UnREAL 2×01 “War”: Who Wins the Battle of Oppressions?

What with Hillary Clinton’s perceived “white feminism,” the public reaction to the Bill Cosby rape allegations, and even the Black Lives Matter movement to a certain extent, the intersection between different oppressions is at the forefront of social justice, and not always in a positive way. Hillary Clinton’s election to the White House would be an unqualified win for white, privileged women in the US, while people of color and non-Americans might disproportionately suffer from her more illiberal views on economics, foreign policy, and national security. Similarly, those who called Bill Cosby’s victims attention-seekers were being misogynistic, but many of them were partially reacting to a long and painful history of black men being falsely accused of violating white women. And while Cosby 100% deserved to be publicly shamed and ostracized for raping dozens of women, did he deserve it more than Roman Polanski, or even Woody Allen, both of whom still have relatively thriving careers?

A year ago, I wouldn’t have believed that a Lifetime show would be one of the boldest and most nuanced explorations of these complex (and emotionally fraught) political issues in popular culture right now–but it is. UnREAL has always been a feminist show, which has become all the more explicit in its second season, but now, with the addition of the first black suitor, it’s also tackling racial inequality. And even better, it’s showing us the ways in which feminism and anti-racism interact, and often appear to be incompatible with each other.

So in keeping with UnREAL’s delightfully irreverent tone, I’m going to do something a little perverse with these reviews, and directly compare the depictions of each oppression. Which leg of social activism came out on top this week? Feminism or anti-racism? Because while in a perfect world, activism should just mean justice and equality for everyone, we don’t really live in that world (yet), and for better and for worse, neither does UnREAL.

**Disclaimer: Just to be absolutely clear, I am NOT saying that feminism and anti-racism are actually opposed to each other. I’m a firm believer that, when the principles are applied correctly, the two movements are not only compatible with each other, but enhance each other. The notion of one movement “winning” over the other is entirely tongue-in-cheek, and is meant to demonstrate a) that the incorrect application of feminist and anti-racist principles lead to conflict and exclusion, and b) that UnREAL is both critical of and complicit with this phenomenon.

Feminism

So… we’re all getting “Money Dick Power” tattoos after watching this episode, right?? Season one already established Quinn and Rachel as the first proper female antiheroes on television [Oh come on! Don’t knock Alicia Florrick and Selina Meyer, those delightfully flawed and powerful ladies -kht]: as charismatic and entitled as Don Draper, as terrifying as Walter White, almost as sociopathic as Dexter, and as unlikable as they are fascinating. They brag about their seven-figure salaries, they use men’s bodies for sex as they please, and they snort cocaine, the “rich man’s drug,” while a song with the lyrics “All I do is flex I don’t need a reason / All I want is sex, I don’t need a reason” plays in the background.

And why shouldn’t they revel in their power? As of this episode, they have all of it. After years of incompetent men taking all the credit, Quinn is the executive producer, while Chet has been shunted to the side. Helmut Lang-wearing Rachel is the showrunner, and can finally mitigate the cognitive dissonance of being a card-carrying feminist while thriving on her job at Everlasting–which basically consists of slut-shaming, promoting harmful gender stereotypes through magic editing, and making psychologically vulnerable women cry–by pushing for the first black suitor. “It was me! The first black suitor! We’re gonna make history!” she screams as Darius’ manager fucks her from behind.

The men surrounding Quinn and Rachel are desperately trying to reclaim their power, without much success. [Or the power that male privilege always made them assume they had, as in Jeremy’s case. -kht] Chet returns from a paleolithic retreat (which is brilliantly intercut with Quinn and Rachel’s cocaine-fueled hedonism in the unusually cinematic opening) a new man, or more specifically, a cartoon cut-out MRA. He mumbles the mantra under his breath: “we are men, we are architects, we are the inheritors of the kingdom,” and tries to wrest control back from Quinn while saying things like, “women have got to nurture, be adored. A Man has to Do Things.” Quinn, of course, tells him to go to hell, and he’s so pathetically impressionable that even when he eventually causes problems for the show, he doesn’t ever feel like much of a threat.

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Jeremy, on the other hand, has undergone a transformation that is much less caricatural, and therefore much more unsettling. Last season, he seemed like a genuine “nice guy” at first, but the foundation was definitely laid for him to be revealed as a misogynist Nice Guy, especially when he felt the need to publicly humiliate Rachel in the season finale. Now, that entitled externalization of emotions has been taken to its logical end, and in the premiere, he systematically degrades Rachel in an attempt to control her. He calls Rachel’s mother to talk about her “hypersexual manic episode,” he encourages Rachel to self-harm, and he openly tells her that a “hotter version” of her is at the top of his “kill list.” Rachel wasn’t perfect in their non-relationship by any means, and a little bit of anger would be understandable, but his aggressive need to punish her is both sinister and gendered.

By turning Chet and Jeremy into manifestations of the Mens Rights Movement and casual misogyny, respectively, Quinn and Rachel have an explicitly feminist battle to fight. Quinn responds to talk of Chet taking back his kingdom with: “And I’m the queen of the fairies, so get the hell out of my fairy fort.” Rachel punishes Jeremy for being a “sexist manbaby” by firing his cameraman (and her triumphant face when he calls her a “bitch” is to die for). The men can blow all the smoke they want, but in the end, they’re way out of their depth. Rachel is Jeremy’s boss, and knows how to expose others’ weaknesses like nobody’s business. Meanwhile Quinn is the baddest bitch in town (ignore the sexism of the word “bitch,” and focus on the alliteration and sentiment).

On this show, women make all of the meaningful decisions, and they always come out on top in the end. In fact, if there’s an “oppressor” in this season, it’s definitely Quinn. The relationship between Quinn and Rachel has become central to the show, and it’s often toxic to the point of abuse. Quinn has masterfully manipulated Rachel, who is starved for maternal affection, into believing that her emotional abuse is an expression of love. As Jay tells Rachel, she’s “like one of those wives whose husband beats them up and gives them a diamond ring and promises never to do it again.” UnREAL is feminist in a way that almost no other show has attempted, by virtue of the fact that Quinn and Rachel have become entitled antiheroes to the point that they are partaking in toxic masculinity.

Racism

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Last season touched on racial issues (my favorite line of the pilot was Quinn calling Obama “barely black”), but this season has taken it to a whole new level. The contestants include a “hot white supremacist,” an “even hotter black activist,” a “black pageant girl,” a Muslim woman labeled the token “terrorist” who “might have distant links to Osama bin Laden,” and, of course, the first-ever black suitor, a feat which has never been achieved by Everlasting’s real-life counterpart, The Bachelor. Not exactly shocking, but still appalling for this day and age.

Rachel hails this decision as progressive and potentially world-changing, and she’s not entirely wrong, even as the show points out that the network’s justifications for including a black suitor are egregiously racist. Quinn convinces the white executives that people will tune in to see a black man “making deep, dark, nasty love” to the white contestants, and that “the minute he lays black hands on a white ass, Twitter will melt down.” And just as Obama was palatable to many of his voters because he’s “barely black,” Darius becomes the suitor because he’s not black, he’s “football black.”

UnREAL has always been keenly aware that women’s bodies are used as objects, but in this season we see that our culture traffics in black male bodies as well. Darius, a football player, makes his living on his physicality, and Quinn’s tasteless but realistic assessment of the viewers recognizes that black men are sexualized and valued for their perceived aggression and “virility” in a way that white men aren’t.

UnREAL’s exploration of race is to be commended, and it’s often bitingly nuanced. But the writers might have overplayed their hand with Darius’ speech to Rachel about racial double standards:

“She raised me to always know the rules were going to be different for me. Couldn’t walk down the street with my hoodie on… Kept my nose pretty clean. No drugs, no drama, no baby mamas.”

This speech makes excellent points about respectability politics, which is all the more important and relevant in the current climate, but I couldn’t help but think that the language was too explicit, bordering on preachy. UnREAL understands feminism well enough to avoid getting on a soapbox; they don’t need the characters to explain why slut-shaming is bad, or why Jeremy’s comments about “Hot Rachel” are sexist and degrading. They seem to have a fairly good handle on racial issues as well, but may not be quite as comfortable with them.

In the end, it’s all about context. If the self-proclaimed “black activist” had made this speech, it would have made sense, but giving it to Darius felt too heavy-handed. Similarly, it makes sense for Rachel to refer to Darius as a “monster” on the field, because she’s a white woman who would inevitably have some ingrained racism, but when Darius refers to himself as a “caged lion who’s barely keeping a lid on it half the time,” it suddenly seems inappropriate to make repeated comparisons between black men and animals. Is it enough that Rachel says she shares his feelings, so it’s not just black men who have innate aggression? [Interestingly, it’s some sort of weird feminist cliche to talk about yourself like you’re a caged animal, as if animals actually have more strength than a regular woman — see “I am woman, hear me roar” -kht] Are we supposed to think that Darius has internalized racism as well? That would most likely be true in real life, but I’m not 100% confident that UnREAL navigates these thorny issues as well as it does white feminism.

Intersectionality

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This episode was not shy about the fact that these two modes of oppression often intersect with each other in ways that complicate the fight against each one. Rachel literally sacrifices Ruby’s education on the altar of her own agenda, just as white feminists have–intentionally and unintentionally–shunted women of color to the side since the movement began. And when Darius tells a female reporter “Bitch, please,” he’s probably being a little sexist, but the level of outrage against him is mostly due to racism. “Bitch, please” may not be a “term of endearment,” as Quinn insists, but he is certainly not being aggressively misogynistic. And when Brad watches the footage and says Darius “looks like he’s going to hit her,” it’s downright laughable.

But the best–and most subtle–illustration of the show’s intersectionality is that beautifully cinematic opening. Rachel is, in fact, being progressive by choosing a black suitor, but she’s so pleased with herself that it smacks of a self-interested “white savior” complex. She’s so self-centered, in fact, that she can’t even recognize the irony that while she’s patting herself on the back for championing racial equality, she’s reinforcing the sexualization of black bodies by treating Romeo like a “walking dildo.”

Quinn and Rachel’s sense of privilege makes them groundbreaking characters from a feminist perspective, both because we need female characters to be as flawed and complicated as male characters, and because it means we’ve reached a point where it’s possible for a woman to be as entitled as a white man. But the fact that they’re both wealthy white women means that their advancement is partially borne out of their racial and economic privilege, and the show doesn’t shy away from that ugly fact.

WHO WON THE WEEK?

In-universe, the (white) women win, hands-down. Quinn and Rachel call all the shots, they have all the agency, and even when they’re disempowered or their authority challenged, we almost pity the fools who get in their way. Feminism: 1, anti-racism: 0.

The battle between the depiction of the respective oppressions is a closer call. On the one hand, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, the sympathy is with anti-racism. If last season demonstrated how much feminism is still needed in relation to privileged white men, this season demonstrates that in certain contexts, white women can be more privileged than men of color. But, on the other hand, the most developed characters on the show are unquestionably white women, while the people of color (with the possible exception of Jay) are little more than ciphers at this point. We’ll have to wait and see whether the depiction of racism will be as nuanced as the feminism, or whether the show will primarily throw itself Confederate Flag bikini-esque softballs. Feminism: 2, anti-racism: 1.

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