Lena Dunham on Love Island: I’m asking the same question they do can you love after hurt?

When the writer and director arrived in Wales to shoot a new drama, she was nursing a broken heart and romantic ideas of British life. Then she discovered the reality soap opera…

As I planned my summer in Wales, my head filled with visions of romance, I supposed Id do what the heroines of novels did when they crossed the pond for a new life: go to the shore to take the healing air. Meet a man and move into his stunning manor, possibly watched over by a sinister housemaid. Scurry through cobblestoned streets and into dusty bookshops, furtively pulling up the hood of my cloak. Go to a banquet and dance to piano music in a great hall. Taste gamey meats on a date with a count, then become a countess. Shoot a bow and arrow. Develop a slight accent. Images of everything from Brighton Rock to Emma, The Woman In White to Notting Hill, filled my head. There was even a little 24 Hour Party People in there. But as it would happen, my days were long, and much more Wernham Hogg than Wuthering Heights. And my nights were short because soon I was smacked with a 9pm curfew. No, I havent been convicted of a crime and placed under house arrest. I discovered Love Island.

Love Island, the cultural touchstone that takes over summers in the United Kingdom. I had previously only heard of this hot-weather reality soap opera from my shameful Mail Online habit (the best place to see what Victoria Beckham is wearing as she ignores the Spice Girls sapphic drama) but I was totally unprepared for how wholly it would take over my life and days. It seemed like a small investment, a calming way to power down as I ate my spaghetti; but as I was introduced to the villa and its anarchic customs, my vague interest turned to something like obsession. If my colleague and roommate Liz tried to turn down the volume to take a call, I turned savage: What the hell are you doing? I was busy listening to every murmur, the particularities of these regional accents, the smack of lips under duvet covers. The pop music may blare, but this is nothing if not a show of quiet human moments, where the real drama is in what they dont say as they wash their bronzer off for bed and change into their night-time thongs.

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OK, lets backtrack a second: if youre just home from a cruise to Antarctica, then let me explain Love Island. At the start of June, five men and five women were thrown into a villa in Majorca, where the expectation is that they will split into couples and start on the rocky footpath toward love. At first the couplings are loose concepts, as the duos are free to get to know who they want to, though theyll share beds and compete in confounding and semi-sexual challenges with their partners, gaining immunity from being removed when they win. But as things heat up, they participate in a dark ritual known as a recoupling, where the duos can rearrange as their eyes start to wander (and wander and wander). Sometimes the nation votes, other times its their fellow islanders and couples (or singles: the rules change at the whim of the invisible producers) are removed, briefly mourned, then struck from the emotional record as newer, hotter contestants are dropped into the mix. The goal is true love and a prize of 50,000, which is occasionally mentioned, usually in the context of calling a woman a gold digger.

A word about the contestants: theyre young. Like, really, really young. Current national favourites Tommy and Molly-Mae, whose love story is an unusual example of penguin-like devotion, are both 20. And theyre hot. Like, really, really hot. Every pale British body is tanned to the same toasted shade, so that the ridges, dimples and moles on their body disappear, and they begin to resemble human-shaped cookies. The Love Island producers are brilliantly evil and have figured out how to make the whole thing shoppable, so that the enforced neon swimwear on their still-growing bodies can be found on a website with the sinister name I Saw It First. The cheesy looks and regional accents of the contestants are often mocked by the comedian who narrates the hour, despite the fact that he has his own regional accent and appears to be wearing a Hawaiian shirt and 70s porn star glasses whenever we catch a glimpse of him.

Love
Love Islanders (from left): Maura, Amber, Anna, Tommy and Molly-Mae, and Francesca. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

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But this is all the superficial stuff, because the deeper we go, the more we start to see ourselves. We may not be an air hostess from Worthing, West Sussex, but who among us hasnt felt like Amy, the islander whose romance with ballroom dancer Curtis ended in betrayal upon her return from Casa Amor. (I actually dont have time here to explain Casa Amor, just like I didnt have time to explain it to my mother who talked over this entire fucking episode.)

Throughout their three-week run as half boyfriend and girlfriend, Amy vacillated between wild euphoria and rabid jealousy, convinced that everyone was trying to steal either her man or her thunder. I found her particularly relatable because as her hold on Curtis loosened, she seemed to lose her ability to do her glam twice a day, instead skulking around in a bathing suit with a baggy bottom, her bangs frizzy, her mouth forming a pained rictus around the nozzle of her monogrammed water bottle. When Curtis made his feelings for Vogue Italia model Jourdan known, the glint of her belly chain too shiny for him to ignore, Amy pulled him aside for a chat, then another. She bargained, she chastised and eventually she begged, looking for a way to forget his betrayal and get another hit of that salsa-dancing fantasy she thought would define the rest of her days. When he finally forced her to admit what he couldnt (that he just. Wasnt. That. Into. Her), her grief became unbearable. Eventually she decided to leave the villa so he could pursue his romance with Irish sparkplug Maura.

Maura. What can I say about Maura. Shes fun. Shes feisty. Shes so Irish that the word mouth becomes a clipped battle cry: Mout! He kissed me right on da mout! But as fun as Maura is when shes fun, she can also be duplicitous and rageful. She went from telling Amy, He tusnt love ya! He tusnt! to noticing Curtis manliness with the cheeky grin of a child who has peeked under the Christmas wrapping. Weve all had that friend, the one who is so all-encompassing when their lovelight is on you that you cant help but feel youve been divinely selected. She could get you to trespass on private property, or fat shame someone despite your better judgment. Usually its a college thing, but what is Love Island if not college minus the academics and with the emotional temperature turned all the way up?

The look on Amys face when she realised that Maura was going to get what she wanted and nobody not Amy, not her new best friends for life Molly-Mae or Anna or Belle was going to stop her, was as tender as anything Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep has ever summoned. When Amy told the ladies that she had in fact found true love on the island, and it was her girls, it was the kind of moment we know all too well, where we say what we wish were true instead of what we know in our deepest of hearts actually is. She was just chattel to them, a casualty of a game that wasnt feeling that fun any more.

Lena
The deeper we go, the more we start to see ourselves. Photograph: Harry Borden/The Guardian

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And then she was gone, andthe stripped-back club classicsplayed on. And Curtis played Maura against a fun, gap-toothed girl named Francesca who is rumoured to have once called Love Island host Caroline Flack a dirty paedo for dating Harry Styles when he was 17 and she was 31 (if I didnt retain all this information, could I learn another language?). When Curtis finally chose Maura, he used the half-assed professions that the island girls accept as love: I do like ya. I do want to get to know ya. You have an interesting side to ya. I, too,have sat with a smile baked on to my face as I got a watered-down version of affection. Ive heard what I wanted to hear before, and I hope I never do it again.

This brings me to the men, whose worked-out bodies and adolescent senses of humour made my father (whose visit I used as a chance to introduce him to something that means a lot to me) make a face as if Id brought a 77-year-old arms dealer home for Christmas. These all seem like pretty awful people, doll, he said, before returning to his John le Carr novel. But he didnt see what I saw. He didnt get to watch them with the night-vision camera on, snuggling up to their partners like lonely orphans tentatively seeking safety. They may mug and pose, calling girls fit and fire, but at the end of the day they are romantics, here to find a love so great it wins the nations heart.

Take the case of Anton Danyluk, a Scottish gym owner whose first month saw him repeatedly rejected, trying to sleep while his roommates dry-humped feet away from him. He was everyones friend and, because an Adonis body in the villa is so common as to become cheap, he became a symbol of pathetic singledom, a millennial male Cathy cartoon. (Does that reference fly in the UK? The cartoon character who loved chocolate and was always on a diet and couldnt keep a man and popularised the word Ack!?)

Then came Belle, a 21-year-old makeup artist who immediately announced that she knows she has amazing boobs. On the first night she and Anton shared a bed, she ran her acrylic nails down his stomach and it appeared that he prematurely ejaculated, which she found adorable. They entered into domestic bliss and a shocking image was broadcast: Belle shaving her new boyfriends ass, something he had previously admitted his mother did for him (lets not start a conversation we cant finish). Within days, they were drunkenly fighting: hed given his number to a shopkeeper. Shed mugged him off when she refused a fake wedding ring after he kissed Anna. He was immune to her pain as she screamed, I am who I am and Ill stand by that! In the end, the dumping of two other islanders brought them back together.

She doesnt seem to be her own best advocate, my father said. But he was wrong. She didnt stand idly by as he snogged her friend. She didnt accept it, just to stay in the faux-warmth of an unhappy union. She wanted love, real love, honest love. She cried tears down her contouring. She wanted more, and when she yelled, Everyone thinks youre wrong but you!, she got it.

Lena
Love Island is a fantasy world in which women are never too tired and men can never be truly cruel or abusive. Photograph: Harry Borden/The Guardian

Up until now, Ive been fairly silent about why I love Love Island. To fully get why I was primed for it, you have to understand the time Ive had. Nineteen months ago, I left my first long-term relationship and endured a public breakup that wasnt as bad as Amys but made me feel like Amber after Michael walked back into the villa with Joanna. I pulled a Lucie and immediately hurled myself at someone new, an explosive and uncomfortable five months, during which I was briefly engaged after being proposed to with the lace of a Timberland boot while snowed into my parents apartment. I quickly realised I wasnt safe with this person and moved on to someone lovely, someone who took good care of me as I licked my wounds, and I hope I took good care of him. We spent the summer in Los Angeles. We went to the beach. We raised a kitten. We ate brunch and drove to the Griffith Observatory, but the gates were already closed so we made out in the car instead.

Everything seemed perfect except the gnawing feeling that I had no idea who I was or what I was doing. I got sick, had surgery and woke up in intensive care, and realised I couldnt keep swinging from branch to branch. Id have to touch the ground. It was the nicest breakup Ive ever had. He called me dude and I knew we would stay friends, but I had to be alone for a while. A while turned out to be a few weeks, before I spent a few nights at a philosophers house. But when he started a sentence with, You know what women really dont understand? I was back out on the sidewalk, pinching myself. I spent a month in bed with my pets, reading Sylvia Plath. I went on one blind date with a scientist I didnt know lived with a girlfriend until she posted hostile watercolours of me on the internet. I said, I cant keep living this way. This time, I meant it.

Love
Michael and Amber.

I came to Wales with all my art supplies and no lacy underwear. I had zero fantasies about summer romance. I hadnt had sex in seven months so I felt fine about eating all the Welsh cakes. (Have you tried them? Its like a pancake fucked a scone.) Out my window I can see sheep and cows, and if theyre lying down I know my joints will ache that day, too osteoarthritis is something they never talk about on Love Island.

Thenearby town is perfect. A pastiche of everything that appeals to me: pastel exteriors, canals bobbing with lily pads, a tiny, dusty art supply store called the Play Place, cobblestoned streets. The people who own our house are away with their grandkids for the summer and I am padding around in only my ex-boyfriends T-shirt, though I cannot for the life of me remember which ex-boyfriend. This home is so familiar to me, as if I lived here in a past life every carefully collected object, Regency and faux-Oriental, the seashells and tapestries, and a lot of art that says the names of the couple, engraved with hearts. They must be in love.

Love
Curtis and Maura. Photographs: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Every morning I see fields and fields and fields, so green that I dont have the language for them; its like the part of my brain that processes nature was eaten by the smell of the subway. This morning I wandered, bowl of pasta in hand, out to the back garden. I congratulated myself I couldnt believe I was outside, alone, by choice and I was also full of wild fear. The moon was as big as Ive ever seen it and the sheep were asleep, presumably warm enough in their sheep outfits. I took a massive bite and when I looked up, the moon was gone. It was a moment that made the conflict so clear: do you consume or do you observe, do you feed yourself or do you make yourself present for life, can you do both?

I am asking myself the same questions they ask themselves on Love Island, really. Can you love again after hurt? What does partnership mean? And what does it mean to know someone if you dont know yourself?

But on Love Island the pain is mediated. Not by their beauty, not by their youth, but by the fact that theyre living in a simulacrum, constantly observed though rarely acknowledging the observer. Many sensitive souls have a tendency to narrate their own life as if it were a movie, but few of us have our first love punctuated by theme music and a guy in a sound booth somewhere. Despite never being seen, the producers are always present: when the islanders have sex under the covers like some remote religious sect, they are really trying to avoid being seen and shaming their families. When they refrain from getting sloshed and screaming their pain to the night sky, its because the alcohol is limited by network restrictions. And when one of their phones dings and they cry out, I got a teeext!, its the hand of God determining what the next painful choice will be.

Love Island is a fantasy world. In there, love is sped up and clarified. Proximity creates a propulsive romance without the aching stops and starts of traditional courtship. In this heteronormative fairytale, women are never too tired and men can never be truly cruel or abusive (though this season Michael has sure tried). Nobody can ghost you because they cant go anywhere.

Lena
I hope I meet someone who is OK with an infertile, chubby, controlling fantasist who has made a lot of mistakes but cant stop trying. Photograph: Harry Borden/The Guardian

On Love Island, when someone cracks on with your former friend, youre still there. Youre watching, either in the villa or back at home, having gained a million Instagram followers and a contract to promote swimwear, and so you never have to wonder where your ex is or what they are doing. Nobody is scrolling each others Instagrams tearfully, because theyre still in the neighbouring bed. I was haunted by my exs new girlfriend wishing her favourite person a happy birthday, just as I once did, in a shirt my mother wore when she was pregnant with me and a hat I got him on a work trip to Florida. The islanders are haunted by swimming in the same pool. In that sense, they still belong to each other. Loss isnt real.

What was amazing about what Amy did, by leaving, is that she broke the fourth wall. She acknowledged she had real feelings and that her heart was really broken, too. Like a child who has just been hit by the ball, she said, This isnt fun any more. She didnt want to play the game.

I hope that history properly commends her. I hope that Belle moves with Anton to Glasgow and they open a waxing salon. I hope Tommy and Molly-Mae have loads of children and teach them to love with the same ferocity that they do. I hope Amber knows her worth and Maura realises that when Curtis smiles, he looks like a Disney villain (Big Curtis Energy is when a man is so pleased with himself that he breaks into disco moves; its a national crisis). I hope that Anna never throws Jordan over for someone taller again, and that we all learn a lesson from the egoless way that Jordan took her back, and the elegant way that Ovie conceded.

I hope I meet someone who is OK with an infertile, chubby, controlling fantasist who has made a lot of mistakes but cant stop trying. I hope I can show my children what it means to love with intention, without losing oneself. I hope the villa is always full of smiling faces, hopeful hearts, tearful losses and ecstatic gains. I hope we can keep cracking on, into the future for ever. I hope that summer never ends.

Love Island concludes on ITV2 next week.

Styling: Hope Lawrie. Hair and makeup: Bean Ellis. Clothes (from top): bikini, prettylittlething.com; earrings,hm.com; sunglasses, primark.com; shoes, office.co.uk. Brown dress,mollygoddard.com; heart sunglasses,Gucci. Green dress, primark.com; bikini and choker, riverisland.com; earrings,boohoo.com. Burgundy dress,prettylittlething.com; earrings,riverisland.com

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