There's a moment in the second season premiere of "UnREAL" when Rachel (Shiri Appleby) tries to recruit a Black Lives Matter activist named Ruby (Denée Benton) to her "Bachelor"-esque show-within-a-show, "Everlasting." Ruby, who is understandably appalled by the series' racist and misogynist reputation, balks at the suggestion — but Rachel manages to manipulate her on board; convincing Ruby that baring her soul on reality television is for not only her own good, but the good of the movement.
"'The Real World,' do you remember that show?" Rachel says. "That show started the Gay Rights Movement."
With this — and the promise of millions of adoring Twitter followers — Ruby is swayed, but she very soon finds out that Rachel's plans for her were always to be the Angry Black Woman, humiliated on television for the sake of ratings. In fact, Rachel even hired a racist redneck contestant and placed her in a Confederate Flag bikini to incite Ruby's rage.
If you weren't already watching "UnREAL," would you actually believe that Rachel is the hero of this show?
"Her hypocrisy is one of our favorite things," creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, herself a former "Bachelor" producer, told Revelist at the Austin Television Festival. "In act one of the first episode, her having sex with a Black guy saying ‘I’m changing the world' — that was on purpose."
On purpose, and also indicative of the fun-yet-awkward joy that is watching "UnREAL" — a show that has decided to take its second season a giant step further by using real-life American racial tensions to shine a light on White Feminism.
"I think a white woman making a show about black issues is really complicated — but where we landed was it’s better to do it than to not do it."
After its very successful first season, Shapiro and her team of writers — including Stacy Rukeyser, who also spoke to Revelist — had to figure out what to do with Rachel's story after a phenomenally successful (critically, at least) Season 1. Talks of a gender-swapped "Bachelorette" season were "cool and interesting" to Shapiro, but there was one thing that intrigued the writers even more: current racial tensions in America, specially spurred by the Eric Garner case.
Rachel is living in the same America — the America that, in 20 seasons, has never featured a Black "Bachelor" and still grapples with mass incarceration and police violence — so it just made sense for that "feminist and proud" character to decide to "solve" the issue herself.
"Rachel was at the point at the end of last season where she was at the bottom of the pit, and had almost run away with Prince Charming, and then he dumped her," Shapiro explained. "What I thought about for her is that, if I was at the bottom of that well, I would try to figure out a way to make my life mean something. For her, patting herself on the back and landing the first Black Suitor becomes this whole manic episode. ‘I’m changing the world! This is incredible!’"
To make this storyline work, Shapiro and Rukeyser — themselves both white women — took to the writers' room, where they had about two full weeks of discussions about race with their staff. Black writers Arianna Jackson and Janine Nabers, per Shapiro, were told "your voice in this conversation is just going to count more. You have veto power." Still, everyone was well aware of the fact that this was always going to be a season about two often-loathsome white female producers (Rachel and Quinn) trying to tell Black stories on a television show.
"It’s always through that prism that we’re looking at this, because we are white female producers who decided to do a show about that," Rukeyser explained. "It’s a very interesting thing to talk about — Is this your story to tell? And it might not be! But if it’s not your story, is there still value in telling it, and in telling it from your perspective, or in this case, from Quinn and Rachel’s perspective?"
"But to specifically speak about Ruby, the Black activist, to me, it felt sort of obvious that we would have a character like that once you have a Black Suitor."
Once the Black suitor story was agreed upon, bringing on a character like Ruby seemed like a natural choice — not only because Quinn and Rachel would "absolutely" do this for ratings, but because "I felt like it was important to have someone who was truly a good person in the mix," Shapiro said, noting that she feels that Ruby is this year's "baby bird" contestant to root for, like last year's Faith.
Additionally, Shapiro admitted that via Ruby — or perhaps more accurately, via her writers Jackson and Nabers — she, as a white feminist, was able to learn things about Black women's "feelings of beauty and inadequacy, and not having romantic roles on television" ... and hopefully, the audience will, too.
"There’s a lot of stuff that I hadn’t thought about at that level," she said. "We talked about skin color and hair a lot ... we have one [Black] contestant who has very ‘good’ hair and light skin ..."
"Quote-unquote good hair," Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, who plays the Black, gay, and emotionally conflicted producer Jay, chimed in. "AKA, a weave."
"I was surprised by the overall inclusion of [Ruby], just because she is so strong-willed, that Rachel and Quinn would be willing to bring in somebody that went against them," Bowyer-Chapman continued. "How do you edit that? How do you make Ruby do that? She’s so smart that it’s going to be a lot trickier to get her to do what you need her to do."
How Rachel and Quinn will or not be able to manipulate Ruby remains to be seen, but what makes "UnREAL" so entertaining, and so painful, is that they'll continue to try to, even though both of those so-called feminists know that Ruby is there to promote worthwhile Black causes. This is how "UnREAL" succeeds at pointing its lens, brutally, at White Feminism — "and white paternalism," Shapiro adds — via Ruby's character, and Quinn and Rachel's response to her.
"We’ve talked about that … a lot. The idea of the white hero coming in to save the poor Black people who really can’t speak for themselves. It's a problem that we’ve tried to avoid, or at least talk about. It’s a hard thing to navigate. But I think that those moments are very intentional."
The "moments" Shapiro is referring to are ones like the aforementioned "Real World" conversation, and the supposedly "woke" white female "Enchanted" contestants patting themselves on the back when the redneck character, Beth Ann, comes out in her confederate flag bikini.
"I'm upset for you," one of them says to an appalled Ruby, in one of many cringe-worthy moments of creepily paternalist White Feminism in the show's first two episodes. Another comes when Yael, a likable Jewish New Yorker, asks Ruby to "help a sister out."
"It was very condescending; she meant it in a Hillary Clinton ‘Hot sauce in my bag’ way," Bowyer-Chapman said. "She didn’t land it ... but I’d love to live in a world where white feminists and feminists of color can co-exist and we don’t have to question everything."
That world isn't here yet, and "UnREAL," thankfully, knows it. The rest of the season will find Jay struggling with "lines that he’s not willing to cross" in terms of Quinn and Rachel's manipulation of Ruby (and Black Lives Matter) to forward their own agenda, and apparently, this will have a major effect on Darius, the Suitor, as well.
"She is such an important character; she is so different from any of the other contestants from Season 1 or Season 2," Genevieve Buechner, who plays Madison, explained. "She’s got such a strong voice, and no one else has had that ... it’s nice, with the whole White Feminist thing, she can counter that just by being there. By having the story that she has; she can butt heads with it, and bring a whole other side to it."
At the end of the day, Shapiro, Rukeyser, Bowyer-Chapman, and Buechner all seemed to recognize that making a show about self-centered white women making a show about Black issues was a huge risk. But from where I'm sitting, "UnREAL" succeeds at showing American racial tensions as the uncomfortable, nuanced, hot bed issues that they are — and with Quinn and Rachel in the drivers' seats, we also get an incredibly rare look at the ugliness of White Feminism from the eyes of a Black character written by Black writers.
Quinn and Rachel are the [anti]heroes of this story, but when the latter erases the Stonewall Riots from history to try to convince Ruby that a television show — her television show — is the answer to making Black Lives Matter go mainstream, it's clear that "UnREAL" does not consider them to be the good guys.
"That is the funny thing with our show," Shapiro concluded. "People are like, ‘That’s not right!’ You are right — that is NOT right."
"UnREAL" airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.