‘Pushing maths to its limits’: how ‘100%’ became the catchphrase reality TV can’t resist

From sweaty Love Island contestants professing love to The Traitors swearing their fidelity, shows have been taken over by a three-digit saying – even if it can veer into arithmetical baloney

Earlier this month, Rishi Sunak outlined plans to force students in the UK to study maths until they are 18. His proposal was roundly criticised, with the Association of School and College Leaders dismissing it as “out of touch”. Perhaps if Sunak had convinced one particular subset of British humanity to get on board first, however, things might have been different. I’m talking about reality TV stars and their obsession with numbers, specifically percentages. From Made in Chelsea to The Traitors to Love Island, you can’t escape their all-prevailing new catchphrase: “100%”.

On last Monday’s launch episode of Love Island, Ron was asked if he was ready to settle down. “Yeah, 100%” came his reply, as he sat sweaty and topless in the South African sun, waiting to pick or reject the first of five women sporting painful-looking bathing suits. Later, having paired off with fellow Harry Potter stan Lana, he mused, “When I’m in, I’m 100%”, in relation to his commitment levels. Meanwhile Shaq, who had earlier complimented (?) his new partner Tanya with the words “She looks insane”, offered up “Yeah, no, 100%” when asked if he could sense the sexual tension between them.

In the expertly dentured mouths of these bronzed holidaymakers, 100% becomes a way of ticking all the relationship boxes quickly and definitively. No one ever says: “You know what, Person I’ve Literally Just Met, having thought about the likelihood of us staying together during this manufactured process, I’m actually only 69% (wahey!) in.” No, it’s: “I’m not just committed to you, I am 100%, no wriggle room, no sense of straying I promise, committed to this whole endeavour, thanks for asking.” Usage of the term is now as slippery as farmer Will’s dance moves, while its ubiquity has essentially neutered its power.

This was fully evident on The Traitors, AKA Murder in the Dark on a Downton Abbey budget, where the crucial question – “Are you a faithful?” – was asked every other minute, and replying “100%” became the only way of confirming your moral purity. It was a phrase uttered so many times that if you concocted some sort of drinking game to go with it, you would be 100% dead before the round table in episode one. It was funny watching the exasperation of people we knew to be innocent as they screamed “100% I am a faithful!” at their suspicious housemates over a continental breakfast. It was funnier, however, watching the traitors use the same tactic, often dismissing any suggestion they were anything but honest with an incredulous: “I. Am. 100%. A. Faithful.” Whether they were actually good or bad became 100% irrelevant. In fact, all of the hyperparanoid traitors at some point pushed maths to its limits, ramping up their innocence to unfathomable levels: “100 million per cent”, said one particular becloaked liar when pushed.

Such mathematical experimentation harks back to the bleak mid-00s when every TV talent show contestant was keen to show how they were ready to give 110% or more. In a fairly heated blog from 2006, financial journalist Martin Lewis criticised The X Factor’s very own Michael Bublé, Ray Quinn, for suggesting he was ready to offer up 210%. “Millions of youngsters are hearing this arithmetical baloney as if it’s the norm and that does us no service,” he roared. “While I too, just like the X-kids, am deliberately exaggerating to make a point, a little thought about the language of mathematics goes a long way; the misunderstanding of numbers is one of the greatest contributors to debt and money problems in the UK.”

Perhaps, in a roundabout way, Sunak is right: maybe we do all need to educate ourselves against this avalanche of arithmetical baloney. Or perhaps the only way to save our country’s future is to harness this enthusiastic, though not always accurate, numerical passion from our reality TV stalwarts and throw ourselves wholeheartedly into everything we do. No more will-this-do 60% effort, but full marks all the way. Am I committed? “100%.”


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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