This time last year, the nation was preparing for Sophie Monk to make her debut as our new Bachelorette. Many, many promos had set the scene: a bunch of dudes would compete for the chance to embarrass themselves in front of the pop-star turned reality-star turned movie-star turned radio-star turned…who knows, the girl has really lived.
Soph was the first celebrity Bachelorette. She was wealthy, famous, beautiful, and yes a smidge older. The usual problematic characters were there—we had our villains, our sweethearts, our jokers and our wads of tooth whitening strips in blazers—but they didn’t sit smug and satisfied like usual. Rather than bow to traditional and troubling male tropes, Soph eviscerated them all with a level of sweetness and self-awareness Australian reality TV rarely sees.
In doing so she fundamentally changed the show. And almost a year later, we’re left wondering if the post-Sophie series will explore these new spaces. Sophie Monk didn’t set out to highlight the well documented issues with the series. But across her season she strangely, and effortlessly, set a lot of them them straight.
Everytime someone called her beautiful she politely pointed to the team of experts whose job it was to make her so. She scoffed at the men’s practiced and worn declarations of emotion, and asked if the contestants were expected to eat the Renaissance fair-style platters of food everywhere. But beyond fracturing the internal reality of the show, she also started national conversations about love, relationships, toxic masculinity, and female ideals. She was a walking buffet of think piece topics.
Which brings us to now, on the eve of another season of The Bachelor, asking—where do you go from here? You kind of have to feel for the producers. Imagine watching Sophie dismantle your product, show what’s broken, fix it, then return to life as a cultural icon, all the while knowing you need to organise the next season.
When they went looking for her follow up everyone was asking, is pop-culture alchemy possible twice? Some believed it was when they settled on 30-year-old Rugby star Nick "The Honey Badger" Cummins. You can already see the bones of a new template forming. He was also a loveable, warm, self aware kind-of-celebrity. Hell, throw in a curly mullet and we’re cooking.
But there was also more of a story here. Where Sophie had her Greek tragedy of being a single woman in her late 30s without kids, Nick had his family. One of seven siblings raised by their dad, things haven’t always been so cheery for the grinning jock.
Two of his siblings live with cystic fibrosis, and last year his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Recognising the emotional and financial strain his family faced, he made the decision to leave his place on the Wallabies team. He’d dreamed of being a Wallaby since childhood, but an offer to join Japanese club Coca Cola West Red Sparks provided a much needed salary bump.
Also, there are those photos of him getting wasted at the Logies with his sister. Everyone loves that stuff.
So far so good. Maybe this gentle giant will be able to continue Sophie’s evolution of the show, and use his a glossy TV platform to press Australia to further interrogate expectations of male and female relationships. Although, reports he had to reshoot scenes again and again because he was battling to express basic emotion suggest maybe not.
Of course it's not fair to dump all our expectations, frustrations, and premature disappointments on a man with an incredible rig looking for love. As much as I like to think that Sophie Monk permanently altered the state of pop culture, these concerns aren’t confined to the Australian version of the show. The US version has long battled to understand its place in an always evolving cultural and social space.
Since it debut in 2002, The Bachelor has been criticised for being outdated and problematic. But in the wake of Me Too and Times Up, where gender politics has never been more visible, watching anyone gaze on their own personal harem of polished, rich, able-bodied, straight, mostly white men or women feels especially awkward.
Interestingly, in the US producers have been finding casting the show increasingly difficult. There aren’t a lot of dudes out there who can stand in front of the previous paragraph and not make everyone feel very icky. Stateside the casting struggle and public discourse has seen some suggest that we skip the male season all together and double down on The Bachelorette. Female stars of this franchise have consistently shown themselves to be better at navigating the choppy waters of the show, often calling out bad behaviour in men or helping them to express themselves.
But maybe Nick will prove to be one of the increasingly few men who can make it through those reality TV rapids unscathed. Because while it is easy to call for the show to be culled, or massively altered, we’re still waiting for one of these uber-traditional leading men to take the chance to explore the vulnerabilities the show throws up in a meaningful way. And to be fair, Nick seems as well equipped as anyone to do it.
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