The long-running British television series Love Island, which wrapped up its eighth season earlier this year, presents the sort of laidback viewing environment in which you might suddenly find yourself falling for sinewy fishmongers or mouthy construction workers. Despite serious doubts about the suitors’ intelligence or ability to thrive outside of a tropical island that requires a perpetual state of wetness, you can’t shrug off the charm of a bronzed man confessing that he deeply fears being “mugged off.”
Much of Love Island’s popularity, however, isn’t about yearning so much as it is about the fantasy of mindlessness: the freedom to recline in a pool floaty as you dive into the deep end of vapidness without a thought. Consuming news, debating politics, or theorizing about the state of feminism are all off-limits. The little information the Islanders do receive is constrained to a world the size of a luxury villa in Mallorca—one marked by the simple things, like eternal sunburns and lovers unfit to stand the test of anything beyond a lap dance contest.
Even by these standards, Hayley Hughes broke bimbo barriers when she came to the villa in 2018—and, more recently, was the subject of a viral TikTok. In her two short weeks on the show, Hughes managed to win over audiences with her “dumb blonde” persona, which was exhibited by her struggle to decipher what an earlobe is, her confusion about Brexit (she thought it was a mass tree-chopping event), and her admission that a suitor asking about her favorite animal was just “too deep.” (Anonymous “friends” of Hughes have told UK gossip site The Sun that the reality star was “faking being thick,” and, when reached via email, Hughes’ PR reps declined to comment on her stint on the show.)
The TikTok in question—which has 121K likes and 5.4 million views to date— shows Hughes’ confusion over the words “continent,” “county” and “country,” as her fellow Islanders patiently help her sort out those geographical c-words. While the content of the clip might fit neatly into today’s bimbo discourse—the idea that some young people are rejecting neoliberal feminism by feigning stupidity and bearing their knockers online as a form of political protest—it was the comment section, not Hughes, that caught my eye. There were hundreds of replies ranging from “I know her mind is so peaceful” to “How free she must be from not being dragged down by the weight of knowledge,” and “She’s just existing dawg, she ain’t sign up for complexity.”
While it would be pointless to extrapolate any monolithic insight from a single TikTok, there’s something piercing about the humor-coated wish to be “free” from our current news environment. Internet culture expert and Buzzfeed News reporter Kelsey Weekman said the resurgence of mock stupidity and “smooth brain”—what commenters seem to be romanticizing in the Hughes TikTok—mirrors the burgeoning aesthetic of opting out, which pops up in some online performances of womanhood.
“It’s a departure from the internet-brained idea that we have to understand everything going on in the world and still manage to do what makes us happy,” Weekman tells Jezebel via email. “It takes privilege to be able to tap out on social issues, but at the same time, our brains were not meant to process global suffering on the scale that the internet exposes us to. Gen Z has been raised with that kind of information accessible to them since they could hold a phone, and it’s exhausting.”
Dr. Jessica Maddox, a digital media professor at the University of Alabama, also sees the video’s comment section as a response to the trap of doom-scrolling and a seemingly impossible search for joy online. Doom-scrolling, Maddox said, is often associated with our inability to unplug or to turn off the negativity in our lives—from covid and monkeypox to wars and gender-based violence. If we have to face the inequities of our world on a daily basis, it makes sense that we’d fantasize about tuning out or not caring, she said—sort of like the dark humor in requesting a “lobotomy, please,” death by asteroid, or posting sardonic photos with your head in the oven a la Sylvia Plath.
“These crises and chaos and the world around us can seem so overwhelming, that it feels like we only have individual solutions to these problems, even though they’re far beyond anything we can control,” Maddox said. “It might seem easier to not even worry about the game…or not play the game at all.”
The specific language of being “dumb” or of “not having a care in the world” automatically invokes a derogatory mental image of the bimbo, particularly if the subject is a woman or femme, said Maddox. Though women have been coded as inferior for centuries, the 1953 Marilyn Monroe film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes cemented the dumb blonde trope with the character of Lorelei portrayed as “absentminded, slightly scatty and interested in marrying solely for money,” according to Refinery29. In one of the most iconic lines from the film, Monroe said, “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.”
But today is an especially strange time to be a woman in America. The Supreme Court decided after 50 years that abortion is no longer a federally protected right. Famous women who take their abusers to court have become nothing more than a meme, mocked and commodified as click-magnets for YouTubers. A director exhumed the spirit of Monroe, only to drag the world’s preeminent blonde through the mud once more in the name of art, or something. And in the midst of all of it, is the virality of one Hayley Hughes.
That’s why Shena Kaul, a media studies PhD candidate at the University of Calgary, is worried that the irony in the performance of tapping out online might be lost on impressionable young men. While in bimbo subculture, participants pretend to be air-headed to make an intentional political statement about the economy and the inequities within it, Kaul said glorified stupidity plays into a dangerous discourse about women as genuinely unintelligent.
In an environment in which “every average white guy” can create a podcast and develop a massive platform upon which to degrade women, Kaul finds the misogynistic discourse thriving amongst the Andrew Tates of the world legitimately “scary.” With girls selling e-books about how to perfect the “siren gaze” and master the art of flirtation, and the rise of apparently sincere longing for tradwifery—a return to the woman as doting domestic caretaker for her husband and children—that discourse diminishes women’s agency and places men’s needs at the center of our existence. You can see it at play in one of the comments on the Hughes video: “I would love to just explain things to her all day.”
But Kaul understands the detached dream of “no thoughts, just vibes:” It also comes from a place of desire for real economic or political power. Someone saying they can “just vibe out” because they have the income or lifestyle to do so, she said, is a completely different story than the minority girls or queer girls or trans girls reacting satirically to being ostracized.
“To say I’m just gonna let my husband worry about the bills and work, and I’m gonna stay at home is extremely privileged and heteronormative, and it only works when the woman in that situation has the choice to do so,” Kaul said, noting that the housewives of the past rarely chose their fate. “The choice to turn your brain off sounds like an immense privilege, because if you’re really faced head-on with all the stuff that’s happening today, you can’t just turn it off or pretend it’s not happening.”
There are, of course, fundamentalist religious influencers and tradwives who Weekman says have declared it their very real mission to let a man take care of them. But at a time when women are losing their agency en masse, fantasizing how much easier life might be if we were all dumb as rocks is an understandable, if very imperfect, response. The no-thoughts-just-vibes crowd is coping with doom as best they can. If only vibes could restore and preserve our hard-won rights.