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Can a Feminist Work on The Bachelor? We Asked Unreal Creator Sarah Gertude Shapiro

Have you heard of UnREAL? It's the best show about the reality of reality shows.

If you can think back to the end of the last century, when reality television was still in it’s infancy, one of the reasons unscripted shows seemed so ground-breaking was because they seemed to be socially significant. Honest, in a way. Of course, now that reality TV made a president, and that president isn’t known for his honesty, we have a different relationship with the genre. Leave it to a fictional depiction of reality TV to make sense of today’s world, where people and presidents can just lie all the time. That’s what UnREAL tried to do, anyway.

The hit Lifetime series ran for three seasons before Hulu snagged its first-run rights in May. Then, on July 16, Hulu dropped UnREAL‘s entire fourth and final season on their streaming platform. So it was good news and bad news for the fake reality show’s loyal fans.

The series was co-created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro—who was once a producer on The Bachelor—so wherever you’re at in following/bingeing the show, the you know that whatever truths were discovered in UnREAL’s fake reality were arrived at honestly. Shapiro was kind enough to answer our questions honestly, too.

Do you think it’s possible to be a feminist and work on The Bachelor?

I never thought it was possible. When they told me they wanted me to move over to that show I’d actually said: “Oh I can’t, I’m a feminist.” To me it was like a vegan working at a slaughterhouse. It’s the epicentre of misogyny because it reinforces these heteronormative, terrible ideologies that disempower women. But that being said, there are really smart people who worked on that show; it was just a really bad fit for me.­­

Why do you think so many smart people—people who would say they’re feminists—enjoy the show?

It’s a really alluring escape fantasy. At the end of the day, some guy is going to drop out of the sky in a helicopter and take you to Switzerland, after you’ve worked an 80-hour week at your law firm. This is the conundrum of modern femininity: we are told to have incredible careers, but somehow that doesn’t fulfill us completely. We don’t understand how life brings romance and ambition together. You make fun of the girls who are dumb enough to fall for it, but secretly wish it was you.

Do you think that this is unhealthy even to hate-watch?

There’s some kind of corrosion of our heart that happens when we watch that show. When I worked on the show I realized when you start evaluating those women in really cruel ways you inevitably turn that cruelty on yourself. Because we say: “oh she’s such an idiot” or “she’s so fat, she just needs to realize she’s fat” or “she’s obviously too old to be desirable.” Then you turn off the TV and brush your teeth to go to bed and you look in the mirror, and what do you see? Someone that’s too old to be lovable, or too fat, or whatever. It degrades the way we feel about ourselves.

From your personal experience, and from the experiences of the characters you’ve written in Unreal, do you think it’s possible to be a “good person” and work in reality TV? 

The way that I pitched this show when I sold it was that it was a feminist working on The Bachelor having a nervous breakdown. And that’s pretty specific to a person with really strong politics at a weird time in her life, getting into a job that was really bad for her. I certainly know people who work in reality TV and are really good people. I think that in a lot of ways there’s a feeling that the contestants know what they’re signing up for, and that they’re willing participants and they’re getting a lot out of it. They get publicity, and sort of their 15-minutes of game. What my experience was — and again, this was in earlier days of reality TV — was that even though contestants think that can beat the system or beat the game, it’s like an unbeatable chess game. You don’t have power over the way you’r edited, there’s a whole team of people working to manipulate you at all times.

Do you think there’s always going to be an exploitative culture on the set of reality TV shows? 

Reality TV is very exploitative, but it’s also the producer’s job to manipulate the contestants. They aren’t actors, so you have to manipulate them into doing what you want them to do. They’re basically unpaid, untrained actors that you have to trick. And that’s a bad situation! But I think that 10 years later, a lot of contestants are probably savvier about what’s going to happen to them. They understand what they’re signing themselves up for, and they often come in with a strategy for what they’re going to get out of it. So it’s changed.

When it comes down to it, UnReal is a TV show about two powerful, complex, dynamic women. That’s a statement in itself, right? Was it always important for you to create strong female characters? 

That was absolutely primary to me, it was kind of why I wanted to make this show. One of the things I was passionate about is that in my life experience, your relationships at work are so important and take up so much time, but they’re very rarely talked about. They’re not really valued or written about. So I was sort of obsessed with making a show that was about these two women doing their jobs, and their relationship with each other, and that that has very little to do with men. It’s really about: are they good at their jobs? Are they succeeding at their jobs? Are they failing at their jobs? Are they working together, are they working apart? Are they in competition or are they in cahoots? To have that be the main drama on our show feels very revolutionary to me.

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