A friend of mine was on the New York City subway late at night, and a man came up to her, got right in her face, and said, “You’re one of those white girls with an ass and titties. They wouldn’t even want to sell you, but I would want to buy you.”
Then, he turned to two young black women sitting nearby, and said, “They would sell you. But I wouldn’t buy you.”
This was an incredibly scary experience for my friend, but I’ll give this guy credit for one thing: it was one of the most succinct explanations for intersectional oppression I’ve ever heard.
And it perfectly explicates the themes of UnREAL, which has taken it upon itself to explore the connections/oppositions between white supremacy and the Men’s Rights Movement, between white feminism and the Black Lives Matter movement. I feel like if a drunk guy from the New York City subway wandered onto the set of Everlasting, this is what he would say to the contestants.
Here’s a brief(ish) explanation of what I’m doing here. For the full explanation, see my review of the premiere:
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.
And since it’s been so long since my last recap (sorry about that, there’s just so much to say about each episode!), here’s a quick summary of what happened in episode 2: Quinn and Chet had a pissing contest over control of Everlasting, which de facto demoted Rachel back to producer. She went behind Quinn’s back to Gary, asking him to send them both home, but instead he hired a white man whiz-kid to fix everything. Meanwhile, Darius met the contestants for the first time, and Rachel tried to stir up trouble by convincing Beth Ann to wear her Confederate flag bikini. Ruby reacted by first ignoring her, then wearing a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt when Darius was apparently tolerating Beth Ann’s racism. Darius hit it off best with “football wife” Tiffany and “black pageant girl” Chantal, but Tiffany hit a roadblock when she decided to rebel against her perceived wifeliness and hook up with Darius’ cousin.
Chet is still a caricature of the Men’s Rights movement, but it bothered me less this week, because UnREAL seems to be very much in on the joke. He complains about “pansy-ass cinderella bullshit” like he’s a walking YouTube comment, and tells Quinn that he doesn’t want to be “at the mercy of [her] twat” (isn’t it crazy they can say these things on Lifetime? It’s like watching HBO). Quinn, for her part, waves it off as a “caveman brain fart.”
And that’s exactly what this is. A “caveman brain fart,” rather than a genuine ideological position. It’s a little easy to dismiss misogyny as ignorant stupidity, rather than a pervasive problem that manifests in much subtler ways, but it seems that for both sexism and racism, UnREAL is portraying both types of offenders: the cartoon cut-outs and the insidious villains, the Trump supporters and the #NeverTrump Republicans who have supported people like Bush, Palin, and Cruz.
As I wrote in the premiere, the subtler, more realistic type of toxic masculinity is portrayed through Quinn and Rachel (and sometimes Jeremy, but not so much this week). Quinn asserts power by emotionally abusing Rachel and trying to control her, working her like Rachel works the contestants. When Rachel is a few minutes late, Quinn asks her if she’s taking out her tampon, which is a question you’d expect more from a crotchety old man than a young female executive. She calls Yael “Hot Rachel,” even though she’s well aware that Real Rachel finds it humiliating. (The men might have come up with that moniker, but Quinn is the one perpetuating it.) Finally, she tells Rachel “maybe [her] mother was right,” in a brilliant moment of casual cruelty, and repeatedly undercuts her authority while criticizing her for failing to take charge.
Rachel, in true corporate America fashion, turns around and lashes out at her underlings, most notably Jay (we’ll get to that later) and Beth-Ann, whom she tells to “have some balls.” Then, she maneuvers to regain her power, and while her visit to Gary seems underhanded, she’s actually making a reasonable request. Quinn and Chet are turning the show into a potential disaster. Rachel is the showrunner who has proven herself professionally capable (if a little personally unstable) time and time again. She’s only trying to claim what’s rightfully hers, but instead, Gary appoints a white man (Kostos!) to swoop in at the last minute and take all the credit. As it goes.
Beth Ann is the Chet equivalent: an easily mocked caricature of white supremacism. She fares a little bit better than Chet, especially when her brand of racism makes an exception for a pro athlete (Rachel’s withering “Racism is so complicated, isn’t it?” is one of my favorite lines in the whole show). But with her protests that she “wasn’t raised to be rude,” her claims that the Confederate flag is fine because it’s “not an advertisement for racism,” and her foot-in-mouth moment when she says to Darius, “I know this flag has a lot of sensitivity for your people,” she comes off as little more than a Southern stereotype.
It gets much more interesting when the episode critiques–even slams–white feminism. Jay snarks that Rachel can “pat her white liberal self on the back later” when she’s pleased with herself for turning Chantal into a “black wifey” (or even more painfully, a “blifey”). And while sadly, in real life, it probably would do a lot of good for America to see POC “looking like Ken and Barbie” on a highly rated show like The Bachelor (and they do look like Ken and Barbie, don’t they?), it’s playing into respectability politics in the worst way. Just as Beth Ann is a fan of Darius because he’s “football black,” Chantal is an acceptable black woman because, unlike Ruby, she doesn’t express her opinions assertively, and so doesn’t evoke the racist “angry black woman” stereotype.
And for all that Rachel pats herself on the back for this “blifey” business, Chantal is never seriously considered as an actual “wifey.” That “privilege” is reserved for Tiffany, the classic blonde football wife. Rachel is well aware that this is inherently racist, but that doesn’t stop her from playing into it.
Slut-shaming is nothing new on this show; as we all know from the unapologetically feminist first season (or from watching the actual Bachelor), “sluts get cut.” But this time, when Tiffany is shamed for hooking up with Romeo, it takes on a racial component as well. The expectation of “purity” is simultaneously illustrative of Tiffany’s oppression and her privilege; the idea that an “honest-to-God wifey” needs to be “demure, supportive, and most importantly–worthy,” where “worthy” refers to sexual repression, is obviously sexist. And women of color are less often held to this standard of purity, but only because they’re automatically assumed to be innately more sexual. The Madonna/whore dichotomy doesn’t help anyone, but white women are more likely to be able to pick their poison.
The fact that Tiffany fits the archetype of the “football wife” leads to its own sort of oppression, which requires her to spend her whole life “smiling,” “keeping [her] mouth shut,” and “providing excellent arm candy.” But at the end of the day, she still gets to conform to society’s ideal. Similarly, her father probably is controlling and misogynist, but at the end of the day, she still gets to go to an Ivy League business school. (As Rachel says, awesomely: “He helped you get into Wharton? Rich girl problems are the worst!”) Tiffany is a walking example of both the necessity and pitfalls of white feminism: the pedestal she’s placed on reduces her to a servile position in many ways, Feminine Mystique-style, but at least she can leverage that disadvantaged position for some power of her own. At least if she had been kidnapped as a child, the entire country would have held candlelight vigils until she was found, while they wouldn’t have blinked an eye about Chantal.
“[Tiffany is] blonde, beautiful, rich, and white. If a girl like that forgives you, America forgives you.”
But the most damning indictment of white feminism comes when Rachel takes Jay to task for “pussying out” (an example of toxic masculinity in itself) on the catfight between Beth Ann and Ruby. Rachel, a white woman, takes it upon herself to criticize Jay, a black man, for “self-loathing,” essentially telling him how to feel about his own oppression. From the context, it’s safe to say that she’s meant to be an asshole in this moment. The show understands that Rachel’s actions are galling, especially since ultimately, she’s criticizing Jay for refusing to reduce Ruby to an “angry black woman” stereotype while she focuses on the “blifey.”
WHO WON THE WEEK?
Chet and Beth Ann canceled each other out this week, so no points awarded for easy targets. Let’s count up the instances of institutional sexism and white liberal racism, respectively, because that’s where things get interesting. On the one hand, it’s a little damning that none of the POC are nearly as well-developed as the white characters; Tiffany is the only contestant so far who has been developed outside of her archetype, and Rachel and Quinn are obviously more rounded and central than Jay. But on the other hand, this episode was so critical of white feminism that it will be a close call.
Quinn asks about Rachel’s woman problems, Rachel tells Beth Ann to get some male genitalia +1
Quinn delights in “Hot Rachel” +1
Rachel tries to ask for a reasonable acknowledgement of her position, instead gets Kostos +1
Tiffany is deemed “unworthy” to be a wifey after giving a blow job +1
Chantal becomes a “blifey” because she looks like a black Barbie +1
Tiffany recalls a lifetime of objectification, becomes the most rounded contestant +2
Beth Ann makes an exception for Darius because “racism is complicated” +1
Rachel pats her white liberal self on the back for creating a “blifey” +1
But of course, the “real” wifey is still Tiffany, because she’s “blonde, beautiful, rich, and white” +1
Ruby wears a Black Lives Matter shirt, but the issue isn’t explored in any detail. No points awarded.
Tiffany’s “poor little rich girl” problems are put into perspective +1
Rachel tells Jay how to experience his own blackness, and the show disapproves +2
As I suspected, it was a close call, but feminism barely edged out racism by one point. While the intersectionality and critique of white feminism was on point this week, UnREAL is going to have a hard time escaping the criticism that the white characters are more developed and complex than the POC. Feminism: 7, Racism: 6.