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Does Love Island have a ‘toxic men’ problem, or are we overusing the phrase?

As viewers criticise the male contestants on ‘Love Island’, Olivia Petter examines how helpful it is to label problematic behaviour on screen

Thursday 30 June 2022 21:46 BST

Another series of ITV2’s Love Island means another serving of horny, fame-hungry twenty-somethings looking for Instagram followers – sorry – love. Three weeks into the series, it seems like some couples are starting to find their feet, one not-so-sneaky bedtime fumble at a time. But because the course of true love never did run smooth (and this is a reality TV show), it’s only natural that complications arise. This time around, the issue-du-jour is toxic men.

During Tuesday’s episode, criticism percolated on social media, with viewers taking aim at Jacques O’Neill. The 23-year-old rugby player is currently coupled up with Paige Thorne, 24, but dated fellow Islander Gemma Owen, 19, before joining the show. Controversy between the trio arose after all of the Islanders took part in a heart rate challenge that saw each of them perform lap dances in a bid to see whose heart would beat the fastest for them.

Much to Thorne’s disappointment, O’Neill and Owen’s hearts raced the fastest for one another. Thorne told O’Neill this made her uncomfortable. But he responded by belittling her concerns, labelling her “pathetic” despite later confessing how Owen’s lap dance prompted him to remember what it was like to have sex with her. Later on in the conversation, O’Neill even told his partner to “f*** off” and claimed he couldn’t understand why she would have a problem with his heart racing faster for his ex-girlfriend than for her.

On Twitter, viewers were quick to call out O’Neill for his behaviour. “Don’t like Jacques. He’s giving toxic masculinity vibes,” tweeted one person. “Jacques is so toxic and manipulative idk how people don’t see it. Getting so angry over a little thing I wonder how he’d behave without cameras it’s giving abuse tbh [sic],” another added.

Others called out the way O’Neill “gets angry so quickly”, labelling him “immature”, while some took issue with the way he speaks to women on the show more generally, pointing out how he called Owen “a clown” and told her to “shut up” in the same episode when the exes were discussing why they broke up.

But O’Neill isn’t the only male contestant to have been called “toxic”. Luca Bish, 23, has also been labelled as such, with viewers taking issue with how he told his partner, Owen, that he was “obsessed” with her. “Aight but Luca being clingy and arguably obsessed with a 19-year-old is weird after a few weeks, especially when he can make comments to everyone else but takes it to heart when it’s about him,” tweeted one person.

The phrase “toxic” has become common parlance when we talk about contemporary relationships. Along with many others – “gaslighting”, “emotional abuse” and “love bombing” – it’s a term used so frequently that its meaning has been diluted. While many use it freely, particularly on social media, few define how it manifests with any modicum of clarity. And if they do, one response differs vastly from another.

Consider the phrase “toxic masculinity”, which rose to prominence a few years ago. What began as an attempt to call out problematic behaviour deriving from harmful gender stereotypes became a marketing tool for razor brands. The phrase was recently attached to Vladimir Putin, with Boris Johnson saying that the Russian president wouldn’t have launched a “crazy, macho” attack on Ukraine had he been a woman. It’s also regularly applied to characters from popular culture, like Gossip Girl’s Chuck Bass and You’s Joe Goldberg.

“The word ‘toxic’ is thrown about frequently in modern society,” says Carly Webb, psychotherapist and founder of the Vitus Wellbeing clinic. “When we label someone as ‘toxic’, we’re often using this to dismiss challenging behaviour as opposed to engaging with the underlying emotions of all those involved.” Webb explains that the phrase has become commonly used in therapy sessions and is often used to reframe a difficult relationship, though not necessarily in a way that will benefit you. “Calling someone ‘toxic’ means we become fixated on their behaviour and lose focus on our own principles.”

Therapist Bobbi Banks explains that her clients often attach the term “toxic” to any challenging situation or communication difficulty. “Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t always accurately represent what a toxic relationship, trait or dynamic actually looks like,” she adds. The key is often about identifying patterns. “Toxic relationships are characterised by emotionally and physically damaging behaviours which often affect a person’s wellbeing negatively over time,” says Banks.

Toxic relationships are characterised by emotionally and physically damaging behaviours which often affect a person’s wellbeing negatively over time

Bobbi Banks, therapist

“This may include physical or emotional abuse, manipulation, emotional coercion, controlling behaviours, power dynamics, dominance, and so on. This is when the term toxic could be used within the context of a relationship and would accurately represent the dynamic. In other words, when unhealthy traits and behaviours are exhibited on a consistent basis, then it’s likely the relationship will quickly turn toxic.”

The problem is that today, the spectrum for what “toxic” encompasses is simply too broad, particularly on social media. One consequence of this is that when an issue arises, we might conflate it with something commonplace and therefore be less likely to recognise its severity or seek support. Such was the point made in a viral New York Times article earlier this year, which pointed out how the language of trauma (or “TikTok pseudo-psychology”, as the author put it), was being used to describe almost anything.

Examples cited included The New York Post suggesting that Kanye West was love bombing his new girlfriend Julia Fox because he surprised her with a hotel suite loaded with new clothes, and the HuffPost stating that anyone who has online dated has “probably been love bombed”. “If we’ve all been love bombed, has anyone?” the author posited.

The same can be said with the use of “toxic”. Yes, the pattern of behaviour O’Neill has exhibited may seem legitimately toxic. But is it fair to tar Bish, whose only crime so far has been expressing devotion to his partner, with the same brush? And does doing so wrongly make O’Neill’s behaviour seem less concerning?

“It’s hard to talk about this without sounding like you’re policing the language,” psychologist Nick Haslam told The New York Times. “But when we start to talk about ordinary adversities as ‘traumas’ there is a risk that we’ll see them as harder to overcome and see ourselves as more damaged by them.”

Ultimately, if society is becoming more attuned to the nuances of trauma and its corresponding rhetoric, that is, of course, a good thing. It makes sense, too: putting a label on our experiences is validating. It can turn something that has been very isolating into a shared feeling, one that countless Quora threads and Cosmopolitan listicles will hold your hand through. But evidently, there’s more to it than that.

With regard to Love Island, viewers can rest assured that concerning behaviour is not immune from criticism outside of the lawless walls of social media. In previous years, the charity Women’s Aid has been known to issue statements in response to troubling on-screen behaviour.

Most recently, the organisation responded to behaviour from Danny Bibby towards his partner at the time, Lucinda Strafford. The charity said it had “become increasingly concerned with his behaviour towards her on screen, including what looked like gaslighting, possessiveness, and manipulation”. The statement added: “This is not what a healthy relationship looks like. These are all tactics used by perpetrators of abuse.”

Statements such as these are vital when it comes to educating Love Island viewers – and indeed society at large – about unhealthy relationships. It’s an authority we need now more than ever. And judging by how this series has been panning out so far, I suspect we’ll see more of it soon. Keep your eyes peeled.

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