24 JANUARY 2001
I am beginning to think that the concept of “reality” shows is not so far-fetched as I once did. For instance, they’re boring, just like real life. And while it’s true that, unlike real life, most every participant on these shows is pleasing to the eye, most of them are emphatically not pleasing to the ear. Have you heard Lisa’s laugh? Or Mandy’s?
In Episode Three of Temptation Island, these little annoyances are building up. Last week’s trailers promised conflict between Billy and Mandy, but the noise that we all thought was Mandy crying—specifically, her apologetic “I’m so sorry Billy”—turned out to be her laughing. No crying. No fighting. No danger. She is drunk with her date for the week, the very pretty Johnny, and in the midst of nipply fruit-tooter shots, she is playfully apologizing to Billy for having so much fun.
Now, the only good thing to come out of this is that Billy is slowing revealing himself to be the jealous-rage sort of guy who loves “his woman” and will hate forever any man who comes on to her. Ah yes, it seems as though her date with Johnny—which Billy couldn’t even make himself watch on the video playback device—was Mandy’s throwing of a gauntlet, and now Billy is off and running to the temptresses who await him. What Billy doesn’t seem to know is that he’s a chump. He is the first to be successfully—i.e., visibly, before millions of viewers—manipulated by the Temptation Island creators. On screen, he actually wonders as he watches Johnny apply the fruity nectar to his own perky nipple, “Was that the worst part of the date?” Does Billy really think that the video would be a boring clip? Of course, it’s going to be the most dramatic part of the date. If he thought some more about it, he might realize that it’s no big deal. Mandy is only 22. She needs to do some nipple-licking before she’s ready settle down. But then, maybe I’m too jaded for this. I’ve seen my boyfriend grab my friend’s boob—and believe me, he was just being stupid and funny.
Billy, I wish you could see how utterly ridiculous you looked when you grabbed your head and refused to watch any more of the date tape (while the other guy participants looked on, cartoonishly horrified at what they saw). You’re playing directly into Fox’s greedy hands. Lighten up, Billy boy.
I think the only true torture on this island is its unkeepable promise of sex—as an act, as a display, as a relationship-wrecker. The young participants’ bodies are telling them to have sex with the all-too-eager “singles,” especially when their bodies are full of alcohol (and the producers make sure there is plenty of that to go around). We all have hormones and we all know what that feels like. Why is porn such a lucrative business? Why was this show conceived? Because sex is something we call all relate to, sex is something we all want. Sex… is great.
Unfortunately, for a plethora of reasons, completely free and easy sexuality doesn’t exist in this culture that makes it so titillating and apparently desirable. There are diseases and emotional consequences, as well as the moral and social costs that are, in the end, too high for most of us, so well conditioned to abide by a certain morality and set of social expectations. Yes, sexual countercultures do exist, but they are exactly that—countercultures. They must have something to counter in order to earn the title. And the so-called “norms,” however arbitrary or natural or prescribed from on high you believe them to be, are that something.
Billy’s reaction to Mandy’s video demonstrates a certain “normalcy.” He’s “supposed” to be angry and upset. Fox is banking on it. And our response to this show is how we’re “supposed” to react. Temptation Island is, one level, challenging the Martha-Stewart-white-picket-fence world that we’re trained to desire. But on another, contradictory level, it’s not really challenging anything we’re used to. In fact, it encourages conventional anxieties about monogamy, buy showing how badly someone like Billy feels when his faith in monogamy is challenged. Think about it: the show’s producers didn’t just pick eight random people to be tempted by sex, they picked four (probably monogamous) couples, who have something to lose.
The display of such loss—of a relationship or two, perhaps, but more clearly, of faith in monogamy—is worrisome, at least as much as the sexual display that the show is built on. An article I recently read reported that television viewers have complained that the trailers for Temptation Island are running during hours when children are watching tv. Due to these complaints, Fox has agreed to stop showing clips during these hours. I think that Fox should pay the concerned citizens some sort of marketing commission. By drawing attention to the series for being so naughty that children shouldn’t see it, these complainers have made the show even more tempting, and precisely for those young viewers. It’s just like the “explicit lyrics” stickers on CDs. Kids see those stickers and purchase the CDs, because anything off limits automatically becomes more titillating. This is the theme of the show, after all: the escorts are desirable because they’re “off limits” for the truly monogamous couple. And so, once again, Temptation Island comes out ahead, in displaying the contradictions of the culture that has generated it.