The characters on UnREAL might not be amazing feminists themselves, but the show makes a feminist statement by allowing them not to be.
I can’t stomach reality TV shows. I can’t even watch The Bachelor ironically (or unironically) to hate-tweet my viewing. Yet I raced through the first eight episodes of Lifetime’s new scripted drama about the behind-the-scenes of a Bachelor-inspired reality dating show in two days, unable to stop myself.
It’s no secret that here on Hypable, we are UnREAL fans. We have written previously about the highly meta aspect of UnREAL as a scripted show about Everlasting, (and stay with me here) an unscripted show that appears to offer more insight into a real reality show (The Bachelor) that the show itself does. It’s the realest unreal show on television.
But while I do find this element of UnREAL fascinating, it isn’t the cause of my addiction. Rather, I find I am unable to look away from the two captivating female leads, portrayed uncompromisingly by Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer.
The central dilemma faced by our protagonist Rachel (Appleby) is framed neatly for the audience in the first episode by the t-shirt she wears which bears the label, ‘This is what a feminist looks like.’ Throughout UnREAL season 1 we see Rachel, a producer on Everlasting, attempt to reconcile her apparent feminist values with her undeniable talent for manipulation. She complains about the objectification of women while literally treating the female contestants around her as props in her imagined storylines. She is charming, funny, broken, and detestable. She might look like a feminist, but she certainly doesn’t act like one. And yet we are still supposed to root for her — and we do.
The creators of UnREAL are not arguing that their characters are feminists; indeed, despite Rachel’s protestations, her actions would indicate that regardless of her ethical beliefs she is far from a supporter of gender equality. And yet there is a resolute feminism to the show itself. UnREAL shows that women are people too, and that they can be as complex, and abhorrent, and captivating as the male antiheroes who exist in abundance on our screens.
You only have to look to Mad Men’s Don Draper, Breaking Bad’s Walter White, or House of Cards’ Frank Underwood (or Dexter, or Tony Soprano, or Dr. Gregory House) to see the type of typical male antihero who populates our screens. We don’t ask that male characters be likeable in the same way we demand of female characters. Women are expected to be Strong Female Characters, who are also relatable, and embody the beauty standards prescribed by the society. (Of course it’s worth noting that both Appleby and Zimmer do embody these standards, but hey, we’ll take what we can get.)
Quinn (Zimmer) is in a way a more easily forgivable character that Rachel because she is at least upfront about who and what she is. She seems to have reconciled the internal dilemma with which Rachel struggles, having decided to be proud of her ability to do her job well. As with Rachel, Quinn represents an uncomfortable sort of feminism; as the audience, we are forced to confront our own enjoyment in seeing her begin to break through the glass ceiling in a male-dominated world, with the tactics she has employed to get herself there, and her treatment of other women. “It is not my fault that America’s racist, people,” she snaps when she refuses to let a black woman be the first contestant the male suitor sees. This isn’t a character we’re supposed to agree with.
In many ways, the key relationship in UnREAL is between Rachel and Quinn. This helps the show to both blaze past the Bechdel test, and to differentiate it from the majority of scripted television series. It’s also a nice touch to find the central relationship on a show about finding “everlasting” romantic love to be a platonic one between two women.
I also appreciate that UnREAL doesn’t force us to cast judgement on Rachel or Quinn for their choices — or at least, no more than we are asked to judge Chet (Craig Bierko), or Adam (Freddie Stroma), or any of the male characters. The creators of the show don’t appear to be setting Rachel and Quinn up to fail simply because they can’t achieve some unattainable ethical balance in their lives (although they could fail for a multitude of other reasons). After all, not all of us face the disparity to the degree Rachel does, but most of us will be forced at some point to compromise some of our beliefs in order to earn a paycheck.
UnREAL criticizes the structure of the reality television industry, rather than the participants themselves. This is important, as the women entering Everlasting could have easily have been dismissed as the ignorant counterparts to Rachel and Quinn’s wisdom. The contestants aren’t laughable for choosing to be on the show, only for believing that they can somehow beat the unbeatable system. In another meta twist, the behind-the-scenes nature of UnREAL actually does more to show the personalities of the many contestants than could ever be managed on a “real” reality show. And it’s worth noting that the male suitor, Adam, is treated as much as a prop as the contestants are by Rachel and Quinn, possibly more so.
Looking ahead to ‘UnREAL’ season 2
Given the overwhelming positive critical and audience response to UnREAL, it’s unsurprising that Lifetime has already renewed the show for a second season.
It’s still unclear exactly what UnREAL season 2 will entail, but speaking recently with Variety, creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro said, “We’re sticking with ‘Everlasting’ as a format and one thing that we’ve talked about a lot is … a really nice grounding point for us in the writer’s room has been that the starting point is always Quinn and Rachel.”
Knowing that Quinn and Rachel will remain the central focus of a second season is reassuring for UnREAL fans. The relationship between these two women is fascinating, especially as going into the season 1 finale there is the option of the pair leaving to start their own production company together.
Season 1 has focused on Quinn as Rachel’s boss and mentor, so to see them on equal ground as partners would shift the dynamic. It would also be gratifying to see two women working together (albeit probably combatively), rather than being pitted against each other, as is often the case when two strong women exist on the same show.
Of course, this is UnREAL, so something will almost certainly happen in the season 1 finale to derail all of those plans. Either way, it looks like our girls will be back for season 2 and for now, we can’t ask for much more.