Why we love to hate-watch

I have no shame in my list of favorite television shows. While I consider sitcoms like Roseanne and Cheers to be true classics, and fawn over cult favorites like the Young Ones, Freaks and Geeks, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I must admit that in more recent years guilty-pleasure television shows (that in no way meet the critical caliber of the aforementioned) have started making the list as well. I’m talking about reality shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.

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I regularly tune in to The Voice, too. I once found myself staying up until three in the morning to watch every episode of a show called Fish Tank Kings on Netflix. It is, as you might guess from the title, a show about men who build fish tanks. Oh, and don’t get me started on Bravo; I’m glued to almost every iteration of The Real Housewives, whether they’re in Beverly Hills, Atlanta, or Potomac. However, there’s one show in particular that I watch from this cursed channel whose reason for my embracing I can’t comprehend: Vanderpump Rules. See, I hate Vanderpump Rules. It’s a show about the waitstaff working at Sur, a posh Los Angeles restaurant owned by one of the stars of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Lisa Vanderpump (who I don’t hate). The cast is superficial and one-dimensional, and not in a redeeming way like the Real Housewives are. They’re younger, stupider, and represent the worst of my city of Los Angeles. They are the stereotype of the human beings residing here who care about nothing more than appearances. Their equally shallow conversations go no deeper than a kiddie pool. Everything they say to one another is either drama or soon-to-be drama. They drink alcohol like it’s water, sleep with each other’s boyfriends and girlfriends, and somehow stay friends throughout it all because television. So, why have I been glued to every episode for years now? Why do I know that I will continue to do so until the show itself calls it quits? It’s called hate-watching, and you probably do it too.

Clearly, there’s a fine line between guilty-pleasure media and watching something so bad it’s good. Take The Bachelor, which most people would define as a guilty-pleasure show. Or the now-cult classic film The Room, which turned Tommy Wiseau into an acclaimed filmmaker because of how bad a filmmaker he is. The genre of “so bad it’s good” is a difficult genre to master and takes the most acutely inept of auteurs to truly achieve it. Hate-watching is on the other end of this spectrum. Hate-watching evokes very real feelings of—you guessed it—hate. It’s less cheeky and more rage-fueled. It makes us angry we watch it, and even angry at ourselves for putting our eyes and ears through such pure filth. And yet, we don’t walk out of the theater or change the channel. Why do we continually subject ourselves to ingesting media that makes us feel anger and hatred? Are we all sadists? Do we take pleasure in the pain? That might have something to do with it. However, the answer is a lot more complicated than that. To figure it out, I decided to turn to some peers of mine and ask for their input. They revealed to me what shows they hate-watch and gave some interesting reasons as to why they think they do it. Four distinct reasons kept popping up. Elitism: There’s something to watching reality television and hearing people say some truly idiotic things. Most would assume that pleasure is derived from this because humans are garbage creatures who want to laugh at the expense of others, which isn’t totally wrong for a lot of the population. However, another reason is simply that in moments like these, it makes us feel smart. We like having proof that there are people out there who we can sense we’re better than. Furthermore, when we watch something that’s made poorly, we might think to ourselves something along the lines of, I could have done this way better. Whether we actually can is not important. It’s getting that feeling of superiority without doing any work for it that’s important. If you’re guilty of this, don’t feel too bad about it. We’ve all been there. Nostalgia: This was an interesting one to find out, but a lot of hate-watching seems to stem from personal memories. As one friend of mine put it, “I hate-watch Sex and the City just to revisit some bad decisions I made when I was in my 20s.” This show essentially serves as a reminder for her to try her hardest not to repeat those mistakes, which I can definitely relate to. Another friend took it in the other direction as to why she hate-watches The Real Housewives of Orange County, “I grew up there and they go to all of my favorite places. I feel like I am home for a bit.” So even though the show is hard for her to watch, the location it takes place in and the memories of home that it brings about somewhat redeem the hate that it also musters up inside her.

Secret desire: This is the one people had the most trouble admitting to me, but eventually they spit it out. A lot of these shows, especially the reality-based ones, kind of sort of make us wish we had that life. As another friend of mine put it, “I hate-watch Say Yes to the Dress constantly. I think it's a mix of me being frustrated by the shallow frivolity, but secretly wishing I could try on dresses while people tell me I'm pretty.” Yup, totally understandable. When cameras follow the lavish lives of rich people, it’s hard not to scoff at the things they call “problems” while also wishing we had those problems instead of our own. It’d be nice if the biggest issue in our lives was deciding what color Bentley to buy, instead of how we’re going to pay next month’s rent. Morbid curiosity: This might be the one I’m most guilty of when it comes to my hate-watching Vanderpump Rules. I watch it and think to myself, what if I turned into this kind of person? It could have happened at some point, I’m sure. These people live only a few miles away from me, but it’s as if they live in a different universe entirely. What would my life have been if I chose to inhabit this universe in my early 20s? Would I be the one dating a man named Jax? Would I be the girl who's always drunk and crashing parties she’s not invited to? It’s akin to not being able to look away from a car wreck. In both instances, we feel a sense of adrenaline because we know in some way, shape, or form that could have been us. While there is terror in this feeling, the urge to not look away comes from knowing that’s not what happened. There is gratification in knowing that. At the end of the day, is hate-watching something we should stop doing? Personally, even if we tried, I don’t think we could. What we can more easily control is how much of our time we let it take up, and what we do with the feelings once they come forth. Focus more on the underlying emotions than just the anger. Next time you hate-watch, have a pen and paper handy. Write down everything you’re feeling. Make it an opportunity to learn some things about yourself, both good and bad. From there, think about taking some sort of action. For instance, if you’re the person who hate-watches for elitist reasons and you think to yourself, I can do this better or I’m a better person than this, how about accepting your own challenge? Really try and see if you can produce something better than what you’re watching. Use this as a means of doing something creative, even if your work is in a different field. Or do something good for your community if you feel the characters you’re watching aren’t. If it’s just plain-old morbid curiosity driving you, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Frankly, curiosity is proof our brains are working. And if it’s nostalgia or desire, explore it. Reach out to an old friend, take yourself dress shopping, whatever it is, it’s a good time to learn about yourself. I wouldn’t recommend going and getting yourself a Bentley, but there’s nothing wrong with exploring the things that make you tick. Good can come out of hate-watching. You just have to figure out how.

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At the end of the day, is hate-watching something we should stop doing?

Alison Stevenson

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