Leading up to the launch of its second season this week, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon’s UnREAL has garnered both critical acclaim and scintillating buzz, especially since it was revealed that season 2’s “suitor” on the Bachelor-esque reality show-within-the-show is African American. To date, such a casting decision still hasn’t come to fruition in the “real” world of reality dating competition shows. Gearing up for what promises to be a frothy, if also vexed, exploration of the intersections of race and feminism in the season ahead, which premieres June 6 on Lifetime, we gathered an ace panel of television and media scholars to reflect on UnREAL’s first season. Each of our contributors tackles the show’s tantalizing, deliciously twisted take on feminism, queerness, and what we do for love, money, and power.
—Karen Tongson, guest editor
—Hunter Hargraves: UnREAL’s Flickers of Social Justice
—Scott Poulson-Bryant: “For the Right Reasons”: Queering Suitors and Bachelors
—Homay King: The Bachelor Stripped Bare
IS THIS WHAT A FEMINIST TV SHOW LOOKS LIKE?
UNREAL’S (UN?)REAL FEMINISM
Our first glimpse of UnREAL’s protagonist, Rachel Goldberg, is framed—as if in a TV screen—by the sunroof of a limousine. The car is speeding toward a mansion where a handsome suitor awaits the group of beautiful women from which he will choose his bride. As the camera zooms in through this “screen” and we enter the televisual space, we see Rachel, lying on the floor of the limo, literally squeezed between the silk-stockinged legs of the contestants on UnREAL’s show-within-the-show, the dating competition Everlasting. She appears as the anti-reality-star. She is unshowered and unsmiling, disheveled and makeup-free, wearing jeans and a gray T-shirt that proclaims, “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like.”
This introduction establishes the contrasts and confusions upon which UnREAL is based: reality / “unreality,” messy / composed, “liberated” / entrapped, behind-the-scenes / “TV screened.” In many ways, Rachel appears to be a classic fish out of water—an aggravated, all-too-real woman stuck in the overlapping snares of an exploitative work environment on the set of a dating show that’s also modeled on the romance fairy tale. She is indeed a kind of prisoner (another kind of “fish”) here, her labor extorted by Everlasting’s executive producer Quinn King, who holds over Rachel’s head both money owed for damages and pending charges against her for a past breakdown and disruption of Everlasting’s previous season’s finale.
In this, Rachel’s situation mirrors, to some degree, that of UnREAL’s own co-creator, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who has told of how, despite her feminist inclinations, she was forced into working on The Bachelor, a show she hated: she was duped into working on any reality program produced by her bosses at Telepictures. It arguably also mirrors the situation of Lifetime’s own viewers: as we are interpellated into its “television for women,” we too are ensnared, giving our time and attention to an industry that operates by selling us (in the form of our buying power) to advertisers.
But is Rachel really a fish out of water? Or is she perfectly situated (even, or especially, as a feminist) in the flow—both the affective fluidity that has been associated with traditions of “women’s culture” and the textual flow of TV itself? Whatever misgivings she may have, she is good at her job precisely because of her “feminine” / “feminist” knowledge: her ability to read situations and people, to engage with them affectively and steer them accordingly, to know the “scripts” of both romance plots and romantics’ psyches, and to understand the pressures and pleasures of escapist TV. In other words, her work requires skills that are associated with women and, not coincidentally, typically devalued.
UnREAL might then be seen as re-valuing women’s work—including, importantly, the work of making TV, appearing on TV, even watching TV. Women continue to watch more television than men (not necessarily out of desire but also as part of domestic and familial labor), and while men outnumber women in TV appearances and certainly TV production jobs, especially “above the line” jobs, there may be opportunities for women, both in front of and behind the camera, in reality television that have not been there for scripted productions. If so, this is certainly in part because of the sheer number of reality shows, particularly those directed toward and featuring women. However limited—from the problematic characterizations on the shows to the nonunionized labor behind them—these are at least positions for women. These are the positions that UnREAL explores on screen and that underpin its own production, with its two female co-creators, Shapiro and Marti Noxon.
So does UnREAL critically reveal the exploitative dynamics of gender and labor on and for television, or is it perfectly situated within them? As much as UnREAL exposes televisual operations, it exploits some of the very things it critiques. It also focuses on romance, and it establishes a competition between different types, though on the meta-level of TV genres. Scripted drama is lauded and “wins” by discrediting another televisual form, the romance reality game. In noting this, I don’t mean to undervalue this fascinating program: it may deploy some typical TV strategies, but it does, I’d agree, do so differently, or to different ends.
For example, for all the focus on heterosexual hijinks (not only in the reality show-within-the-show but in the framing drama itself), the “real” romance of UnREAL is doubtlessly between Rachel and Quinn. And while the program establishes itself as “quality television” by delegitimizing a “lesser” form, it is refreshing to see a “quality drama” focused on female antiheroes for a change—women who offer a compelling contrast to the Tony Sopranos, Walter Whites, and Don Drapers who have been erected as the standard of “interesting” TV characters.
Nonetheless, and for all that’s worth (which is a lot), I don’t think that we can read UnREAL as just commenting on televisual dynamics and not itself participating in these. It (arguably, necessarily) operates within the same gender and media formations that it critiques.
So, to return to, yet slightly rewrite, the slogan on Rachel’s T-shirt: is this what a feminist [TV show] looks like? Or, given those gender and media formations, textual and sexual conventions, and labor and commodity relations mentioned above, is it possible to call any commercial television program fully “feminist”? If we’re being attentive to the text, we must note that the slogan asserts that this is what a feminist “looks like”—not necessarily what a feminist “is.” In other words, this is about a kind of performance or “showing”—a TV showing. It is precisely a “tele-visualization” of feminism, a “seeing at a distance,” a vision we can capture but that’s still far off. UnREAL offers a way to visualize feminism and to distance it at the same time.
Yet to ask what a “feminist looks like” can have another meaning as well: one concerned with how we, as feminists, might look at things. Is UnREAL, then, a program that, whatever it is, produces a feminist look? We watch how Rachel, Quinn, and the other characters watch the world around them, and how they construct things to be seen. In that way, UnREAL generates and genders a particular dynamic of looking, seeing, knowing, acting, and working on and with TV—a dynamic that can offer a great deal to its viewers, who also work on and with TV. Even if UnREAL, as a commercial TV product, isn’t quite what a feminist text “is,” even if its own feminism is distanced and somewhat unreal, it helps feminist “lookers” to envision a feminist televisuality. In our media flows, in which any feminist effort still involves swimming against the stream, that might just be real enough.
Jump to remarks:
UNREAL’S FLICKERS OF SOCIAL JUSTICE
There is a scene in the middle of UnREAL’s first season in which the two female protagonists, who consistently toe the line between ass-kicking feminists and manipulative whores, plot to spare a contestant from elimination on Everlasting, the fictional reality dating show-within-a-show. The contestant, Mary, is the eldest of the women competing for the attention of Everlasting’s British bachelor Adam, and her backstory of domestic abuse is ripe for exploitation. Rachel, the gifted line producer, suggests some B-roll footage of her abusive ex-husband apologizing, but her boss, tough-as-nails executive producer Quinn, seems unconvinced. Finally, Quinn raises her head and, with an arched eyebrow, has her “A-ha!” moment: “Or … we could bring him in.”
Rachel’s reservations about this idea are no match for the steamroller that is well-executed reality television; any threat of a violent encounter would make Everlasting’s suitor look like a “white knight,” and besides, Rachel eventually admits, “confronting your abuser changes your life.” To which Quinn replies, dismissively and excitedly, “Right, right, right … and all we want to do is help!”
While the scene is mere exposition for the volatile confrontation that will come later in the episode, its optics grabbed me: not just in the metaphorical sense, scarily spinning a triggering altercation into survivor empowerment, but also the light itself, which hits Rachel’s and Quinn’s dark brown hair at just the right angle to produce a halo effect. Good lighting sells the message. Reality television is there to help, so as long as its crusade results in spectacular fireworks.
This message, embedded in a minor scene, is key to understanding how UnREAL negotiates the contradictory assumptions our culture has about reality television and, especially, its perceived audience. Because the genre is presented as a combination of scripted and non-scripted elements, we must either suspend our disbelief, even if unconsciously, and legitimize its reality (what if this time the Bachelor is actually in love with the winner?) or embrace the cheesiness of its massaged narratives while calling it a “guilty pleasure” that we watch ironically. Or we can do both, deriving satisfaction from guessing correctly which elements of the series are “real” and which are not.
UnREAL makes clear to us that a larger force—namely profit-driven capitalism—is responsible for extinguishing whatever idealism Rachel has about her job. Rachel’s liberal feminist politics, while appearing to be at odds with the TV series at which she works, emerge in her responses to the many micro-crises that structure each episode of Everlasting (and also each episode of UnREAL). For example, when contestant Faith visits her Mississippi hometown and questions her sexuality, Rachel jumps on the opportunity to produce her coming-out story (gleefully saying, “Let’s just kick this hillbilly town’s ass into the new millennium!”). Later, when Faith gets cold feet, Rachel unsuccessfully schemes to destroy the footage of the almost-coming-out, though she acts both to save Faith’s face and her own job.
Rachel’s stunts attract ratings, and while they are often justified in the name of social justice, they quickly become co-opted by network executives in search of advertising revenue. Thus we revel in the semiotic irony of Chet, Everlasting’s creator and exemplary Hollywood douchebag, reading the logs from the Mississippi visit and translating Rachel’s message of LGBT visibility into “hillbilly lesbo shit—it’s good and it’s weird.” Chet’s not entirely wrong, though. How else would we describe reality television’s perverse popularity and its ideological commitments to consumer individualism and self-empowerment?
Of course, reality TV isn’t quite “good”—Kelefa Sanneh once called it the “television of television”—and neither are its attempts to brand itself as socially progressive. (At least, this is true of American reality television; in many non-Western nations, the genre has been credited with instigating and accelerating democratic reform and participation, as Marwan Kraidy helpfully illustrates.) Reality television has not always been kind to its female and nonwhite participants, even while ostensibly improving their material conditions.
Back in the early 1960s, Queen For a Day demanded that destitute housewives awkwardly perform narratives of poverty in between 30-second commercials for household cleaners and antacids; more recently, shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and other iterations of the makeover and renovation programs that constitute a plurality of reality programming, “decouple race from its social context and [resituate] it as one commodity among others,” in the words of Sasha Torres. Performing a more confident self (Faith as lesbian, Mary as abuse survivor) has a high exchange value on reality TV, but only because the melodramatic confrontations that narratively structure relationships between its “ordinary” subjects also do.
It may be too easy, however, to assign such a formal vocabulary to UnREAL, because the series plays off its viewers’ (in)ability to distinguish reality from its melodramatic story lines. If the knowing viewer of reality television finds that the series confirms what she already suspected, to what extent does UnREAL live up to its title, funneling the genre’s own conflicted expectations into its characters? As an extension of what Jean Baudrillard called the hyperreal, or when the representation of an object comes to stand in for the object itself, UnREAL contorts reality TV’s relentlessly formulaic rituals into the messy space of serial melodrama, with Everlasting’s characters at times seeming more real than those in real life.
Just like, after 20 seasons, ABC’s Bachelors cannot seem to sustain true love much past a season finale, UnREAL draws our attention to the good lighting that props up the romanticism of both true love and everlasting social change. And, with the revelation that its second season will feature an African American man as Everlasting’s suitor—something the “real” Bachelor has yet to do—we may expect to hear Rachel and her fellow producers wax poetic about challenging racial stereotypes while making reality television history. Yet this history, illuminated through idealist rhetoric and its containment via commodification, is neither really real nor really unreal, ultimately displacing the task of actual social change onto TV’s spectators: ourselves.
Jump to remarks:
“FOR THE RIGHT REASONS”: QUEERING SUITORS AND BACHELORS
“Kiss today goodbye / And point me towards tomorrow …”
—“What I Did for Love,” from A Chorus Line
As a backstage tale in the tradition of pop culture offerings from Stage Door to Soapdish, UnREAL is tasked with peeling past the layers of stereotypes and makeup The Bachelor traffics in—the virgin, the whore, the cougar, the golddigger, the black girl—and revealing some harsh truths about the “looking for love” Barbie-doll types in search of a happy ending. Their stories unfold with dramatic precision, tumbling toward revelation in the same way that backstories are edited together for narrative impact on The Bachelor. For all the razor-sharp detail given to the backgrounds of the various Barbies, however, UnREAL does its best work with the portrayal of the Ken doll, Everlasting’s “suitor” Adam Cromwell, the scion of an upper-crusty British dynasty, who agreed to appear on the show as a way to resurrect his public image in the wake of a tabloid scandal brought on by his randy, rich-boy shenanigans.
In Adam, a kind of Prince Harry manqué, the producers of Everlasting found the perfect suitor. He wants to break loose of his father’s hovering prominence, very aware that as the center of attention he has much to lose even as he’s there to gain. Daddy owns a hotel empire, and now that Adam has besmirched the family name he’s on his own as a businessman, as a brand, and he wants to open his own hotel. Adam thinks appearing on Everlasting will help his own fantasy come true. In other words, unlike The Bachelor in “real life,” who tends to be (at least lately) one of the blandly handsome regular Joes who didn’t get the girl on the previous season of the The Bachelorette (and who was probably there “for the right reasons”), Adam Cromwell arrives with a mission. Falling in love isn’t really on the agenda; being seen as a better, more mature man whom investors can trust is. Adam has a complicated relationship with image and respectability, and UnREAL, unlike The Bachelor, rips the veneer off the reputed poise of the desired guy and, in a sense, makes him one of the girls, revealing him for the potential climber—socially, (pop-)culturally, financially—that he really is.
In episode four, “Wife,” Adam convinces the producers to shoot one of the group dates at the “crappy, broken-down” Napa Valley vineyard where he aims to open his first hotel. He invites two potential business partners to watch the episode’s filming, hoping they’ll be seduced by the glamour of TV to invest in his project. Also invited to the set by Chet Wilton, the show’s power-schlub executive producer, played with devilish, coke-snorting glee by Craig Bierko, are Brooks, a dapper Bay Area businessman, and his wife, Kelly, a “cougar” personified, who immediately drapes herself around Adam. When the ace line producer Rachel—often tasked with babysitting Adam—finds out about the visiting investors, she tells him that Everlasting is not “The Fund Adam Cromwell Show.” The investors are banished from the set, but not before telling Adam that no one is interested in his project without the money and prestige of his father’s brand.
Chet, the epitome of a sleazy Hollywood producer, comes to the rescue: he and Brooks will invest in the hotel—welcome to The Everlasting Spa and Resort!—but cougar Kelly has one last detail to seal the deal. “Whatever it takes,” says Adam. Later, when Rachel can’t find Adam after the taping, she goes to his room. She peeks through a crack in his door to see Adam, hot and sweaty, his biceps bulging, fucking Kelly, who’s bent over the bar and moaning in ecstasy. Adam makes direct eye contact with Rachel, daring her to respond. That response, however, is reserved for what else she sees in the room: Brooks and Chet, sitting there, sipping bourbons, watching the sexual liaison enacted before them. Chet throws her a look straight out of the leering Jack Nicholson playbook, then goes back to watching Adam fuck to seal the deal.
In that moment, UnREAL queers both the suitor and The Bachelor, critiquing not just our typical sense of The Bachelor as a platform for women to grasp for love, fame, or both, but also the unspoken transactional qualities of the bachelor himself. He may be the body being pursued, the prize at the end of the line, but he is rarely the recipient of critique, rarely the whore in a mansion full of supposed whores willing to sell their sexuality, and their hearts, on national TV. It’s the women who are often aspiring to something more, while also cast as aspirational, as living, breathing avatars of self-help romance guides who are nonetheless under the constant scrutiny of television viewers eager to see them lose the rose as much as get it.
UnREAL reveals and makes legible what critic Karen Tongson calls the “economy of man-whoring beneath the ostensible ‘whoring’ of the women.”1 Adam is the whore—later he will tell Rachel, “I got my vineyard financed … It’s the only thing I wanted today and I made that happen”—but he’s also on display, usable flesh in the service of two wealthy men who are there, one guesses, to watch Adam fuck more than to watch Kelly get fucked. Adam’s sexualized body is a substitute for the standardized female body on TV, so often on display in the pursuit of “love,” and just as transactional. It is, as per Richard Dyer, an unruly delight, that pleasurable thing that, as Dana Heller observes about Dyer’s formulation, “behaves badly.”2 It provides an eruption of unexpected queerness into the hetero space of the romance reality genre and demands that the audience rethink its relationship to how gender and sexuality circulate as themes throughout it.
We now see what Adam will do for love, and it’s one of the realest things UnREAL does all season.
Jump to remarks:
THE BACHELOR STRIPPED BARE
In the Bravo network’s drama Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, Abby, a successful self-help author and mother of two, in marital trouble, meets Delia, a hip family law attorney. Delia pitches her potential client with the declaration that “marriage as we know it is dead.” Her explanation: “In the span of human history, how long has a woman been allowed to have more power than a man? It’s a sliver … We may say we want a man who will wash the dishes and change the diapers but god, we do not want to screw him. And he’s not too thrilled with us, either.”
Susan B. Anthony predicted this state of affairs in 1877. In a speech that October, she made the following prophesy:
Even when man’s intellectual convictions shall be sincerely and fully on the side of Freedom and equality to woman, the force of long-existing customs and laws will impel him to exert authority over her, which will be distasteful to the self-sustained, self-respectful woman. The habit of the ages cannot at once be changed … the logic of events points, inevitably, to an epoch of single women.3
According to Anthony’s reasoning, today’s single women, rising rapidly in number, are collateral damage of women’s liberation. Their romantic struggles are not, as we are often led to believe, solely the result of bad luck, bad choices, or personal flaws. Their patterns of failed serial relationships won’t be remedied by therapy alone. This is because the damage is not just personal, but political, the product of many centuries of structural causation in the form of pre-defined gender roles too long assumed to be utterly natural.
Marriage is dead, long live marriage. When an institution is in decline, pockets of fanatical devotion to it tend to crop up. Take ABC’s The Bachelor and its nation of followers. A modern-day Cult of Venus, Bachelor Nation is dedicated to an old god: a fairy-tale version of romantic marriage. Its members profess their faith even when confronted with statistical proof that their idol is in twilight. The pantheon is exclusive; cynics and nonbelievers are ostracized. Votive offerings include roses and cheap white wine. This nation of followers behaves like a cult, with all the features that Freud described in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego: the “intensification of affect” and inclination to “emotional extremes,” belief that won’t tolerate “doubt and uncertainty,” the use of a private language displaying the “magical power of words” (#slutsgetcut, #teamlauren, etc.). There is a tendency to indulge “cruel, brutal and destructive instincts” toward those who act out, violate the rules, or admit unbelief, along with a suspended “sense of responsibility” for viciousness.
Like the groups Freud spoke of, Bachelor Nation “demands illusions … They constantly give what is unreal precedence over what is real … the reality of things falls into the background in comparison with the strength of wishful impulses.” It offers a textbook case of what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism,” an attachment to ideologically suspect fantasies that hinder one’s flourishing, but that stubbornly persist even when one understands, deep down, that they are unreal.4
Admittedly, this is a caricature: some fans of The Bachelor seem to have a critical take on the show’s gender politics and fairy-tale version of heterosexual marriage, though often with a smidge of denial. UnREAL brings this potent combination of skepticism and belief to the next level, combining dystopian black humor with the addictiveness of an aftercast. What makes UnREAL’s satire so astringent is that its two central female characters—Quinn, the ambitious show-runner, and Rachel, the bright up-and-coming producer—are victims of the same cruel optimism as their viewers and the contestants they “produce” into prime-time hysterics. High-achieving and jaded, they nevertheless double down on romantic gambles based on wildly wishful thinking.
Episode 3, “Mother,” provides insight into Rachel’s reasons for so doing. Her mother, a psychology professor, informs her that one of her students has written a paper about Everlasting critiquing “bully TV […] and the effects of viewing women as chattel.” She soon proceeds to attribute Rachel’s professional success to a mental disorder (“The manipulation, the attunement—that is the disease!”), and to manipulate Rachel like chattel, demanding that she move back home for psychoanalysis under her supervision. This scene anticipates Rachel’s hookup with suitor Adam. However preposterous and ill considered, their affair seems like a logical outcome of a shared reality: both have been restrictively “produced” by their parents, and retaliate by becoming producers themselves, even when that self-making involves a degree of self-sabotage.
Episode 4, “Wife,” provides a similar glimpse into Quinn’s situation. Her illicit lover and co-show-runner Chet attempts to put her in her place, saying, “You can’t do this, I made you.” Chet is a womanizing louche who has apparently done no real work on the show; Quinn is ultra-competent. Even in an allegedly post-feminist era, such women are assumed to have gotten where they are by accident. Luce Irigaray observed that, for a very long time, women were exchanged between men like commodities; men were the sole producers and exchangers.5 UnREAL refreshingly tells it like it is: centuries of this division of labor have sadly not been undone in a decade or three. The habit of the ages takes time to change.
I watched UnREAL on Hulu, and noted that the advertisements offered an unintentional meta-commentary on the predicament of modern femininity. They included a prescription drug for Binge Eating Disorder alongside a commercial for Jiffy candies, an ad for Aveeno natural baby products next to one for contraceptive IUDs, and a PSA-style ad by Toyota advocating technologies for the disabled next to an ad for Celebrity Cruises. The rules of admittance to the cult of correct femininity are impossible to follow: you must discipline yourself, yet your consumer duty is to indulge; you must be a perfect mother, but not until you’re in a Cinderella-perfect marriage; you must be charitable and self-effacing, but also do whatever it takes, because you’re not here to make friends, you’re here to win. UnREAL is a show for those of us who say no to these edicts, yet understand why they still get under the skin.
Jump to remarks:
- Conversation with Tongson, March 29, 2016. ↩
- Dana Heller, Hairspray (John Wiley & Sons, 2011), p. 4. ↩
- Susan B. Anthony, “Homes of Single Women,” in Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Susan B. Anthony: Correspondence, Writings, Speeches, edited by Ellen Carol Dubois (Shocken Books, 1981), pp. 146–151. I learned of this speech in a Fresh Air interview with Rebecca Traister, author of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (Simon & Schuster, 2016). ↩
- Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011). ↩
- Luce Irigaray, The Sex Which Is Not One (Cornell University Press, 1985). ↩