Listen on Apple Podcasts

Show notes:

Sophie Lewis on Patreon

“Escape from Love Island”, essay, Sophie Lewis, London Review of Books, 2023

Abolish the Family Sophie Lewis, Verso Books, 2022

“On Heterpessismism”, Asa Seresin, The New Inquiry, 2019

Sex and the Single Girl, Helen Gurley Brown, 1962

Labor of Love, Moira Weigel, 2016

Max Haiven: Hello, and welcome to the “Exploits of Play.” This is a podcast about the strange and unexpected roles of games and play in our stage of capitalism that just keeps getting weirder. My name is Max Haiven, and I am the Canada Research Chair in the Radical Imagination.

Halle Frost: And I’m Halle Frost from the platform Weird Economies. We’re presenting this podcast. Today, our guest is Sophie Lewis.

Sophie is an ex-academic freelance writer and independent scholar with teaching affiliations at the Center for Research in Feminist, Queer, and Transgender Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. In 2022, they published Abolish the Family, a Manifesto for Care and Liberation from Verso. And they have an upcoming book called Enemy Feminisms, set to be published in 2025 from Haymarket Books.

Sophie’s scholarship operates in the spheres of feminist cultural criticism, queer social reproduction theory, transgender Marxism, and black and abolitionist feminisms around utopian critiques of the family. You can find more of their writing on Patreon at Repo Utopia. I’ll also include that in this episode’s show notes.

I’m 100% sure you’re going to want to read more of what they have to say, especially after hearing this conversation about reality TV.

Max Haiven: Yeah, I mean, I’ve been reading Sophie’s work for many years and continue to be inspired and provoked and interested in all of the ways that she’s thinking about gender and family and care and utopian possibilities at the intersection of all of those. And it was a real pleasure in this interview to get to speak with her about an article she wrote in the London Review of Books about a year before we recorded it – this would have been in early 2023 – on the hit television show Love Island. And you’ll hear a little bit more about what Love Island is in the interview itself, but very briefly, it is one of the most popular shows on British television and has been for the last five or six years.

It’s a franchise that has been sold into markets in Australia and elsewhere. It’s a reality TV show, whatever that means, and a reality romance TV show that, like many others, beginning with “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette”, follows the trials and tribulations of a series of characters who are placed together in an implausible situation and told to fall in love. And eventually over the season, the people who are placed together are slowly eliminated, and we’re left with one lucky couple who is allegedly going to enter into some harmonious heterosexual relationship.

Now, Sophie is, of course, the perfect person to talk about this with, but I am not. I rarely watch these shows. I, unfortunately, am an Adorno-esque snob when it comes to popular culture.

You’re hearing it here first. I barely watch anything. And so, I was really glad, Halle, that you joined us as a co-host on this episode, because otherwise I would have been floundering about like Steve Buscemi in The Meme, where I would be like there with my backwards baseball cap and skateboard being like…

Halle Frost: Hey, fellow kids. Right.

Max Haiven: Hey, fellow reality romance watchers, what about that episode we all watched last night?

Halle Frost: I mean, luckily, I’ve been searching for the reasons why I watch this trash TV, right? I’m sitting there consuming all of this content and then trying to puzzle its cultural relevance away all by myself. So, this conversation was also incredibly helpful.

Max Haiven: Talk a little bit about a game you remember from your childhood or adolescence that changed your view of the world somehow, for good or for ill.

Sophie Lewis: I’m a little loath to speculate too much, and it is a little personal, basically. So, my younger brother and I are only a year apart in age. And while we were kids and when we were prepubescent as well, he really liked Barbie dolls.

And I thought about this, obviously, in the last year’s epic discourse about the Barbie movie, which didn’t refer much to male childhood consumption of Barbie. The movie didn’t refer to male fandom or play with Barbie at all. And I wasn’t interested in Barbies, per se, but since my brother had amassed a small collection of a mix of new Barbies and sort of ancient hand-me-downs, it was possible to get them all, all the ladies, to have sex one by one with the one Ken doll and the one Aladdin doll that we also owned.

And in order to do this, we climbed on top of a wardrobe we were not allowed to climb on top of. And it was kind of dangerous and precarious and almost fell over with us on top of it. But our entire harem of Barbie sex slaves plus Ken plus Aladdin and us would hang out very surreptitiously.

And a little frisson of shame was definitely present. And I assume I instigated this, but I’m not sure. We rolled up little wads of tissue paper to represent the babies that were being produced by each act of copulation, factory style.

And I think we figured out at one point that they didn’t necessarily have to have sex heterosexually, that perhaps they could also lie on top of each other girl on girl. So this was, I just, you can see why I don’t know exactly what to tell you about the transformation of my perception of the world. But it was definitely sexually formative.

And it was fun. And as with many things to do with dolls, there was a little bit of violence, you know, you’re not very kind to dolls, I think a lot of the time. Well, one isn’t, I don’t know, I don’t want to generalize human nature.

But there is, we certainly were rough with them, you know. But it was great fun. It was some kind of game.

Halle Frost: That’s such a fantastic anecdote to lead into what we’re going to talk about. I do think that anyone who played with Barbies has some sort of story like that. Although the paper rolls, that’s a really nice touch.

So Sophie, we’re here today to talk largely about the game of love, and the business and allure of reality TV, which is a great personal interest to me. Since graduating from Barbie playing, I’ve been glued to the dating show genre, basically since MTV’s parental control. So I also wanted to ask you, what’s your earliest memory of this genre? And are there any shows that you actually do enjoy watching?

Sophie Lewis: Yeah, well, I actually came to it, maybe relatively late, or at least I was gonna say that. And then I remembered that my brother also did have little glimpses of Dismissed on MTV, a show where I believe it would be one woman choosing between two men or one man choosing between two women. And each contestant for the one person’s affections had to come up with dates to impress the person who would ultimately at the end of the episode say, you are dismissed to one of them.

So in fact, that is actually my earliest memory of the genre, I was gonna tell you that I came to it late. And that I remember hearing about Big Brother, when I was in the UK doing an undergraduate degree, and thinking it was wild and sort of awful. I was a snob about it in the way that one, you know, a lot of people are and I thought it sounded horrendous, and so on without really.

But then, actually, relatively recently, I mean, I think, probably just pre pandemic, I realised that a lot of my friends, people I admire, enjoy having, or even scholars, or just public intellectuals or comrades were having really interesting conversations following Love Island. And I wanted to be part of that. So I gave it a try.

And I have, since then started watching Love Island, not not as religiously as I did, maybe in the first two years, or in lockdown, I certainly, but I, I do watch Love Island, and I give other shows a try. And I’ve watched quite a few episodes of the “Golden Bachelor”. And the “Love is Blind”. You know, “Too Hot Too Handle”. I do feel most interested in “Love Island” for reasons that I might need you to help me sort of determine it is it is a little bit special for some reason. So yeah, I dabble, I even have watched “Milf Manor,” a little bit.

Max Haiven: Well, let’s focus a bit on “Love Island,” because it is just so massively popular, and also your article on it in the London Review of Books, about a year before we did this recording in early 2023 was really illuminating. But I wanted to read a description of it, because probably a hopelessly tuned out snobs, and have not seen it, or have been living under a rock, or have been hiding under a rock. So let me just read this, this description, which you also cite in that article from Tom Wyman, which he wrote in 2019.

So in “Love Island” for a 50,000 pound prize, every year, a dozen or so toned, preened young people in swimwear and haircuts enter a villa in Mallorca, and form themselves on site into couples, one girl, one guy. They’re all single, and are supposedly there to find love. Standard reality TV rules pertain, no contact with the outside world, no books or other sources of entertainment.

Everyone sleeps in a big room together, two to a bed, and the only activities on offer are some gym equipment, a pool to lounge by, and hanging out. Occasionally there is some organized fun with party games, and sometimes a couple will be sent either on a date or to the hideaway, a sort of concealed bunker where they can go fucking private, although obviously the cameras will still be rolling. Every week or so, the show will introduce one or two new islanders into the villa, upsetting the gender balance.

There usually follows a recoupling. Single islanders left out by each round of romantic musical chairs are then usually forced to leave, although sometimes the producers will intervene by staging a public vote, or whatever, in a bid to keep the people who make the best television in the show. In the final week, the surviving couples are gradually culled before the final few, supposedly the ones most compatible with one another, face a public vote to determine the winner.

Why did this show become so popular, do you think, compared to the whole gamut of the genre? This particular formulation of a genre that’s maybe, I guess, a little more than 25 years old now, starting with “The Bachelor.”

Sophie Lewis: I think, to be honest, there isn’t that much entirely new or different about “Love Island,” right? So the reason it has been so astonishingly successful, to me, has a little bit of mystery about it. You know, some sort of formula has been hit upon, some magical algorithmic sort of ingredient.

I don’t know. As far as I can tell, none of the component parts that spring to mind are unique. Maybe they have a particularly sort of devilishly canny set of producers behind the scenes.

Maybe they’ve paid the right people or just happened upon the right sort of Machiavellian scenographers. Speaking of which, there’s that TV show about the making of The Bachelor, a fiction about those people who managed to make the plot lines that develop on these shows happen behind the scenes. It’s called Unreal, right?

I thought that was very good. Actually, really interesting. And actually quite uncomfortable for those of us who consume because of the way it insists on the intensely abusive and unethical manner in which the contestants, you know, self-responsible as they might be, are also being, you know, exploited.

To be honest, the pleasures of watching “Love Island” are quite obviously depraved. You’re watching people who cannot escape cameras, even in the bathroom, you know, 24-7, not even in bed for weeks on end. It’s not okay, you know.

That’s kind of why it is so irresistible, I think, because people who are on camera 24-7 will do some dumb shit, you know. I would, you would. It’s terribly voyeuristic.

That’s obvious, you know, reality TV is.

Halle Frost: I mean, I think speculating is all any of us can really do and also make, I mean, for our podcast listeners, I think everyone’s making a sort of grimace face when they’re talking about enjoyment just because you can’t actually see our faces. But there is just a real moral contradiction going on for viewers of these shows. But I do want to just bring up one thing that is important about reality TV and in particular reality dating TV is that it is very cheap to make, right.

And so when the rise of reality TV happened, not only can you produce shows without writers or, yeah, with very low budget, but you can also produce them in specific locations. So it’s not just American contestants anymore. You have British contestants, you have locality specific contestants, which reach broader audiences, I think.

So that is, that’s all. There’s a whole business side here that’s also luring us in whether or not we were that conscious of the material being presented.

Sophie Lewis: Right. And as far as I know, the rise of reality TV is interwoven with a history of strikes and specifically industry actors strikes where, you know, and screenwriters strike, sorry, is it screenwriters strike specifically? Because you can just get so much sort of, as you said, it’s very cheap to make when you have a ready sort of supply, a pool, a reserve army of labor that is just the sort of civilian population hungry for 15 minutes of fame.

And then in the case of, I didn’t mention this one, I also watched a show called First Dates. These are probably going to keep coming out of my sort of memory closet. You know, I’m going to confess to having watched more and more of these.

“First Dates” was a show I found very fascinating because as far as I could see, and I think I confirmed this with a little bit of inquiry online, they actually were paying for their own dinners even, right? So not only are the contestants not being paid per se as laborers, but they’re also literally paying for their expensive date on camera, which is fascinatingly part of what we really want to see as viewers. And I wrote an essay back in 2016 or something about a particular date that went sideways, specifically because of the finances of the heterosexual sort of chivalric code in the 21st century, you know, having certain, I mean, I could just, maybe I’m doing too much of a sort of sidebar here, but the tabloid press was calling it Billgate because the bill at the end of this particular dinner was supposed to be picked up by the man according to the woman, and he wasn’t having it because he didn’t, he thought she was a floozy and had had too many cocktails.

And they both, you know, spoke to the perception of what was fair in terms of this bill for the dinner. He was not interested in buying into the relationship with her or buying her. And she pointed out, and I think the direct quote was, come on, I’ve been pretty and nice, which is a perfect summation of it’s the truth, isn’t it?

It’s what she brought. It’s the labor she invested. It took a lot of time to create the appearance that she brought to the table.

I thought she was, you know, I was sort of on her side, if you will, you know, he was a nasty piece of work in that interaction, I thought, saying, oh, you’re equal when you want to be, you know, referring to all women, but you don’t want to go halves on the bill. You want to, you know, and, and a whole sort of Marxist feminist conversation erupted about this and the, you know, the communization theorists in the journal lies talking about the couple form and emotional labor and sex work was sort of the people in my mind relevant to bring in rather than the sort of equality feminists who were quite willing to sort of whore phobically or femme side with him against this Marilyn Monroe look alike, who had put on a squeaky voice and, you know, failed to sort of hook an investor in this instance, you know, humiliatingly on national television. So yeah, I think there’s loads to theorize in this domain.

And I can see why it’s good for capitalism to have reality TV at the center of its entertainment landscape, specifically because of these immensely cost cutting sort of opportunities and features of the form.

Halle Frost: I’m also when you’re, when you’re talking about the political and social controversy coming out of that one dating show, I’m just thinking about the hours and hours of dating shows that I’ve watched where that are occurring in this artificial locality, completely outside of any sort of political autonomy or decision making. Max, you want to ask about the article?

Max Haiven: Yeah. Well, I think it’s a really good segue, because, you know, what one of the things that you sort of point out in that London Review of Books analysis of Love Island is that this kind of hyperbolic spectacle of heterosexual repro normative romance comes at precisely the moment when these things are at their highest moment of crisis, perhaps. You talk a little bit about what some folks have called sort of hetero-pessimism and a general sense that the heterosexual couple form has failed a lot of people and not a lot of people are interested in it as much.

But then is Love Island in some sense a kind of like revanchist moment here where it comes back to us? Is it a kind of wish image of the thing that’s disappeared? I wonder if you could just unpack a little bit for us what this crisis is and why the crisis then gives rise to these spectacularised fantasies that seem so contagious and attractive.

Sophie Lewis: Yeah, gosh, I’ll do my best shot. I think it’s many things at once, probably. I mean, that’s a little glib, but I do think on one level, clearly, we want couple forms to form when we watch Love Island.

That’s true. There is certainly something to the primary analysis I see about this. Scholars saying there is a sort of repro normative backlash, meaning a revanchist kind of tendency, an intensification or a return, some kind of backlash style return to so-called traditional romantic themes and values or whether or not they’re traditional in any meaningful sense.

They’re certainly called that by the people in the trad life or trad wife type sort of subcultural trend right now. I think it would be good to just mark that and say a lot of the things that come out of people’s mouths in terms of the wisdom of life, the game of winning at love in a heterosexual context on these shows are just jaw-droppingly regressive from my standpoint, my friend’s standpoint. We cannot believe it.

That’s also part of the pleasure, to be honest. I don’t know how to feel about that, but we’re just amazed that these positions still persist. It’s depressing, but you can’t look away.

People will say all sorts of things about what men are, what women are fundamentally. It just seems incredibly reactionary, the logic that they espouse out of their mouths. There’s also something astonishing about the rapidity of it.

Over and over and over again, people will be asked what their type is. The only answer ever, ever, ever, ever, ever is tall and with nice teeth or athletic with big tits. Part of the fascination is they don’t hear themselves saying the same thing that anyone has ever, ever said in that exact context.

It’s as though they’re always coming to it completely fresh and it’s an original thought. The other thing as well is that if you ask about the emotional side of things, the only answer, once again, is, well, I’ve been hurt in the past and so now I’m ready to settle down and find the one. That’s, again, literally the only, as far as I can tell, available narrative or statement.

That’s in itself worth thinking about. Then I think there’s also some other stuff. I did get a bit hysterical in a different piece where I was speculating that the conversation about making a gay “Love Island” or a bi Love Island, a Love bi-land, if you will, was besides the point because nothing could be gayer or at least nothing could be less straight than Love Island to be specific.

If by that we mean, maybe it is straight, but is it heterosexual with the emphasis on sexual? The thing that is so weird about these shows is the combination of intense titillation in the marketing and the promise and all the trappings of the situations. Then the very, frankly, puritanical content and logic.

People are sometimes really surprised by this when I tell them because you would expect these shows to be associated with so much naked flesh and toned cleavage. Cleavage shouldn’t be toned, I guess. Anyway, you get the idea.

Would have a bunch of maybe fucking, but it doesn’t. They don’t. They don’t at all.

There are a few exceptions here and there. There was one season of Love Island where people fucked. I was really into that season as you as maybe my childhood Barbie doll brothel might imply I would be.

There are differences. Some seasons have a bunch of booze, a bunch of smoking and some sex, including sort of interestingly, sort of almost comradely. There was one girl boy, a non-couple that had sex in an almost comradely way.

They didn’t really think much of it. They were doing it as friends. That really jammed the available discursive pathways.

No one really knew what to make of it. The usual logic of, well, she’s degrading her value on the island by being a slut. They weren’t there because they were just all fine with it.

I think the producers had to react to that a little bit by intensifying the discipline. There is less booze now. You don’t see cigarettes as far as I can tell.

Sorry to stop rambling. I think my more sort of maybe sort of against the grain hysterical queer reading of it is that we might want to look at the island, quote unquote, as a sort of heterotopic space that’s partly sort of diabolically designed to make private coupled life seem like a decent alternative. There is a sort of way in which they’re living communally.

But is that attractive? Does it make people want to live in a commune? My God, no, right?

They are all bored to the point of distraction. They’re all losing their minds with boredom. I think they’re sleep deprived.

I think that they don’t have reading materials. They can’t communicate with the outside world. They’re constantly on camera.

You’re seeing the breakdown of sanity as well. The idea of fleeing into some sort of settled down marital repro sexual situation, which even gets rehearsed in the final episode with a plastic doll. I kid you not that they have to nurse and keep happy and change diapers for and whatever.

Just unbelievable scenes for grown up human beings ostensibly to have to perform. At this point, they’re so broken down, they will do this. They will literally look after a plastic robot for however many hours they’re supposed to do it in order to just get the fuck out of there.

Sometimes quite interesting scenes do occur. I think a baby landed up in the swimming pool one time because they’re just like, “Fuck this, fuck you.”

I mean, yeah, but I do sort of kind of semi seriously think that the situation they’re all meant to be sort of trained towards that the marital home is made to look more appealing by the fact that this commune where they all sleep in the same room is such a hellscape.

And so a dimension of that that is never discussed usually, as far as I can tell, is the the labor, the reproductive labor elements. I think that the producers do let viewers see small components of housework. So tiny little bits that, that while hanging around the pool in their bikinis, which is all they do, right?

They will sometimes make a bit of breakfast. That’s a thing that you see them do. They will cook an egg. Maybe for each other, whatever and you see this and it’s important that you see that much, just a little bit because crucially the vast majority you do not see. So concretely, right? It’s. obvious when you think about it, that there are so many people on this set doing pool filtering, doing cleaning, doing tidying up, making the beds, doing laundry restocking the fridge.

They’re not allowed to leave and go shopping, obviously, you know, there is just so much there that you’re not seeing, not to mention I mean, some of the cameras are clearly robot cameras but some of them, I think, have, you know human beings holding them. So, the, basically, the reproductive labor of the island is, you know, And so paradoxically, an effect is generated where because there is so very much nothing at all to do except look good and concentrate on making yourself look good.

That’s as well, Reproductive labor to be clear, right? You know, lifting weights, doing their hair, doing their makeup, all the stuff that they’re doing. You know, it’s just so boring that you almost feel like vacuuming and looking after a plastic doll is preferable. So I guess, it’s a mad take, but I sort of think it’s a diabolical sort of ruse to just make the couple form seem like not the worst option for human beings in this society, you know?

And so then, the phenomenon of all of us watching this, I don’t think people are dupes. I don’t think people are unsophisticated readers of texts. I think everyone is actually having several different pleasures fulfilled one of them might be, yeah, oh, you think Ekansu and Davide are lovely together.

I think Ekansu and Davide are lovely together. I really, really enjoyed watching them get together, and I was rooting for them. I thought they were hilarious. I thought they had real chemistry. Maybe the only time I really thought they had a story, I was like, “Oh, this is incredible. I love them!” You know, but at the same time, you know, I’m a queer communist utopian with family abolition sort of aspirations.

And I find the idea of them sort of going off and settling down and having babies, which is what the tabloids want them to do and want to follow up and find out and make sure they are doing is terribly sort of disappointing and anti-utopian in a certain way. I think there might be a sense in which you could, you could just root for, and maybe people do root for, a sort of insurrection on the island.

A sort of mass disobedience, what if everybody just refused to sort of vote each other off or pit or be rivals against one another or conform to a purely monogamous sort of heterosexual version of sort of pseudo desire again the desire is sort of bizarrely almost uncannily lacking, like the people who are actually horny, they don’t really fit in very well.

And most of the time there’s a sort of, anyway, there’s a sort of uncanny drive to just sit with one person and lock them down and you know, even kissing is not very enjoyable in this context because, you know, You know, all the makeup that you’ve put on. It’s just going to migrate from someone’s face onto another face and there’s microphones catching it all.

And you’re so self conscious. And, you know, so, so like, even though the, the logic of “Too Hot Too Handle” is not operative on “Love Island,” right? And too hot to handle if you do kiss or fondle or fuck you get huge amounts of money and deduct it or masturbate. Oh, really? I deducted from the prize pot. I almost feel like that logic where any sort of sexual act loses you money is still, you know, unofficially operative even on Love Island.

And it’s like a puritanical sort of you know, virginity fetish or something, like we’re being disciplined and trained to, to value things more important and valuable than, than, than sexuality. You know, it’s very depressing, very pessimistic about what sex is, you know. Makes me really sad. This whole thing makes me really sad.

Yeah, and yet the kind of the puritanical idiom of the show is in some ways what gives, it produces the friction that gives the show its heat and light in a funny way. It’s like there needs to be the prohibition so that, you know, Yeah, there can be this kind of frisson that emerges in a funny way. I mean, I’ll come back to this question later if I can.

Halle Frost: I love that you’re bringing up the working conditions for these contestants because it’s something that I personally feel strongly about, right? Like trying, as a viewer, trying to deduce what the incentive is for these people to behave in a certain way. And also, feeling paranoid that these people are being manipulated is something that I’m often wondering about when I’m watching these shows.

It also, when you were speaking, made me think that the only fully queer cast that I’ve seen on reality dating shows is on “The Ultimatum,” right? And that is like purely a show about the institution of marriage and like, hurrying a couple into the institution of marriage which is why it’s probably not as risky to hire an all queer cast to do that. We do have a question about like, for viewers, can these shows be watched against the grain? Which it’s very obvious that this is what you’re doing when you’re viewing these shows. But could you, would you mind going back to this term hetero pessimism?

Sophie Lewis: Hetero pessimism which also perhaps should be referred to as heterofatalism. It was sort of rebranded that way by its you know, originator Asa Seresin. Afropessimism and heteropessimism were, were, were deemed to be sort of incommensurate, and it was suggested that heterofatalism might be a better term for that reason.

So I tend to just say heterofatalism to respect that, and Asa Seresin wrote this piece which went viral was it in 2017 already? 2019. 2019. Sorry. So the piece and the diagnosis has been remarkably sort of influential, and everybody started talking about it, so clearly Asa, you know, put his finger on something.

Although so just to explain, he, he says that a phenomenon He’s really noticed in this moment in history is the street female complaint about heterosexual existence. That, however, cleaves to itself quite firmly and doesn’t actually look for alternatives at all. So, you know, “I hate being straight. It sucks. I wish I was a lesbian. I feel like I’m in a cage of my own, you know, preference for men who are straight. And you know, yeah, I wish I was a lesbian. I wish I could be a lesbian, but I just am a sucker for the men.”

I think some people really miss miss read a says essays sort of as unsympathetic to the real reasons why. The tradition of female complaints within feminism is, is so central and important and I didn’t read Asa as dismissive at all, but some sort of excess there, I think he diagnosed sort of the non-desire, in fact, the performance of a sort of non intention or helplessness.

To do anything about the problem and that that really set off a reaction and and and it was odd I think some people misread the essay to almost be in favor of what it is criticizing or what it is a critique of. Anyway, so heterofatalism I think is quite useful, almost but, but as a jumping off point, you know, Sarah Bruyette, another of my favorite Marxist feminist theorists has a Beautiful extrapolation of this in for domestic sort of hetero pessimism or hetero fatalism.

Which I think is important to, to expand this, this insight into, especially when you’re looking at Love Island where housework is both sort of clearly central and very much invisibilized. So although the family is constitutively a form that whose discursive existence Is crisis like there’s never not been a time where people say the family is imminently threatened with with demise or, or, you know, the family is a Melinda Cooper says this as the opening of her history of the family family values, which insists on the family’s centrality to both neoconservatism and neoliberalism.

It’s You know, it’s a form that you know, we worry is, is about to go extinct. And it, it, you know, reports of its decline are much exaggerated, right? And I think perhaps the same goes for, Heterosexuality, which is sort of almost a little undead but, you know, healthily undead or something. I don’t know, like you know, there are these bizarre manifestations of a sort of attempt to sell it actively, optimistically, you know.

in, in the trad wife subculture and then perhaps also in things like Love Island and Love is Blind and the, you know but isn’t it rather telling? I mean, when you get this desperate, isn’t there something I don’t know, there’s an anxiety about heterosexuality in all of these shows, I think, implied by the fact that somewhere there is a sense that we really need to be sort of indoctrinated into it again or something, you know. Reminded of its if not its joys, then it’s unavoidability, right? That there is no alternativeness of it. People are not marrying in real life, right? That is true, right? The couple form and the private household remain extremely central, but the sort of libidinal investment in the, the marital form, you know that seems to be something we’re conjuring in our entertainment world almost as or perhaps because we are extremely skeptical about in entering into that institution or that contract with the state sort of IRL. That’s maybe something, what do you think about that? The, the, the, the fact that actual marriage incidences are sort of on the down while marriage reality romance is on the up as a market share.

Halle Frost: I can only speculate. But how viewers and I think the contestants again, just going back to speculating about the contestants. There are some reality TV shows where it really, like the pure desperation that is felt, and I say desperation as compassionately as possible. That is felt by these people that they are going on to a show in order to find someone, especially if as they’re getting older, it really makes it seem like this is the, it is impossible in the world IRL to make this arrangement happen and the futility and the, just like the, the pressure that these people feel to really pair up and find a mate is super palpable. And something that I think a lot of viewership, especially. You know women that are probably spoken for this Heteropessimism essay. A lot of those women are like, “I feel that desperation. I’m not that desperate to go on a dating show. But like the gamification of it, it does feel like a numbers game. It does feel like I’m just sitting on this couch in front in front of A Rolodex of people moving through considering my options trying to figure out if we share the same hobby. It’s it is bleak in the straight dating world.

Sophie Lewis: I mean, it’s I actually watched an episode of the australian love island last night because I knew I would be having this conversation with you this morning And one of the most entertaining Islanders.

Oh dear. Now I’ve forgotten her name, but she, she has incredible eyeliner and she bagged the man who came top in the. Astonishingly craven sort of competition, you know, there are these gamified inserts, I don’t, we haven’t mentioned this so far, but there are also literal games within the already quite game like scenario of the competition, and they have little, you know, contests or you know, bouts of spin the bottle, all kinds of other things. For some reason, they always run in these little segments to the site where the, the, the, the little game will take place. And they get to kiss each other or do some horrible thing. In fact, sometimes it’s really horrible what they have to do. They have to sort of carry food in their mouths and spit it into each other’s mouths as a sort of race as some kind of three legged race to sort of fill a cup full of sort of partially digested matter. It’s really strange.

I don’t know what the sort of contract provisions are for these sorts of things, whether anyone can ever say no to this. It really does come to mind, you ask yourself. But there was one on this episode where the women stuck their hands through holes in a wall to feel up the biceps and the thighs and the the abs of each man anonymously— very, very kinky appearance, right, as you can imagine. And the men are sort of on the other side of this wall, keeping still and giggling and being groped. and then the women are rating each body and then it’s revealed, you know, which was which and so on. So, I mean, first of all, wow, you know, geez, there are no you know, lower limits. There’s no floor. There’s no depth to which they won’t sink in this industry, obviously.

But and then you ask yourself, “Oh my gosh, is it going to reverse? And are they going to do this to the women?”

No, it turns out not this time, but anyway, the woman who got the one who came up top in this, the big hunk of a man who can make his he can make one, one, is this a bicep? What is, what am I pointing to?

Halle Frost: Pectoral.

Max Haiven: Pectoral.

Sophie Lewis: Sorry. See, I don’t exercise. He can make one pec kind of pump, right? And he always says, my heart beats for you when he does that. It’s his one line, right? So, there’s a moment where she says to him, So, why do you like me so much? What made you pick me? And she clearly wants some sort of, you know, substantive remark, you know?

Something about her. It’s really clear what she wants, you know? What actually is it about me, specifically? And he straight up says, Well, I wanted a blonde with big tits. I mean, it’s, it’s incredible that the people right now talking about a sort of sexual marketplace. I mean, I think the incel manosphere type sort of realms of philosophy have for long been quite serious about the idea that, you know, Everybody must simply accept that there’s a sexual marketplace value assigned to every human being.

And thus, in a sense, the question she’s asking is self evident or unanswerable because the simple fact that she is with him The Top Body, as determined by science speaks for itself. And so the question has no meaning, you know she’s, she’s with the alpha because presumably she’s the alpha, there is nothing else. There’s only sexual marketplace value.

Max Haiven: I’m thinking about it in terms of, this also being a game and we, we know as viewers that it is a game like it’s not documentary. We all know, you know, it’s a kind of orchestrated spectacle with very particular rules and rules are enforced in various ways, often invisibly.

But it is thinking about the distinction between like a game and a simulation and what, and when something is a game and a simulation. So like a game, a simulation is where you’re trying to create a kind of microcosm of reality. Okay. And a game is a structured activity of play, which are, you know, usually of play, where there’s some sort of skewed vision, there’s some sort of skewing to make it to, to amplify the tensions, to make the tensions more stark, to make the in a certain way, it’s like a parody of the world rather than a, than some sort of realist depiction of it.

And it feels like that’s kind of at work, here in a funny way. And yet in a weird way, the, the spectacle that we see in this show encourages us to believe and pretend for a while that it is a simulation. Like, oh yeah, this is what love is like. Obviously this is not what love is like in any way, but yet somehow we have, there’s a kind of preservation of the illusion and a kind of doubleness to it. That on the one hand, we’re like, yeah, this is nothing like reality, and on the other hand, it is reality TV. It’s not scripted. We don’t want it scripted. We want it to be, somehow, people playing this kind of strange role within the rules. And I don’t quite know what to make of that.

But maybe something would be revealed in this question: When preparing for this interview, and one of the reasons we wanted to talk to you is about the kind of seemingly increasing gamification of romance. And we’ve talked to others on this podcast about the particular design of apps, like, you know, Tinder and et cetera. But then thinking historically, love has often been likened to a game in lots of different ways. I mean, you have Shakespeare plays. From The Merchant of Venice, where there actually is a kind of game that’s played about the marriageability of Portia. Or Taming of the Shrew, or As You Like It. And then, of course, there’s very popular works in the day, and still to this day, of Jane Austen, where love and courtship in the heterosexual frame is presented as a kind of game that everyone’s playing.

Do you see this show and these shows as a kind of continuation of some longer tradition? Or is there something that’s, like, uniquely weird about what happens to the so called game of love in a hyper-mediated capitalist climate.

Sophie Lewis: Gosh. Yeah. I do sometimes think about that that genealogy perhaps as, as relevant, the idea that You can land yourself Mr. Darcy or Mr. Bingley or whatever if you play your cards right, although you’re dealt a certain, perhaps unfortunate hand economically, you know, sexual marketplace value perhaps being the equivalent here. Maybe you’re not ten. Oh my god. I find this, I find this horrifying. I really, you know, I really do find it astonishing that that stuff has permeated culture, seemingly, you know people giving themselves grades out of 10 in terms of sexual attractiveness. Who it’s very counter to my, I mean, I don’t think I’m being disingenuous. I don’t think that’s how eroticism works. “I think in fact, “Love Island” also shows this weirdly sometimes, very sometimes you can sort of see that it’s not really what determines whether people have a spark of libidinal sort of attraction. And sometimes people are confused by that, right? They’ll say, well, you know, objectively in the, in the villa.

And this is what’s important about it, you know, whether all the other men and all the other women agree who the top one of the other sex is. You know, what if you are with that person, which means you’re sort of top, you’ve sort of won, but in fact you find them quite boring or there’s just no chemistry at all.

You know, what then? I mean, confusing. You know, I suppose. Austin as the one of the examples you gave you know, also interested in things like that somewhat, you know the, the richest or whatever man might not be the most entertaining or kind of but I think the way in which the producers are clearly at work, I suppose that’s a little bit like Austin herself, you know, talking about her own. little sort of sandbox or whatever of characters, sort of making them collide with each other and you know, coming up with the little formulas that push them into each other’s arms. In real life, I think, you know, there’s plenty of sort of lay, wisdom about how to play a game—obviously this is so obvious, right? Especially in magazines for women, perhaps even for men to an extent, maybe, you know dispensing wisdom as to bag the right kind of women for the right kind… I’m also really interested in, histories of this sort of capitalist progression towards relative openness about things that used to be more just coded and implicit.

So, you know, in 1962, I think Helen Gurley Brown publishes Sex and the Single Girl. Is that right? And this seems to be somewhat of a turning point in terms of the acceptability of naming the sort of economic dimension within dating. And I’m also thinking, In terms of this history of Moira Weigel’s book, Labor of Love, which has a moment where she talks about the, the way in which women’s entrance into white single.

Women’s entrance into certain kinds of workplace and professional sphere and in the US while being sort of under, you know, underpaid or compared to compared to their male counterparts led to a sort of moment where charity girls was the name for the sort of period. Whilst dating that you would be explicitly accepting requiring in fact favors meals gifts and so on from your male suitors pre marriage, you know, and this was basically sex work by another name and in fact, the, you know, quote unquote, real sex workers in New York City were up in arms about it, you know, and so there’s almost this moment where.

You know, unionized prostitutes are saying, Hey, what the hell? You know you can’t, this is putting us out of business now with yeah, exactly. Yeah. And you know, so the, the sort of stuff that is implicit and, and unmentionable certainly in sort of Austin’s day, then becomes, you know, circa 1962.

not so shameful to point at directly. So if you think of a show like Mad Men, which is set actually exactly the same period, you’re seeing that same sort of transmogrification, the discomfort. And excitement, too, that’s experienced when you know yeah, white women in America start saying, well, I’m expensive in that way, you know, rather than implying it and pretending it’s not happening, you know It seems possible that all the, that the erotic has been completely kind of murdered.

I don’t know, in terms of like it because everything has been so codified at this point that you almost, I almost get the sensation watching Love Island that the everything has become so sort of captured seemingly by supposedly objective metrics of sexual marketplace value. So for instance, I, we haven’t said this so far, but when you meet a contestant on Love Island, you see their Instagram follower count.

That’s something you’re shown straight up, first of all. So that’s the number, you know, the, the, the follower count. And then You sort of see their body almost like on a, you know, I almost want to say an auction block. Maybe that’s not the right, like a, a showroom podium, shall we say, and then You know, they literally do line up.

I mean, for black men on the show, the resonances are distinctly uncomfortable, you know, for, for people I watch who are black. It’s like, damn, this is people lining up on little auction blocks. For, for people to come in and, and, and choose, or, you know, I wonder if it’s, it’s almost yeah, killed something about the, about the game, you know, is it, and you’re right.

It’s not really clear whether play. Is possible ultimately on love island. I mean there are these like actual inserted games and there is a sense in which everyone is talking about playing the game and winning the game and competing. But playful is not really the word that comes to mind when it comes to Love Island.

They are working and they are working very hard at the appearance of not working, which in a way is the sort of definition for me of feminized labor. They’re all, they’re all very, you know in that sense, you know, feminized laborers, including the, you know, the, the, the muscle pumping bros. And, you know, and sometimes very occasionally, I don’t know, Hallie, if you feel this too, there are moments that they do show partly because even though they’re running cameras 24 seven on every inch of the property, there is still no goddamn content.

They, you know, there’s an episode every day, and then there’s some kind of bonus episode of off cuts. And it is just mind blowing how little goes on. Right. That nothing happens. Absolutely. Yeah. No, Max mentioned that when, when Max watched the highlights. He asked like, what goes on in the show if this is the highlights, right?

It’s like nothing, nothing, nothing at all. But so, so for that reason, I think almost they show these kind of endearing moments where people are just acting quite childlike and making forts or things to play in. Do you know what I’m talking about, Hallie? There are moments where maybe the guys just start being like, my God, we need to have something happen.

And so they’re actually. They’re actually playing almost as infants would, you know, sort of throwing things at each other or building forts out of the furniture or, or racing each other across the garden or whatever, you know which is maybe in itself interesting because they’re, they are working 24 seven all summer.

Truly. I mean, it’s also very clear from those clips that like. The boys would really like to be hanging out with one another, and right, the girls are usually also secluded in their own little femme space to gossip and care for one another. I didn’t think about that. The homoeroticism of that, actually.

But when you were talking earlier about, Jane Austen, going back to Max’s question, and then bringing in the Moira Wigley, is that her name? Weigel. It just made me think, right, in Austen’s time when we were being, when readers were being really titillated by the game of love, it was very clear what You were going to win if you played right and perhaps part of this just just constantly trying to get us to play this game and why we might feel less tentative about it.

Now, if you’re straight is what is it that exactly? We’re supposed to be winning at the end of this, right? I mean, in the sixties, this was already becoming more clear that, right. You had to be really particular about stating what game you’re playing, right? When women are saying I’m expensive, they’re really saying, you know, I’m playing this for financial reasons and please don’t waste my time. And that I see versions of that happening within our own generation. So I do wonder about that in dating shows- it’s like, what is it that they’re winning?

Sophie Lewis: Yeah, no, I mean, another job in some senses, but for women ongoingly, even with all the realignments and slight changes it in, in the sort of social reproduction sphere to match the sort of recompositions of you know, formal productive workplaces.There’s still clear evidence that you know, within heterosexual couple forms, men do not do their share, right. I mean, it’s just sociology on this. So, you know, why would a girl on “Love Island” do it? You know, why, why would she graduate from this commune where all the work magically happens, almost Mary Poppins style, as far as the viewer is concerned, there’s just no “work,” right? There is a lot of I mean, they spend again. I just want to reemphasize. It’s really a lot of work to perform. The hotness that they are all there to perform constantly, right? But there is no vacuuming. There’s no laundry. There is a sort of fantasy here, the men are often bringing the girls breakfast. This is for some reason a cultural thing that has become a tradition on “Love Island.” Would you agree, Halle? Like, It seems to be a thing that I don’t know whether the producers decided on this maybe but you know it is a thing that happens that the men make the girls breakfast and it’s chivalric and you know the girls sit with their sunglasses and are served by their man and it’s usually shit because these grown men don’t know how to how to cook but nonetheless it’s being treated like a princess, apparently.

Their standards seem actually surprisingly low to me. I would not be impressed by many of the things that are served to these contestants. Or I wouldn’t eat the things. But they do sort of seem to be given an illusion of yeah equitable reproductive division of labor, you know?

And then all signs point to the fact that it’s just not going to survive exit from, from the island, you know.

Max Haiven: So this, this podcast is sort of running parallel to a project I’m working on these days, which is about, which takes, it’s part of departure, the fact that the vast majority of us feel like we’re trapped in an unwinnable game.

And it feels to me that in some ways “Love Island” presents, falsely presents that that game is winnable. You know, most of us are like, you know, in romantic and sexual worlds, it’s like this is a kind of chaotic game that makes no sense for a lot of people, and doesn’t seem to have the outcomes that one wants, but for a moment you get this kind of allegedly utopian vision that there’s a game with rules that you can play, that’s clear, and there’s a clear outcome, and, you know, in “Love Island” you’re not allowed to cheat which is unlike most of life in various ways, but it brings me to this other question I have here, which is that I think what we’ve identified is that the “Love Island,” if “Love Island” is indeed a game, it is a fundamentally, like, broken game.

It doesn’t really work. It doesn’t, it, and the form of heterosexual coupledom that it presents is also a broken game. It’s almost like a broken game within a broken game, that then together somehow present a functional game. But I guess this is a very different form of play than a lot of the forms of play that have, you know, animated, queer and feminist cultures of love and companionship and sex over the years.

And as we draw to the end of the interview, I kind of want to hold open a space for these other ways of playing. One of the things that gives “Love Island,” it’s sort of ballast, is the idea that this is a form of play, but it’s a form of play, it’s a game, but it’s a game about something really serious, like, and what’s really serious is getting together as a couple, and, you know, pumping out little Kleenexes as babies, like, in the game you’re playing. And I’m curious about, like, can we think of other more liberatory games that people are playing outside of the fantasy of the heterosexual romantic couple. And what can those teach us if we’re thinking about, we’re trying to think about a counter game or counter gaming against these dominant orders?

Sophie Lewis: Absolutely. I mean, this could be, you know, the slightly too wishful element of my LRB piece that you mentioned about, you know, “Love Island,” where, you know, the part where I, I speculate that it’s possible that we’re watching so much reality romance in order not to pursue its logic in our real lives, perhaps to glimpse or squint and glimpse kind of lines of flight something, clues as to how life might be otherwise, where are the exits to be tunneled? You know, what besides families might we collectively become? Maybe. I mean, this is, you know, but I do think the fact that there is such a mass conversation about “Love Island” and that that’s a huge part of the enjoyment, right? The episodes are so empty. I think it’s worth saying you know, people are enjoying largely intellectualizing it, actually.

It is a mass psychoanalytic conversation, and we are charming one another with our takes on “Love Island,” right? That’s almost, that can be actually a playful thing. And then there are, you know, there’s all kinds of theater and impressions and stuff that people do on TikTok. And actually. Let’s drop the yeah, for a moment the show. I mean, I’m sort of a fan of the, the playfulness of TikTok and the theater and the sketches and the jokes and the memes. I find a lot of the creativity that people are enacting the, the sketch shows almost, you know, the not, not that they’re shows because they’re sort of produced mimetically by strangers across the globe through sort of yeah unwaged sort of acts of humor, really. I mean, TikTok can be so funny and I love really something about the sensation of laughing together with a bunch of people who just added another layer to a preexisting sort of format for a a scenario on TikTok, you know, and I think something about the anti-work desires that are present the great resignation, the big quit of the, of the pandemic era and the post George Floyd uprising moment was seriously you know, alarming, I think to the capitalist class to some extent, much like actually speaking of, you know, the last couple of months, I feel like there was an inquiry almost into the confusing fact that TikTok is so pro Palestinian, you know, what was that? Was it some kind of algorithmic antisemitic bias? No, it was just the fact that young people are pro Palestinian, you know.

And there is something about the games that people are investing so much of their sort of, well, investing is a terrible word for this literally counter, you know, counter to the purpose of play. It’s not an investment, but from the point of view of, you know, the neoliberal sort of capture of life into some sort of, you know, You know, productive logic, is the play working, you know, is it, is the, is our leisure sort of working?

Is it helping sort of productivity ultimately that that logic is perhaps something you can’t just wish yourself out of. But I do think that the. Yeah the way that people are insisting on like anti work memes, Netflix and Chill might even be one of them, you know anti girl boss kind of creative production.

You know, no more girl bossing, just girl sleeping, girl resting. I do think there’s playfulness there in the creative sphere of sort of TikTok jokes and memes, and then. Maybe we could speculate as well that the, the obvious necessity of a sort of love Islander uprising is sort of popularly known or felt, you know like, clearly they should, they should all be poly and queer. You know, this does get said, right? Like the game that is failed or broken, as you said you know, cries out in a way for the actual solution of like not having to choose between him and him since you actually like them both and you’d have a perfectly nice time if you all just yeah, relaxed and stopped trying to get one over on each other. This is like actually an imminent, sort of obvious conclusion, you know, when you watch this stuff.

Max Haiven: I mean, I think that it makes perfect sense. I just think that the heterosexual couple has so much pressure put on it because the whole economic system and social system and political system is built around it, that it in fact doesn’t really afford a lot of space for play.

And, I think there are many other expressions of sexuality and companionship and solidarity and family or post family or whatever we want to speak about that are actually much more built around a playful ethos and that, you know, for that reason, I think capitalism always has this ambivalent relationship to play in the sense that, you know, especially since the Protestant Reformation, there’s a very, like, no play, no sex kind of vibe.

But of course, as we know, that’s always like, but more play, more sex, just sublimated, just hidden. And there’s something that emerges out of both the prohibition on play when it comes to sexuality and also the exhortation to a certain kind of play that creates something that’s animating this show.

That it’s like, you know, sex is no joke, it’s not, it’s not play, and, but here’s a game show about it, right, and it’s somehow the tension between these two things is what, it’s, there’s something about that that makes it tantalizing, I don’t know.

Sophie Lewis: Yeah, that’s so perceptive, I think. I wonder if there’s something you would like to say about the the unofficial philosophical motto of “Love Island,” which is: It is what it is.

This is said you know, a hundred times a season. It is what it is. It is what it is. You know, how do you feel about the fact that, you know, Jada coupled up with, Brian. Oh, it is what it is. You know, at the end of the day she was my type, but, you know, it is what it is. I was kind of thinking about how this should be, you know, I was thinking of sort of academic titles that might exist, you know, on this basis.

Like it was what it was hetero, hetero fatalist, nostalgia after the end of the end of history, or, you know. Was it, or wasn’t it, what it is, post truth ontologies in romance reality TV, you know. It is what it is, or isn’t it, truths and reality, you know. What is that about? Why is it is what it is? The, the Halle, what do you think?

Would you agree, first of all, that they say that a lot?

Halle Frost: Yeah, that was, I’m cracking up. That is truly, there’s something so deep about that statement too, only in that these shows And you talked about this, right? There’s a huge appeal to these shows to just try to dig into them. Right. And to connect with your friends intellectually about why these shows are so perverse, but in the end, it’s like what if they are just what they are and they don’t require this additional critique or this tradition, what if we just let them be what they are, right.

And not take them to be either a cultural object or really, I don’t know. There’s something in there where I often think about this in the end. It’s artificial and it’s fake. And maybe it just doesn’t mean as much as I want it to. And I just don’t need to read into it as much. It is what it is.

You know, “Love is Blind.” Also their thesis is, is love really blind? The answer is no. End of season, right? Okay.

End of interview.

I feel so at peace at the end of this episode thinking, because I had this whole deep need for meaning in my consumption of these TV shows. And now I’m left with simply the conclusion that it’s cheaper to create this stuff. And so that’s why it’s being put in front of my eyeballs and I’m overwhelmed. So I consume it very readily. Yeah. What a fantastic interview. It does reality TV. so basically shows us what, like what society would have us desire, right? It’s like, how do I say that better? It’s like delivering traditional desire in a cement mixer, right?

Max Haiven: Yeah, like one of those industrial kegs of mayonnaise that you see at the back of restaurants and you’re like, oh dear.

Halle Frost: Open up, right?

Max Haiven: Well, I think this is a theme that’s gonna come up in our next episode which I’m really glad we’re gonna get to present back to back with this one, which is an interview with Alfie Brown about his recent gamification of romance. In addition to leading us through the wild world of dating apps and capitalist neurohacking that they represent, I think the interview also really dwells a lot with how desire is not just something that kind of wells up from the, From the deep spring within each of us as a kind of authentic and idiosyncratic spirit.

But actually, desire is always, at very least, socially mediated. And at, you know, if you want to take a more sort of extreme position is actually kind of created by the society we live in. And I think what’s really valuable about Alfie’s contribution that we’re going to hear next episode is this idea that, you know, those desires that shows like Love Island tap into, are not just desires that we might have, let’s say, puberty or adolescence.

These are actually desires, you know, especially the kind of heterosexual and repronormative desires, which can also be held by people who don’t possess those sexualities or those life orientations. These are essentially desires or dreams that have been instilled in us by the popular culture and by the digital culture that we live in.

So stay tuned for that exciting continuation of this important conversation about the gamification of love.