Sep 11, 2015 19:03

A couple of great write-ups of this great show can be found here and here. A few (lol) thoughts of my own below.

“It is no worse than what happens to them in real life.” When she gives the effective mission statement of the show, Quinn is rationalizing her own callousness, but she’s not wrong. The constructed environment of Everlasting isn’t all that unreal, it’s a distillation of even the subtlest aspects of how gender roles are enforced in the real world. The main characters’ moral complicity in their enforcement of status issues is extremely complicated. All of their prurient appeals to implicit bias exist in a deep-set system. If they weren’t running Everlasting, someone else would be. But they are involved. They are in a position to nudge things in the right direction. But they don’t challenge things. No, it’s not Quinn’s fault that America’s racist. It’s totally Quinn’s fault that she plays into and exploits that racism to her own benefit. This is what the show is about, what it does better than just about anything I’ve ever seen, and it is in and of itself enough reason to watch.

For our bachelor Adam, it’s something more surreal than real.

Adam’s life is micromanaged. His professional future depends on his image, and that image is decided on by a large group of people with a financial stake in his dependence on them. He is always, interminably, under the camera’s gaze. He’s there to be this sexy dream fantasy guy but he isn’t allowed to have actual sex with the people he’s supposedly courting.

Adam is placed in idyllic isolation, deprived of information and kept as incurious as possible, where a woman will be made, just for him, out of his nonessential parts.

Rachel and Quinn play patriarchs. Rachel and Quinn play God.

The power Rachel and Quinn have over their show is a harsh microcosm of how “empowerment” can be glossy and circumscribed. In a lot of ways, Rachel and especially Quinn are themselves Representation™, as ostensibly high-powered female producers. But they’re limited from both above and below. Quinn has to hold the show hostage during the finale in order to have execs treat her with the same respect they unquestioningly show Chett, who only is where he is because he steals Quinn’s ideas and undermines her confidence. And then the nature of the show itself: because it’s about dating and romance and fluff for women, it’s that much harder to get recognition.

Because I think it captures the most nervy part of the show so well, I hope you don't mind, youcallitwinter, if I quote one of your comments here for my own future reference:

I think the most frightening thing in this show shows is the appropriation of the language of liberal feminism to enforce patriarchal constructs. That, tbh, is terrifying, to see issues and language patterns that you use/discuss daily being used to perpetuate the kind of misogyny that the show actively, self-awaredly, explicitly, actually informs the audience about. Like it may have been difficult to realize that what Anna was being asked to do to Grace in the beginning episodes was slutshaming, EXCEPT she explicitly brought it up, which, then becomes difficult to unsee and backtracking, clearly means that, all manipulation aside, what Rachel/the show wanted in the moment was dictionary definition slutshaming.

Frightening, yes, but in a lot of ways, humanizing, and therefore ultimately a plus point for the show. Rachel may be a toxic person, but she is a feminist, albeit a type of feminist a lot of us are unhappily familiar with. I have no doubt that Rachel is on the right side of all impersonal, systemic issues. I am sure she votes for left-leaning politicians, and that she spent her years as a Women’s Studies major clinic escorting and Taking Back The Night, and that she’s sufficiently, if performatively, exasperated about safe issues like the pay gap. But her instincts are deeply, reflexively misogynistic. She profits - literally! - from her professional enforcement of restrictive femininity standards. She uses all the right empowerful buzzwords as she endorses this competitive capitalist performance of hetero-not-too-sexual gender roles, encouraging women to mistake winning against other women for, you know, actually winning anything of substance.

Even Faith being arguably the one person Rachel does right by is kind of cringe-inducing convenient feminism. It’s great that the ~love is love~ argument has helped so much change in gay rights over the past decade. But it is also something that comfortably appeals, that doesn’t challenge this general social order where a critical mass of women are successfully taught to feel totally! empowered! by chasing men - and ultimately, after all, the way Rachel protects Faith is to keep her in the closet, to help her protect that ill-fitting attempt at “horseface tearjerker” heterosexual feminine performance.

So yeah, Rachel’s This Is What a Feminist Looks Like tees serve a purpose, as does the quick glimpse of Brittany’s “this is what a feminist looks like” bumper sticker on her car when she drops off Rachel’s stuff. It’s not a superficial “gotcha” of the characters’ hypocrisy. (Hypocrisy, on balance, is a pretty silly concept politically.) As alluring as the idea that professing the correct philosophical creed is enough to make you a good, upstanding citizen, feminism is no more the key to a principled and successful life than being born again. It means that we have some awareness that the world is systemically fucked up; it doesn’t mean that we can necessarily step outside of the system enough to get through the day-to-day grind in a philosophically tolerable way, let alone to do so while being weighted down with the psychological baggage which is as much a part of our humanity as anyone else’s.

At every turn, the show takes the opportunity to let women struggle in ways that are so real but so unusual to be reflected in fiction. Chett nastily telling Rachel that she’s “not hot enough to be crazy” is almost a thesis statement for two things that the show handles exceptionally well: women and mental illness, and the way women’s experiences and needs are crushed down into a constant dehumanizing tradeoff: the space you are allowed to take in the world can never outweigh the amount of pleasure your existence brings men.

Women and mental health is a topic I write about a lot, because I don’t quite know how to get the perspective to write about it well. But I’m going to try here, because this show deserves so much praise for how well it depicts a range of mental health issues and philosophies about mental health, all of this with the default context of women’s experiences, with each other and with the mental health system.

  • Anna’s bulimia. The default ED in mass media is anorexia nervosa, rather than bulimia. Symptoms of this illness tie in deeply with concepts that we are comfortable ascribing to women. Starvation, of course, and the physical frailty that accompanies it; all the “better” if this physical frailty is expressed as obvious thinness. In a diet-obsesseed world, being in the iron grip of this particular disease looks like behavior which is lauded as “self-control” - and all that willpower, going to a woman not making waves in the world, not trying to impact anyone but herself. And so forth. Bulimia is messier, physically and in terms of how it’s received. Anna - as stylish and composed and proper as she is - is allowed to be messy.

  • The circumstances around Mary’s suicide are a concise and thoughtful bit of writing about a lot of discourses around mental health. Nature vs nurture, medical vs social, Mary’s death is about both her brain chemistry and her life experiences being put under horrible pressures at the worst possible moment. That’s not usually something that happens as part of such a concerted, specific effort by a small handful of people making conscious choices. But it is something that happens every day.

    Neither does Mary leave us as a martyr. Her last words are “come with me”; her last gesture is to try to bring Rachel down with her. Mary wasn’t anyone’s Madonna. She was a mother, a person, someone who did all the “right things” in a series of bad situations and tried to take care of herself responsibly on her own terms and wasn’t allowed to do it.

  • And then there’s Rachel herself. Quinn’s “there’s’ nothing wrong with you” is true in the sense that it’s not really likely Rachel has the kind of organic mental illness her mother is so desperate to “fix” in her. But of course Rachel isn’t “happy the way [she is],” as her mother puts it in her attempt to coerce her into abusive psychiatric malpractice. I’m not going to get into this one because it triggers me, but I do want to say that I think the show handled it all very responsibly and respectfully and I was really impressed with it. Rachel’s mental health is not good and she needs some help. What the people around her make of that has nothing to do with her own mental health and everything to do with what those people want from her.

Is it too pretentious that I’ve been thinking about Jane Eyre? Rachel’s storyline, in fact, evokes all of the major players in that iconic story of a madwoman in the attic. Rachel is Jane, choosing between a safety school boyfriend and a bad news manipulator, her job as producer positioning her as something of a governess. But she also has a governess in Quinn, who mentors Rachel in what she sees as the ways of the world. Rachel is Bertha, held hostage to her own pathologization; Rachel is Rochester, trapping other women into fatally restrictive boxes. Neither, for that matter, would it be entirely unreasonable to see the bitingly cynical, scotch-swilling, but not entirely heartless Quinn as a Byronic figure in her own right.

Maybe pretentious, maybe not. Frequently, this season reminded me of this examination of how marrying for money is treated in Austen novels. Characters who accept and acknowledge that they need to marry for money get some rather harsh judgment, even though they are completely right that this is the only way they can provide for themselves. UnREAL doesn’t present us with the same level of narrative disapproval. The girls who are consciously playing the game are presented as being smart and savvy. Since Austen’s day, we haven’t come as far as we’d like in having fundamentally altered that social dynamic, but we have at least learned to identify and critique it.

UnREAL, as a narrative, supports its canny, ambitious women, and the way it does so most pointedly is in showing the way those women are undermined by others. Everyone, Adam most of all, knows that this is all processed and fake. But a sure-fire way for one of the girls to get cut is to acknowledge that it’s all processed and fake, and to pitch themselves as having self-interest that’s aligned with Adam’s. Athena makes her offer to keep making him look good if he keeps her around for the final five; Athena goes home. Faith was allowed to stay as long as Adam felt like he was saving her from coming out; as soon as she says that the inevitable sham marriage works for her as well as it does for him, she gets sent off with a snide little comment about their “chemistry,” ie, her lesbianism. Grace promises that they’ll enjoy their year together but that she’ll be okay when he divorces her, and he chooses Anna over her. Anna gets the ring because she convinces herself to buy into the bullshit and therefore never wavers in her presentation of vulnerability.

Like all good reality competitions, this one had a twist at the end. Anna won, not by leaving the church with Adam, but by walking out without him. Anna talked herself into caring about Adam, not because she loved or wanted him but because that’s how the game is played. And at every step of the way, she questioned her own judgment and intelligence for her development of those feelings - because that, too, is the game is played.

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unreal, femininity, feminism, mental health

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