[Editor’s Note: Caroline originally published this piece on Medium. It’s being republished here with her permission & blessings.]
In one of the most iconic moments in reality television history, Tyra Banks completely lost her shit at a contestant on America’s Next Top Model who Tyra felt had wasted the opportunity— her face is contorted with rage, her hair whips around as she gestures emphatically — “I was rooting for you! We were all rooting for you! How dare you?!”
This is the scene that played in my mind after watching the last two episodes of Lifetime’s Unreal — how fucking dare you?
Unreal is a scripted drama that tells the story of the production of a reality show called Everlasting, inspired by The Bachelor, created by a former Bachelor producer; the narrative centers around Everlasting’s producers, revealing the twisted underbelly of reality television. I work in production and can see exaggerated reflections of my own experiences on the show, which is part of the reason I’ve enjoyed the show so much — until last week. Though at times last season I felt troubled by the narrative — such as when a contestant’s bipolar medication was replaced with placebos without her knowledge and then her violent ex-husband was brought in for a confrontation (ambush) all leading to her suicide — I felt as if the show was painting those actions in a severe enough light that it served a purpose, emphasizing that mental illness and abuse should be taken seriously and giving representation to viewers who suffer from it.
I don’t believe that anymore. The only purpose for Unreal’s disturbing storylines is high ratings. This show doesn’t care about us.
In last week’s episode of Unreal, police brutality and the shooting of an innocent black man are used as narrative fodder for a story about white guilt. In this week’s episode, that shooting and the massive social justice issue of police brutality are mentioned only in passing to generate drama and rating for Everlasting and sympathy for Rachel, who blames herself for the shooting (as she absolutely damn well should because it was her fault).
After seeing last week’s episode, I planned on seeing if/how they continued to focus on white guilt instead of the horror of police brutality and racism in this country. Now I honestly don’t even know where to begin unpacking how deeply fucked up this show has become.
This week’s episode ran with the focus on guilt and Rachel as the victim with the reveal that Rachel was raped as a 12 year old by one of her mother’s psychiatric patients. So now we have a show that’s, all in one episode, making use of mental illness, the systematic murder of black people in this country by police, and child rape only to add fake-depth to a story focused on the power struggles of producers on a reality television show…
BE QUIET, UNREAL, BE QUIET.
WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?
The fact that Rachel and her boyfriend/boss/newest betrayer Coleman called the police on the black Suitor and his cousin in an attempt to generate drama for the show is disgusting. The fact that we don’t follow Romeo to the hospital after he’s shot to focus on his pain, his life; that they don’t make any mention of how he’s doing in the following episode except that to say he’ll “be fine”, as if nothing happened; that all of it is completely centered around Rachel and portraying her as a mentally unstable, broken, guilty little white woman — it’s disgusting. Police brutality is incorporated into the show solely as a narrative device to drive Rachel’s breakdown and Coleman’s coup and the shooting is discussed only in so far as how it will affect Rachel andEverlasting, not at all dealing with Romeo or Darius’s trauma, let alone unpacking the injustice and racism that pervade our society. Race has been an issue the whole second season, with Rachel’s white saviorism becoming more and more salient as she talks about how progressive it is to have a black suitor, while baiting and manipulating him and the black women on the show. I thought there was a chance for redemption, but the last two episodes have gone too far. Unreal has become a cesspool of exploitation.
Creators, writers, producers, directors of Unreal — how dare you?
How dare you incorporate racist police violence into your show and make it all about the white girl who set it into action instead of the actual victim of the shooting? I’m not black so I can’t speak personally to how seeing this storyline would affect black viewers, but I am furious for them. This is a great example of why we need more people of color in writing rooms, on set, behind the camera and behind the executive desks.
I am furious for every survivor of sexual assault who watched last night’s episode. Rachel finally confronts her mother, a psychiatrist, about the fact that she was raped at age 12 by one of her mother’s patients and her mother protected her practice by insisting Rachel tell no one and “treating” her daughter herself. Rachel asks her mother if she just wants her to pretend the rape never happened, and her mother says yes, and vocalizes one of the most insidious, evil things a person could say to a survivor:
“No one will love you if they find out. They’ll run away, you know that. No one wants to deal with that kind of damage. No one.”
My blood went cold when I heard this line; bile rose in the back of my throat and heat stung my eyes. This is one of my greatest fears, one of great fears of many, maybe all, victims of sexual assault. That because of what happened to us, no one will ever love us. Unreal, you really just said that. It doesn’t matter that Rachel’s mother is consistently painted as a bad mother and bad person, because the last scene of the episode shows Coleman leaving Rachel alone in bed, unambiguously proving her mother right. Poor broken, unlovable Rachel is going to get fucked over once again.
Once again, because earlier in this season Rachel was assaulted by her ex-boyfriend Jeremy and left lying on the floor of a trailer with bruises on her face. At first, I was intrigued and excited about the show using their platform to highlight abuse again, hopeful because it seemed they were heading to a point of out of how common Domestic Violence is and how rarely justice is served for victims. Instead, the show used Rachel’s beating to fuel drama between Quinn and Coleman as they fought over how to take care of her, never focusing on what Rachel wanted, what Rachel really felt.
In all of the discussion of Rachel’s various traumas across the show, she is never given any real agency or empathy. She’s a perpetual victim, manipulated by the people around her who care about her only when they benefit from it — and she’s also portrayed as manipulative, bringing bad things upon herself. Rachel is good at her job and men find her attractive and those seem to be her only “good” qualities and they’re laden with shame and negativity — Rachel is smart, but so troubled; Rachel is a badass, but she can’t take care of herself or make good decisions or do anything for herself without someone else weighing in or taking over because she’s too fragile to be trusted, or even asked. The audience is encouraged to feel sympathy for her when the show focuses on her guilty breakdown after the shooting only to highlight how unstable she is, and when Rachel reveals she was raped as a kid, instead of exploring her trauma and how she’s processing these confrontations, the show focuses on Coleman’s reaction and the drama that he’s stirring up by throwing her to the wolves.
In every instance that this show has pretended to be progressive, it has manipulated and exploited a serious social issue — domestic violence, suicide, mental illness, racism, police brutality, rape — to create a dramatic narrative without ever fleshing out the issue itself. There is no story in here that serves a higher purpose, no narrative that highlights a social issue and forces commentary or discussion outside of their own sick plot twists.
Creators of Unreal, when you go to bed at night, you lay there and you take responsibility for yourselves — you had the opportunity to make something truly great, and instead you are exploiting and profiting from harmful, abhorrent portrayals of violence, suffering and victimhood. This show may be Unreal, but for your viewers who have experience with mental illness, suicide, racism, police brutality, domestic violence, or rape, it’s very real indeed.
Equally well versed in the intricacies of The Lord of the Rings and The Black Album, Caroline is a Virginia-bred writer/filmmaker living in Brooklyn. She is strongly opinionated about French fry variations, Ciara, underrated animals (lemurs, goats), and gender issues. Her personal essays can be found on her website and Femsplain; her shorter and more belligerent musings can be found on Twitter @CPConrad