Here at Clarissa Explains Fuck All we’ve long championed the unhallowed virtues of the often shamed, nefarious realm of trash TV. These shows aren’t perfect. Hell, most of them aren’t even good, but they are definitely watchable – even enjoyable – in ways that actual well written, great shows sometimes aren’t.
For better or worse, there is a definite element of horror to be found in reality television which is difficult to avert your attention from. Reality TV shows distort truths, define people via a manipulated version of their own identity and bend everything that is ‘real’ into whatever shape befits it’s cynical, money making narrative. Reality TV is a monster which thinks it can pass for human but in no way does any show deemed ‘reality’ pass for ‘real’, and this bizarre hyper-reality is fascinating.
Within a reality TV show humans are quickly turned into props, competitors or puppets with the horror of reality television signalling a culture where we are failing to empathise with actual humans. We instead require a team of directors and producers to rework a pack of people into archetypes that an audience understands and relates to, making actual lives as disposable as fictional ones which can be written out and remoulded with trajectories completely altered within the space of a few episodes.
For feminists this can make for a toxic viewing experience – especially if you should find yourself enjoying it. Ethically, shows like The Bachelor, America’s Next Top Model, Real Housewives and Keeping Up With The Kardashians have no qualms about pushing their cast or contestants into destructive territory to serve as entertainment, they also love to reinforce gender stereotypes and present men and women not as they are but as ‘types’: the bitch, the slut, the prude or when it comes to men, as the alpha, the wimp or the player.
UnReal is a feminist TV show which presents a very real and imperfect representation of modern feminism struggling within the mechanics of capitalism. Can a feminist consolidate her ethics and beliefs and still be successful within a system which demands she actively oppose her values in order to achieve? UnReal repeatedly poses this question through its main character Rachel Goldberg (played formidably by an on-form Shiri Appleby). Struggling with debt and with a prolific talent for determining a person’s weak spot and harnessing it for control, she finds herself stuck within an industry where brute manipulation is key to success.
We’re first introduced to Rachel wearing a worn t-shirt bearing the slogan ‘This is what a feminist looks like’. She’s in the back of a limousine hurling instructions at a bevvy of beguiling, beautiful women unsure of what they’ve let themselves in for. As the camera pans back we’re left with a powerful shot which informs the tone of the show beautifully, framing an agonised Rachel trying to make herself comfortable amidst a sea of disembodied legs which become mere props for her misery. The slogan of her t-shirt making a limp, final battle cry like a flag on a sinking ship.
Throughout the course of the show Rachel is the ultimate anti-hero, consolidating her thirst for self-destruction alongside being critical of a system she is also willingly – and often happily – complicit in supporting. Rachel (the daughter of a psychiatrist) has a talent for figuring people out, even if she can’t figure herself out most of the time, and as such knows which triggers need to be pulled in order to shoot women off into emotional crescendos and states of personal urgency.
Whilst it’s clear, at least to begin with, that Rachel’s agenda is driven by an essential, urgent need for money and a desire to make amends with some of the people she’s hurt previously, as the show progresses we see her striving to become the woman she so dearly wants to be (fighting for human rights, a dependable girlfriend, a good person) against the woman she really is (an ambitious manipulator who takes delight in destroying herself and manipulating others).
UnReal provides a scathing portrait of a patriarchal, capitalist culture which only provides two options: You can either be a part of it and step on others for your own success, status and achievements or you can be the one that gets stepped on. It showcases the myriad of ways in which women are labelled, abused, turned into commodities, judged and pitted against each other. The women of Everlasting are constantly forced to compete for the distinction of being deserving of respect, money, justice, basic human rights (and, of course, marriage – the big prize!), much as women are often forced to in everyday culture.
In fact every episode of UnReal seems intent in taking on one patriarchal beast at a time, using the unscrupulous production team of Everlasting to represent society as a whole, instigating dangerous situations against women which they immediately want to take no responsibility for. Be it leaving a woman in a situation which turns sexually violent (episode 3), undermining the severity of a woman’s mental illness to the point where she is pushed to suicide (episode 6), threatening to publicly out a lesbian regardless of the ramifications it would bring from the religious, unaccepting community she lives in (episode 5) or the repeated sexual exploitation of women by the hands of showrunner Chet (Craig Bierko).
In all of these scenarios consequences are always vivid on the periphery but ignored for the potential of a victorious pay off, with destruction of others for the success, gratification and advancement of a small few. It can even be seen in the creation of Everlasting itself, with head producer Quinn King (the outstanding Constance Zimmer) being willing for so long to accept the man she is having an affair with (Chet) to take credit for the show she made. As UnReal progresses, Quinn becomes more empowered and battles for agency over her own creation, demanding she gets taken seriously in an industry run by men who will only tolerate her ideas when translated by her lover.
In many ways Everlasting shows reality TV shows like The Bachelor for what they really are: a piece of horror programming which has more in common with slasher movies than it does with ‘real life’. From the gratuitous shots of bouncing breasts, bare legs and party scenes of beautiful women drinking into vulnerability, to the voyeurism of victimisation which audiences lap up. Like a slasher movie, the weak are picked off one by one until only the final girl can remain – ‘sluts get cut’ and good girls survive – with people reduced to little more than meat puppets.
Still, UnReal identifies these issues and seeks to draw strength from them. When single mother Mary Newhouse takes her own life (as a result of the exploits of the show), the producers use it as an opportunity to expose her violent ex-husband for his domestic abuse charges so he can’t gain custody of their daughter. When Anna Martin’s father dies leaving her in sole custody of her little brother, Rachel encourages her to come back on the show and play the system so that she can win the prize money to take care of him. And when everything is over and the season finale of Everlasting collapses in a shambles, Rachel and Quinn are left with the ruin of their show and also their own personal lives at the expense of it, but they’re also left with each other.
As toxic as they are, Quinn and Rachel are the true love story of Everlasting, requiring each other for their own survival.
‘I love you. You know that, right?’ Rachel tells Quinn, who responds coldly, ‘I love you, too…weirdo’. Reinforcing and celebrating the importance, and sometimes complexities, of female friendships.
At the heart of UnReal is the idea of drawing strength from ruin. On Everlasting this strength is gained from toying with people’s actual lives and strategically ruining them for ratings. On UnReal, though, this ruin is used for positivity. Whenever Rachel fucks up (which she does, a lot) she strives to learn from it and become a better person, whether she’s capable of it or not. Quinn, on the other hand, uses her pain as armour: whenever she is done badly to, she only becomes stronger. When she realises that Chet is sexually exploiting his staff whilst also sleeping with her (and that she may have also been sexually exploited by him when they first met), she uses it as an opportunity to manipulate him for the advancement of her career in the same way that he manipulated her for his own sexual gratification. In identifying that something is holding back contestant Mary Newhouse from being more involved in ‘the game’ of the show, she also delivers a staggering pep talk which could easily serve as Quinn’s own personal mantra: “Did someone hurt you Mary?…Then nail them to the cross and burn it down”.
It’s a feminism which acknowledges challenges alongside it’s own ideologies within an unbeatable capitalist system. As feminist’s we have to co-exist with people who seek to undermine our beliefs so they can continue benefiting from the system we actively oppose. We can either be destroyed by it or we can destroy it. As UnReal points out, this is the actual ‘reality’ we should all be paying more attention to
Amy Roberts (a.k.a Alabama Roxanne) is a writer, blogger and multidisciplinary artist based in Liverpool, UK. She’s published internationally, in print and online, and recently had a guest editorship at Queen of the Track zine. Her poetry explores the mythologies of the Final Girl, which is the basis of her collection-in-progress. She was featured on a panel of David Lynch experts at a Northern Film & Media event in early 2015, and is the bassist for crust-punk band Aüralskit. Her blog ‘I Never Knew You Were Such A Monster‘, fiction and non-fiction about the horrors of everyday life, was shortlisted in the Blog North Awards two years running. She’s interested in illustration, photography, go-go dancing and Timothy Olyphant. She is vehemently, batshit insanely, Team Catalano.