UnREAL Suitress Caitlin FitzGerald On Whether Reality TV Can Ever Be Feminist

Photo: Courtesy of Lifetime
Can UnREAL's first-ever suitress find "everlasting" love? She'll have to jump through plenty of patriarchal hoops in order to get there, says actress Caitlin FitzGerald.
The Masters of Sex and Rectify alum portrays Serena, a brilliant, beautiful businesswoman who is also eager to find her perfect match on season 3 of Lifetime's addictive series. Yet UnREAL's fictional reality show, Everlasting, was not made to celebrate a woman's intellect: Instead, it's here to put her in a low-cut mermaid gown and have her giggle at every unfunny joke the male contestants vying for her heart make.
Exhausting? Of course — and just another way for UnREAL to remind the world that reality TV isn't exactly the best for women. As Serena attempts to hold her own amongst the guys hoping to win her like a Super Bowl ring, it's clear that FitzGerald is more than comfortable in this role. She nails Serena's delicate blend of brainy confidence with her insecurity that she's never going to live up to some domestic ideal. In the premiere episode, FitzGerald's Serena tearfully admits to Rachel (Shiri Appleby) that it's not that she's "too picky" when it comes to men — they simply never pick her.
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Refinery29 spoke with FitzGerald about Serena's journey over the course of the season, and what place reality TV has in a world that hasn't quite gotten over its archaic gender hangups.
Refinery29: How does Serena play the game differently than the men have on previous seasons?
Caitlin FitzGerald: "I think she's smarter. I think she’s much more type-A than the two suitors that came before. I think she comes into this expecting to be able to control the whole process and is therefore a more formidable match with the two ladies, [Quinn, played by Constance Zimmer, and Rachel]."
Do you think that Serena will have a harder time being on reality TV than the guys did, or do you think she will have it a little easier because she is smarter?
"No, I think her intelligence actually makes it harder. I think she comes in expecting Everlasting to be about finding love for real, and it’s sort of a shock that it’s actually much more about, at least for the producers, making good television and getting good ratings."
Do you think that Rachel and Quinn have to manipulate her differently because she is smarter and because she has a different agenda?
"Yes. I think also, you know, especially with Rachel, there’s a mutual respect there at the start of the season. I think Rachel's accustomed to having to manipulate someone she actually respects. I think she feels torn between wanting to really find someone for Serena to love and also wanting to please Quinn, and make good TV."
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So what can you tease about her upcoming journey? Is there a moment that is really gonna shock viewers, maybe surprise them about what Serena is capable of?
"Yeah, I think we see pretty early on that underneath Serena’s perfect facade there’s a lot of insecurity and darkness and stuff that’s she’s grappling with."
Do you think that Everlasting can be a feminist show if it's with a female suitor?
"I think it’s inherently not. I think the narrative that reality television, especially shows like Everlasting, The Bachelor, the conceit of it is built on this quite destructive lie about the nature of love, or heterosexual love anyway, and the role of women in that love. I think fundamentally, these shows are not feminist, but I do think UnREAL complicates all of that, because we get to see behind the scenes, and because the people in charge are these female characters that are strong, and flawed, and dark, and in charge. There’s an interesting metanarrative that I think you can make a strong argument is very feminist."
Was there any part of Serena’s journey that you related to as an actress?
"In the first episode, Serena really responds badly to how Quinn wants her to dress. She wants her in this sequined mermaid dress with fake tits, fake cutlets, to sort of sell her sexuality in a specific way on television. Serena goes, 'I want no part of this, I have a Masters from Stanford, I’m incredibly smart,' and we have a whole storyline about it. The irony of it was, I would walk into my trailer every day and there’d be chicken cutlets for me to wear, always. For me, have I been hired because I’m an actor or just because I’m a pretty face? In this weird way I was kind of mirroring Serena’s journey a little bit. It’s a strange experience."
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Your Masters of Sex character dealt with a lot of gender politics as well. Do you think that a lot has really changed from the time of Libby Masters up until now? What has changed and what hasn't?
"What’s astonishing to me when I was researching the 1950s and reading Masters and Johnson’s book preparing to play Libby, I was sort of shocked by how little changes, at least in terms of changes in how Americans view sexuality, how it’s sold to us, particularly women’s sexuality. I was quite alarmed by that. I think a lot has changed, I think the #MeToo movement is tremendous and is going to hopefully open floodgates to a brave new world. But also the #MeToo movement came about because of misogyny and abuse. I think, 'I don't know' is the answer to that question. I think we’re having really interesting conversations about all this stuff that maybe we haven't had before, but we’ve got a lot of work to do."
I’m curious if there was anybody that you channeled while preparing for the role. Was there a person where you were like, "I want Serena to kind of be like this woman?"
"I know a woman, a family friend who I grew up with, and I have always looked at this woman and been like, 'How are you so perfect?' She’s always wearing the right thing, she knows how to blow dry her hair really well, like I don't even own a blowdryer. She’s an incredibly smart business woman, has three perfect children and a perfect husband. She’s shiny, and in control the way that Serena is. I thought about her a lot."
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Do you have a favorite suitor that you want Serena to end up with?
"What can I say? I think there were a lot of the guys that felt good for her in a lot of different ways. I don’t know how much more I can say than that without spoiling! But it’s a well written show and each character has something to offer her in a real way, I think."
What was the audition process like for this show, if there was one?
"I made an audition tape from New York, I went to L.A., and then I went in and met with the producers and Peter, who directs a lot for UnREAL. My audition was actually interesting because I did a bunch of scenes, but we did each scene as if it were high tragedy and then each scene as if it were high comedy. I think that’s kind of the UnREAL world. A lot of the things I did on this season are ridiculous; I think makes the show work so well is that’s it’s rooted in real feelings and actually complicated people."
Speaking of complicated people, Rachel deals with a lot of mental health issues across the show. I’m curious if that’s something we're going to explore in season 3 and if Serena has any mental health issues she might also deal with this season.
"I think we do get into Rachel’s mental health issues and kind of down to the root cause. I don’t know that I would say that Serena has mental health issues, but I think she has, like all of us, that secret and darknesses in places that she doesn't like in herself; that she certainly doesn't want anyone to see. Because it’s television and good television, we do get a glimpse."
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What message do you want this season of UnREAL to leave viewers with?
"Me and the creators of the show, we talked a lot about this sort of catch-22 that I think a lot of women feel, which is, 'I’ve worked so hard, I’ve done everything right, I went to the best school, built this career for myself, I’m this shark in the conference room... But then how do I switch, and be this soft feminine person on a date with a man?' We’ve been told because of all the work that our mothers did that we’re allowed to have everything, and can we actually? What does that look like? It is, in some ways, a brave new world where we can, hopefully, earn as much money as men, and be in charge of our lives, but how do we find partners who can meet us and match us in that?"
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