Image: BBC

And I liked it

‘I Kissed a Boy’ is much more—and much more likeable—than just a gay ‘Love Island’
June 14, 2023

It’s been a refrain for years, online: when will we get a gay Love Island? The counterargument has often followed from people in the gay community: leave us out of your toxic little dating show.

Now, seemingly, there is a gay Love Island, with I Kissed a Boy, which has been airing three times a week on the BBC since mid-May. Here’s how it works. Ahead of the first episode, 10 men were matchmade with each other. Each couple meets for the first time outside the villa—in I Kissed a Boy, it’s actually an Italian “masseria”, which is the kind of word that will rattle around in your head pointlessly for days after watching—and then kisses for the first time too. As the show goes on, they have the opportunity to recommit to their initial pairing in a “kiss-off” ceremony, or “save their kiss” for one of the other boys. Anyone unkissed goes home.

But what has happened here isn’t quite a gay Love Island—and thank God. That was a format that desperately needed either axing or reinventing, which TV bosses have been trying to do, in their way. This summer, having trialled it during the winter season, Love Island producers are mandating that contestants pause their social media accounts while the show is on air in a bid to spare them and their loved ones from receiving hate comments, which reliably come in their thousands.

I Kissed a Boy definitely looks like Love Island. Mics slung round contestants’ necks on ropes; a big sprawling house in a sunbathed location; coupling-up as a game dynamic. But it feels vastly different, tonally. Maybe it’s the way the boys enthusiastically compliment host Dannii Minogue’s outfit every time she appears. Maybe it’s just the refreshing lack of braindead straight guys messing women around episode after episode.

But I think it’s something more than that. All round, I Kissed a Boy seems friendlier; less buffed and toned and alienating. These are more normal blokes than the ones among the Love Islanders. You feel like these men could be friends of yours—they’re not all outrageously gorgeous or ripped. There are short guys and bigger guys, hairy and hairless guys, party animals and homebodies, loud and quiet personalities, country and city boys.

A lot of shows that are aimed at a gay male audience are about gay men’s hardships because of their sexuality. This, by comparison, is not about gay suffering but about gay normality. Just a normal bunch of guys, looking for love, chatting about being tops or bottoms, laughing ruefully at various run-of-the-mill annoying experiences they’ve had while looking for love so far. The fact that it’s not sensationalist is what makes it good viewing. There are heartstring-tugging moments—such as Gareth talking about what it was like growing up gay in a strict Protestant household in Northern Ireland—but it’s never laid on too thick. They’re likeable—loveable, even—a cast of interestingly diverse men, rather than people obviously cherrypicked to cause the maximum amount of drama from the moment they step on set.

I suppose it leaves me feeling a bit funny, though, because the conclusion I have drawn from watching an unforgivable quantity of Love Island is that dating shows are fundamentally exploitative and edited to death and just generally a bad thing for society, despite being addictively entertaining. If dating shows are sort of hell, is it OK to celebrate that gay people are now being allowed into hell too, to burn with the rest of us?

For now, it seems OK-ish, because this particular show is warm and delightful rather than a toxic fame-vehicle that preys on the insecurities of people who want their moment in the spotlight. But all that may be naive on my part. The only way to know, really, is to wait and see how the contestants speak of their experiences after the show finishes airing. I hope they’re all having as nice a time as they appear to be, and that a cocktail with Dannii Minogue isn’t the extent of the aftercare they receive.

Even though the show does make a cocktail with Dannii Minogue seem like one of the best things that could happen to a person.