Trouble in Reality

Elena Forake
GD MFA 2020

In case you haven’t noticed, reality TV paradise is in vogue. Love Island (UK) was recently satirized on Saturday Night Live with a voice-over narrator (correctly) stating, “You will watch 50 hours of this. You think you won’t. But you will.” In Euphoria, HBO’s latest series about stylish teens doing drugs, the main character, Rue, becomes extremely depressed and watches 22 episodes straight of Love Island (UK). As we see her struggle to get out of bed, she narrates, “That’s why I love reality TV. It’s pure, effortless entertainment.” Binge-watching (and by binge-watching, I mean not-leaving-your-room-for-a-few-days binge-watching) a reality TV show fully immerses you into the contestants’ world. After watching four or five hours of Love Island, you forget your own problems and are transported to an ambiguous sunny paradise where your biggest challenges are deciphering the heavy Essex accents and determining if the tears are genuine. Reality TV is the broke millennial’s attainable form of escapism. I may not be able to afford to take a vacation, but I can afford to binge-watch, thanks to the Hulu account password I “borrowed” from my parents.

Love Island (UK) is the latest reality show to enter the American pop culture zeitgeist, but there are a number of other reality TV shows set in a tropical island or “paradise.” There is Bachelor in Paradise, which is filmed in Sayulita, Mexico, and features the rejects of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette franchise hooking up with other rejects; there is Paradise Hotel, which is filmed in La Paz, Mexico; there is Love Island, which films its UK and Australian versions in Majorca, and its US version in Fiji.

This is not to mention the numerous other shows which, while perhaps not explicitly invoking the idea of “paradise,” are filmed in beautiful, “exotic,” unnamed locations. Self-described as a “fantasy experience,” Temptation Island features four couples that come to paradise to cheat on each other and break up in a really painful and public way, and is filmed in Belize and Hawaii. Are You The One? has filmed in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Hawaii. The Japanese reality show phenomenon Terrace House has filmed in Hawaii as well. Ex on the Beach has filmed in Bali, Greece, Thailand, Portugal, and Hawaii. Dating Naked has filmed in Panama, the Philippines, and Bora Bora. Survivor has filmed in over twenty “exotic” locations including Fiji, Thailand, and Vanuatu. My new favorite show I’ve never watched, Pirate Master, was filmed in Dominica. As the trailer for the show’s one (and only) season states, “The name of the game is Booty!”

Wikipedia defines “paradise” as a place of “only peace, prosperity, and happiness ... a place of contentment, a land of luxury and fulfillment.” In Judeo-Christian culture, paradise is a synonym either for Heaven or for the Garden of Eden. The Garden’s Hebrew interpretation can actually be translated to “paradise of pleasure.”1 For many Americans, paradise is a beautiful, natural, temperate place of leisure and relaxation. Paradise is also conflated with romantic love, hence the destination weddings, honeymoons, and Paul Gauguin Cruises (big yikes). It’s no wonder that the sub-genre of the reality dating show has co-opted paradise as the place to go to fall in love (or more realistically, get laid and gain Instagram followers). In Episode 2 of Season 1 of Paradise Hotel, the narrator waxes poetic—“Look at those palm trees and that beautiful ocean. This should be the perfect place for the new guys to win over the ladies.”

On reality TV, the location of the island paradise is seldom named. The contestants, often re-dubbed “islanders,” reside in a nebulous tropical paradise. The producers of these sultry reality dating shows do their best to play up this trope when designing the set. The walls of the villas are decorated with stock photographs of beautiful beaches. Comforters and pillows are illustrated with deep orange sunsets and tropical flora. The men wear Hawaiian shirts even when they aren’t in Hawaii and the women wear tropical flowers behind their ears. Leis are casually strewn around the set.

In almost all of these shows, contestants are confined to lavish villas for weeks at a time and are only allowed to leave the villa confines if the public votes or the producers decide they should go on a date to stir up some drama. They have no contact with the outside world and are drinking heavily. Producers make sure cocktails are refilled almost instantly. It’s actually kind of magical. As a result, contestants go crazy pretty quickly. To some, paradise becomes a prison. While watching her boyfriend Evan have sex with another girl on Season 1 of Temptation Island, Kaci proclaims, “I’m literally being tortured.”

Kaci’s melodrama has dark connotations. There is a long legacy of violence in “paradise,” specifically the violence of colonizing and subsequently enslaving the native peoples on tropical islands. Consider Fiji, for example: Britain invaded Fiji in the late 1700s, describing the archipelago as “a paradise wasted on savage cannibals.” The British colonists developed and disseminated the narrative that Fijian customs were “debased and primitive” and that cannibalism was rampant (it was not).2 Exaggerated accounts of cannibalism gave colonists and religious missionaries a “moral imperative for colonial intrusion.”3 In 1865, the era of blackbirding (the violent Australian practice of kidnapping and Pacific Islanders and coercing them into indentured servitude) began on the archipelago and about a decade later, Fiji officially became the British Colony of Fiji. It remained under imperial rule until 1970.4

During the pilot episode of Love Island (US), bikini-clad newcomer Kyra gleefully exclaims, “Fiji is my sandbox and I’m ready to play!” CBS producers apparently chose to film Love Island in Fiji because it “feels like a place you would want to come and fall in love,” and “it meant something to Americans.”5 Indeed, Americans have a long history of glamorizing, exploiting, and commodifying South Pacific island cultures. One common manifestation of this is the popularity of tiki aesthetics.

In Maori mythology, Tiki refers to the first man. By extension, a tiki is a wooden or stone carving in humanoid form. Carvings similar to tikis representing deified ancestors are found in most Polynesian cultures. They often serve to mark the boundaries of sacred or significant sites.6 The tiki of the American imagination is a mash-up of multiple island cultures. Hawaiian culture is conflated with Tongan culture, which is conflated with Fijian culture. In bars with names like “The Cannibal Room Cocktail Lounge,” located in Fort Worth, Texas, fake shrunken heads dangle as part of the kitschy decor, and guests are served drinks called things like Head Hunter’s Special, Black Woman, and Virgin’s Lament.

Kalewa Correa, a curator at the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific Islander Center, describes the commodification and conflation of Pacific Island cultures as “just taking all those cultures and putting them all in a blender and blending it all together to create this Isle of Tiki, which is this mythical place where tiki bars come from.”7 My dad’s partner, Lance, is native Hawaiian and recalls feeling confused about tiki when he first encountered it: “I remember wondering where this tiki paradise was located. Because it did not represent what I grew up with.”

In truth, tiki as we know it is an entirely American invention. Northern California is the birthplace of the original tiki craze, which lasted from the 1930s to the 1970s. It is also the epicenter of the contemporary tiki revival which began sometime in the early aughts. The famous Mai Tai cocktail was invented at the Trader Vic’s in Oakland, CA, which also happens to be where my aunt and uncle got engaged. I lived in Oakland for a few years and regularly visited another tiki bar, The Kona Club, to slurp down sweet sweet Chi Chis, which are essentially the frozen cocktail version of coconut-scented sunscreen.

The Kona Club is self-described as a “little slice of paradise.” Their website reads: “After work, take a vacation from the busy streets of Oakland without the five-hour plane ride! Inside The Kona Club, bamboo walls reflect the warm and cozy hues provided by our genuine blowfish lights, just as the moon reflects off the Pacific. In fact, every surface has something interesting on which to feast your eyes—that is, when they aren’t glued to our life-sized hula girl and her gyrating hips.” By my second Chi Chi, I would succumb to the swaying hips of the animatronic hula dancer and forget about my hour-long BART commute during peak traffic, where I could count, without fail, half a dozen people wearing Salesforce backpacks.

In her 2009 TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states, “It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power ... the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”8 Tiki culture obscures native traditions and diverts attention from the history of violent colonialism in the region. But, as Oatman-Stanford states in his article Tiki Hangover: Unearthing the False Idols of America’s South Seas Fantasy, “At its heart, American Tiki worship reflected a longing for life outside the stressful confines of urban America, a desire to connect with the majesty of nature, as well as the baser pleasures of food, drink, music, and sex.”9 By this logic, like binge-watching reality TV shows, embracing Tiki aesthetics is simply a form of escapism. And like the representation of Tiki paradise, the representation of reality TV paradise reinforces the idea that tropical islands are primarily places to vacation and escape. Kristin Cavallari (of The Hills fame) hosts a new show called Paradise Hotel. Contestants are referred to as “hotel guests,” and the elimination ceremony is called the “checkout ceremony.” New contestants enter the villa theatrically rolling a suitcase.

In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th and final United State, igniting mainland America’s obsession with the South Pacific islands. In their essay Packaging Paradise: Organizing Representations of Hawaii Jonathan Schroeder and Janet Borgerson articulate the appeal of paradise for Americans: “A Hawaiian vacation may represent the ultimate American consumer product—allowing anyone who can afford a ticket to participate in the colonial project through a re-creation of discovering Hawaii. This pattern emerges in the popular culture genre of Hawaii—including tiki culture, Polynesian paradise, Hawaiian popular music, tourism, and surf fashion—each exemplars of cultural imperialism.”10 The fantasy image reinforced by the tourism industry, and now by Hollywood’s reality TV machine, disregards and overshadows the real lives and real problems of native islanders. An influx of tourists strengthens the local economy of an island, but also potentially leads to issues such as overcrowding and habitat destruction. The reality is that climate change and sea level rise are putting these paradise islands at risk of disappearing. Average sea levels around the Hawaiian islands have risen ten inches since 1950 and are expected to rise another 6 inches by 2029.11

Mid-century Hawaiian travel ads often featured native women in “typical sexist representations: comparing women to nature—woman as island—as the “lure” of the islands posed on waterfalls, always decorated with flowers, sexually accessible and unburdened by Western guilt, ignorant.”12 The opening credits of Temptation Island quite literally overlay dismembered female body parts with island scenery, both visually and ideologically intertwining the exoticization of tropical paradises with the objectification of female bodies. The male gaze and the colonial gaze are often one and the same. Reality dating shows and their contestants are extremely sexed up (excluding the good Christian boys and girls on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette). I could easily sum up many of these reality shows as sexy singles cavorting in exotic locations. By definition, exotic means foreign or other, but the term exotic dancer has come to be synonymous with stripping. On several seasons of Love Island (UK) and Love Island (Australia), the islanders compete in challenges where they are inexplicably required to do a pole dance before answering whenever it is their turn. While both men and women participate in the pole dancing, the cameras certainly focus more on one gender over the other.

The phrase “trouble in paradise” refers to an unexpected problem in a romantic relationship. Trouble in reality paradise similarly connotes broken hearts, but this should come as no surprise given the colonial history of “paradise.” Like the palm tree wallpaper that lines the walls of the villas, reality TV projects a stock image, or single story of these locales. This story simultaneously denies native islanders control over the way their homes are depicted in mainstream Western media, and ignores the violent colonialist past and present of the British and American contestants. In her TED talk, Adichie concludes, “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.” When we reject the flattened view that is presented to us of these paradisal islands, we start to see the fuller picture of how these locations occupy American imagination.

1. “Paradise.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, October 29, 2019.

2. Banivanua-Mar, Tracey. “Cannibalism and Colonialism: Charting Colonies and Frontiers in Nineteenth-Century Fiji.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 52, no. 2 (April 2010): 255–81.

3.  “History of Fiji.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, November 23, 2019.

4. Higginbotham, Will. “Blackbirding: Australia's History of Kidnapping Pacific Islanders.” ABC News, September 16, 2017.

5.  “Love Island (American Season 1).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, December 1, 2019.

6.  “Tiki.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, November 15, 2019.

7.  Singh, Maanvi. “Let’s Talk Tiki Bars: Harmless Fun Or Exploitation?” NPR. NPR, September 7, 2016.
8. Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TEDGlobal Conference. 2009.

9. Oatman-Stanford, Hunter. “Tiki Hangover: Unearthing the False Idols of America’s South Seas Fantasy.” Collectors Weekly, July 11, 2014.

10. Schroeder, Jonathan E. and Borgerson, Janet L., Packaging Paradise: Organizing Representations of Hawaii (December 5, 2008). A. Prasad, ed., Against the Grain: Advances in Postcolonial Organization Studies, Copenhagen: Copenhagen Business School Press, 32-53.

11. “Hawaii’s Sea Level Has Risen 10’ Since 1950.” Sea Level Rise. Accessed December 1, 2019.

12. Schroeder, Jonathan E. and Borgerson, Janet L., Packaging Paradise: Organizing Representations of Hawaii (December 5, 2008). A. Prasad, ed., Against the Grain: Advances in Postcolonial Organization Studies, Copenhagen: Copenhagen Business School Press, 32-53.

Elena Foraker is passionate about “trashy” pop culture and intersectional feminism