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‘Love Island’s request for non-binary applicants is just blatant tokenism at this stage


By Sarah Finnan
10th Jan 2022

Love Island / Instagram

‘Love Island’s request for non-binary applicants is just blatant tokenism at this stage

As the Molly Mae "scandal" rumbles on, should we be taking aim at the 'Love Island' production team churning out these young stars with little sense of after-care or obligation to them?

Love Island has announced (once again) that the show will be accepting applications from non-binary contestants ahead of the upcoming season. But considering its desperately inadequate response to requests to diversify the show in the past, as well as the history of mental illness, financial difficulties and breakdowns of former contestants who have been thrust into the spotlight by the show, it’s woefully inadequate.

Compare it to the recent Golden Globe Awards ceremony that went ahead last night despite much public furore. Variety described it as “the strangest Golden Globes ceremony ever”, and it’s not hard to see why. Still plagued by the considerable controversy caused by the 2021 edition, much of Hollywood decided to boycott the event and this year’s ceremony was decidedly less extravagant. 

Choosing to proceed with the event “as [they] always have” was a very calculated move though; a shameless attempt by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to prove that they’re unbothered by and even bigger than aesthetics. There was too much “positive” internal change happening for them to worry about something so superficial as what the event might look like, don’t ya know?!

Coming under fire over allegations of racism, sexism, bullying, corruption and a distinct lack of diversity, amongst other things, it’s clear that the HFPA was keen to show that they had taken all of the (very valid) criticism on board this year – despite there being less than a 12-month turnaround between the 2022 awards and the sh*t show that was last year’s ceremony. 

While the HFPA has initiated substantive changes, not enough time has passed to ascertain whether they’re merely surface level or not. As Variety previously noted, we’re still within the same calendar year as the initial allegations and it would be very difficult to implement the amount of reform that is needed here in just a few months. Love Island’s recent announcement that they’ll be accepting applications from non-binary contestants reeks of a similar rubbish. 

Perhaps you recall around this time last year, when, almost nine months ago to the very day, producers confirmed that LGBTQI+ applicants would be able to apply for the first time. 

Teaming up with Tinder to recruit willing participants for last summer’s show, the popular dating app was flooded with Love Island ads encouraging all interested candidates to apply by swiping right on the series’ profile. However, many queer users were left feeling confused as to why they were being targeted by the application, especially given the fact that they weren’t eligible to apply.

Hoping to clear things up a bit, ITV addressed the situation by way of a short statement that claimed, “our only stipulation for applicants on Love Island  is that they are over 18, single and looking for love.” In other words, applicants didn’t have to identify as heterosexual in order to be considered. Fast forward a few months (less than two, to be exact) and suddenly producers were singing an entirely different tune. Being more representative was obviously the end goal, but including LGBTQI+ contestants would disrupt the show’s logistics.

“It goes without saying that we want to encourage greater inclusivity and diversity,” ITV commissioner Amanda Stavri said in a Radio Times interview last year. “In terms of gay Islanders, I think the main challenge is regarding the format of Love Island. There’s a sort of logistical difficulty because although Islanders don’t have to be 100% straight, the format must sort of give [them] an equal choice when coupling up.” The network is representative though! At least according to Stavri. “With our dating shows, such as The Cabins, there is much more sexual diversity. The formats don’t have as much restrictions as Love Island.

Love Island did have one same-sex couple back in 2016 when Katie Salmon and Sophie Gradon surprised viewers by coupling up. So, technically, it could work. Two years later, Megan Barton-Hanson – who is bisexual – appeared on the fourth season. Initially together with Eyal Booker, she then set her sights on Wes Nelson with whom she finished in fourth place. Including one or two LGBTQI+ contestants isn’t enough though and as Megan has since pointed out, the programme needs “a whole gay season” to avoid tokenism. 

If we’re being honest here, diversifying the cast probably isn’t enough to save Love Island. Fans have been calling for reform for years now, and the show’s murky past is proof that their insistence is warranted. Two previous contestants have died by suicide, with Caroline Flack the show’s third casualty. Mental health is continuously cited as a cause for concern and there is a distinct lack of after-care for contestants who find themselves at the mercy of the public without any sort of protection. 

Molly-Mae Hague, one of the show’s most successful former contestants, is a prime example of this. Hung out to dry for something she said on The Diary of a CEO podcast recently, Hague outraged the internet with the comment that “everyone has the same 24 hours as Beyoncé”. Essentially claiming that anyone can succeed if they want something badly enough, people have lambasted the reality star-turned-entrepreneur for being classist and ill-educated. Not everyone has the same privileges as she – a wealthy, white, cisgender, western woman – has had in her life, and to suggest that anything is financially possible if you just work hard, is categorically untrue. 

That said, Hague has become the subject of a social media pile-on and the amount of vitriol being directed at her is completely unwarranted. Like most, I don’t agree with her comments, but, quite frankly, she’s just a cog in the machine; a small part of a universal problem for which the real culprits are never called out.

Even podcast host Steven Bartlett has spoken out to defend her. “Molly Mae did an interview on my podcast, yesterday a soundbite from that interview went viral, she trended No.1 on Twitter, every newspaper covered it and MP’s weighed in. I’ve had male guests say what she said. No one cared. But when Molly says it, she’s crucified? Crazy,” he tweeted. 

She’s been vilified for far less though. “Gender issues aside, the standard we hold Molly-Mae to as a 22-year-old that’s figuring out the world is absolutely outrageous,” Bartlett continued. “She once said she didn’t like Italian food, it trended No.1 all day, was written about in every newspaper and she had to issue a public apology.” 

Molly-Mae has made a conscious effort to distance herself from the show since her Love Island days ended, but  I think it’s fair to say that there’s no way producers could have adequately prepared her for what was to come. Entertaining as the show is, there are so many issues that have yet to be addressed, and flinging these young people into fame without the proper mental health assistance to ensure they’re looked after is irresponsible. 

Don’t get me wrong, the move to be more inclusive is a huge step forward; it’s just not enough. The show is under pressure from viewers and has responded in the only way they know how – to appease the nation with a “we’re making positive changes” statement. They’ve come under fire for diversity before and they addressed that by going on Tinder and saying, “Islanders don’t have to be straight!” Actions speak louder than words though and we all know how that turned out. Non-binary contestants may be welcome to fill out an application form… but will they actually make it onto the show? And if they do, will their storylines be given equal airtime? Well, that remains to be seen.