In her 1970 feminist opus, The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer wrote: "I find that those men who are personally most polite to women, who call them angels and all that, cherish in secret the greatest contempt for them." Almost 50 years later, there's no better embodiment of Greer's idea than the 2017 cast of The Bachelorette.
You could even argue that Sophie Monk—sorry, Australia's Sophie Monk—is emerging as Greer's unlikely cultural heir apparent.
The former 2000s darling may be more inclined to crack open a bottle of prosecco than taste her own menstrual blood, but Monk has found herself at the centre of one of the strangest and most striking examinations of Australian masculinity since Greer encouraged us all to "humanise the penis."
Even if you didn't tune in to the show's premiere last week, you probably know how it all goes: A group of shockingly average men compete for the love of a shockingly impressive woman in an accelerated courtship ceremony. Over six weeks, the nuances of dating are recreated through a number of "fantasy dates"— although whose fantasy these are remains unclear. Then there's the agonising conversations, where people repeatedly ask each other, "Why are you looking for love?" "What are your intentions?" and "What does love mean to you?" on loop until they die or someone gets a rose.
In a 2002 New York Times article, Caryn James reflected on the US version of the show, which was still then in its infancy, as turning "sexual stereotypes into shameless fun." In the 15 years since, the world—and the way we speak about love, gender, marriage and happily ever afters—have evolved a lot. But The Bachelorette remains unchanged. It still serves as a warped mirror to our deepest ideas around romance and happiness.
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Until this year. Here we are at the dawn of the new season and it's clear that, even for a show that serves as a wine-soaked appetiser of pop psychology, this year is different. Australia may be witnessing the one of the most poignant looks at modern Aussie masculinity we've seen in a long time. Zoning out? Let me remind you that the second episode literally included two men arguing who owned the "bogan Cinderella" move of presenting Sophie Monk with a pair of ugg boots by way of grand romantic gesture.
This is our country in 2017. This is us.
From the moment the first pair of Windsor Smith-pointed brogues stepped out of the first car, the archetypes were apparent. We had the fun guy, the sexy guy, the sweet guy, the weird guy, the guy(s) whose favourite movies are American Psycho and Fight Club. The initial introductions were a window into what men think women like: Gifts, tricks, literal insults.
Once inside the house, the pack began to jostle—defining the social order of things. During these weekly tea candle-lit cocktail parties we witnessed adult men square off over Friday Night Lights-sized glasses of wine. They non-ironically repeated the words "alpha" and "dominant," while intensely judging each other's bodies, personalities, hairstyles, and interchangeable velvet jackets.
The first and most obvious characters to emerge were the Real Men (Blake, Ryan). They have topiary beards and say things like, "Nice guys finish last" and "When she gets bored, she can come back to a real man." Twitter makes easy but excellent jokes about the Real Men because they are dinosaurs—fading shadows of what we used to think Australian men were. The national rejection of them is almost comforting. We can all agree over a villain. Last week Sportsbet was literally placing odds on Real Man Ryan being deported back to New Zealand, he was so universally disliked.
We look at these guys like outliers in the culture, laugh and say: "That's not us anymore, we're fine now okay? Did you see Eddie standing up for queer rights on The Footy Show? How about Macklemore playing the Grand Final?" They don't worry us because we're sure Australia's Sophie Monk, an intelligent and empathetic adult, would have sent them home if it wasn't for the producer begging to keep them around for pull quotes.
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More interesting though are those guys who see themselves as above all this madness. They are the contemporary Aussie bloke: Self-aware, open hearted and unpretentious. Without dominant personalities, these "middle guys" have developed quirks and tricks that help them to stand out. Darwinism at its finest.
Most obvious is Funny Guy Sam, potentially the most polarising suitor at this early stage. He's one of the ones with a man bun. He stands out from the other man buns because he does voices. Like, all the time. Sam's cringe nice-to-meet-you stunt was to trot his three nephews out on the red carpet as a warm up act. It was the first in many attempts to seem breezy and nonthreatening, to show he just wants to have a laugh, right? Of course, he was revealed to be more nervous, insecure, and toxic than anyone.
Sure, the kids/voices/falling in the pool bit seemed to work on Sophie initially—he was awarded the new Double Rose. But Sam's panic when his act didn't continue to offer unwavering returns was fascinating to watch.
In a later episode, Sam found himself upstaged on a date by potentially-funnier-man James—who happened to be wearing a Fryar (whatever) fat suit as a form of "challenge" because this is Channel 10 and fat is apparently hilarious still—he cracked and became a desperate mess. He fell back into jokes about boobies and being horny like a kid trying to get a laugh in sex ed class. When his Funny Guy mask faltered he was lost, and got bogged down in the same gross dude shit.
Arguably the most dangerous man of them all though (likely Greer's living nightmare), is the Nice Guy. This is Jarrod. Initially the crowd favourite, Jarrod seemed sweet, normal, and above all "genuine"—the highest praise one can receive on a reality TV dating show. But he has made the most painful mistake of all: confusing romance with entitlement.
You could argue the dude deserves a greenstick fracture of a break. He is, after all, just gobbling up and regurgitating the whole message of the show: that love has a simple formula of adventure plus intimacy, times conversation ("Are you ready for the real deal?"), and a kiss. Jarrod played the game considerably well early on, comfortably stepping into the hero setup laid out for him. Now he wants his prize.
He is the embodiment of how shallow our expectations and understanding of male goodness is. On their date he stressed to Sophie—often interrupting her to say so, mind you—that he was raised right; to open car doors and front doors, to treat his girlfriends like "queens". Jarrod might not be explicitly demanding a root, but he is literally demanding the rest of her life.
Entitlement is the darkest, scariest mark on many Nice Guys, and it doesn't scrub out easily. Jarrod's eager, prowling, laser focused intent towards Sophie is reminiscent of the Bristol man who promised to play the piano in a public park until his ex-girlfriend understood how he felt and took her back. It completely disregards the woman in question.
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This is all annoying, yes, but his repeated insistence that he needs to be near Sophie to "take charge and look after her" are also deeply infantilising. He speaks for her—"She wants to have children. Not be with a child"—while avoiding any regard for her own real interests. Jarrod's feelings, once realised, are central, absolute, and the priority of everyone around him. He can't understand why Sophie doesn't call off the show and be with him, why the guys don't concede to his creepy love.
But at the heart of all this is, of course, Sophie Monk. She was already a beloved national identity, but two weeks into the show is on her way to becoming a cultural icon. Amid all the testosterone she plays it cool. She is sweet and open with the men, but not tied up by them. She doesn't absorb any of the expectations Jarrod flings at her, or the emotional weight Sam offers. Her career in the public eye has made her the most self-aware contestant The Bachelorette has ever seen.
But she's also a mirror to these petulant, self-aggrandising, middle-management nobodies. She is a smart, funny, beautiful, successful woman with standards so low she is entertaining guys hardly any of us—let alone her—would make eye contact with at a bar. Still, she is legitimately blown away by the fact that Jarrod didn't force her to continue with a date activity when she was openly terrified, "Most guys would've pressured me to finish the course!" she exclaims, seafoam eyes wide. She is genuinely stoked exclaiming, "Jarrod put my feelings first."
Similarly, she swoons over Luke's interest in not seeing her drown. Or, in Twitter's favourite moment of the season, she seems marginally perturbed by the fact that she might not live up to Ryan's warped expectations. When he tells her about his demand for physical perfection, emotional compliance, and clean language she responds, "Shit. I'm f*ckin' screwed," as if she's at a loss.
Doesn't that say it all? The Bachelorette isn't a show about love, or even about how we mythologise and lie to ourselves about it. It's a show about how little women are willing to ask for in return for the possibility of it.
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