Cannibalistic Feminism in UnREAL
Money. Dick. Power.
In Laura Mulvey’s essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” she talks about the dominant male gaze in mainstream movies and how male characters are active agents while female characters are passive sex objects to be looked upon and enjoyed, controlled, possessed, impregnated, then killed due to their bleeding, castrated symbolic irrelevance. This femme-phobic gaze has been a strong undercurrent in TV and Film for ages because it’s familiar, addictive and hard to quit like a pesky Ritalin habit left over from childhood.
However, the last 30 years have inspired many-a-male gaze rebellion in film. Some of my favorite female heroines have slyly manipulated and controlled the male gaze by using their bodies as a weapon against it.
For instance, Sharon Stone as “Catherine Tramell” in Basic Instinct during the interrogation scene: the money shot of her day. You may recall the stony blonde Catherine Tramell seated and smirking in a slutty, angelic white dress with her tanned shaved legs flashing side vagina while the befuddled, fully clothed officers crumbled nearby, looking on. Her sexual power acted as both weapon and shield to protect her from harm.
Another female protagonist who burned the male gaze by being downright terrifying was Glen Close as the lethal stalker “Alexandra Forrest” in Fatal Attraction (boiled bunnies!) then later, as “The Marquis Isabelle de Merteuil” in Dangerous Liasans, a high society temptress driven by ruinous schemes designed to wreck other women and ultimately ruining herself in the process. Both sadistic femme characters, while still maintaining the position of sex object aggressively pursued their own agendas and used the male gaze to their advantage. It should be noted that every single one of the films mentioned above were written and directed by men.
What happens when a feminist female lens replaces the male gaze?
What happens is UnREAL.
Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s meta-reality TV show, UnREAL flips the script entirely. Shapiro’s strong feminist voice and interest in racial conflict and non-heteronormative tropes is loud and clear on and off script: in scenes and through her characters, her feminist agenda is working overtime, reducing the male gaze to a fine spray.
According to D.T. Max in this New Yorker article, Shapiro pushed to employ female directors, and with Lifetime’s support, she accomplished that in Season 2.
There is something terribly sexy and familiar in the way UnREAL’s protagonist, producer, Quinn (played by the excellent Constance Zimmer) and her show runner/minion, Rachel Goldberg (the mesmerizing Shiry Appleby) eat each other alive while grasping at power in their workplace: the set of “Everlasting” a fake version of “The Bachelor.”
UnREAL’s creator and writer, Shapiro’s vision is not only relentlessly witty and dark, her smartly twisted plots of manipulation and betrayal are as striking as the women who focus each scene: complex, messy, unstable, power hungry, astute and absolutely real.
And while a favorite trope for a strong female protagonist is an ambitious power bitch out to destroy herself while damaging others, UnREAL accomplishes much, much more. UnREAL beats against the smoke and mirrors of the arranged dating shows that demonstrate boldly what we really think about women in this culture: we exist for the pleasure of men in every way and have no other ambition outside of landing a Mr. Big. The ways women treat one another while vying for the attention of the bachelor in “Everlasting” reveals one of the epic tragedies of our time: manipulative vicious female characters shit on each other in order to get ahead because sexism has been internalized, digested and co-opted. Our hands and teeth are bloody from the feast, but in the end, we all feel like crap.
Season 1 delivered sheer entertainment gold because it dwelled in the same nasty narcissistic terrain akin to any vapid “Housewives” show attracting many unsuspecting lady Lifetime viewers, but Rachel spun a web so intricate and frightening that by the end of Season 1, her poison only gained momentum and while she seemed to implode, she never lost composure — only grew and grew. Rachel is no everyday arachnid trapping snacks, just a product of a fucked up, sexist culture that never took women seriously enough so she and Quinn blew who they had to until they made it to the top and joined forces. And that’s what scares the hell out of the entertainment industry, isn’t it?
Money. Dick. Power.
If season 1 made sadistic feminism great again, Season 2 provides double penetration female gaze as Rachel and Quinn view all of the footage of their staged intimacy that is to be televised for “Everlasting” with the goal of obtaining “Suicide ratings”, which refers to the episode where a potential contestant leapt to her death after being coerced into discontinuing her psyche meds.
The very things that make UnREAL hilarious and crazy also make it brightly sad. For instance, that female ambition is considered vicious is internalized sexism at its most typical. However, each episode mirrors a larger global issue at play.
Shapiro nods to Black Lives Matter by placing an African-American football player/supermodel as the trophy husband: an open critique to the all-white male bachelors of seasons past in “The Bachelor.” Gay wedding bells shirk the heteronormative story arc when adorable, wide-eyed “Faith” (played by warm, gorgeous Breeda Wool) discovers her virginity is actually indicative of being in love with her “really close friend.” And speaking of lesbian love, the hyper sexual tension between Quinn and Rachel is palpable as a slash and burn hate fuck, more BDSM emotional rope play than any boss/employee/mentor/friend relationship I’ve ever seen on TV.
These are the beats that make UnREAL shriek feminism. They nail the culture in which female alliances are spawned — an unsafe place where women feel the need to claw at each other to survive in a man’s world.
By showing the stark, modern work environment for what it is: a cesspool of baffling dysfunction, UnREAL faces facts — women fear one another and as a result, behave terribly towards one another and one thing better and more real than women behaving badly is women behaving badly in front of millions of viewers.
Ultimately what is more real and desirable is showing savage, ambitious women rising from the ashes of a sexist society and becoming whole, instead of acting like dudes.
By investing in characters like Rachel — who seeks the teeth that matches her wounds: the mother who controls and sedates her, the men who fuck and use her, the system that exploits her, and the boss who wants to eat her alive while wearing Rachel’s underwear — maybe we as feminists will finally see how destructive, demeaning, and terrible that scenario actually is. And maybe we will finally change it. We will have UnREAL and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro to thank though if we do.
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Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833–44.