Love Island: Ancient Rome
Finding Ovidian Controversy in Love Island
Love What? Ovid Who?
The summer has rapidly passed us by. For some this long-awaited season is a break from a stressful school semester, for others it’s a chance to fire up the grill and enjoy the long, warm weather at their mosquito-ridden cottage. But for many this summer has heralded something much, much spicier: the return of Love Island UK. For those among you who live under a stress-free rock, isolated entirely from reality television, consider yourselves lucky to be blissfully unaware of the heart-throbbing, stress-inducing, chaotic romance fiasco that is Love Island. You’ve been warned.
Love Island follows five to six men and women who are placed in a remote, luxurious island villa that looks like it belongs to your typical Bond villain. With a large pool, scenic gardens, and 24-hour video and audio surveillance, the scantily clad contestants are encouraged to mingle and form romantic relationships. This is called coupling. The purpose of the show is to remain with the same partner as long as possible…What, you don’t think that’s hard? You try skipping the dating phase and moving in with someone you just met. Without access to the outside world – including your socials – I can guarantee you’ll have second thoughts.
The show tests the relationships of its contestants through a diverse assortment of challenges. From pies to the face to the timeless disaster of truth or dare, from water-dunking to reading out hot Twitter takes, the show consistently drags its contestants through every gauntlet imaginable. Oh, you’ve been getting along quite well with your partner, have you? Oops, it’s time for you both to go meet some new, hot bombshells that just arrived at the villa. Oh, you think your relationship is exclusive? Sorry pal, your girl is ready to dump you at the next recoupling event. Better luck next time! Oh, and did I mention that there’s a £50,000 prize for winning the competition? Now that’s a lot of money.
Why am I talking about all this saucy, angst filled drama? Well, because this isn’t anything new. In fact, what if I told you that there exists a fascinating collection of 2,000-year-old Latin love letters. Letters which deal explicitly with the kind of dysfunctional relationships that women go through in Love Island? And what if I told you that these letters encapsulate the timeless misrepresentation and distortion of the female experience which is repeated ad nauseum in Love Island? Letters that are just as relevant today in the context of Love Island as they were in Ancient Rome. You’d surely ask what the letters are called, your interest thoroughly piqued. Behold, dear reader, the Heroides.
The Heroides are a series of twenty-one fictional love letters written by the famous Roman love elegist Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid for short), believed to have been written between 25 and 1 BCE. They are written from the perspective of heroines, women who are in relationships with the heroes from Greco-Roman mythology, including Penelope, Briseis, Dido and Helen. These letters all have two things in common. First, they are depressing. Like a major buzzkill. And second, they are all addressed to absent men, men who’d probably be considered today’s lowlives, exploiters and abusers. Jason (the Argonaut guy), for instance, is the recipient of Medea’s letter, earning her contempt when he considers breaking up with her after she helped him steal the extravagant sheep covering known as the golden fleece.
I want to draw attention to two letters in particular: Ovid’s ninth letter, from the Greek princess Deianira to her monster-chasing husband Hercules, and his tenth letter, from Ariadne (of Minotaur fame) to her scumbag boyfriend Theseus. These letters, which both deal with infidelity and abandonment, surprisingly coincide with the treatment of women on Love Island. I’ll spare you the slimy details of the other letters, which you can read in your own time. Trust me, there’s enough drama to go around.
Typecasting the ‘Heart-Broken Woman’
We’ve all seen it; we’ve all heard it. The heart-broken woman is a story trope as old as time. Whether it’s Shakespeare’s Juliet or Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen, or even Hannah Baker from 13 Reasons Why, successful story writers have often capitalized on the drama associated with rejected women to generate buzz. Their distress is highly profitable to the narrative, and more often than not comes at the expense of more favourable and constructive depictions of female characters. They should be more than just a broken heart. Unfortunately, this happens in Ovid’s Heroides too.
Let’s start with Deianira, the wife of the mythical Hercules. Her letter encapsulates the insecurity of distanced romance, and all the suspected dangers and infidelities that come with that distance. The line “My husband’s always away, more like a guest than a husband,”(line 33) neatly summarizes her lived experience. Is this relatable? Obviously… I mean, who hasn’t worried about the complications of long-distance relationships? Without social media or cellphones, Deianira is forced to write a letter to reach her absentee husband. By Jove, a letter! I can’t even imagine the stress of not being able to clearly see when someone has read my message. Thanks Facebook.
But in all seriousness, Deianira’s diatribe against her husband is incredibly complex, and reveals the trauma that infidelity has bestowed on her self-esteem. For starters, she knows exactly who he’s been sleeping with, and has no reservations calling him out for it. She says “You add foreign lovers, and whichever girl wishes to can become a mother by you, [including Auge, Omphale, and Iole]" (lines 47-48). And not only that, but she also chastises him for being a sex-addict, because he embarrasses himself (and by consequence Deianira) and undermines his own legendary reputation in his relentless pursuit of action. Imagine being their marriage counselor? Or seeing Hercules’ cringy tinder profile? Pick your poison.
Deianira is defined by her status as a woman. She is the wife of a great hero in the ancient Greco-Roman world, which means she is expected to uphold a traditionally feminine and subordinate role. Unlike Hercules, she can’t be caught having an affair by some relentless paparazzi, even though her husband likely would have been featured on every celebrity tabloid imaginable. It’s an unfair double standard! But Deianira, despite all the setbacks in her situation, attempts to reclaim control of her life, her marriage, and her husband. She writes her declamatory letter, and she sends Hercules a garment which she believes will rekindle their love. However, in what should have been her ‘slay queen’ moment, Hercules dies after being poisoned by the shirt. Ironic. The one time that Deianira challenged her assigned gender role and took the initiative in her marriage, everything went horribly wrong (Bolton, 2009, p.287). Cast as the heart-broken woman, Deianira can only watch helplessly from a distance as her marriage crumbles around her.
The next letter is from Ariadne, a Cretan princess who dropped everything and ran away with the hero Theseus to get eloped after she helped him kill her Minotaur brother. You’d think such a noteworthy start to a relationship would lead to something permanent, something long term. Perhaps you’d expect Theseus to put a ring on it? Settle down, and live happily ever after? Nope. Not a chance. The letter begins with Ariadne waking up to an empty bed on a deserted island and follows her reactions as she not only discovers Theseus’ absence but ultimately sees him sailing off into the distance. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Yikes.
Any average romantic under-30, who uses Tinder, probably knows what this is about: the thrill of a match, the perfect first date, but also the gut-wrenching anxiety that comes with abandonment, either from being ghosted or (in Ariadne’s case), waking up to an empty bed. And yet, my dear tinder users, there it is, in a 2,000-year-old Roman love letter. Ariadne’s language is both jarringly depressing and eerily familiar.
“Waking uncertainly, and stirring languidly in sleep, half-turning, my hand reached out for Theseus: there was no one there. I drew back and tried again, and moved my arm across the bed: no one there. Fear broke through my drowsiness: terrified, I rose and hurled my body from the empty bed.” (lines 9-13)
Ovid did not need to write this letter in this way. According to other versions of the myth, Ariadne was rescued by Bacchus, the god of wine, and lived happily ever after. But the Heroides offers no such happy ending to any of its subjects. Instead, Ariadne is typecast in the role of ‘heart-broken lover’ and rendered powerless against the demands of the plot and her male creator.
Replication vs. Ingenuity: The Originality of Love Island
The similarities between Love Island and the Heroides are strikingly numerous, so much so that it is not difficult to imagine both Deianira and Ariadne as contestants on the show. In fact, they would fit right in.
The most obvious connection between both sources is distanced love. While Deianira and Ariadne are spatially separated from their respective partners (hence the need for letter writing), the producers on Love Island replicate the theme of distanced romance through an infamous second villa, Casa Amor. On some seasons of the show, closer to the end, the male or female contestants might receive a text from the producers, instructing them to pack their things and leave for the new villa without alerting their partners. This is followed by the arrival of five or six new male and female contestants at both villas, giving the original contestants an opportunity to meet, mingle, and date someone new… without their partner finding out. I can only imagine Ariadne waking up in horror to find out that Theseus left for Casa Amor, or Deianira anxiously dreading when Hercules might recouple.
And then you’ve got the notorious fireside recouplings. If you thought Casa Amor might be scandalous enough, just wait. These recouplings are group meetings that bring together all the contestants and the host, occurring randomly each season. Here, the contestants are expected to announce their current partner to the entire cast as well as to the viewers at home. For many couples, this isn’t an issue. Simply name your current partner and be done with it. Easy. But after some time at Casa Amor, when you’re never really sure that your partner is being loyal to you, the fireside recouplings might be an opportunity for betrayal and abandonment. Oh and if you are caught without a partner, you’re probably going to be eliminated from the island. No pressure.
I like to imagine that Deianira and Ariadne, based purely on their personality and character outlined in their respective letters, would probably name Theseus and Hercules as their partners at a fireside recoupling. And why not, they clearly love them. But would these men do the same? Or would they fall for some new hot bombshell (slang for new arrival), and cast their partners aside? You decide.
No comparison between Love Island and the Heroides would be complete without addressing the following question: to what extent can a female-centric narrative be written by a man and still be considered authentic? Ovid, as the omnipotent writer of the letters, objectifies his heroines, transforming them into victims of circumstances that he himself fashions. His audience reads the letters to study the hypothetical female response to every manner of dysfunctional romance and rejection. And because the female characters do not exist, they can’t provide consent for their disempowering portrayal. Love Island, unfortunately, continues this trend.
The producers, much like Ovid, strive to emulate a certain ‘heart-broken’ aesthetic on their show in order to garner views and buzz. After all, only one couple finishes the competition. If that means emotionally crippling their contestants, so be it. In raising this point, I’m painfully reminded of one particularly slimy, evil stunt pulled by the producers. In episode 40 of season 7, Love Island UK, Teddy Soares was forced by the producers to make-out with a new bombshell, Clarisse Juliette, at Casa Amor in a game of truth or dare. Little did he know that they would take a picture of this kiss and send it to Faye Winter, his partner, without any context. I honestly don’t know if it is even possible to stoop any lower on a show that alleges ‘romantic realism’, but Teddy returned to the villa to discover that the heart-broken Faye had recoupled with another guy. Yeah, that actually happened. And I’m still upset about it.
The way that the male contestants on Love Island treat women like objects also made me think of Ovid’s Hercules and Theseus. Stories about them make a big deal of their pedigree as founders of cities, slayers of monsters (you name it). But, while watching Love Island, I was reminded that they also resemble the worst male contestants in the show’s history. Danny Bibby (season 7, Love Island UK) referred to Lucinda as a ‘broken down matte black Lamborghini’, and Tom Walker (season 5, Love Island UK) spoke of his partner Maura purely in terms of her capacity to act as a sexual stimulant. The alarming frequency with which men treat women as sub-human providers of sexual gratification is, frankly, disturbing. You’d wish the show would take a more active role in policing these behaviors. Or better yet, filter out the chauvinists early on in the screening process for contestants.
Relevancy: Why Make This Comparison?
If I had to summarize both the letters and the show in one word, a word which would capture the complexity and nuance of both media sources, it would be authenticity. Ovid is a male writer, bringing life and a voice to his own disenfranchised female protagonists. Their plight is highly relatable, and their reactions to their tragic circumstances elicit sympathy and outright horror (I’m talking about you, Theseus). Still, there is something quite perverse about these women being controlled by a male author, like a ventriloquist pulling his puppet’s strings.
But it is the format of the Heroides that lends it authenticity. It feels deceptively real because they are intimate, personal love letters. As Alison Sharrock says, “what kind of gendered voice is produced by a male author speaking through a female mask, but completely subsuming his masculine authority into the female writing? The poems have no frame, no explicit sign from the author that we are really reading a male text (Sharrock, 2002, p.99). And this is where Ovid succeeds. Every time I read the letters, I feel guilty, as if I am reading a kind of exclusive exchange between a dysfunctional couple that I was never meant to see or getting the inside scoop on some celebrity tabloid. No thank you!
Love Island draws authenticity from the fact that it is an alleged reality TV show, and that its content, in particular the reactions of its contestants, is genuine. But how ‘real’ is the show? In scouring the internet for Love Island content, I came across several major red flags that have led me to question its authenticity. Firstly, many former contestants, both male and female, have spoken out against the show as a whole. Zara Holland (season 2, Love Island UK) famously called the island “a posh prison” and claimed that her depiction on the show ruined her life after she was fired from the role of Miss Great Britain. Rachel Finni (season 7, Love Island UK) similarly claimed that the show was staged, suggesting that the producers encouraged the contestants to seek certain matches. Given the example of Teddy Soares I mentioned earlier, this is entirely plausible.
In identifying the similarities between Ovid’s Heroides and ITV2’s Love Island, despite the obvious two-millenia gap in their debut, I cannot help but feel disappointment towards the stagnation of female treatment in storytelling. Don’t get me wrong, there have been many powerful and convincing depictions of heart-broken female characters that are authentic, such as Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre), or Eowyn (The Lord of the Rings). These women overcome their heartbreak, which is used by their authors to further their character development. But all too often, when it seems to benefit the narrative, writers default back to a simplistic cliche that is the heart-broken woman, settling for a disempowered female aesthetics for its own sake rather than allowing women to authentically tell their own stories. Ovid, after all, leaves all his heart-broken heroines in a state of unresolved turmoil. Instead of breaking free from such reductionist depictions, these disempowered women are defined by the rejection of men rather than by their own merits. Both Ovid and the Love Island producers generate buzz around their work by creating the perfect artificial environment in which they can test and control the female response to distanced and dysfunctional relationships. And although Deianira, Ariadne, and most female contestants on the show either experience or fear the trauma of rejection and abandonment, the difference, dear reader, is that the heroines are not real. But the contestants on the show are. And that matters.
Mary Catherine Bolton, "Gendered Spaces in Ovid's Heroides," Classical World 102, no. 3 (Spring 2009), pp. 273-290.
Alison Sharrock, “Gender and Sexuality,” in The Cambridge Companion to Ovid, edited by Philip R. Hardie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
About the Author
My name is Sergen Hisar, and I am a History and Latin double-major in my final year of study at the University of Toronto. I am deeply passionate about Roman military history, and Roman material culture in general, taking great pride in my collection of Roman coins and historic replicas. After my Undergraduate degree I plan to investigate the transformation of Rome’s military apparatus during times of crisis in the 3rd and 5th centuries CE and join a live reenactment group of like-minded Roman enthusiasts, which sounds like a ton of fun.