There are many things I love about Love Island but, broadly, the programme appeals to me on the same ancient and universal levels as pantomime. There are goodies and baddies, the possibility that love might conquer all, and hating the various villains is as satisfying as whacking the top of a crème brûlée with the back of a teaspoon. I gain much emotional satisfaction from hating Jonny, who is sort of a villain, only far too stupid to be genuinely evil. Jonny cruelly ditched lovely Camilla for Tyla, only to get, to use the vernacular, “massively pied off” when new boy Theo showed up and said he fancied Tyla, too. Jonny said Theo would have to “prise” Tyla from his “cold, dead hands” – which sounded creepy, controlling and about as cute as a cockroach infestation.
Women’s Aid CEO Polly Neate has commented on his words, saying: “It did not demonstrate just how much he liked her. It was possessive and controlling. What can be all too easily passed off as banter actually carries the underlying sentiment that this man believes he owns this woman.” She added: “All of us have a duty to call out this sort of behaviour and challenge these sexist remarks when we hear them.”
Neate is right. It’s on all of us to make sure that comments like Jonny’s are never laughed off or normalised. And using Love Island as a discussion point to start a conversation about abuse and control is a stroke of genius. It’s one of the most-watched programmes on TV at the moment, so when a cast member’s comment is picked up by the national press, the nation has to pay attention. When at least two women are killed every week in England and Wales by a current or former partner, and one in three women around the world will experience violence at the hands of a male partner, the issue of abuse in romantic relationships is unignorable, yet it gets ignored constantly. Neate’s words remind us that it doesn’t necessarily start as a tragedy that takes place behind locked doors – it’s pub chat, off-the-cuff comments that sound hyperbolic and almost jokey.
Happily, Tyla did not fall into a swoon when Jonny mentioned his 'cold, dead hands' – she started to go off him
Jonny might be a controlling boyfriend, but he didn’t come up with the concept. When I worked on a teen magazine, the biggest reader fan phenomenon was Twilight, a series about a teenage girl who was in an obsessive relationship with someone who controlled her behaviour and watched her sleep. Don’t forget that Fifty Shades Of Grey, which has been heavily criticised for normalising abuse within a relationship, started life as Twilight fan fiction. Of course, this doesn’t make Jonny’s words OK, but it gives a context for the culture he has grown up in, which is all part of a painful, shameful history in which women are considered as men’s possessions or appendages.
However, to return to my first point, Jonny is an idiot. Nothing that comes out of his mouth sounds attractive or aspirational. In the episode in question, he sounded more pathetic than menacing. Love Island is aimed at a fairly young demographic and I suspect that most viewers didn’t find his words romantic – I think they triggered a synchronised, countrywide eye-roll. Happily, Tyla did not fall into a swoon when Jonny mentioned his “cold, dead hands” – she started to go off him and dumped him before the episode had ended. Forget Ana Steele and Bella Swan – Tyla might be the true romantic heroine of our age.
It feels as though the messages we’re trying to share about consent and controlling behaviour are starting to get through. The fact that Jonny’s words have caused such consternation suggest something significant is shifting. There’s a growing chorus of voices asking questions and challenging what is seen on screen. We have a long way to go, but collectively we’re reconsidering the idea of the traditional “romantic” hero and realising that he’s not a fantasy figure – but a toxic idea that needs to evolve, urgently. Love Island might be easy to dismiss as “trash TV”, but it’s reaching a lot of people and making them pause for thought.