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 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’, 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.
ITV’s ‘Love Island’ is a reality TV show based upon singletons 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 favourite couple is (which couple they believe to be genuinely ‘in love’) and that couple wins a cash prize.
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. 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.
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 juxtaposed with her “bad” sexual behaviours, positioning her as possessing contradictory characteristics of both “Madonna” and “whore.”
However, in 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:
“Camilla dated a prince and yet Johnny is throwing her away for a Sainsbury’s basics version of Michelle Keegan? Nah that’s not on”
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 Prince Harry.
Overall, it is important to analyse reality TV’s representations of femininity and sexuality; 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 these shows are deconstructed and are not snubbed as being a pointless focus of research interests - as many “soft” subjects are within academia.