Unreal is a fabulous show on Lifetime about the messy complexities of embodying feminist beliefs. It takes place on a reality dating show called Everlasting that isn’t The Bachelor (for legal reasons it can’t be called that), but in reality, we all know it is, because even the actor who plays the host sounds just like The Bachelor’s Chris Harrison. The show’s co-creator, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, was also a field producer on The Bachelor, so I think we can safely assume that experience may have inspired this particular series in some ways.
On Unreal, our protagonist is Rachel, a young producer who has a degree in Women’s Studies from Vassar. In the first episode, Rachel even sports a “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt. There is no doubt that feminism is an important part of this woman’s identity. So, where does the conflict come in? Well, Rachel identifies as a feminist, but she chose a job that doesn’t always let her act like one.
As a reality TV producer, Rachel needs to get the money shots of girls cat fighting with each other or damning the entire production team to hell. If Rachel doesn’t do this, she literally doesn’t get paid.
Of course, Rachel is conflicted. She knows she’s manipulating other women to conform to sexist stereotypes of “TV bitches” that will be good for ratings but bad for them, and bad for all women everywhere, frankly. However, thanks to an ill-timed breakdown that involved stealing a Ferrari from the set the previous season, Rachel has serious money problems. Her feminist values and her desire to help other women literally conflict with her ability to keep her own life on track.
Of course, I’m not here to make excuses for Rachel. While it is convenient for her to keep her profitable job to pay off her debts in a timely fashion, it’s not her only choice. She could do something else and spend longer paying off the debt, or she could agree to take money from the rich parents who annoy her, but are willing to help her get back on her feet financially.
Rachel is a privileged white feminist who has choices, but she prioritizes her convenience and her pride over other women’s interests. She does so even though as someone with an entire degree devoted to feminism, she of all people knows the damage she is doing.
In the end, Rachel is a feminist anti-hero. She is a subject privileged enough to have had a wonderful feminist education, and she has a conscience that tells her what she should do at every turn. And yet, unless it can be molded to her interests to do so, Rachel usually resists what her conscience tells her in order to portray the show’s contestants as villainous monsters in the hopes of securing a $5,000 cash bonus.
Rachel knows that by portraying the show’s contestants as rage-filled and hysterical women, she is perpetuating some of the most damaging and sexist stereotypes that circulate about women in the media. She knows she is twisting people’s words, exploiting their eating disorders, the deaths of their parents, etc. She knows she is betraying her feminist values, and yet she doesn’t stop. Why? Because, when push comes to shove, Rachel the feminist prioritizes herself over the feminist movement.
In the end, Unreal is something of a cautionary tale of how easy it can be to sell out one’s feminist values. There’s a lot we can learn from watching and analyzing the conflict between Rachel’s feminist identity and her desire to make money. I for one give into the temptation to prioritize my own needs over others’ every time I waste money on things I don’t need, or any time I ignore sexist and racist comments just because I don’t feel like ruining my day by dealing with the ignorant person who made them. I 100% identify as a feminist, but sadly, I do not perform feminist actions 100% of the time. Unreal is a show that simply demonstrates a heightened version of the feminist ethical dilemmas many of us deal with every day.
In the end, Unreal is a show we desperately need. It illustrates how even we as feminists can easily become complicit in holding back the aims of feminism. It promotes self-reflexivity and accountability by illustrating the damage that can be done when we forget how important these concepts are. In short, this show is a must-watch.