A few weeks ago, I was walking through St Pancras station when I spotted a book in the window of a popular women’s clothes shop. The cover of the book urged readers to be more like Audrey Hepburn, “in a Kardashian world”. Metaphorically speaking, I picked up my green biro and sent a grumpy email to the shop’s general address, headed: COMPLAINT. I explained that I was a fan of the shop, but the book made me feel as though my money, and my big bottom, were not good enough. I think Audrey Hepburn is one of the most talented actors of the 20th century, but the implication of the comparison made me feel outraged on behalf of women everywhere. To reference another book, the cover made me feel as though I was getting told off for being “too fat, too slutty, too loud”. I wrote furiously about how divisive and dismissive the message felt, how furious it made me to see it in the window, hit send and, immediately, felt cross with myself for reacting so dramatically.
However, hearing that Jane Lunnon, the head of Wimbledon High School, is telling teenage girls that they have to choose between supporting the #MeToo movement and the “trivial nonsense” of Love Island makes me want to send angry emails to everyone I know. Speaking at the annual Headmasters’ And Headmistresses’ Conference, in Manchester, Lunnon said, “If we want to be taken seriously in the Me Too debate, have our voices heard and have agency, can we say this… matters?”
Three-point-six million people watched this year’s Love Island final, and 1.6 million of them were aged between 16 and 34. Firstly, we simply cannot afford to exclude that volume of people from the discussions we have about feminism. Feminism exists to raise and level us. It’s not an exclusive club. It’s not Scientology. It exists to make sure that everyone’s voices are heard and given equal weight, and the most marginalised and vulnerable people do not get talked over. It only works to serve us all if we subscribe in great numbers. Lunnon might as well ask people to choose between supporting the #MeToo movement and being born in a month with an “R” in it.
Secondly, I truly believe that Love Island fans are the people who need feminism the most, and I include myself in this. The programme is undeniably problematic. A poll found that 40% of young female viewers felt insecure about their bodies after watching it. There’s an alarming lack of diversity – at one point, there were more white women named Ellie on screen than women of colour. This year, there was a nationwide discussion about gaslighting, after the way Adam Collard subjected Rosie Williams to emotional abuse that was so troubling, charity Women’s Aid put out a statement. It is being watched by a captive audience of millions of girl and women who are primed to have big, life-changing conversations about body confidence, emotional health, intersectionality and positive relationships. If Lunnon is suggesting that these girls and women aren’t fit for the feminist fight, I don’t know who she’s looking to recruit.
People who seek to divide women want to make us weak. We’re stronger when we stand together; smart and silly, trivial and tough
Surely, the central message of the #MeToo movement is that no one should ever experience sexual assault, and that the fault always lies with the perpetrator, never the victim. It doesn’t matter whether you dream of wearing a bikini or a white coat to work, everyone should be able to work and live freely and safely, without ever experiencing sexual abuse. #MeToo is about recognising and understanding the power balance that makes people vulnerable to abuse. It’s also about exploding some of the myths that surround consent, eg “you were in his room,” “you agreed to kiss him,” “you were watching a programme that made you think about having a breast enlargement,” “you posted a selfie with a lot of visible cleavage in order to get ‘likes’ and validation.” If I were a head of a school, and I felt responsible for the welfare of teenage girls, I would be watching every single episode of Love Island, twice, in order to understand some of the dilemmas and issues that my students faced. I would not be isolating them by telling them that their favourite programme was “trivial nonsense”.
Whenever I’ve voiced an opinion about Love Island, whether it’s in print, on the radio or on TV, strange men have responded and told me to shut up. I received a tweet from a teenage boy who said, “Please don’t be a feminist and please stop watching Love Island.” It’s not far from Lunnon’s message. If the sexist men of the internet get angry and frightened when feminists watch Love Island, and find aspects to praise and things to find fault with, it makes me think that we should be paying serious attention to it. These people oppose #MeToo and it’s putting the wind up them. That doesn’t sound like trivial nonsense to me. Megan Barton Hanson, a break-out star of the most recent series, recently appeared on Good Morning Britain wearing a T-shirt telling viewers to “Stop valuing women based on their sexual history”. To me, that sounds like the spirit of #MeToo.
We do live in a Kardashian world, but all that means is that there are infinite ways to be a woman, and no “right” one – just chances to build a platform with any resources available, and spreading the messages that matter to you. I hope that Lunnon realises that there are plenty of opponents to #MeToo who would love to exclude Love Island viewers, and contestants, from the movement. People who seek to divide women want to make us weak. We’re stronger when we stand together; smart and silly, trivial and tough.