UnREAL & The Commoditization of Female Friendship

I’ve never been one to enjoy The Bachelor/Bachelorette type shows. I had enough fairytale fodder with the help of Gary Marshall, Nora Ephron and Richard Curtis, I never needed to jump the shark any further with highly produced, “real life” Cinderella stories. Or, maybe, the fact that I am a hopeless romantic is what turned me off to the idea that anything resembling love could come out of a scenario where a multitude of women compete for the affections of one man.

The camaraderie that comes along with viewings of these shows has always intrigued me and drew me in a little bit. It’s the closest non-sport-loving women have come to the level of fellowship men forge through sports, fantasy brackets and and all.

They plan events and portions of their lives around the show. They recap episodes at work, over drinks and online. They form detailed opinions around the contestants and have lively debates with their friends. It’s light-hearted, inconsequential fun that builds relationships among entire groups of women. And, yet, despite this draw, I’ve never seen a single episode. I actually kind of resent the show for taking attention away from the real JoJo.

All this serves as a caveat to what comes next. I’ve never seen a single episode, but I have some strong opinions about the show formulated only upon viewing UnREAL (well maybe a little bit based on Burning Love). At first, I had no intention of watching UnREAL. It was a show about a show I never watched and it was on Lifetime. Then people kept talking about it and I love Constance Zimmer, so I binged and was mildly appalled and oddly surprised by the manipulation that went on behind the scenes.

I don’t know why I was shocked. I guess I just assumed the contestants were in on the joke, but if Sequin Raze (the source material), Sarah Shapiro (the creator and former Bachelor producer) and UnREAL are to be believed, they aren’t in on anything. And there is no joke.

The producers forge friendships with the contestants only to use those friendships to manipulate them into good TV. Beyond friendship even, they exploit confidential mental health details the show’s psychologist doles out at opportune times. They use forced teaming tactics to elicit sympathy and trust. It has all the makings of an abusive relationship presenting as a real friendship. Best of all, there are cash prizes associated with every emotional break they can elicit.

Even on the other side of the cameras in UnREAL female friendship is used to exploit and manipulate. The executive producer, Quinn, and producer, Rachel, are twisted in some sort of extreme frenemies situation. Quinn exploits personal information and the various favors she’s pulled for Rachel to keep her tied to the show in an effort to keep the show popular and profitable.

In all these instances, female friendship is being used as a tool to turn a profit. The show capitalizes on the sense of camaraderie that comes with viewing parties and recap brunches. Events so appealing even unexpected fants are drawn in. On the show, the guise of friendship is leveraged to amp up the drama. And, even though it’s fiction, it’s feasible to think the friendships behind the scenes may also be distorted to serve the ambitions of the producers.

Also of interest is the idea that while UnREAL passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, The Bachelor viewing parties are centered on a real-life Bechdel failure as women sit around discussing the relationships of men and women they’ll never even meet.

There’s also a touch of irony to the idea that a show that helps women form the bonds of friendship (even if it those bonds form while talking about men) uses those same bonds to break down other women. It makes the whole thing relatively unpalatable, so I doubt I’ll ever hop on The Bachelor bandwagon. The Real Housewives, that’s another story. It’s okay it exploit rich-ish, naturally crazy women for reality TV, right?

Image via