With the first six episodes having aired, and a second season just confirmed, let’s check back with UnREAL, the break out show of the summer, which Swells first reviewed after its premiere. (Can I call it that? The break out show? Yeah. I’m going to call it that. I mean, Vulture went so far as to call it “one of the most interesting dramas in recent memory”!)
I cannot get enough of this show! I am eagerly awaiting it each week and don’t even wish I could binge it all at once! These days, that’s some serious praise! I find the different story lines worthwhile and the characters interesting. It almost makes me overlook the annoying-as-hell capitalization of the title! Well… almost.
It takes the familiar and ridiculous aspects of reality television, but wraps it in fiction and ties it up with an attractive and over-the-top bow.
There’s always a lot of talk about women in entertainment, and we do our fair share here, and it is tempting to talk about what makes a show, or a movie, etc., different in some way from the majority of popular media. In the past decade, the cultural (or internet?) zeitgeist has been littered with representations of, and subsequent discussions about, the “strong female lead.” Conversely, in recent years, there’s also been a vocal push back against this, as Swells recently discussed in a post here. Likewise, pop culture criticisms of late have not been satisfied discussing the simple-yet-direct Bechdel test or praising a movie for “passing” it… …and, instead, commentators are trying to move beyond the thirty-year-old comic strip workhouse.
Along this line, instead of the strong female leads, we have shows highlighting flawed female leads, like UnREAL.
I remember one conversation I had with someone about the character of Carrie Mathison from Homeland and, as will inevitably happen when discussing that show, the issue of her being crazy came up in the conversation. It’s tough, here, because there are obviously a whole other set of issues when discussing portrayals of mental illness in entertainment, but, the issue we were discussing had more to do with whether or not it was “good” for women in some sense to have a Carrie Mathison character leading this popular show. Is she a well-rounded and interesting (and, dare we say it, strong) character? Like, if her crying face has its own SNL skit, is this still a worthwhile fictional representation of a woman, or is it mostly contributing to negative stereotypes about women?
I, and others, argued that what was so great about her, was that she was so deeply disturbed and flawed and self-centered and, yet, she was also absolutely critical to the show—both because her character was a boss lady who did important and totally realistic spy work (?) and because she was the lead character around which the show orbits.
She’s not the intelligent but needy girlfriend character, even if those aspects are part of her character; she’s not the manipulative seducer character, even if those, too, are part of her character. As the lead character who, from the start, is presented as occasionally wrong, unlikable, untrustworthy, etc., she is given the chance to be a more well-rounded character.
Shit. I just realized I got waaaay off track.
This was supposed to be a post about UnReal? Hmm. Obviously Carrie Mathison can never be mentioned briefly nor succinctly. I shoulda saved it for its own post.
… I’m re-tracing my thought process and I think I arrived here (wherever here is) via the following route:
UnReal –> fucked up women –> discussions about portrayals of women; so hot right now –> bechdel –> when was that made? –> holy shit the 1980s –> geez we love discussions about portrayals of women –> 2010s internet zeitgeist –> fuck –> this year alone –> the 15 seconds of outrage about the Black Widow –> or the supposedly feminist Mad Max –> brew-ha-ha –> what does that mean –> pick a little talk a little pick a little talk a little –> The Music Man –> Iowa –> librarian –> female archetypes –> strong women –> crazy women –> Carrie Mathison …
Back to UnREAL.
I’m pretty sure part of that train(wreck)-of-thought happened because
of drugs I recently read a great piece by Willa Paskin over at Slate about how UnReal is, “the first antihero show that is created by women, stars women, and at times brutally satirizes women.” That idea about the female antihero is a really appropriate and incisive observation and I think something many of us appreciate.
Moreover, here, instead of one female antihero (a la Carrie Mathison on Homeland), we have a whole slew of them! That’s really important; one is never enough. And, though one could argue that watching female-oriented reality series like the Real Housewives already provide numerous antiheroes for our viewing pleasure, I think it’s so much better in this scripted package. Rachel and Quinn, in particular, are great because they are complicated and they have this tense relationship. Are they friends? Coworkers? Sometimes I get a sort of mentor vibe from Quinn toward Rachel; Quinn is supportive of Rachel in certain ways—applauding her results, normalizing her past mistakes, etc.But, Quinn frequently pushes Rachel to do things that Rachel ostensibly doesn’t want to do. While Rachel manipulates the contestants, Quinn manipulates Rachel. Another reason UnREAL is so great, and which Paskin and others have discussed, is that the show is surprisingly dark, despite its soapy nature. I mean, they’ve aired some ridiculous story lines, and somehow, they still manage to transform their one-dimensional figures into multi-faceted characters and their heroes into antiheroes (or do they turn their antiheroes into heroes? I’m not really sure anymore).
[Spoilers for Episode 6, “Fly,” ahead…]
Even the most recent episode, with its melodramatic narrative arc, managed to retain its humanity, in my opinion.
I mean, the elements of a clichéd Lifetime drama were all present here: 1) dramatization of mental illness + 2) replaced real medicine with fake medicine + 3) abusive ex + 4) new, younger man + 5) allusions to Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction* + 6) increasingly erratic behavior everyone ignores + 7) dramatic confrontation + 8) suicide attempt on the roof in formal wear + 9) unofficial attempt to talk her down by a random person and + 10) death. All that was missing was an adoption (or, a deadly adoption) storyline, and wham, bam, thank you ma’am.
Still, what the show excels at is its ability to maintain some plausibility and vulnerability amid the chaos. In this episode, Rachel, in her typical fashion, convinces herself that she is not simply creating “good drama” for TV, but she is also helping Mary confront her abusive ex. This, Rachel rationalizes, will likewise become a sterling example to female viewers nationwide about the power of blahblahblah. And the mancandy calls her on it, though in a relatively kind and understanding way—further building on their mutual respect and growing relationship, IMO. Perhaps Rachel was still riding a high from watching (and helping?) Faith come out of the closet in the last episode, but she is primarily acting to create drama and win a bet in this episode.
Again, she is encouraged, and pushed, by Quinn.
This is bullshit. You’re not helping. We know it. Rachel knows it. Etc.
What Rachel (or Mary, for that matter) doesn’t know, however, is that Mary is off her meds (due to that horrible lackey’s manipulation… can’t think of her name… but she’s the worst one on the show thus far). This, in conjunction with the producers’ willingness to manipulate their cast to create drama and win petty bets amongst themselves results in catastrophe. As she is wont to do, Rachel seems to recognize that she went too far, but, ultimately, doesn’t do anything to rectify the problem in time.
Even when Mary is at her most extreme and is presented to us as a bit of a caricature, I still felt for her when her ex-husband lays into her one-on-one in the trailer after their more public confrontation. Jesus. He really goes in for the kill, enumerating the basic abusive victim-blaming tropes—telling her how she asked for it, how she is putting her daughter at risk, etc.
It’s obviously not a new justification for abuse, and it’s not like it is particularly elegant or nuanced here, but, I don’t know, seeing this guy tear down this woman with a few trite phrases is horrible to watch. But it feels real. Anyone can break with a few well-placed insults, particularly when they come from someone we love(d). And that helps this over-the-top drama feel real. Yes, the scene occurs after Mary is exhibiting increasingly volatile behaviors, but anyone could fall apart after a set-down like that. And then she has to go out and film a few more scenes in which her sister is saying goodbye and telling her how lucky she is to be on this fantasy show with this prince. Oof. And there’s Mary, seeming to recognize the absurdity of it all—the idea that these female contestants are simply lucky just to be on the show.
For all of the unreal theatrics in this episode, his accusations and her visible unraveling and self-doubt are the real moments. And that’s part of what makes UnReal so good.
Well, that aaaaand the fact that they opened and closed the fifth episode with Rachel masturbating in her trailer bunk, like (gasp!) it’s just a normal part of a woman’s life!
It’s little details like that—presenting female sexuality as normal, healthy, no big deal, and for the woman herself (and thus not inherently performative)—that are real and contribute to a more nuanced portrayal of women in popular culture entertainment.
As Emma Gray at the Huffington Post rightly observed yesterday, it is surprisingly powerful to see women masturbate on television in a normal and routine manner. It’s not a set-up for a joke. It’s not a sign that someone is a sex addict. It’s not even meant to titillate. As UnREAL’s co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro said with regard to this scene, “My total impetus for making stuff is about humanizing women… And I just think [masturbation] is a really normal part of being human.” Preach.