thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

The Dark Catharsis of Lifetime’s “Unreal”

In Uncategorized on August 5, 2015 at 11:07 am

Get it.

[spoilers everywhere!]

Sarah Todd

In Unreal’s season finale, everyone screws each other over. Friends betray friends. Someone gets left at the altar. Someone else plots to get his ex institutionalized. A woman and her cheating fiancé are bent on mutually assured destruction. One character gets double-dumped. The message to viewers is clear: Love is a joke. Trust no one.

That’s dark stuff. Yet I came away from the episode of Lifetime’s freshman drama, which takes place behind the scenes of a Bachelor-esque reality series, feeling somehow … cleansed.

Critics including Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson and Slate’s Willa Paskin have argued that Unreal features television’s first fully realized anti-heroines. This is true. But what’s even more remarkable is the show’s vision of a specifically feminine nihilism. Whereas anti-hero shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad are replete with guns, drug kingpins, strippers and other signifiers of a violent crisis of white masculinity, Unreal imagines the feminine crisis as residing in the breakdown of human connection.

Even in the twenty-first century, many women are taught to believe that only the bonds of heterosexual marriage can save them from turning into lonely, embittered social rejects. Meanwhile, a lot of women have also internalized the hostilities of living in a patriarchal culture and walk around all day worrying that deep down inside, they’re really horrible people. Unreal shows how pop-culture products like The Bachelor prey on these insecurities while turning women into their worst versions of themselves. It asks viewers to look straight into a black-hearted abyss–all with no small amount of affection for its warped women, and tongue planted firmly in cheek.

The series is primarily focused on the puppet-masters of the reality show Everlasting: executive producer Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and her charismatic protégé, Rachel (Shiri Appleby). There’s little the pair won’t do in the service of a juicy story, from manipulating a contestant whose father has just died to inviting the abusive ex-husband of another romantic hopeful on set. In the series’ pilot episode, Rachel starts out comforting a freshly eliminated contestant. Within a few short minutes, she’s managed to imply the woman is a fundamentally unlovable slut (Rachel’s word, not mine). That’s all for the sake of getting the kind of tear-streaked confessional that guarantees good ratings.

Neither Quinn nor Rachel is without humanity. Rachel tends to resist her more despicable duties before knuckling under, and dreams out loud of chucking it all to “write novels” and “save African AIDS babies,” or at the very least getting the hell out of reality TV. The problem is that she’s so good at using other people. Like an emotional serial killer, she knows exactly how to make them bleed. Quinn, who relishes her own toughness, is less remorseful about the show’s cruelties. But we see enough vulnerability in her romance with the reality show’s louche creator Chet to know she’s got a heart beating in there somewhere.

Yet together, Quinn and Rachel have built a toxic environment that perpetuates the Prince Charming myth for an audience of women while sweeping rape, death, mental illness, eating disorders and other realities under the rug. In such a setting, it’s no wonder every character on Unreal is fundamentally alone.

The show’s contestants, pitted against one another and vying for honor of marrying a vacuous British Ken doll, can’t befriend the competition. They’re sealed off from their friends and families back home. When the aforementioned contestant’s father dies, she’s barely permitted to attend the funeral. Some of the girls confide in the producers at first, particularly Rachel. But by the series’ end, they’ve learned to keep mum, knowing the producers will only use their most vulnerable moments against them. What does bikini model Grace mean when she tells her competitors she’s seen a lot of death in her lifetime? Her face stays impassive. She keeps her monsters to herself.

Of course, the entire conceit of Everlasting is that women should just be concentrating on forming connections with their future husbands. But while many of the contestants have bought into the mirage of a fairy-tale ending, nobody winds up a winner.

Anna, the elegant “porcelain doll” contestant who’s chosen as Adam’s bride-to-be, ditches him after overhearing him confess that the marriage is a sham. Immediately afterward, ascending the castle stairs while still in her wedding dress, she delivers a monologue that’s almost triumphant. Addressing the cameras, she says she’s always dreamed of her big wedding day—“but not at any cost.” She calls out Adam as a “cheating slut” and an idiot: “definitely not the man for me.”

There’s a rightful swagger in Anna’s step as she gives Adam the kiss-off. Meanwhile, the bachelor winds up humiliated on live television, his dreams of a spin-off series that would help him promote his vineyard abruptly snatched away.

At least the contestants’ isolation may be temporary. Not so for Rachel, who starts the finale with two men vying for her affections and ends with both bridges burned. Quinn, too, has returned her engagement ring (“the devil-rock,” as she calls it) to her erstwhile fiancé.

The women bond over how foolish they were to succumb to the romantic ideology they peddle to the masses. “I fell for it because Adam said that I won,” Rachel declares while rocking the ultimate abandoned-woman look of runny mascara and bird’s-nest hair. Quinn mocks herself for earmarking stacks of wedding magazines while Chet snuck around with a 19-year-old, envisioning herself “as the pretty pretty princess.”

Rachel and Quinn finally admit they love each other as they survey the wreckage of Everlasting’s latest season, and it’s probably even true. But theirs is a messed-up kind of love, where betrayal and blackmail are par for the course. They can count on each other, but mostly what they can count on is propelling one another toward further corrosion of the soul.

It’s Unreal’s insistence on this harsh, twisted interpretation of reality that makes it such a refreshing antidote to the sugar-coated tales fed to women on a daily basis. As author Lidia Yuknavitch said on a recent podcast episode of “Lit Up,” we need new stories about women, ones that avoid defining women solely in the terms of their identities as wives, mothers, and daughters. I would add that these new tales needn’t all be ones we’d aspire to emulate. We need scary stories too. Unreal gives us a host of broken and blistering women who are nonetheless fully human—and who embody the dark places that reside within everyone.

Quinn and Rachel hurt other people as well as themselves, and they’re unlikely to change anytime soon. Such vicious isolation ought to be a hard pill to swallow. Unreal makes us eager to open up.

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