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Stephanie Smith: Love Island illuminates the disturbing reality of gaslighting

Laura, left, and Dani, whose treatment on Love Island this week has resulted in 650 complaints to Ofcom. Love Island is on ITV2 every night at 9pm. Picture: ITV Studios.
Laura, left, and Dani, whose treatment on Love Island this week has resulted in 650 complaints to Ofcom. Love Island is on ITV2 every night at 9pm. Picture: ITV Studios.
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Love Island viewers are taking a stand against emotional abuse. About time, too.

Last Sunday’s episode of the ITV2 Majorca-based reality show prompted 650 complaints to Ofcom after Dani Dyer was shown in distress, caused by a video that producers had sent to a camp mobile phone, capturing her boyfriend Jack reacting amazedly to the arrival in a rival villa of his ex-girlfriend.

The video was selective and deceptive, ignoring Jack’s consistent loyalty to Dani. It was clearly designed to upset her, and viewers were quick to accuse the producers of playing on her insecurities by “gaslighting”, a Love Island buzzword, thanks to the behaviour of some of its contestants.

For those not so au fait, gaslighting is a type of psychological abuse whereby an abuser tries to distort their victim’s grasp of reality, making them question their perceptions and memory, misreporting events and situations they have both experienced, lying, deliberately misconstruing, withholding information and systematically seeking to undermine their victim.

The term originates from a 1938 stage play, Gas Light, and its 1944 film adaptation, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman as a woman whose husband attempts to convince her that she is delusional when she notices the gas lights in their apartment dimming (because he is using gas lights upstairs to search the flat of a woman he has murdered).

Gaslighting has been in use since the 1960s to describe such abuse, usually by one partner to another. Anyone who has experienced it knows how bewildering and utterly soul-destroying it can be. At its worst, the abuser is a sociopath, typically a convincing, charming liar who creates their own reality, consistently denying their own wrongdoing to destroy their partner’s confidence, self-worth and sometimes their sanity. But you don’t have to be a sociopath to gaslight. Most of us, occasionally, may be guilty of it, without realising, perhaps as we try to gain the moral high ground. It happens in the workplace and between friends and family, too. It needs to be recognised and tackled.

Love Island has more than three million viewers, most aged 16 to 34, although younger teenagers also watch. Research suggests three quarters of teenage girls and half of teenage boys have reported some form of emotional partner abuse.

Thanks to Love Island, millions of young (and not so young) people now understand gaslighting abuse, and are better armed both to deal with it and to refrain from it. Beneath the tans, pecs and bikinis, there are vulnerable young adults out there in Majorca, trying to make sense of the world. Just like all young people.