When reality show mutant Heartbreak Island launched last year, people lost their collective minds. But why?
I’m basically a reality-TV virgin, but when Heartbreak Island aired last year, I was obliged to watch at least one episode because my brother was involved. There was no other reason I would, at that point, have cast my eyes upon the glazed pecs and voluptuous buttocks of the contestants. When I once flirted with Joe Millionaire in 2005, I lasted about ten minutes. To say I found it crass would be generous.
I like to think I’ve lightened up a little since then though, and when Mander’s song pulsed from the speakers I anticipated some pleasure. What I didn’t anticipate was a bordello of intellectual stimulation. By the end of the first season, Heartbreak Island, and the talk around it, had made a reality-TV nympho of me: I couldn’t get enough.
My brother was not one of the contestants. He’s a sound guy, responsible for collecting the noises people make into black and silver boxes and separating them out into threads, then putting them back together again. When I first heard he was doing the show I was worried. He’s not the most light-hearted person, apt to rant about pop culture and its followers. The idea of him spending six extremely close, sleep-deprived, alcohol-fuelled weeks with a reality TV cast seemed akin to putting a tortoise in a tank with a dozen otters and hoping for the best.
As it turned out, he had a surprisingly good time. Good enough that when the reviews came out, he was furiously defensive of a genre and a group of people he would have previously torn to sarcastic little shreds. “Do the reviewers not realise these are real people?” he fulminated into the phone, with the kind of angst he usually reserved for discussing Chomsky. “The hypocrisy of tearing apart a bunch of strangers for being shallow, judgmental idiots while being exactly that in the way you review something is ridiculous! And there’s so much more to it. They don’t get it!”
After reading the criticism myself, I could see why my brother had been so, well, heartbroken over it. There was not just an ugly hatefulness to most of the reviews, they were flimsy and they failed at their job. The television critic is tasked with bending their mind around the medium and the culture in which it sits, not spouting out their first knee-jerk thoughts. However, that was largely what New Zealand’s media served up
That guru of TV criticism, the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, calls reality TV “television’s television”.”It’s an easily mocked mass artistic medium that’s corrupted by half-hidden deals,” she wrote in a 2016 review of Vandercamp Rules, “but it also provides a magnetising mirror for the culture, dirty and mesmerising.”
In the case of Heartbreak Island, we got a double-mirror. While there are things the show can tell us about our culture, the reactions to it say far more. “I am not a parent,” wrote Bridget Jones (not of the Diary), who described the show as an “hour-long train wreck” in her Stuff review last year, “but I can imagine the conversations happening in households around the country last night, as innocent eyeballs accidentally stumbled on Heartbreak Island‘s first episode… The impact can be made before anyone has had a chance to realise.”
This concern for innocent eyeballs came up again and again. One mother was so outraged, the NZ Herald reported, that she “was forced to pen her open letter after her daughters, aged eight and six, saw advertising for the show during the early evening” and “called on TVNZ to scrap Heartbreak Island completely because it depicted an unrealistic view of love and dating”.
Reading these reviews, I was unhinged. Was it 1954 again? Where did these reflexively repressive responses come from? I am a parent, and if my daughters (aged five and two) had caught a scandalous glimpse of Ruby’s breasts, I hope I would have discussed those beauties, and the show, with my girls and without shame. A hook-up culture which centres around looks and money is a not-very-new reality they’ll encounter at some point and I want them to be able to think critically about it. “We need to talk,” Jones implored in her review. Yes, we do.
The other heavily criticised aspect of the show’s first episode was the ranking of contestants — and the public revelation of those rankings. When Ella and Tavita’s barrel-bottom, no-votes status was announced by Matilda Rice without any hint of apology, critics expressed horror. “It’s like being chosen last at PE, but approximately 1,000 times worse,” wrote Anna Murray in the NZ Herald.
One reviewer implied that the experience could cause PTSD for the poor contestants, and criticised TVNZ for “gamifying rejection”. But then, in the next breath, she wrote this: “Some of the couples prove themselves to be some of the most boring people on the face of the earth so I’m making the executive decision to just pretend I can’t see them.” And then this: “Tavita [he of the no-votes shame] looks a good 10 to 15 years older than everyone else here, which is not at all creepy and uncomfortable.”
Even critics we might expect to plum the shallows of reality TV for its depths let us down last year. “Heartbreak Island takes the worst bits from every idiotic example of the genre and chucks them into a black hole of pointlessness.” That was Diana Wichtel in the Listener, who went on, sadly, predictably, and concluded: “Heartbreak Island? Just no.”
In her piece about Vanderpump Rules, Nussbaum points out that reality TV’s audience is largely queer and female. I thought of this while I read the Listener review, and then I thought: The patriarchal mouthpiece has spoken through Diana Wichtel!
There is something fascinating in the hysteria and clamp-down which Heartbreak Island generated that tells us something important about ourselves. As an audience we showed an almost violent inability to joyfully embrace the pure entertainment value of the show and instead exhibited a Manichean clench in which were unable to hold in tension the playful aspects of reality TV and our misgivings about it. Either that, or we ignored it entirely.
These reactions reveal a deep-seated conservatism, even in the liberal outlook: a repressive rigidity in the collective, creative imagination which produces the kinds of prescribed reactions, dismissals and outrage that were so prominent in the wake of the show’s screening and which leave no room in the cultural conversation for reality TV.
This conservatism is like a sneer that has crept up so gradually we barely feel it or recognise its repressive pinch. It is part of the same cultural muscle that frowns on or is afraid of or uncomfortable with lives that don’t support middle-class values, and that frowns on or is afraid of or uncomfortable with creative endeavours in general — especially those at the fringes of what we regard as Art. It renders our critics gate-keepers of an unyielding, middle-class restraint, instead of its dismantlers.
When I asked my brother why he thought we had reacted this way – why specifically New Zealand, quite distinctly from the UK or the US, had reacted this way – he said the conservative reaction revealed a fear of intimacy in our culture. I thought he meant we don’t like watching people get sexy, but he was talking about moralising and sarcasm as defence mechanisms. Not wanting to connect with people, not wanting our immediate feelings and experience to be visible, we find ways to obfuscate our reactions and avoid analysing them.
Sarcastic dismissal is the most direct route to preventing the type of engagement that might yield some change of opinion, or an understanding of or connection with another person, especially one at a cultural remove.
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As with most fears, cracking through this one delivers something. While during the first few episodes of the show I alternatively cringed at and mocked the behaviour and attitudes the contestants were making no effort to sublimate, slowly my judgment gave way to intrigue and, in some cases, to affection and respect. As in real life, that could take a hit at any time, but by then it was in reaction to a person, not a set of ideas. There’s something to be said, then, for the way reality TV might slightly bridge the gaps in an increasingly polarised New Zealand – where many of us would be shocked to learn that our neighbours take Mike Hosking seriously.
Just as Heartbreak Island was winding up in New Zealand last year, the London Review of Books featured a short story by John Lancaster called ‘Love Island’. I don’t think Lancaster’s story quite grasped the reality of his subjects. His omniscient narrator inhabited its protagonist with a view less like that of one of those “new animals”, who were born into selfies, and more like mine: critically self-aware to the point of hyper-anxiety. But a fictional story about reality TV in a literary magazine marks the genre as an undeniably important part of the cultural conversation.
Perhaps this year we will be less mad about it.
Heartbreak Island season 2 starts tonight on TVNZ2. You can watch the first episode on demand right now – episodes drop at 6AM on the day they air.
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