I think about the Las Vegas trip on season one of Vanderpump Rules a lot.
The cast of Bravo’s reality show about the waitstaff at popular West Hollywood restaurant SUR (owned by Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Lisa Vanderpump) venture to Vegas for waitress Stassi Schroeder’s 24th birthday, just days after she breaks up with her longtime (cheating) boyfriend, Jax Taylor.
Of course, not being invited doesn’t stop Jax from making a surprise appearance. Immediately, too, Jax and his buddy Tom Sandoval shit-talk Stassi’s new man, Frank, a bartender at SUR. The camera cuts to Sandoval in a parking lot, suddenly shirtless and ready to fight. Jax soon follows, tearing off his own white sweater. Eventually, even Frank gets in on the bare-chested action.
They don’t actually come to blows, but from that moment on, I became obsessed with these men. Not because I find any of them particularly attractive (for those wondering, I’m a Tom Schwartz gay); rather, it was the first time I intrinsically understood that when a male reality TV star rips off his shirt, some foolish (and extremely entertaining) display of masculinity follows.
A couple of other good examples: Ronnie on Jersey Shore, who essentially lived shirtless, often ripping off his white undershirt to pounce on any man who came Sammi Sweetheart’s way; and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo patriarch Mike “Sugar Bear” Thompson, who bizarrely peeled off his poorly fitted button-down to verbally attack his former step-daughter, Pumpkin.
But why? That is, why are the men of reality TV so compelled to rip off their shirts when they’ve decided it’s time to brawl? (Besides for entertainment value, naturally.)
It turns out the answer is far from skin-deep.
First, though, the obvious…
They Love the Camera
Jax’s shirtless fighting is reminiscent of the parotia birds in Netflix’s Our Planet who puff out their chests and whip their heads back and forth, Willow Smith-style, to attract a mate. But instead of the brightest-colored feathers or the longest beak, Jax has his jacked-up body to put on display. “It’s about men establishing an alpha male,” Jonathan Hoban, a counselor and psychotherapist, told Vice.
Hoban added that shirtless fighting is essentially a cry for love. “They don’t have that power within, but their body does,” he explained. “Really, it’s all about feeling loved. When people say, ‘Wow, you’ve got a great body,’ it’s about them being loved.”
In a way then, Jax showing off his chest in the parking lot of a dingy Vegas bar is a plea for love. But it’s not his ex-girlfriend Stassi he wants to attract. Jax’s true love is himself, the camera and an audience. “Jax is a master of the reality TV arts and sciences. I completely and utterly appreciate him for that, but he’s also an insane person,” says Brian J. Moylan, an entertainment journalist and a reality TV expert currently recapping Real Housewives for Vulture. “The aggression is part of what makes him so good.”
They Need to Stand Out — And Build Their Own Brand
Sandoval told BravoTV.com in 2013, shortly after the fight scene with Jax and Frank aired, that he removed his shirt simply because he wanted to look fuckable: “I took my shirt off because it was really hot in Vegas, and also to show off my great tan! Hahaha! Wow! Not my proudest moment.”
Sandoval might be shameless, but his penchant for shirtlessness is now part of his image. This is especially true on dating shows, like The Bachelorette or Are You The One?, where contestants are competing with one another, and a shirtless scuttle is a way to stand out among the other buff, hairless men with vague job titles in health-care-adjacent industries.
On season 20 of The Bachelorette in 2016, Chad Johnson became the resident bad boy, constantly working out, never wearing a shirt and always being the aggressor. He epitomizes toxic chest-bearing masculinity, once using this eye-rolling belittlement in an argument with fellow contestant Derek: “Whatever guy like me stole your girlfriend or whatever… It wasn’t me. I don’t know you.”
Kate Casey, host of the Reality Life podcast, says this aggressive posturing is the new normal on reality TV: “It’s not enough that you’re in pharmaceutical sales, you’ve got great hair and great teeth. Now you have to take your shirt off and show you have approximately 0.6 percent body fat.”
In an era where reality TV stars are hawking diarrhea-inducing tummy teas on Instagram and promoting crappy clothing lines, being the bare-chested hottie can become a full-time career. “In the last couple of years, it has a lot to do with Instagram branding,” Casey says of being shirtless onscreen. “I want to know what that guy is eating and what his workouts are.”
The most ironic example of bare-chested branding: Shortly after the Vegas brawl, Jax shot a comedy short for BravoTV.com featuring all the places where he takes his shirt off (the dry cleaners, the coffee shop, the subway, etc.).
Fighting Is Almost Always a Naked Pursuit
Thomas Page McBee, a writer on masculinity and the first trans man to box in Madison Square Garden, says the whole point of boxing is to be exposed. After all, boxers compete in weight groups without safety pads or face guards, so why would you spar with a shirt on? “There’s something about wanting to see this person with almost nothing on face somebody else they’re supposed to be perfectly matched with,” McBee explains.
Basically, Jax fighting in a white-collared sweater isn’t an equal match to Frank in a pastel button-down. Not to mention, the two of them with their shirts off is a perfect way to gauge whether it’s an even match, or if one combatant has a physical advantage over the other.
It’s All About Our Children (And Our Children’s Children)
“There’s something about the naked male body that we as a culture see as stressful that we don’t with female bodies,” McBee says. That makes the man who is comfortable doffing his top (especially on TV) anything but vulnerable. Per McBee, he’s essentially saying, “I’m so conscious of my ability to commit violence against you that I’m exposing myself fully in a way that appears vulnerable but is actually the opposite of vulnerable.”
Curiously, it’s pretty much only straight men tearing off their shirts to shit talk. “Look at Finding Prince Charming. None of them got into fistfights,” Casey says. Logo’s gay version of The Bachelor features a variety of homogenous gay men with rock-hard abs, hair fades and tight speedos. They’re in great shape and they’re ready to fight, but they never come to blows. “It’s more outdoing someone with verbal jabs and puns,” Casey says. “For straight men, though, it comes down to, ‘I have lower body fat, and my chest is more chiseled than yours.’”
It also might just come down to posterity. “When a woman gets their hair blown out, she’s like, ‘Let’s go out, get drinks and make sure you take a picture of me. I don’t want to waste this opportunity,’” Casey theorizes. “Men on TV shows have a similar outlook: ‘I’ve been starving myself. I have this great spray tan. I’m going to show it off because I’m never going to be this skinny again.’”