Antiheroic Feminism: An Interview with “UnREAL” Co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro

Karen Tongson

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro is a difficult person to pin down. With the second season premiere of UnREAL—the Peabody-award-winning series for which she not only writes and produces, but now also directs—on the horizon, Shapiro has made a reluctant entry into the limelight on awards show red carpets, Paley Center panels, and other events for the glitterati. While she generally avoids the attention focused on her as one of the show’s co-creators, Shapiro nevertheless remains committed to talking candidly about her labor of love. UnREAL, which centers on the complex relationship between two female producers of a Bachelor-like reality show, has been lauded for its searing yet compulsively watchable take on feminism, fantasy, media, and power. Karen Tongson had a chance to sit down with her in Los Angeles in April, sometime after Shapiro’s rousing commencement address to the AFI Conservatory Directing Workshop for Women (from which she graduated several years ago), and shortly before she took off to shoot her UnREAL directorial debut.

 

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. Photograph courtesy of Sarah Gertrude Shapiro

 

Karen Tongson (KT): You once described your experience as a feminist working on The Bachelor as something akin to being “like a vegan getting hired to work in a slaughterhouse.” With UnREAL you’re co-running your own show with strong female collaborators across the board, from the production side to the onscreen talent. Do you have an analogy for what this feels like?

 

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (SGS): I’m like a vegan at Sage [an organic vegan bistro]. Or a baker in Magnolia Bakery. Really, I’m like a hog in shit: I’m basically rolling around in my feminist narrative television show—a totally rare experience in Hollywood—and it’s great.

A moment I remember really, really fondly was when we were featured prominently in the New Yorker and US Weekly in the same week. It was an ultimate high-low moment. I think the beautiful thing about the show is its ability to speak to a range of audiences. That’s always been something intentional in my creative output. I’ve always been a populist, but at the same time I try to pursue more nuanced conversations about feminist theory. I mean, I went to Sarah Lawrence. I could have gone into experimental filmmaking—some of my friends went on to academic jobs in Scandinavia, or worked in very radical queer circles doing wonderful things for their communities. I went in a much weirder, poppier direction, and working on that bigger, popular scale can be a lot more problematic sometimes. It involves super challenging, scary conversations where you could get in a lot of trouble.

 

KT: Speaking of which, you’ve never been shy about unequivocally identifying as a feminist. Have you received any blowback for that? On the flip side, do you anticipate criticism from feminists for some of the more nuanced aspects of UnREAL’s antiheroic feminism? I have in mind the conversation about race you’re opening up in Season 2, with Rachel’s (Shiri Appleby) stunt casting of an African American suitor.

 

SGS: I haven’t received much backlash yet, but I have a strong feeling the second season’s going to get more, so I’m girding my loins for an onslaught. It tackles race in a pretty new way relative to these reality marriage-market shows—or maybe, I should say, the approach is brutal and kind of ham-fisted, which our show can be. Sometimes I think of UnREAL as a blunt instrument. We’re not mincing words and we have characters say terrible things. Quinn (Constance Zimmer) says terrible things.

The UnREAL writers talk a lot about how we have avatars on UnREAL whom we relate to. But the producers on Everlasting, the show within our show, also have avatars they relate to. So Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), the only producer of color left on Everlasting after Shia’s exit in Season 1, has a couple of black female cast members he’s pushing in Season 2. But now there’s also a black suitor, and Rachel is the producer who brought him in, so there’s a lot of fraught competition. We take an unflinching look at the white liberal guilt motivating Rachel’s exploitation of this black suitor to further her self-worth. We don’t shy away from depicting Rachel’s self-aggrandizement, or her self-congratulation about how radical she believes she is for having pushed through this casting decision.


KT: In some press events for Season 2, you’ve been asked about the demographic make-up of your own writer’s room. How do you approach that question, and the larger question of diversity in Hollywood?

 

SGS: I was surprised how few people have asked this, because everyone should be asking these questions of Hollywood. But yes, we’re starting to get asked more specifically about diversity in our own writers’ room. And there’s a very straightforward numerical way to answer that: out of the six writers in the room, two are women of color. The writers of UnREAL are very aware that we’re making a commentary, on a meta-level, about white women who are making a show and patting themselves on the back about it.

That level of complexity, though, is not something you can get into in soundbite-driven interviews in the press. It’s a complicated discussion, and it takes time. It’s not like a mainstream press venue is going to publish a pull-quote from me saying, “UnREAL is a show talking about self-congratulatory white women with liberal arts educations furthering their own agenda by co-opting the experience of racialized others,” in response to a question about diversity in Hollywood.


KT: The queer and gender studies professors I know struggle with being both attracted to and repulsed by UnREAL. At the end of Season 1, for example, it’s gratifying when Quinn and Rachel get the better of their male suitors-slash-nemeses, but nauseating how much psychic destruction they leave in their wake. My own response later made me feel guilty, though, because I don’t think we have the same impulse to disavow male characters for their antiheroism: think Don Draper in Mad Men, or Walt and Jesse in Breaking Bad (a pair you mentioned as a correlative to Quinn and Rachel). In quality TV dramas, do we hold male and female antiheroes to different standards?

 

SGS: Well, first I want to be clear about the Breaking Bad comparison. Breaking Bad didn’t influence my early conception of the show, and wasn’t on my radar then as a point of comparison. But because we have some new writers in the room this year, I came up with a rule of thumb: I told them to write Rachel and Quinn not like two characters from Gossip Girl—you know, like snarky, scheming gal pals—but like Walt and Jesse, who are business partners and in a mentorship dynamic. In general, I feel like Rachel and Quinn can exist without a male reference point, but the comparison is useful when I have to explain them to other people. Both duos are partnerships, and these partnerships have adversarial aspects to them.

From left, Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and Quinn (Constance Zimmer)

 

KT: And something of a familial aspect to them as well, right?

 

SGS: Right. Quinn is like Rachel’s work mom, and though not a mother to her in every way, she is the person who will make big, hard decisions for her, tell her the truth, protect her, guide her, show her the steps of the next stage of her life. And all of it’s totally fucking demented. It’s not healthy in any way, but it’s actually a more honest relationship than what Rachel has with her biological mother. Even when Quinn is telling her the hard truth, with all the cruelty she can muster, she’s at least speaking some sort of truth, while Rachel’s biological mom isn’t.

As you know, where UnREAL actually comes from is my very true-life experience of what it is to be a woman working in this industry, where you’re pushed to be harsher, more pragmatic, more mercenary. When I was pitching the show, one of the things I talked about the most was that when women destroy each other, they destroy themselves.


KT: I see that impulse very clearly at the end of Season 1. At the moment when Rachel and Quinn collude and support each other in their partnership, they’ve also become more enmeshed in a relationship of mutually assured destruction.

 

SGS: Well, the only people they really have are each other. There is something compelling about becoming what Quinn and Rachel are together—like emotional vampires who feed off the blood of prom queens. It’s always felt like Revenge of the Nerds to me a little bit. I don’t necessarily think Quinn and Rachel were nerds in high school, but I feel like watching a hot blonde girl from Tennessee get her intestines ripped out emotionally is incredibly satisfying to them, especially in the aspirational, power-seeking place they’re both coming from.

When I was working as a producer on The Bachelor, what I found was that you start evaluating other women on this really harsh and unforgiving one-to-ten scale, like, “Oh, she’s a nine with a point for personality.” Eventually, when you’re in your troll hole of a home by yourself, that harshness, that scrutiny, that male gaze, will inevitably turn inward, and you start thinking, “I’m a four with zero points for personality.” You know what I mean? But if you have compassion for other people, then you will also have compassion for yourself. And that’s the thing I was trying to say about reality TV and its effect on the world. Sure, shows like that feel like a guilty pleasure. They even feel like fun. But when you start ripping people apart that way, you’re eventually going to turn that lens on yourself. Our culture is already immersed in obsessive self-documentation and self-curation. We’ve submitted to the panopticon. When you feel like you’re always being watched and always performing, that will eventually take you out of your own life.


KT: That ever-expanding panoptical culture is pervasive in your work. In your artist statement for Sequin Raze, the short film you made at AFI that was the basis for UnREAL, you discuss the economy of the male gaze. On UnREAL, Quinn and Rachel, as producers, control the optics. What does it mean for these two women to do that? And what is their relationship to being seen, or remaining unseen?


SGS: Quinn is behind the scenes, so she is distinctly not seen, and not subject to this particular dynamic or economy. I like to talk about the world as if it was configured like this: there are mole people who live in the walls, like Rachel and Quinn, and then there are the beautiful butterflies who live under the lights, the people on camera they manipulate and control. So there are all these big puddles of jewel-toned lights, a bright palette for a world of butterflies. The mole people creep around in the walls, emerging at opportune moments to eat the butterflies one by one. You become prey when you’re out in the lights. This is why Quinn doesn’t even want the limelight. She does not want to be on camera. Rachel definitely doesn’t want to be on camera. Quinn wants to be Chet (Craig Bierko). She wants all the money, she wants all the power, she wants, like, a hot young wife.

 

KT: So with Quinn and Chet, it’s like that old quandary of “to boff or to be?” In other words, do I desire this or want to be this? The person she fucks is the power that she wants to be.

 

SGS: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

 

KT: That’s kind of queer.

 

SGS: Yeah. She wants to be Chet. I think her whole life is structured such that if she had been born a man, she would have wanted to be—would’ve become—Chet. But she’s at the top of her game for where she can be as a heterosexual woman.

 

KT: Let’s delve into Rachel’s romantic attachments. I joked to you after I finished Season 1 that I’d take Bellinis in Saint-Tropez any day over a log cabin in the woods with Jeremy (Josh Kelly), the cameraman-turned-DP who represents basic, good-guy masculinity. I find scoundrels like the British suitor Adam (Freddie Stroma) or Chet preferable, for their overt villainy and shadiness, to this character who is supposed to be a path to normalcy for Rachel.

 

SGS: [Laughing] You know, my mom’s friends like Jeremy. They think he’s a good guy. I write Jeremy as the guy somebody thinks a woman should be with: a safe choice, from a safe place, with an outcome that will inevitably be totally mediocre. Choosing the log cabin would’ve been about settling for someone she’s not in love with at all, but with somebody who will simply take care of her.

 

KT: So my instincts are right: Jeremy represents the contemporary version of the antifeminist fantasy at the core of Everlasting, the show within the show, which is based on an antiquated arranged-marriage fantasy?

<i>The Bachelor</i>’s Jake Pavelka and Vienna Girardi at World of Color Premiere at Disney California Adventure Park in June 2010. Wikimedia Commons

SGS: Yes. Absolutely. When Shiri Appleby was talking to me about the show before we started shooting Season 1, she said, “I really don’t want to do a love triangle show, because I’ve done it before.” My response was, oh no—you are not in a love triangle between Adam and Jeremy; you are in a relationship with Quinn. You have these weird man dolls that you’re projecting fantasies onto, but neither of them are even sort of right for you. You’re projecting versions of yourself onto a wall. That’s how I conceived of those characters. I think the first description I ever wrote of Jeremy was that he was an underwear model who could kill things with his hands. That was it. And Adam was just like a prince. They were both written to be clichés.

 

KT: Was Adam actually written to be British? Because his Britishness and the patina of old-world chivalry his accent provides made a huge difference. At least for me.

 

SGS: No, I actually read him as a Kennedy. He was going to be an American prince. And then Freddie Stroma came in and auditioned with an American accent. When he was leaving he broke accent to say goodbye and I was like, “Wait, are you British?” So I had him come back and do it again in his own voice and I knew we had it right there. That was an interesting and happy development.

Even though the male characters in the love triangle are really just projections, for the story to work last season viewers still had to fall in love with them. So I made sure we wrote that scene on the cliff when Adam asks Rachel to “run away with me to Saint-Tropez,” and every fiber of Rachel’s being had to want to do it. I wanted to make that scene gut-ripping. As if you were hearing everything you’ve ever wanted to hear: “you were not made for the ordinary life,” “you will not be folding that guy’s laundry,” “you are better than this, I am taking you away.” Anyone’s fantasy—queer or straight, I think—is to have somebody come in and say you are not made for an ordinary life. I am taking you out of here. Is there a person alive who wouldn’t want that?

 

KT: Well, those lines obviously worked on me, and I’m a disillusioned, man-hating, butch lesbian. Speaking of which, we’ve been talking about fantasy and wish-fulfillment across a spectrum of sexualities, largely because UnREAL offers such a twistedly alluring take on fantasy, even through its cynical realist lens. I want to wrap up our chat by asking you about The Faith Diaries, which is the web series spinoff you wrote for MyLifetime.com focusing on the character of Faith (Breeda Wool), the kindhearted Southern girl who comes to terms with her own lesbianism while vying for the suitor’s attention as a contestant on Everlasting.

 

SGS: With The Faith Diaries, the idea was to write and direct episodes between seasons as a quick little side project. I thought to myself, “What would actually happen to this person after the show?” The character feels so real to me. The web series focuses on how she navigates her religious faith with her girlfriend in a new big city like LA. These characters really believe in God, and they’re just trying to figure it out. There is no vitriol in it.

After I turned the episodes in, I was worried everyone was going to think I’d lost my edge. But, frankly, I would refuse to put this character in any more terrible situations. In UnREAL she was always the baby bird to protect. She was the one who showed everyone that they still had a heart. The rest of the show might be about eating our young—but not that one. Not this time.

 

KT: It’s striking to me that it’s the earnest rural lesbian who becomes that figure of redemption in the UnREAL universe.

 

SGS: Of course. It’s really important to me. I want her to have the happiest end. I want her to get the happily ever after. She should be the one who gets like a full-on princess fantasy—or prince fantasy, or whatever she wants.

 

KT: Is that because—

 

SGS: Because so many lesbian characters get murdered in film and TV?

 

KT: Yeah. And suffer numerous other indignities along the way?

 

SGS: Of course, of course. It’s my redemption story. Not only is she not going to get killed, she is going to thrive more than anyone who has ever been on Everlasting. She will get the brass ring. So, you know, it’s a really boring series to write because everything basically goes pretty well. But I think it’s really jubilant to watch this person survive and thrive.

 

KT: Is the earnestness of this peripheral project any indication of where your true inclinations are as a producer, writer, director? Of where your heart lies?

 

SGS: I think my heart lies … well, let’s just say that Season 2 of UnREAL is even gnarlier. I find cynicism straightforward, and in working so much with it, in it, and on it, I’ve come to realize that cynicism can also be incredibly boring and sometimes even lazy. This is all to say I still feel like there has to be hope in the world to make things worth watching. While I can be really cynical, I also totally believe in the human spirit.

 

KT: That may be the most “film-makery” thing I’ve heard you say—an epic vision of hope for humanity and its spirit versus the harsh and biting realism of the small screen …

 

SGS: But The Faith Diaries are for the small screen. Maybe an even smaller screen, or what have you. It was a joy to make those things for Faith. This is a character I love. And I love those actors so much, too, you know? To let them just be with each other and find each other felt significant to me. It sounds really corny, but …

 

KT: Corny is important.

 

SGS: Yeah, corny is important. At least I hope it is.