry.

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 lead to lazy gender binaries playing out throughout the show’s story-lines. However, an interesting element of Love Island is some of the resistance shown against 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. Shows such as Love Island exist within the mainstream and draw in large audiences.  For this reason, 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 popular television is deconstructed in these ways, and not snubbed as being a pointless focus of research interests or dismissed by academia as a ‘soft’ subject.

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