bookgazing: (Default)
[personal profile] bookgazing posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
Quinn King and Rachel Goldberg lying on striped sun loungers

The first series of Lifetime's 2015 show, UnREAL is set in the brutal, claustrophobic world of Everlasting; a reality TV show styled on dating programs like The Bachelor. UnREAL's world exists on three planes: the backstage world of the crew; the on-camera world of staged Everlasting moments, and the "behind the scenes" (perpetually filmed) world of the Everlasting cast. On-camera and behind the scenes, a group of women compete for the attentions of Adam Cromwell; the wealthy, currently disgraced, heir to a the fortune of a British hotel magnate. Back-stage. the largely female crew vie to push these women, or "their girls" as they call them with a faint whiff of pimps, into creating drama that will send the show's ratings through the roof. Despite the private mansion, the helicopter rides, and the champagne laced dining experiences, the world of Everlasting is just as hard and savage as any dystopia you've seen on the big screen in the last few years.

The world of Everlasting is both full of women, and controlled by women. The show's mansion is a temporary holding pen for a host of female contestants. Quinn King is the show's Executive Producer and uber-competent ring-mistress. Rachel Goldberg is her 'closer' and top producer. She is often a reluctant participant in the Everlasting circus, but is still extremely driven and good at the terrible work she does. Both are strong-willed women who work hard to control their circumstances and are not afraid of a little (or a lot) of skilled manipulation. Together they push the female contestants, and the suitor, of Everlasting into compromising and painful situations which they know will make good TV.

UnREAL follows a large cast of characters across multiple setting, but for me the show's primary focus is the two dominant women who dominate the production team - Rachel and Quinn. Their tense relationship, and their ability to get people to do exactly what they want, is the heart of the show. Without Rachel and Quinn, the drama of Everlasting and the behind the scenes action would look entirely different. By concentrating on two women who finagle and scheme, UnREAL could have easily have propped up the idea that women have a natural tendency towards manipulation and conflict. And by setting these two women up in a complicated and conflict-heavy relationship, UnREAL could have told another familiar story - the one where the women can never be friends. Thankfully, UnREAL is careful to undercut these ideas. And yet, while giving a hard pass to these easy, sexist story options, UnREAL does not shy away from giving its viewers two wonderfully monstrous women, who must at the end of the day take responsibility for their own actions.

With men occupying two of the top career positions in the world of Everlasting, UnREAL could have been an examination of the ways the patriarchy pressures women to punch down on other women. Chet Wilton, an epic stoner with a keen eye for business and plenty of contacts in the right places, initially owns all the rights to Everlasting. Brad, the network boss, controls the show's renewal. With this dynamic in place, it would be easy to say that Everlasting is controlled by women but run by men. It would also be simplistic and completely untrue.

UnREAL presents a much murkier world where women machinate against women for their own independent reasons. In the show's first series, one of Quinn's biggest storylines revolves around her desire for more professional advancement. She aims to hold onto her show, get credit for her role in originating the idea of Everlasting and push her career even further. She is partially successful; gaining control of Everlasting even as she loses the opportunity to set up her own slate of shows. In Future, the final episode of Series One, Quinn gives a masterclass in showrunning after Chet miserably fails to manage a live episode. Despite the top-dog role of men in the world of Everlasting, Quinn is generally very clearly in control. In much the same way, Rachel is rarely forced to maneuver the women in the house in order to satisfy her male bosses. If anyone influences Rachel then it's largely Quinn rather than Chet; the most important figure in Rachel's life is her alluring, faintly demonic, supportive female mentor. Yes, there is no denying that while men are at the top of the food chain in the world of Everlasting, it's a woman who runs this cracked fantasy world.

UnREAL choses to focus on a reality program where female producers play out their career dramas on the lives of the female contestants the control. On Everlasting, the women are encouraged to get down and dirty compete for one man. Both of these plot choices could also have tipped the program into reinforcing the sexist idea that women just can't help but scheme against each other to get what they want. The sections of the show that follow the contestants on Everlasting contain plenty of catfights and rifts between the women on the show. So, how does UnREAL avoid becoming a show that pushes the (wrong, wrong) idea that it is "natural" for women to scheme against each other in order to get ahead?

UnREAL rarely has its characters launch into full on feminist monologues. At first glance, it can look a little light on explicit feminist analysis of a world where women maneuver women into desperate and misogynistic positions. Instead, it relies on small chunks of dialogue, and the wider context of what happens to the women in the house, to point out that shows like Everlasting are not healthy for women; corporate promotion alone does not create an feminist TV culture. In the pilot episode Return, Rachel arrives wearing a t-shirt that says 'This is what a feminist looks like.' The irony of trying to be a feminist while also being a showrunner on Everlasting quickly becomes clear as Rachel is required to go against her principles on a daily basis in order to satisfy her bosses. The shirt is a small detail, and it might look inconsequential in a show where women go after each other again and again, but really Rachel's initial costume sets out the program's dedication to feminism.

Image of Rachel wearing her grey 'This is what a feminist looks like' t-shirt

It is precisely UnREAL's choice to set its story in a world full of manufactured and corporate misogyny, and to put that misogyny on full display, that neatly wraps UnREAL's story in a feminist critique. By exposing the backstage machinations of the crew and the way the footage is cut, UnREAL breaks down the fantasy that we all know these kind of shows operate on. One of the biggest underpinnings of these shows is the socially accepted idea that women just naturally hate each other. In UnREAL, the conflict between the women in the house clearly comes from the machinations of Chet, Quinn, and Rachel, with a little help from the other producers Shia and Jay. There is little "natural" animosity between the women (which is obviously a huge problem for the showrunners). UnREAL makes it clear that nothing about Everlasting is natural. The footage is presented to tell a certain story. The girls are craftily manipulated or bribed into fighting with each other. Often, characters just downright lie to get the catfights that are required.

And sure, viewers all know that reality TV is manufactured - that women don't just naturally get the urge to scratch each other's eyes out once you introduce an element of competition. Still, seeing UnREAL openly acknowledge that these programs manipulate their footage in order to present broken, sexist sentiments allows the viewer to really understand what they're seeing when they watch a "reality" show.

UnREAL's decision to reveal the wizards behind the curtain reminds me of reading something Clinton Kelly once said about clothes and celebrities:

…everything you will ever see on a celebrity’s body, including their outfits when they’re out and about and they just get caught by a paparazzo, has been tailored, and the same goes for everything on What Not To Wear. Jeans, blazers, dresses – everything right down to plain t-shirts and camisoles…Nothing on the show or in People magazine is off the rack and unaltered.

Women are not naive. We all know celebrity life is enhanced by every helping hand money can buy. However, because the extent of the tool and tricks celebrities use to survive are hidden, we end up buying into the idea that clothes don't fit because, as this blog post says, we think we are the ones with the problem. If our street clothes don't flatter the way an actress's do we must be the ones who are "wrong":

I sat there after I was told this story, and I really thought about how hard I have worked not to care about the number or the letter on the tag of my clothes, how hard I have tried to just love my body the way it is, and where I’ve succeeded and failed. I thought about all the times I’ve stood in a fitting room and stared up at the lights and bit my lip so hard it bled, just to keep myself from crying about how nothing fits the way it’s supposed to. No one told me that it wasn’t supposed to. I guess I just didn’t know. I was too busy thinking that I was the one that didn’t fit.

For me, UnREAL is a mini-masterclass in how fiction can use framing to critique reality. It is fascinating to see a program use its whole setup as a way to build a revelation inside a story; particularly when that story at first seems to prop up the assertions of the TV properties UnREAL is taking apart.

UnREAL still allows for areas of genuine conflict between women even as it pushes back against a gendered narrative about women's "natural" propensity to pull each other down. Women do fight with other women in UnREAL. And women do hurt other women. This happens in real life: women are people - people fight. But stories about conflict between women have traditionally struggled to break free from heavily gendered tropes. In stories, women hurt each other because they want the same man, or the same job. They spit at each other from across barbed wire. They are exact opposites or, depending on the age difference between them, dying to be exactly the same as their nemesis. They are in competition. They are isolated from each other. Sometimes these women are supposedly friends but they're so far apart they may as well be watching each other from behind glass.

As Sarah McCarry says in on the way home from grief desert:

(I am also not especially interested in work that suggests friendships between women must be inherently competitive and freighted with poisonous subtext, or that they be mediated via possessive and frequently desperate exchanges of [male, power-wielding, agency-holding] lovers and partners; there are more than enough shitty dudes to go around.)

Yes - this is exhausting. Which is why UnREAL's different approach to conflict between women made me want to dedicate a couple of thousand words to it.

Take Quinn and Rachel; their working relationship is certainly uneasy. The two are variously each other's support systems, allies, drinking buddies and mirrors of each other. Quinn is the closest thing Rachel has to a mentor. Yet, Quinn is also an incredibly demanding boss; an arch manipulator who wields the corporate power to push Rachel into manipulating in turn. Quinn doesn't want to destroy Rachel but she will break her if it will keep her close. The final scene between them at the end of Series One is laced with Rachel's menacing awareness of Quinn's betrayal. Their relationship is angry, dangerous, divided and yet dear to both of them.

It is traditional (code for boring) for conflict-fueled relationships between women to be based on the idea that women are engaged in a constant emotional cage-match with each other. There's one man, or one goal that is infinitely desirable to two women, and they must battle to the scrappy death for their prize. Another version of this narrative is the 'single white female' story where one (usually younger) woman styles herself on another (usually older) woman until she has entirely taken over her life.

These tired, tired storytelling patterns are based on the lazy idea that women are:

a.) All the same
b.) Incapable of taking part in healthy forms of competition
c.) Unable to form meaningful relationships with other women which transcend the desire for anything else (eg. menz)

Crucially, UnREAL creates a different kind of clash between its two main female characters. The conflict that informs Rachel and Quinn relationship is never about competition. Quinn and Rachel are never interested in the same man. Rachel certainly sees Quinn's role as an Executive Producer as a career goal, and she works for her own shot on her own show, but she doesn't work to take Quinn's job from her. Quinn is never concerned that Rachel will try to "steal" her man or her job.

Also, although Quinn says Rachel and she are 'the same' there is never any danger of Rachel subsuming Quinn or trying to insert herself into Quinn's exact place. Just looking at their costuming and romantic choices the viewer can see that there are crucial differences between the two women. Quinn loves the messy, corrupt, yet tender Chet. Rachel loves clean-cut hometown boy Jeremy, and later the sharp, messed-up-but-clean-shaven Adam. Quinn's wardrobe contains a fashion-spin on the standard corporate wardrobe. Rachel's costuming is full of practical, slouchy pieces. Rachel both wants to be successful in TV like Quinn, and to be supported by her. Yet, she is also wary of becoming her. She pulls stunts Quinn would never approve of, and asks her boss to consider projects Quinn can no longer see any value in.

So here are two close women, who are nevertheless often at odds, whose conflicted relationship has nothing to do with the standard, sexist story we're constantly told about 'why women just can't get along.' UnREAL switches up the story about women in conflict by allowing these women to be knife sharp with each other, and be friends. It removes the need for them to be engaged in direct competition.

Occasionally, UnREAL introduces other women who lay claim to Rachel and Quinn's, fair squires. Chet's wife, Cynthia, shows up and reveals that she knows all about Quinn's longstanding affair with her husband. Oh, and just by the way, she's pregnant. Jeremy is engaged to a makeup artist named Lizzie. UnREAL still resists the urge to create typical, antagonistic relationship between these women as they fight over a man. Quinn doesn't spend her entire time scheming against Cynthia. Rachel never uses her manipulative super-powers against Lizzie. The only real acts of vengeance are projected onto men themselves; Quinn plays Chet for everything he's worth and Rachel takes Adam to the cleaners on live television.

By tweaking the standard narrative, UnREAL sets its two main female characters free to be human beings. Really, really terrible human beings. Seriously, they're the worst.

A quick aside about Quinn, Rachel and their messed up relationship. Quinn is both a mirror and a relief of Rachel's mother, Olive Goldberg. Olive is only present in two episodes of UnREAL's first series but she is easily one of its most terrifying characters. She is a psychiatrist who has been treating her own family, and directing their consultations with other medical practitioners, for years. In Mother, her husband sits through dinner in a stupor. Rachel reveals she suspects this is because Olive has her husband on a course of medication, and this turns out to be true. Olive then attempts to cajole Rachel into believing she is sick, returning home and starting treatment with her again. A psychiatrist treating their own family is, by the way, highly unethical; a problem which Olive openly dismisses. The viewer learns that Rachel's "diagnosis" has constantly changed over the years. Olive claims it has been difficult to pin down exactly what is wrong with Rachel.

Rachel, happily, runs for the hills.

Much like Olive, Quinn is a deeply manipulative, career-minded brunette who wants to keep Rachel with her. Unlike Olive, she maneuvers and injures Rachel for self-interest, profit and a desire for a twisted sister soul-mate. Quinn wants to set Rachel free to be "her true self". She's kind of the female version of Hannibal (y'know, without the serial killing). Olive wants to "save" Rachel from herself and the world of Everlasting. These two women take on opposing roles often allotted to male love interests - the devil and the saviour. And, as so often happens when TV asks me to pick a boy to root for in these kind of situations, I ended up backing the devil. Ideally, I wanted Rachel to be free to create the feminist shows she wishes could exist. If that isn't possible, I was all set to back the lady who would let Rachel's little sociopath soul run wild, rather than chain it up and force it to regard the yellow wallpaper.

gif of Quinn King smoking and saying 'There's nothing wrong with you. You're a genius

Bringing Olive into the show also allows UnREAL to introduce the idea that Rachel has a history of instability which goes deeper than her one, pre-series breakdown. It is meant to make the viewer constantly question whether Rachel's expertise at manipulation is a symptom of a mental illness which needs to be handled by an expert. Olive's conversation with her daughter is designed to leave the viewer questioning Olive; setting up the tension for the finale where a worried Jeremy goes to ask her for help because Rachel is "sick again". I found that my encounter with Olive left me distinctly uninterested in whether Rachel's manipulation is a talent or a sign of sociopathy. I am fully committed to the idea that Olive is a creepy manipulator who would actively harm her daughter and call it help. This - the battle for Rachel that takes place at a remove - it turns out, is the only direct female competition I am interested in when it comes to UnREAL.

It seems hard-hearted to focus on my fascination with Rachel and Quinn when these same women dehumanise the "girls" in the house; both with snide comments in production and by displaying them in a degrading way to the viewers of Everlasting. There are real moments of tenderness allowed in the show where Rachel and Quinn realise they've gone too far and are concerned about the women in the house. Truth, where Rachel finds out that Faith is a lesbian, is one of my favourite episodes. Rachel first supports Faith's wish to come out to Adam, then supports her wish to come out to her town. When it becomes clear that the town, and Faith, aren't ready then Rachel does everything in her power to control the footage the show releases (and is successful). In Mother, Rachel returns to the show to find the mansion gone wild under Shia's watch. Rachel is genuinely concerned about the way the girls have been handled, especially as she finds Maya locked in a room with Adam's jerk friend Roger. She arrives too late to prevent Maya from being assaulted. Still, the viewer is led to understand that Rachel would never have put Maya in this situation if she had been in control.

However, Rachel and Quinn do stand as a symbol of white, female corporate abuse. They are often more concerned with their own dramas and careers than the lives of the women they are essentially holding in a champagne-fueled hostage situation. Also, in the world of UnREAL, there are romantic and career opportunities to go around for the women on the production team. This only underlines what an artificial scarcity they create in order to push the female contestant of Everlasting to compete for Adam. And Rachel and Quinn are probably a reminder viewers need. Right now, we're seeing industries like publishing overwhelmingly run by white women and yet this female, corporate power has not translated into more opportunities for chromatic women. We should really pay attention to the way that women in the same positions as Quinn and Rachel can influence the world around them.

Double image of Rachel and Quinn lying on sun loungers. Rachel says 'We killed somebody, didn't we?' Quinn replies 'Yeah. Let's not do that again.'

Loving Quinn and Rachel's drive, energy, and ruthless competence doesn't keep viewers from critiquing the way they treat the women of the house. And, I don't think UnREAL allows the slightly glamorous ruthlessness of these female characters to get in the way of an examination into how Rachel and Quinn contribute to a sexist TV world. The shows does however, want you to find these women interesting. Just as it wants you to find all the women in UnREAL interesting. Viewers can compartmentalise. Come on, one of the most popular TV characters of 2015 was a cannibal with a passion for sharp suits.

As I head off to start Series 2 of UnREAL I find myself excited to see where the program will go now. Now that it's pulled down the screens and exposed the lie of the "natural" rivalry between women. Now that it's debuted a bare-knuckled, contemporary show all about women. Now that it's refused to give into the idea that the only interesting fight a woman can be in must be over a man. Now that it's given us hard women and got us to love, hate and question them all at the same time. Where will it go next?

Find out, on our next episode of Everlasting...

Date: 2016-07-09 01:39 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I'm nervous for the second season of UnReal! I heard everything wonderful about the first season, although I'm saving it to watch with my sister and brother-in-law so I've only seen the first two or three episodes thus far, and now I'm nervous that the second season won't be able to live up to the first. I just hope they can stick the landing on having a black Bachelor (?suitor?) and make it interesting and weird and dark.


Lady Business welcome badge

Pitch Us!
Review Policy
Comment Policy
Writers We Like!
Contact Us

tumblr icon twitter icon syndication icon

image asking viewer to support Lady Business on Patreon

Who We Are

Ira is an illustrator and gamer who decided that disagreeing with everyone would be a good way to spend their time on the internet. more? » twitter icon tumblr icon AO3 icon

By day Jodie is currently living the dream as a bookseller for a major British chain of book shops. She has no desire to go back to working in the real world. more? » tumblr icon icon

KJ KJ is an underemployed librarian, lifelong reader, and more recently an avid gamer. more? » twitter icon tumblr icon AO3 icon

Renay writes for Lady Business and co-hosts Fangirl Happy Hour, a pop culture media show that includes a lot yelling about the love lives of fictional characters. Enjoys puns. more? » twitter icon pinboard icon tumblr icon

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently over-flowing. more? » twitter icon pinboard icon AO3 icon


Book Review Index
Film Review Index
Television Review Index
Game Review Index
Non-Review Index
We Want It!
Fanwork Recs
all content by tags

Our Projects

hugo award recs

Criticism & Debate

Indeed, we do have a comment policy.

What's with your subtitle?

It's a riff off an extremely obscure meme only Tom Hardy and Myspace fans will appreciate.

hugo award winner
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios