You might be surprised to learn that Love Island is shedding light on contemporary developments in feminist philosophy. You might also be surprised that philosophers are avid watchers of reality television.
But the ITV show gives us a unique opportunity to observe the relationships of 20-somethings – from their beginnings to the point where they flourish and, often, break apart. With these glimpses of human behaviour – albeit in the context of a television show – we can get an insight into how many women act, particularly at the end of a relationship.
Contestant Amy Hart dramatically left Love Island on Tuesday, after a week of heartbreak. She had been paired with Curtis, only for him to end their relationship – he had “cracked on”, in the show’s parlance, with one contestant and was now being pursued by another.
In the face of this, Hart decided to leave, setting aside her own heartbreak to focus on Curtis’s well-being. She declared: “I know you won’t be happy all the time that you will be in here because you’re such a good person. And that’s why I love you so much, and why I want you to be happy. Because you are not going to be happy while I am still here. So I’m leaving.”
This interaction is an example of what the Cornell philosopher Kate Manne calls himpathy. She defines it as “the excessive or inappropriate sympathy extended to a male agent or wrongdoer over his female victim”. Granted, wrongdoer and victim are strong words in the case of this Love Island episode, but Manne argues that himpathy leads to an unequal division of emotional and moral resources – the emotions and perspectives of men are centred and those of women are set to one side.
Manne strikingly likens himpathy to the Giving Tree in Shel Silverstein’s children’s book: the tree selflessly and willingly gives away all of its resources to the boy in the story, leaving it a dismembered stump.
Manne’s book, Down Girl, was published just before last year’s infamous Brett Kavanaugh case in the US: the nominee to be a judge on the supreme court was accused of sexual misconduct, and when he gave emotional testimony on the historical allegations, he was met with an outpouring of himpathy – in some quarters, drowning out the response to the actual accuser herself.
Manne claims we’ve learned to prioritise the men who have been accused of assault over the women who have potentially been victims of it. We could say the same thing of Stanford student swimmer Brock Turner who violently raped an unconscious woman but was only given a six-month prison sentence – because of worries about how a longer sentence might affect his athletic career.
What is particularly striking in the Love Island case is the way that many have positively reacted to her display of himpathy:previously Hart had received plenty of abuse on social media, but as soon as she chose to put the feelings of Curtis first, attitudes suddenly shifted.
Himpathy is difficult to spot. Women often put the feelings and lives of men before their own and we want to laud such action – it is built in to the emotional character of society that we praise people when they do something deemed selfless. And, yes, perhaps we should think of Hart’s act as a good one. It manifests the virtue of kindness.
However, as Manne argues, when we are thinking about himpathy (and misogyny in general), we need to think about the workings of social systems, rather than the actions of individuals.
Hart is in no way in the wrong here but her case simply allows us to ask the question: what happens when women put the feelings of men first? Look around and you will see.
• Rebecca Buxton is a DPhil student at the University of Oxfordand is co-editing a book on women in philosophy, The Philosopher Queens, to be published in 2020. Joshua Habgood-Coote is a vice-chancellor’s fellow in the department of philosophy at the University of Bristol