The pinnacle of scripted summer television, as far as I’m concerned, is Lifetime’s UnReal. In case you somehow haven’t heard of it, UnReal gives viewers a fictitious behind-the-scenes look at a Bachelor-style reality show called Everlasting, and it was created by former Bachelor producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. Much has been written about the show’s protagonist Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), a self-proclaimed feminist who continuously acts against her stated beliefs by manipulating the female contestants for the sake of good television, but I’m more interested in her boss, Quinn King (Constance Zimmer).
Quinn is the cutthroat executive producer of Everlasting as well as Rachel’s mentor. She rose through the ranks by sleeping with the boss, but also by producing shocking television for good ratings, even when it meant putting the contestants (and her employees) through the wringer. In fact, Quinn seems to savor the parts of reality TV that her subordinates hate. When Rachel does despicable things — convincing a pre-med student and Black Lives Matter activist to quit college to come on the show for the express purpose of creating conflict with a white supremacist contestant, for example — she feels horrible, and she often considers quitting her job. Quinn, on the other hand, is at her best when things are going badly for other people.
If this wasn’t clear before, Quinn is not a good person (she’s got a blunt bob, so how could she be nice). She hires a woman to act as a contestant’s mother to make her seem crazy, she surprises a contestant with her abusive ex-husband, and she continuously pits women against each other, all for the sake of ratings. But at the same time, Quinn is an empowered woman succeeding in a field traditionally dominated by men, and despite her horrible methods, she always produces superb results. Quinn also always looks out for her own. She wants what’s best for Rachel, and even in season two, when Rachel turns against her mentor, Quinn backs her up when the going gets tough. The problem is that Quinn’s idea of what’s best for Rachel means turning her into Quinn 2.0.
Part of the reason I’m so fascinated with Quinn (other than Constance Zimmer’s mesmerizing screen presence) is that I don’t know where to sort her in my feminist brain. For the contestants of Everlasting, Quinn is certainly the villain and the reason that they are embarrassed in front of an audience of millions every week. Quinn could certainly not be called a feminist, but I’m still really glad I get to see a character like her on TV, because her badness transcends her gender. Quinn King is one of those characters that could have easily been cast as a man, and almost nothing would be changed.
As I’ve watched UnReal, I’ve become more aware that even though I am an ardent feminist, the media I consume does not have to be. I do think that UnReal is smart enough and self-aware enough to be considered wholeheartedly feminist, but my dilemma with Quinn in particular echoes my dilemma with the many other shows I watch that could not carry the feminist label. Instead of fretting over whether or not a show aligns with my values, I can apply my feminist lens to everything and parse the best and worst elements from the show without affecting my enjoyment.
UnReal works both as a feminist entity and as a television show because it is messy. There isn’t just one easy way to interpret the characters and their actions, and different audiences could come to vastly different conclusion. It surely makes a statement, but you have to decide what that statement is for yourself.
Image via ETOnline.