Anyone with eyes can agree UnReal more than stumbled in its second season, crumbling under the weight of a misadvised exploration into racial politics. A soapy, twisted melodrama about the behind-the-scenes backstabbing of a reality TV show is not the place for serious discussions about police violence, systematic racism, and the general exploitation of the Black body for profit. So, thankfully, the Lifetime favorite went back to what it’s best at for UnReal season 3: knotty questions about feminism and the entertainment industry. Remember, this is a show that began with Rachel Goldberg’s (Shiri Appleby) infamous “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt.
So, UnReal returns to its lane by way of its very first suitress leading show-within-a-show Everlasting, Serena Wolcott (Caitlin FitzGerald), Silicon Valley tech mogul and “the female Elon Musk.” Unfortunately, since UnReal is made up of monsters and only monsters, the drama’s season 3 premiere, “Oath,” already showed us exactly how supposed “feminism” can be used to harm women even more than bold-faced sexism does.
When Serena and Rachel meet, the latter’s aura of no-bullshit, pro-woman straight talk is immediately weaponized against the Everlasting newbie. Because Serena believes Rachel is on her side — and, Rachel is on absolutely no one’s side other than her own (and maybe Quinn’s on a good day) — she actually trusts what’s coming out of the producer’s mouth. If Serena had realized Rachel sees all people, including women, as props, she wouldn't have ever let the under-the-radar schemer in. What a fatal mistake.
Within her first five minutes of stepping on set, Serena is stuffed into a dress that can only be described as the wardrobe of a “stripper mermaid,” as she calls it. While the tech millionaire asks Rachel to simply be honest about the garish, male-gaze-crafted gown, the “feminist” immediately fails.
“This is how all the girls on these shows dress. Sequins pop. Cleavage communicates a certain… willingness to participate,” Rachel explains, attempting to “produce,” or trick, Serena into wearing the absurd outfit. Considering how Rachel brands herself, you would expect her to similarly rail against such a regressive choice for Everlasting’s first-ever suitress. Instead, the producer simply wants more of the same as long as it’ll put eyeballs on her show.
If the dress fiasco was as dark as Rachel and her boss-mentor-partner in literal crime Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) went with the season 3 premiere, there wouldn’t be all that much to complain about. After all, by the end of the season 2 opener “War,” Rachel was plotting to keep a Confederate flag bikini-wearing white supremacist in the same bedroom as a Black debutante and bullying another Black woman about her one-piece bathing suit.
Yet, “Oath” takes us to much bleaker depths than racialized swimwear tensions. “Oath” lets Rachel and Quinn manipulate Serena to a booze-soaked opening night that ends in the kind of situation that looks like sexual assault. The dark road begins when Serena dares to rebuke the producers’ request she keep a jockey (Joe Abraham) for three episodes of height-related drama and then runs away from filming with handsome firefighter Owen (Alex Hernandez). To get Serena in line, Rachel undermines her confidence by subtly threatening her with every critique lobbed at powerful women. Doesn’t she know how easily Quinn could give her the bitchy ice queen edit? Doesn’t she know at least half of America already hates her for being a smart, pretty, successful woman? Doesn’t she know no man will ever love her if he — and the rest of the nation — think she’s a cold-hearted, short-guy-hating bitch? Doesn’t she know?
While this kind of play-the-game rhetoric was only intended to get Serena to kiss poor Norman, things spiral so far out of control, as all problems are wont to do on UnReal. Serena, terrified of being labeled Feminazi No. 1, starts drinking to loosen up enough to play the part of a good Everlasting suitress. Two shots quickly become something like 12, and by the end of the night, Serena is having doggy-style sex with Norman in her bathroom. If the newly-minted reality star were anywhere near sober, a true feminist would be all for the surprise encounter. But, Serena is so intoxicated she vomits the moment Norman leaves the room. “I never do this. I don’t kiss guys until the third date … God, how could I do that” Serena says.
Instead of wondering whether Serena was even capable of giving consent in this tequila-logged moment, Rachel explains away the entire thing. “You’re like everybody else on this planet, you are screwed up and lonely and figuring it out,” she cooly says, like sex with murky consent at best ain’t no thang.
But, don’t worry, Rachel is a feminist.
At least Quinn is more patently obvious in twisting feminism for her own gains. When Serena originally cuts Norman. Quinn realizes Rachel is using the single, lonely, and career-obsessed suitress as an avatar for herself and her boss. Quinn rages against this idea and tells Rachel “the most feminist thing” she could do isn’t supporting the Bachelorette stand-in — no, it’s helping Quinn save her reality TV empire. As we learn earlier in “Oath,” Quinn is on thinner-than-thin ice with the network and will get the axe if this season is another bloodbath of a failure. In the final scene, we see Quinn begin Serena’s ice queen edit as punishment for the Everlasting lead’s boring confessional interview. In Quinn’s world, the guise of feminism is just another tool for covering her own butt.
Thankfully, Serena shows signs of being able to handle the darkness of Rachel & Co. She throws that terrible “Under The Sea”-ready dress aside for her own comfortable gown. She runs away with Owen as a middle finger of a gesture to the producers over the Norman sight gag. By the end of the first elimination ceremony, she gives Norman the boot, even with Rachel’s demands for the opposite.
If anyone can fight fake girl power with actual power, it just might be Serena.
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