The problem with Love Island’s ‘bombshells’

As Ekin-Su causes chaos in the villa, Olivia Petter takes a closer look at the significance of the reality TV show’s bombshell contestants

Saturday 18 June 2022 11:37 BST
(ITV/The Independent)

They arrive in slow-mo. Their hair is impossibly shiny, teeth inexplicably white. All high-cut swimwear and sultry stares, they strut into the villa with absurd levels of confidence, primed for their role as agents of sexual chaos. Of course, I’m talking about the Love Island bombshells.

For those unfamiliar with the nuances of the hit ITV2 reality TV show, let me explain. A bombshell is a contestant who enters the Mallorcan villa after the show has already started as opposed to being part of the cast from the beginning. But they are also much, much more.

As any Love Island aficionado will know, the bombshells are the ones who cause the most drama in the villa. Beautiful, self-serving and hideously horny, they are presented to us in almost identical ways season after season.

They usually come in alone, or with one other person, and quickly set their eyes on contestants who are already coupled-up, proudly declaring that they “aren’t here to make friends”. Cue plenty of groans and sighs from the existing Islanders.

The most popular Love Island contestants are often bombshells. They include (but are not limited to): Georgia Harrison, Chris Hughes, Megan Barton-Hanson, Maura Higgins, and Ovie Soko. These contestants racked up plenty of screen time thanks to their utter brazenness and disregard for other people’s relationships, both elements which ensured they stirred up plenty of theatrics in the villa.

Love Island’s bombshells are also often the contestants that attract the most scrutiny. None more so than the women. Consider the characterisation of Higgins and Barton-Hanson during their tenure on the show. Branded the villa’s resident “bad girls”, as one academic puts it, the women were seen as sexual deviants whose apparent promiscuity directly opposed that of the show’s so-called “good girls”, ie the ones from the initial cast.

The structure of the show lends itself to this type of binary categorisation. Viewers are more likely to empathise with the contestants they’ve known the longest, and so are naturally going to be more skeptical of those who enter midway through the series.

Recently, there have also been criticisms on social media that this structure creates a hierarchy among the islanders. “The whole Bombshell thing is WILD,” tweeted one viewer. “Hey, you guys are on first because you’re not as attractive as these other people we’re saving to bring in later!”

Of course, Love Island is a TV show and so this kind of characterisation is not only inevitable but helpful to the show’s production and entertainment value. Every drama needs heroes and villains; not everyone gets to be a three-dimensional character. But there are consequences to this, both to the viewer and to the individuals themselves.

From a feminist perspective, seeing “bad girls” pitted against “good girls” encourages internalised misogyny. In the past, this has manifested on screen as s***-shaming. A notable example was in 2019, when Higgins was given the chance to go into the Hideaway (a private bedroom in the villa) for a night with her partner, Tom Walker.

But before they went, Higgins, who had been outspoken about her sexual proclivities, overheard Walker telling the male islanders “it’ll be interesting to see if she’s all mout”. Viewers immediately criticised Walker for shaming Higgins for being open about sex, and called out his backwards views around female sexuality.

We saw something similar happen with Barton-Hanson, when her partner Eyal Booker incorrectly guessed she had slept with 37 people. At the time, the former sex worker appeared to be insulted by the suggestion, saying:  “I’m not the most innocent of girls, but it doesn’t mean that I’ve gone around sh***ing everyone I can. I was absolutely fuming. Just because I’m open and I say I enjoy sex, it’s 2018. I’m a woman.”

This reaction wasn’t just happening inside the villa. Barton-Hanson later spoke out about how she felt she was presented overtly sexual on the show, explaining that it stopped her from being open about her sexuality.

In 2020, she appeared on The Independent’s Millennial Love podcast where she recalled meeting Dr Alex George on the programme and telling him that she worked as a stripper. “From that point I thought, ‘Oh god, I’m going to be perceived as really sexual, I’m probably going to get s***-shamed on the outside world.’ So I didn’t want to add to that and be like, ‘oh I like girls too’,” she said.

This year, the most illustrious bombshell on the show has undoubtedly been Ekin-Su Cülcüloğlu. The 27-year-old entered the villa last week and has already been responsible for some of the show’s most dramatic moments.

After coupling up with Davide Sanclimenti, also 27, the actor set her sights on newcomer Jay Younger, 28. Their clandestine relationship reached new heights in Thursday’s episode when she and Younger stole two secret kisses on the terrace. A confrontation between Cülcüloğlu and Sanclimenti followed that has since led to accusations of gaslighting.

While there has been plenty of praise for Ekin-Su on social media, she has also been the target of online misogyny, with many people drawing comparisons between her, Higgins and Barton-Hanson. “Trash”, “b****” and “borderline evil” are just some of the names she has been called on Twitter.

In many ways, Love Island illustrates a core problem with heterosexual dynamics. The women who have sexual and emotional autonomy — historically bombshells — are almost always criticised for it, whereas the men often go about their business unscathed.

The truth is that without contestants like Ekin-Su on Love Island, the show would be dreadfully dull. And even if she gets it wrong sometimes, it’s still refreshing to see a woman putting herself first on screen. There’s no pandering to the male gaze, or pretending to be someone she’s not. It’s helpful, it’s encouraging, and it’s rare. Long may it continue.

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