Love Island and Cambridge: spot the difference

The drama-packed villa and our little bubble aren’t as different as you may initially think, writes Lauren Pilley

Lauren Pilley

Both are small, competitive and intense Flickr

Ever since the first series of Love Island aired in 2015, it has been slated for being unrealistic. Unattainable bodies float around in faraway places, occasionally pausing to partake in unnatural interactions. And, of course, in real life, you don’t get £50,000 for being in a convincingly enamoured couple. 

But for many, the most unrealistic element of all is how quickly the contestants fall for each other in this extraordinarily synthetic environment. And yet, as a sporadic viewer of the show, I have no doubt about the authenticity of the emotions driving the show’s drama. The ugly crying and jealous rages are achingly believable – and I think, as Cambridge students, we are some of the best placed to understand how this can be so. 

It does not take much to recognise the parallels between Cambridge the villa – we’re all both young and looking to build a foundation for our careers. What we shouldn’t miss, however, is how similar Cambridge love stories can be to those that attract 2.5 million viewers nightly. 


The most obvious point of comparison is the proximity of every romantic interest in Cambridge. In the real world, the dating stage might look like a weekly date. At university, however, it often takes the form of a week’s worth of cancelled plans to make way for intense heart-to-hearts after that first initial club-night kiss. The city’s minuscule map means that people have no choice but to become close incredibly quickly. Naturally, this useful proximity becomes stifling after a breakup. 


We also operate on unnatural courting timescales. The end of term always brings on introspection that simply doesn’t come about with regularity in real life. Casual relationships come under the microscope as their respective participants wonder if they like the other enough to catch the necessary three trains and four tubes between their hometowns during the holidays. This make-or-break frenzy is a real-life recoupling. 


Even the disturbing monetary reward is not worlds away from how some view love in Cambridge. They get £50,000; we get to fulfil the closest thing we can to an American high-school sweetheart fairytale. Digging deeper, we could analyse the pressure to find your partner at university as one element of a narrative celebrated in capitalist societies. Once happily paired up, we can focus on our careers, procreate, fulfil the bourgeois order, and ultimately be better off.


Our relationships are not doomed because of these factors, and relationships forged in the fire of tripos can be long and meaningful. Similarly, some relationships which began behind the camera on Love Island have led to marriage and children. But even if commentators are wrong about whether fast love is always fake, one thing that has not been overplayed is the dangers such unnatural intensity can bring with it. The suicides of two ex-contestants have provoked a great deal of concern regarding the risk of subjecting the participants to the total sound-proof isolation of the Love Island villa and then sudden, life-changing fame in the outside world. Whilst Cambridge students are not met with instant stardom upon leaving at the end of each term, viewing the Love Island microcosm with a critical eye should nonetheless serve as a prompt to apply these concerns to our own social and temporal bubble. Ours, too, can pop. 

Intense college romances and horrific in-college breakups can be as traumatic as the scenes in Love Island, but whilst we are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of cramming an academic workload into an eight-week term, we engage in little critical introspection on the potential dangers of doing the same to our relationships. 


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The idea that a love story can and should be crammed into a six-week television show or eight-week Cambridge term is just another aspect of the modern age that we must today navigate in the search for authentic connection. This, along with social media, dating apps, and online porn can have a warping effect on how we experience close relationships. We must simply be mindful that dismissing the love that blooms regardless of these factors as fake or doomed helps nobody, nor does ignoring the new challenges we must face. We must simply continue to examine them.