According to Suetonius, Rome’s foremost purveyor of biographical detail laced with outrageous gossip, the emperor Tiberius enjoyed the island of Capri as his retreat (Suet. Tib. 43, transl. J. C. Rolfe [only in the online version of the Loeb, not in Rolfe’s original translation]):
On retiring to Capri he devised ‘holey places’ as a site for his secret orgies; there select teams of girls and male prostitutes, inventors of deviant intercourse and dubbed analists, copulated before him in triple unions to excite his flagging passions. Its many bedrooms were furnished with the most salacious paintings and sculptures, as well as with the books of Elephantis, in case any performer should need an illustration of a prescribed position. Then in Capri’s woods and groves he contrived a number of spots for sex where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside grottoes and sheltered recesses; people openly called this ‘the old goat’s garden,’ punning on the island’s name.
I was reminded of this passage when reading how ‘some of Britain’s top academics’ tried to ‘explain Love Island’s gruesome fascination’: Love Island, a TV show first aired on British television in the mid 2000s, and then revived on ITV in 2015.
The show’s blurb explains the underlying principle of Love Island as follows:
‘Glamorous singles live in a beautiful villa under the watchful gaze of the audience at home, who have the power to decide who stays and who goes.’
‘The watchful gaze of the audience at home’: the makers of the show are careful to create an illusion whereby the show’s audience gets to climb Tiberius’ throne and to satisfy their voyeuristic needs.
The audience’s affection for the show may indeed derive from that sensation of being in control over other people’s lives and behaviours to an extent.
But is it more than an actual illusion?
Tiberius was able to realise the exact shape and form of his fantasies – everything had to be acted out according to his instructions, supported by graphic props and locations specifically designed for the occasion. The performers could not escape the parameters of this format or any other of his orders.
How much control does the audience of Love Island have, once they buy into watching this format?
Nothing needs to be said about the show’s contestants – unlike Tiberius’ performers they apply to take part in this format out of their own volition (and apparently they do so in greater numbers than there are applicants for Britain’s top universities).
As for the audience, however, the reality is that they are part of the show, not in control of it (however much they relish the illusion).
They are no Tiberiuses: this remains the producers’ and ITV’s cynical privilege, as they call all the shots; they are part of the cast, and the illusion is so beautifully perfect, and so cynically devised, that they don’t even notice.
In exchange for our time and attention – crucial for the station’s commercial interests – we get to share some of the emperor’s voyeurism and an illusion of control.