The Psychology Behind Why We Hate-Watch

"Emily in Paris" returns to Netflix this week, which means plenty of us will be hate-streaming. There's a sociological and psychological reason we do it.
Why do we love to hate poor Emily?
Illustration: HuffPost; Photo: Netflix
Why do we love to hate poor Emily?

There are a lot of cringey moments in the first season of “Emily in Paris,” but my favorite happens in Episode 8: Emily, our plucky Gen Z protagonist, asks a cute French guy why he’s serving champagne in a coupe instead of a flute. He tells her that coupes were modeled after Marie Antoinette’s breasts, “the ideal size and shape to deliver pleasure.”

Sensing where things are going with said French guy, Emily takes her empty coupe and awkwardly cups it to her right boob. He then grabs hold of her other breast, and let me tell you, the whole thing is très awkward. (As BuzzFeed’s Ajani Bazile put it, “[it’s] one of the weirdest segues into a hookup I’ve ever seen.”)

“Emily in Paris,” which resumes its second season this week, is full of bad sex puns and stilted moments like the boob coupe scene. The show, created by Darren Star of “Sex and the City” fame, chronicles the adventures of Emily Cooper (Lily Collins), an upstart marketing exec whose job transfers her to Paris to work in social media even though she’s woefully underqualified: We’re to supposed to believe Emily is a savant when it comes to “social engagement” but her Instagram profile is full of selfies and cheeseburger pics. How do you say “basic” in French?

Emily is also an “Ugly American” (with great eyebrows) who talks about “educating” a French chef about customer service when she doesn’t like how her steak is cooked.

What’s more, the show features every conceivable stereotype about French people in the book. (They all smoke, cheat on their spouses and hate Americans, but if all Americans are like Emily, who can blame them?)

As bad as it all is, viewers can’t get enough: “Emily in Paris” was Netflix’s most-watched comedy in 2020 and somehow nabbed two Golden Globe Awards nominations, much to the dismay of television writers on Twitter.

“I’m begging y’all to stop hate-binging shows,” scriptwriter Dani Fernandez tweeted after the nominations. “It DOES affect the rest of us ... And [it] affects the notes we get from studios and I’m not even kidding.”

For production companies, crafting a hate-watch TV series or movie pays off in dividends: Take your standard issue Hallmark holiday movie. The Hallmark channel essentially reels in three different audiences with each new offering, said Elizabeth Cohen, an associate professor of communication studies at West Virginia University.

“One person might derive genuine comfort from watching formulaic Hallmark Christmas shows, another will roll their eyes and another will take delight in rolling their eyes,” she told HuffPost. “The difference, I think, is in the viewers’ tastes.”

“It’s like tasting bad food and then making other people taste it because you can’t believe what you just experienced. We are being trained to like the taste of bad food.”

- Ryan Bailey, the host of the iHeartRadio podcast “So Bad It’s Good with Ryan Bailey.”

There are shows that are created and marketed entirely for the sake of capturing a hate-watching audience ― “Sharknado,” for instance ― but those don’t tend to be sufficiently hate-able.

“The best hate-watching experiences should occur when the audience can laugh at​ the producers, not with them,” Cohen said.

Given our predilection for hate-binging ― or, as NME magazine put it, “streaming self-flagellation” ― we figured we’d deep dive into why we just can’t get enough of shitty shows. What do we gain from it ― is it social capital of some kind? And what makes a show a perfect candidate for a hate stream? Let’s get into it.

The Makings Of A Perfect Hate-Watch

Everyone has a personal opinion about what exactly makes a hate-watch so terrible and watchable at the same time.

Ryan Bailey, the host of the iHeartRadio podcast “So Bad It’s Good with Ryan Bailey,” knows he’s in for a good time when he can lock into the specific insanity of a show within the first episode.

“Eventually I’m creating tremors with my eye rolls with each episode after that,” he joked.

Bailey counts “Emily in Paris” among one of his “favorites.”

“I hate-watch it because it’s completely unrealistic, ridiculous and not taking place on any plane of the human earth that I have ever experienced, yet it was so glossy and pretty that you couldn’t turn away,” he said.

Hollis Griffin, an associate communication and media professor at the University of Michigan, suspects it’s the show’s sheer obviousness ― “the finger-in-dimple tone, the milquetoast plots, the cloying characters” ― that prompt such visceral responses from people.

“We’re living in complicated times: income inequality, racial strife, political division. We’re also living in a moment where television often references these things: think the familial politics set amid the wealth of the billionaire class of ‘Succession’ or even network fare like ‘Black-ish’ which tackles difficult questions.”

In 2021, audiences expect a certain self-awareness about the world from creators of TV shows. In contrast, “Emily in Paris” is an intellectually empty eclair, a show that, as Bailey notes, seems to exist in a parallel, blissfully unaware universe. (Griffin said he think it tips into “toxic naïveté.”)

Given all that we continue to go through (thanks, omicron!), there’s some pleasure to be taken in intensely hating poor Em.

“There is something palpably satisfying about focusing your ire on something that positions itself as so blithely ‘innocent’ in times like these,” Griffin said.

Reality shows, of course, are almost always worthy candidates for hate-watches.

Bailey, the aforementioned podcast host, said his current favorite reality show to hate-watch is “Selling Sunset,” a series about hot real estate agents in Los Angeles that has a booming soundtrack and “lighting so pure that you are almost convinced something real is happening when nothing is happening.”

“My theory is that Netflix has some sort of algorithm to brainwash us into watching these things,” Bailey joked. “There is no other explanation. It’s like tasting bad food and then making other people taste it because you can’t believe what you just experienced. We are being trained to like the taste of bad food.”

Reality shows like Netflix's "Selling Sunset" are reliable hate-watches.
Courtesy Netflix
Reality shows like Netflix's "Selling Sunset" are reliable hate-watches.

The Snarky Viewer And The Shitty TV Show: A Tale As Old As Time

Of course, hate-watching is nothing new. As long as people could watch TV and film, they were hating on it, Griffin said. After all, hating something can be a deeply pleasurable experience.

Griffin caught onto that quickly as a little kid watching his late grandfather hate-watch the New York Giants.

“No one knew why he hated the Giants, but everyone knew that it didn’t matter who was on the field or who they were playing football against, he was just always going to root against them,” Griffin told HuffPost.

“It appeared to make him happy ― when they fumbled, when they lost, maybe even when they got injured. It wasn’t anything specific about the Giants ― it was the intensity of the experience that he found pleasurable.”

Watching his grandad, Griffin realized consuming media is highly personal; creators of media ― screenwriters, TV writers, the New York Giants, we guess ― can never really predict how their projects will land with individual audiences.

Attending movies because you know​ they’re going to be bad is very active hate-watching, too, of course. In the early aughts, Cohen said she bought a ticket to see John Travolta’s Scientology sci-fi flop “Battlefield Earth” just to make fun of it with her friends.

“It took itself so seriously, and that’s what made it so funny,” she said.

And there’s a tradition in American culture to hate collectively: They might not have coined the term “hate-watching,” but the ’90s show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” ― where the characters just sat around making fun of B-grade movies ― “arguably perfected the art of hate-watching,” Cohen said.

While we’re digging into the history, it’s important to note the distinction between hate-watching and “camp” in TV and film, Griffin said.

As defined by Susan Sontag, an artist engages with camp when they’re playful and “anti-serious” as well as exaggerated and purposely artificial. The creator of a hate-watch generally didn’t set out for it to be bad; there’s no knowingness.

The way viewers perceive each differs, too. Take, for instance, “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” a classic camp example.

“That film is a deeply camp object ― no claim to innocence, none of the high production values of Netflix-era TV, none of the claims to respectable or assumptions of innocence,” Griffin said. “And hate-watching is cynical while camp is about love, on some level, however sarcastic or distanced it may be.”

Why Does Hate-Watching Bring Us So Much Pleasure?

There’s three reasons why we find hate watching so enjoyable: First, there’s the social aspect of it. Why scoff alone when you can log on to Twitter and scoff together?

“Sometimes hate is too powerful, you have to doom scroll mean tweets about the show on your phone the whole time,” Bailey said. “You watch a ridiculous scene, roll your eyes, look down at your phone, doom scroll, hate everything on your phone and then go back to watching. Rinse and repeat.”

That’s an especially appealing prospect in the middle of a pandemic, when there’s been a rise in “ambient television,” as The New Yorker called it. If you’re stuck inside, you might as well put on something mindless, shiny and escapist and poke fun of it with everyone else on social media.

Like some terrible version of TV Stockholm Syndrome, if you’ve invested seven hours in a season of “90 Day Fiancé” and the train wreck that is Big Ed, you figure, what’s a few more hours going to hurt?

“I think my hate-watching really took off during COVID,” said Lauren Reeves, a comedy writer whose credits include Comedy Central’s ”@Midnight” and the MTV reality show “Ex on the Beach.” “There’s something about being a prisoner in your own home that really forces you to make some big TV choices.”

Secondly, we oftentimes hate-watch with an eye for what we find superficial or in poor taste in our culture at the time; hate-watching gives us the opportunity to openly criticize those things. When it comes to forming opinions on what’s worthy of hate, context and the era matter a whole lot, said Justin Owen Rawlins, an assistant professor of media studies and film studies at the University of Tulsa.

“There’s a current trend where historically lowbrow or feminized cultural forms like reality TV, social media and women-centric narratives are disproportionately subjected to hate-watching,” he said. “As a series focused on a young woman and her social media activity, ‘Emily in Paris’ sits squarely in those crosshairs.”

In the early 2000s, people hate-watched “Entourage,” HBO’s aspirational bro dramedy. Whether it did so intentionally or not, it was giving bro culture, male entitlement and the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and his “pussy posse” the skewering they all so rightfully deserved.

As Salon contributor John Semley wrote of the show in a retrospective, the practice of watching something you hate — or watching something because you hate it — oftentimes “functions as a cultural intervention.”

In the early 2000s, "Entourage" was a show worthy of hate-watching.
Alamy Stock Photo
In the early 2000s, "Entourage" was a show worthy of hate-watching.

Lastly, we hate-watch because it’s fun to be smug and holier than thou in our tastes.

“We can feel smart and superior by being snarky,” Cohen said. “Hate-watching is smug!”

Our hate-watching is also correlated with more widespread media literacy ― at least with fictional narratives, Cohen said.

“In order to hate-watch something, the audience has to adopt a critical orientation to their entertainment experience,” she said. “Hate-watchers don’t take things at face value: They question it, they interrogate it, and actively look for flaws in things like the plot or the production value. To hate watch is to be media savvy.”

Bailey agrees.

“We are brilliant consumers and I think there is a pride in being able to expound on the best shows on TV like ‘Succession’ and how each shot is a painting while also hate-watching ‘Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ or the 18th season of ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’” he said.

As Bailey noted, entertainment is one of the greatest American exports: We have a rich history of the best entertainment of all time and now we have a rich history of the worst. As connoisseurs of both, we sure as hell are going to enjoy picking apart the latter.