‘Love Island’ in the Land of Gender Equality
Posted November 6, 2018 6:22 p.m. EST
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — With two weeks to go before filming began, the producers for Denmark’s version of the TV show “Love Island” were finalizing the opening cast list. The day before, they had rejected a promising candidate — a gorgeous skateboarder with a penchant for “World of Warcraft” — because they feared she wasn’t emotionally mature enough to live under the glare of dozens of cameras for six weeks.
The others were all chosen. “I’m very happy about Olivia,” said Louise Ellebaek, the show’s executive producer, pointing to a photo of an attractive 21-year-old with elaborate tattoos. “She’s a strong, confident woman who refers to herself a work of art.” Ellebaek paused to trace an hourglass in the air. “But she’s also really hot.”
In Britain, “Love Island” was the watercooler hit of the summer, drawing an average of about 4 million viewers per episode. In the fourth season, which ended July 30, well-sculpted singles once again moved into a Spanish villa, where they attempted to find love through couplings, competitions and seemingly endless conversations about their romantic criteria. Nearly eight weeks later, the audience voted for its favorite pair.
But with its bikini-clad women, retrograde gender roles, and accusations of emotional manipulation, the show was also criticized as sexist. In a New York Times op-ed, Eva Wiseman wrote that “Love Island” was “a sort of technicolor locus of all Britain’s gender and sexual anxieties.”
The show has already moved beyond Britain: There are versions airing in Australia and Germany, and one planned for the United States. Like new versions in Finland, Norway and Sweden, Denmark’s “Love Island,” which has been airing six nights a week since Oct. 22, demonstrates the show’s wide-ranging appeal. But how does it play in the land of “hygge” and gender equality?
The Nordic region is no stranger to reality TV. But its homegrown fare tends to be either very wholesome — a show about cutting, stacking and burning firewood in Norway, for example — or decidedly more outré — like the purported comedy “Gay Army,” in which gay men are subjected to military training by a drill sergeant.
ITV, the company that makes “Love Island,” thought the show would go over especially well in the Nordic countries, said Mike Beale, the company’s managing director for the region. “There are a lot of dating shows in Scandinavia,” he said. “But we thought the nature of this one would especially appeal to that market because it breaks the normal tropes of reality shows.”
ITV was also drawn to the Nordic countries because they are among the most digitally advanced in the world, Beale said. The audience uses an app to vote on outcomes, like which two contestants to send on a date. And although the show airs nightly on conventional television, it can also be streamed on demand.
“About 270,000” viewers watched the Oct. 22 premiere in Denmark, the broadcaster TV3 said in a statement. Of those, 78,000 watched it on television. That week, the “Love Island” app was also the country’s most frequently downloaded.
At first glance, any accommodations to local tastes in the Nordic versions are difficult to detect. With their decidedly un-hygge bubblegum-colored bedspreads and sometimes surgically enhanced casts, the shows appear to be close copies of the original.
For the careful observer, however, deeper regional differences emerge.
In the Swedish, Finnish, and Norwegian versions, alcohol — strictly controlled in those countries — scarcely appears.
In Norway, where cultural values tend to emphasize community over individual achievement, Rune Biseth, the show’s producer, had a difficult time finding contestants. “There are a few people who have a passion for getting famous,” he said in an interview. “But it’s hard to find them. And when you do, you have to be careful, because if they show off too much, the audience won’t trust them.” Melinda Beckman, 29, a fan of the show from Kouvola, Finland, noted a similar difference. “The Finns haven’t been as quick to jump into action” as the British were, she said, referring to an episode in which only one woman announced the man she liked. “I think that’s more about us being reserved than not being interested.”
And in famously feminist Sweden, one of the games from the original British show that was criticized as sexist has been toned down. The original “melon challenge” required women to bounce suggestively atop a watermelon until it broke, while the men looked on. In Swedish “Love Island,” couples launched themselves together at the fruit.
The Danish version’s most obvious differences have to do with attitudes toward dating and sex, said Jeanet Rosenkjaer, editor-in-chief of Reality Portalen, a popular reality TV news website. Danes, she said, “aren’t judgmental about sex. It’s a paradox: We’re really open when it comes to sex, but we’re closed when it comes to dating.”
That was evident during a game in which the women felt up the entire bodies, including groins, of the men, who were clad only in underwear. “Since the ‘60s and ‘70s, women in Denmark have learned to take control of their bodies and their sexuality,” said Bastian Larsen, a sex therapist and dating coach based in Copenhagen. “So it’s normal for them now to take the initiative. They’re verbally upfront about what they want.” In the British version of the game, the women restricted themselves to touching biceps and abs.
Even with explicit groping, however, the Nordic versions of “Love Island” have not matched the ratings of their British forebear. Sweden, for example, averaged 73,000 viewers per episode, though streaming drew 94,000 per episode, according to ITV. In Denmark, the televised version has also lagged behind other reality shows.
Lars Sejr, a reporter who covers TV for the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet, said a hit show on TV3 “normally gets between 150,000 and 250,000” viewers. “This one got 78,000 at its premiere. And it went down from there.”
Cecilie Hviid, 21, a student at the University of Copenhagen, said she understood why. She enjoyed the British “Love Island,” she said, but finds the Danish one boring. “The participants seem like they are afraid to completely open up about themselves,” she added. “I’m only watching because I know one of the contestants.”
Yet the lack of drama may be because of another strong cultural value: consensus. In the Norwegian show, Andreas Kronheim, 27, a programmer on an oil rig with flowing blond locks, was voted off two days before the final. “Everybody got along so well,” he said of his fellow cast members in an interview. “I never felt scared that any of the other guys would take my girl. It wasn’t a competition, it felt more like a vacation.” Should the Norwegian version be renewed despite its low ratings, Kronheim had some advice for the producers.
“We’re a little reserved — we don’t want to stand out or act spoiled,” he said. “But maybe the show would have been better if there were more people who acted crazy.”
Or maybe, he added, “it would have been better if we’d had more alcohol.”