a belated UnREAL post for Valentine's Day

Feb 14, 2016 17:12

UnREAL: quite possibly the best new show of 2015. All of the praise that it's gotten has been well-earned. The one thing sticking point I have is the repeated claim that Rachel Goldberg is “the female Walter White.”

Now, I have nothing against the idea of a female Walter White character. Walt's comedic doppelganger was a woman; some day soon he'll have a female dramatic successor and it'll be fantastic. But the unfairness of comparing Rachel to Walt is an example of the double standard between men and women, the higher moral curve that weights women's venial sins as heavily as men's mortal ones, which makes the idea of a woman with Walt's rap sheet only palatable if she's cut down to size.

Rachel may be a deeply toxic person, but she doesn't manufacture actual poison. She isn't an internal problem-solver, mind buzzing around one puzzle more deadly than the next, but an emotional vampire who is at her strongest when feeding off of others' attention and uncertainty. She's as likely to self-medicate her deep unhappiness with hedonistic highs as masochistic lows. She isn't a mass murderer - though her tendency to infect others with her own self-destructive patterns does have a body count. She's not a mentor, she's a perpetual mentee. She isn't someone whose core self is hidden from the world all too successfully, she's a person who reinvents herself moment to moment in response to her environment.

Rachel isn't Walter White, y'all. Rachel is Don Draper.

Rachel is Don's natural descendent because her media world is the product of his in more than one way. People aren't directly buying Rachel's show (or UnREAL itself, for that matter). Everlasting turns a profit because of the ad time model that we watched SCDP develop in the later seasons of Mad Men - though, as a new and less valued thing, one that he naturally outsourced to his own young assistant.

More than that, though, reality television as a genre is much closer to advertising as a genre than it is to scripted programming. Both mediums cherry-pick a few technically accurate data points in order to wrangle them into a formula that hacks into a capitalist lizard-brain id. When we use the passive voice to talk about what we are socialized to believe, by Society™, Rachel and Don as individuals are people who make their livelihoods doing exactly that.

They are the mosquitos buzzing in our ears every day. For the characters around them in-universe, they are the devils-in-residence above everyone's shoulders. They are good at their jobs for the same reason that they are bad influences on the people who know them personally. (Arguably, their jobs are to be bad influences in the most basic sense - they're supposed to influence you to feel things that are bad for you, so that you go out and buy stuff that isn't particularly good for you.) Their narratives make this as extreme as possible, with the deaths of Mary and Lane. Suicide isn't any one person's fault, including the victim's. But it does matter that Mary and Lane die in social environments partly created by the protagonists, and that the last conversations they have are with Rachel and Don, respectively. Rachel and Don practically marinate in the existential gloom of being the man behind the curtain and not seeing anything backstage. They're not the only ones to glimpse that dark threshold, but they are the lonely individual who lives on it, inevitably intersecting with those who pass through. And then they go on as before. It should shock them, how much it never happened. But it doesn't.

It's also hammered home that their jobs don't require or necessitate the intuitive brilliance they both show at pitch-perfect manipulation. More or less everyone - at least the “creatives” and the “producers” - has to be able to form content that pushes buttons in the audience. But there's a reason Don is always the one who gives the pitches, the ad man who advertises the ads, even when he's clearly in a tailspin.

SHIA: Okay, it's just that after she bombed out, I cleaned up her mess.
QUINN: I know, but the thing is, Shia, people trust her, and they like her. That stuff can't really be taught.

But it's that hairpin responsiveness that makes them such a liability. When they implode, it has to have an audience and a price tag. Don's catastrophic Hershey pitch and Rachel's pre-series breakdown have to happen the way that they do. Not so much because the energy that they absorb from others has to be the thing fueling the breakdown, although it certainly doesn't hurt. It's because they could - and do - have plenty of equally painful moments in private, but their senses of self are so dependent on their outward persona that, on some level, only a public breakdown will 'count' in their minds.

Rachel and Don perform the jobs that they do because their work is a primary way of living out (note: not working through, but not causing, either) their respective mental demons, so their romantic drama is always a big part of their ultimately work-defined stories. Both have a long-term partner - Jeremy for Rachel, and Betty for Don - with whom they want to be tied, but not committed. Making a Rule 63 comparson creates a poetic little progression: in Mad Men, a Jewish woman named Rachel is a supporting character in the story of the darkly charismatic protagonist, while in UnREAL the shit-eating male charmer is the wealthy love interest and a Jewish woman named Rachel is the darkly charismatic protagonist. Things changed, in the fifty years between the two stories and even the eight years between the two shows' premieres.

Rule 63 is interesting to separate the emotional dynamics from the social power dynamics. Don's behavior toward his many paramours is the product of both his personal toxicity and the enormous social privilege he has over the women in his life. Rachel does not have that privilege over Jeremy and especially not the wealthy Adam, and so similar behavior is often defensive or ineffective, rather than steering the direction of either relationship in any meaningful way. Don can use an unethical psychiatrist to control Betty; Rachel is the one whose behavior is pathologized by society, while Jeremy teams up with Olive in order to hurt and control her. Don's playboy ways are supported and even admired by his colleagues, while Rachel's sex life is used to humiliate her.

Rachel is someone who lives up to her beliefs even less successfully than most people do, but she does have a decent value system and that means something. I don't remember Don expressing any philosophical beliefs at all; if he did, it certainly wasn't with the level of consistency as Rachel's profession of millennial feminism. In this, however, the characters are less different than they appear. Don exists in dialogue with a value system that he persistently fails and fulfills as it suits him: the twentieth-century American Dream. Don has acquired all the social markers of a believer - the job in Manhattan, the wife and kids and the home in West Chester County.

This lifestyle is more ideological than Don realizes. The American Way(TM) of the early '60s was in no small part a pervasive and intimate repudiation of communism. And Don Draper could only have happened to the world under that particular implementation of capitalism, where he can collect wealth without being restricted by his class background. But he's unusual in his success - indeed, to stop being working-class and get on the road to riches, he had to give up his own name and take on someone else's. Sterling Cooper - or, more accurately, the clients they work so hard to enrich - will lead to the exploitative and unsustainable economic situation of the twenty-first century. Rachel, born into an “upper-middle-class” family of similar social standing as Betty and her children, is broke. While the vast majority of millenials don't come from a comparable social background, her experience of growing up with the belief that education and work will lead to prosperity and then being dumped into a world where it won't even lead to security is a generational hallmark. Rachel scrambles a career out of her understanding of gender roles in the same way as Don works capitalism, to her individual benefit but against the long-term interests of most people like her.

That's not to equivocate the narratives' judgments on the characters' value systems. Mad Men is ultimately pretty agnostic on Don's sense of the norm. If he were more of a well-adjusted person he'd probably be a better husband and father and a more reliable employee and so forth, but his failures in those areas are pretty clearly the result of his dysfunction, rather than the cause of it. Peggy's refusal to define her own life or her definition of love by those rules is a good thing; Pete's ultimate decision to commit to a reconciliation with Trudy is also a good thing. The American Dream is as the American Dream does. And, in fact, the fiction of political neutrality is a critical aspect of Leave-It-To-Beaver-ism. UnREAL, by contrast, is very clear that the feminism Rachel professes is a good thing, and her failures to live up to it are a bad thing. Rachel's interpretation of twenty-first century American feminism, is in many ways a response to (some, though far from all, of) the stifling moral failures of Don's supposedly apolitical world.

FAITH: I want to do it again tomorrow. At the church dance. I want to testify.
RACHEL: Okay, Faith, no, listen, that's a huge step.
FAITH: My congregation needs to know that God loves all his children.
RACHEL: Yes, of course, of course. But have you talked to your Gran yet?

JAY: Look, I'm sorry, okay, but she's got to come out sometime.
RACHEL: So, what, it's up to you to decide when? You know, Perez stopped doing that recently.

Or in other words:

DON: Limit your exposure.
SAL: That's it?
DON: Good?

While neither character is homophobic in their ~hearts, the end results of their actions still reinforce compulsory heterosexuality. The closet is a denial of self-expression, which to people as outwardly focused as Don and Rachel is the same thing as a denial of self. Ultimately, both Faith and Sal are dismissed when they move toward some self-determination on their sexuality: Sal is dismissed for not sleeping with a client's son, while Faith is sent home with a snide comment on what 'kind of person' she is when she suggests to Adam that winning the competition would be good for her relationship with Amy. Queerness and authenticity are very bad for business.

The comparison between the protagonists' behavior toward Sal and Faith is striking in their similarity, but highly instructive in their divergence. Don's refusal to harass or rat on Sal makes him better than many of his contemporaries, for sure. But Rachel really did go to bat to support Faith's choices, and she explicitly told Faith that Faith has no reason to be ashamed of herself. IMO Rachel's most genuine moment is when Faith calls her love for Amy “disgusting” and Rachel bluntly says “No. It's not. It's beautiful.” And the fact that this is the instance where she's capable of sincere conviction speaks well of her. When stacked up against her less admirable moments, of which there are many, this sounds small. But, like Don, Rachel's value system (such as it is) isn't internal, it's a reflection of what she picks up in the world around her. Rachel's gut response is qualitatively different than Don's, because what she's picking up from her place in the mainstream is different. When it comes to gay rights, Americans in the past fifty years have done more than revise the language that we use to say the same damn thing.

Look how far we've come. Look how far we haven't.

Both characters' understanding of queerness, I think, speaks to more than the narrative benefits to signaling something admirable about these often unsympathetic protagonists. Queer sexuality is a qualitative counterpoint to their nihilistic worldview - it is a type of desire and love that defies their lifelong efforts to wrangle human connection into a profitable narrative. After all:

By love you mean big lightning bolts to the heart, where you can't eat and you can't work, and you just run off and get married and make babies. The reason you haven't felt it is because it doesn't exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.

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unreal, mad men

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