Midway through the Tinder episode of the docuseries Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On, then-40-year-old James Rhine tells his friends that a woman he sort of ghosted sent him an angry text message. “She is kind of sensitive,” he says, shrugging off the woman’s reasonable distress. When he’s alone, the handsome bachelor with a fastidious coiffure flicks through Tinder and Bumble. At one point, he recounts the field notes he’s made from dating different 22-year-old women over a period of 15 years. Peculiarly eager to eat out your asshole now, he observes of 22-year-olds today.
At first, he’s a classic Tinder jerk, flitting in and out of women’s lives with limited regard for their emotions, though he’s highly attuned to his own. During the shoot, when the filmmakers press Rhine on why he starts ignoring women instead of directly telling them that he’s no longer interested, he admits, “I just don’t want to deal with their feelings.”
It’s enough to raise the hackles of any woman who’s ever known a thoughtless man. But the co-creators of the Netflix series — Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus — said that wasn’t their intention: Rather, they’re trying to tell the guy’s side of the story. “He's sort of stuck,” Bauer said. “He's trapped in this thing that he's created for himself. But he doesn't want to be.”
Rhine told BuzzFeed News this week that filming the documentary last year genuinely changed his life (or certainly his dating habits). “If no one ever calls you out on your bullshit, you tend to just let things slide,” he said. “I would sit down and talk to the producers, and they would talk to me in that matriarchal way where their tone was like, ‘You know what you're doing is wrong.’” In fact, he said that because of what he learned in the documentary, he recently broke up with a woman he’d been seeing in a face-to-face conversation: “I finally acted like an adult.”
Each episode of Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On depicts the pitfalls, compulsions, threats, and unexpected tenderness of love and sex in the digital age. Four of the six episodes examine different genres of online porn, and every installment explores the intimacy — sexual or otherwise — that internet users perform for strangers online. Although the Tinder episode has some of the lightest subject matter in the series, it was nonetheless “one of our most difficult episodes to cast, because not many people want to cop to this type of bad dating behavior,” according to Gradus. For his part, Rhine is unconcerned with what “randos on the internet” might think about him. “I took the entire experience as a learning experience,” he said. “The one thing they can say, whether [audiences] like me or don't like me, is that I'm gonna be honest. I think in the end, that's all we really want to be judged by.”
Rhine is a former Big Brother contestant, and given his history with reality TV, “it took a significant amount of work to get him not to perform,” Bauer said. Gradually, he began “leveling” with them: In a raw moment toward the end of the episode, the aforementioned “sensitive” woman confronts him in person (the filmmakers had to shoot from a distance, at her request). That conversation spurs a string of revelations for Rhine, and he later grapples with his bad behavior; during one of these scenes, he shows the filmmakers a notebook containing a list of women he’s slept with. “For me being 40 years old, it’s just completely unacceptable behavior,” he tells the camera at one point, looking shaken.
Rhine told BuzzFeed News the unsettling epiphany stuck. “Sitting there watching her cry and break down like that over something that I personally didn't think was that significant was a good reminder as to the fact that you sit back, get off your phone, and pay attention to how these other people are feeling. You're affecting other people, and you're not doing it in a good way,” he said. “Not that I believe in complete gender roles, but I was taught how a man should be: You're supposed to be honest and up front, and you're supposed to be considerate for other people, and that was something I wasn't doing.”
After that on-camera confrontation, he soon changed the age range preferences on his dating apps: Viewers learn that on Bumble his preference was previously set to 20 to 35, but he changed it to 25 to 40.
Recalling that shift, Rhine told BuzzFeed News, “Just because you can do something doesn't mean it's right.” Before, he said he wasn’t being honest with himself about what he wanted: marriage, children. “I want to settle down and get away from this lifestyle,” he said. “The reason I'm not finding people to be with long-term is because I'm not dating people that are in that mindset. They aren't even themselves yet.” Now the low end of his age preferences has inched up to 28.
Bauer and Gradus wanted “Love Me Tinder” to show viewers a three-dimensional portrait of a 21st-century libertine. “He had this revelation which seems very basic,” Gradus said. “He just had not realized how poorly he had behaved, and that it doesn't take that much to correct that behavior. You just kind of have to be more aware and more empathetic, and don't just disappear. Give people explanations as to why you're no longer interested if you're not interested.”
Bauer thinks the documentary humanizes him and perhaps, by extension, ghosters everywhere; she mentioned a shot of Rhine eating alone in front of his TV. “It was after this long, intense interview where he was sitting on his bed, and he was going between feeling remorseful and talking about his loneliness to his conquests. It was back and forth and back and forth. Ultimately, he didn't have any place to go. ... That shot is very much, that's his life.” Viewers, she said, may hate Rhine’s dating habits, but she thinks the hate will be less so for him than “what he represents.”
Gradus said, “I think hopefully it's helpful to see that at the end of the day, he's not triumphant. This behavior that he has had all these years, and leaves all these women in the dust, in his wake, it hasn't amounted to much in the end. Hopefully in the end, for some women, that will be helpful to see, or to think about: 'Oh, okay, that guy who totally was a jerk to me, at the end of the day, is he even happy?'” she explained. “Maybe not.”
Rhine had not yet seen the documentary, but he had a simpler moral for his experience: “Just because you can get away with something doesn’t mean it’s right,” he said. He was as honest as he could be during filming, because “I owed it to myself and I owed it to the producers and directors.” Hopefully, he said, he'll “be able to offer some insight.”