This summer, I learned that I love watching men cry.
Why? Maybe because it’s still stigmatized, despite men being more willing to wear their (wet, drippy) emotions on their sleeve. Maybe it’s because I myself know that letting a li’l sob loose can feel real cathartic. Or maybe it’s because of the sheer subversion of watching a big, handsome lunk turn red-faced and weep over getting dumped on national TV.
Folks, I’m talking about The Bachelorette. I never thought this show, in which one woman dates more than a dozen dudes in order to end up engaged, could teach me anything meaningful about my life and identity. But a season full of tears, sweet promises and some sensational dunks on toxic male behavior has changed my mind — and the new season of spinoff program Bachelor in Paradise, which kicked off earlier this month, is proving to be equally ripe with lessons, too.
Consider me stunned, but… I think this brainless reality show is actually helping me be a better version of myself???
I’ve talked shit about romance-based reality TV shows for much of my adult life, only ever dipping my toes in programs that seemed more slapstick comedy than love affair (looking at you, Jersey Shore). Not long ago, the notion that America wanted to tune into a highly edited farce full of peak Chad and Stacy energy, full of scripted moments and problematic gender stereotypes, made the eyeballs roll out of my head. Even diehard fans often shrug and state that it’s a guilty pleasure — “Everyone has their McDonald’s,” as one redditor put it.
Yet it’s hard to deny that the franchise’s portrayal of joy and hurt when two people meet and crush and (often) fall apart is actually real — and it feels like paying attention to all this chaotic emotion is almost like getting coached by a therapist on red flags, blind spots and everything in between. Like a number of other straight guys, I thought I was agreeing to watch The Bachelorette and Bachelor in Paradise so that I could hang out with my girlfriend and get buzzed while talking shit about the contestants. Instead, we’ve ended up having serious conversations about courtship, betrayal, anger and regret as a result of this routinely infantile, always overdramatic programming. It’s almost embarrassing to say it out loud, really.
I blame Hannah Brown, the silly, whip-smart Season 15 (!!!) Bachelorette with an Alabama drawl and a penchant for blunt confrontation. Did she fret and doubt and cry a whole bunch? Certainly. Still, her best moments were defined by fearsome shut-downs of dudes who tried to lie, gaslight and manipulate her into picking them. No one was a better villain than Luke Parker, the born-again Christian with a chiseled jaw and some seriously harsh possessive-creep vibes. You could craft a day-long seminar on what traits make a man manipulative and unpleasant by just editing together every time Luke opened his mouth. Repeatedly, he told America that he felt he was on a “rescue mission” to “save” Hannah from the other men she was falling in love with.
But despite making the cut as one of the final four men on the Bachelorette, his arc came to an abrupt close after he insinuated that he would ditch her immediately if she had sex with any of the other guys on her so-called “Fantasy Suite” nights. Whoof. That one bold line in the sand showed Hannah why all the other guys hated Luke’s guts. He flailed, trying to gaslight her into thinking he “wasn’t judging her.” She dismissed him with two middle fingers and an epic frown after declaring that she “doesn’t owe him anything.”
There were other lowlights for Hannah, too — including the fact that the guy she picked at the end of the show, Jed, actually had a girl back home. You could chalk up this stuff to reality-TV hyperdrama, but the fact of the matter is, average men behave like this literally all the time — being dishonest while pursuing a partner, finding ways to control them, bailing when life gets too real. It’s challenging to identify these thoughts and habits in ourselves, and a lot of men struggle with the idea that they, too, need to pick up more emotional labor in a partnership.
The critical upside is that with these lows came some real clear positive examples for guys to model. Tyler Cameron, who seemed to immediately seduce Hannah with his Adonis-like looks, ended up being one of the most gentle, patient examples of manliness I’ve seen on TV, supporting Hannah even when she, for instance, told him she didn’t want to hook up in the Fantasy Suite, but just talk all night. (That women everywhere celebrated him as a hero and an example of feminist allydom proves a big point.) Mike Johnson wowed audiences (and me, frankly) with his ability to articulate complicated, sad emotions to Hannah while also being a ray of warm, personable light at every turn. And this educational symbiosis of shitty vs. model masculinity has continued in Bachelor in Paradise, a spin-off in which both men and women, all from the so-called “Bachelor Nation,” try to find a partnership while getting stupid drunk and starting altercations at a beautiful beachside locale in Mexico.
Three weeks in, Paradise has again cast a harsh light on some of the dumbest ways men behave while elevating those who display the opposite. Blake Horstmann, who slept with several women at Stagecoach who knew each other and played it all off as carefree hookups, is now a bonafide pariah on the show and a laughingstock on the internet. Cam Ayala, who appeared on Hannah’s season of The Bachelorette and was sent home early for potentially being a manipulative weirdo, ended up being the spitting image of the “toxic nice guy” that comes on way, way too strong and blames the universe for his rejection. Two guys who got into an insanely dumb fistfight over a piñata were promptly booted from the show and readily forgotten by the rest of the cast, which wasn’t impressed by such macho bullshit. (The woman at the crux of the fight has now settled down with an NFL player who is, despite his imposing frame, an absolute teddy bear.)
And, because the universe works toward equilibrium, the show gave us Derek Peth, a guy who fell in love and then graciously stepped aside when his lover, Demi Burnett, realized she had stronger feelings for a girl back home. I don’t think I would have the strength to take such awful, heartbreaking news in stride — or to champion that ex for being brave enough to dig into their bisexuality on national TV. But Derek is that bitch — a dude who goes to therapy, shows patience, practices empathy and earns the love of the nation for it.
It’s natural to think that this kind of romance-fueled reality TV isn’t the realm of the average American straight guy, and plenty of my friends are perplexed that I’d dedicate four hours a week to watching “a dumpster fire with herpes.” Certainly, forum threads like this one suggest the average guy has a deep loathing and/or suspicion of the Bachelor franchise and the people it features. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover a community of men who not only watch the show, but obsess over it, too. The stress of the competition doesn’t just make for whacky, over-the-top absurdity — it also forces people in the show to confront brutal truths about their actions and mistakes.
Does the series have some problematic traits? Absolutely: Men and women of color, especially Asians, are often passed over during the casting or brought on as tokens at best. The show giddily promotes itself using a barrage of gender stereotypes that merely reinforce that women weep while men yell and throw hands. And the widespread use of editing and producer influence to manipulate storylines means that there are a lot of questions about intent and portrayal.
I don’t think any of these flaws, though, change the benefit of watching men struggle as a result of their callousness, and succeed because of their intellect and heart. We spend a lot of time watching sports, getting into the drama of feuds and tantrums, and yet, I’d argue that entertainment provides little in the way of nutrition when it comes to emotional growth.
So sure, I still think Bachelor in Paradise is a “guilty pleasure.” I’m just glad it has so much to reveal about men.