“UnREAL,” “Orange Is the New Black,” & White Folks

Shiri Appleby, B.J. Britt, and Constance Zimmer in Lifetime’s UnREAL. Photo by Bettina Strauss.

Early in the second season premiere of Lifetime’s critical success UnREAL, the producers of the Bachelor-type reality show-within-a-show Everlasting sit around discussing how they plan to manipulate the contestants to create the most drama. There is a Pakistani woman they will suggest is linked to terrorists; there’s a Southern girl who Instagrammed herself wearing a Confederate flag bikini; and then there is the Black Lives Matter activist. When anti-hero Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) holds up a photo of this young African-American college student, she turns her into a soundbite, “We have Ruby. She takes ‘angry black woman’ to a blinding rage.”

A similar scene takes place in the final episode of season 4 of Orange Is the New Black, released in its entirety on June 17 (Spoiler alert: This post discusses some of the major events of season 4 of OITNB). Throughout the episode, two bros from the Management & Correction Corporation (MCC), the private company that took over Litchfield Penitentiary, try to come up with a narrative they can sell about the accidental killing of one of the inmates, Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), at the hands of a guard during a peaceful inmate protest.

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The more talkative of the two, Josh (John Palladino), explains to the warden, Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), that they can’t call the police until everyone has agreed on a version of what happened. In the meantime, the MCC has chosen to let Poussey’s body remain on the floor of the cafeteria.

Samira Wiley as Poussey Washington on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Josh and his sidekick comb the dead woman’s social media accounts and prison records for a way to cast Poussey, a generous soul with a giant smile and a diminutive frame, as the attacker. “Even her intake photo is adorable. Go online –Facebook, Twitter. See if anything that she posted could be interpreted as threatening,” says a frustrated Josh. He explains how serious the problem is for MCC: “We’re talking about death here.”

On the surface, UnREAL and OITNB might not appear to have much in common. While the first season of UnREAL featured the suicide of a contestant, the death was shocking precisely because the business of Everlasting is supposed to be lightweight relationship drama. The behind-the-scenes structure of the show has revealed a much darker truth, but it can’t compare to the stifling, violent atmosphere of OINTB’s prison setting. The contestants of Everlasting are there by choice. The residents of Litchfield are trapped.

Narratives are structured to cater to white audiences.

Yet both are shows concerned with how minimizing the humanity of others is a harmful but profitable business. Both examine how far those in power will go to maintain the status quo. And both shows raise questions about the way narratives are structured to cater to white audiences.

In each of the scenes above, white characters discuss how they are going to control narratives centered around black bodies. UnREAL’s Rachel has successfully pitched a black bachelor, football player Darius Beck (B.J. Britt) for the first time, something the real-life Bachelor franchise has yet to do. Rachel believes she has successfully married her social justice impulses with her cutthroat commercial instincts, telling everyone that the show is about to make history because of her. This one action allows her to justify manipulating Ruby (Denée Benton) into dropping out of college with the false promise that she can use Everlasting as a platform for her activism. 

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UnREAL doesn’t let Rachel off the hook for her white feminism, instead contrasting her struggles with those of African-American line producer Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, whose role will hopefully continue to expand). Last season, Jay was conflicted when he engineered an “Angry Black Woman” story line. This season, he’s finally found something his ambition won’t let him do: “You know, even I didn’t think I had a line, but turns out, derailing a strong, black woman’s education, that’s it.”

Shiri Appleby and Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman star in Season 2 of Lifetime’s hit drama UnREAL airing, Monday, June 27th at 10pm ET/PT on Lifetime. Photo by James Dittiger Copyright 2016
Shiri Appleby and Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman star in Lifetime’s UnREAL. Photo by James Dittiger

The structure of UnREAL leads to conversations about what the audience wants and how far producers are willing to go to give it to them. This season starts with Rachel and her mentor/mortal enemy/executive-producer Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) at odds with the creator of Everlasting, Chet Wilton (Craig Bierko). Chet has returned this season as a men’s rights activist (I refuse to link to this nonsense). His attempts to remake Everlasting as a show that will appeal to men, by showcasing the women wrestling in their underwear, upsets not only Rachel and Quinn but also the contestants, stand-ins for Everlasting’s primarily female audience.

Rachel and Quinn are counting on Darius’s race to fuel drama with both the contestants and the audience, which is repeatedly described in terms that conflate whiteness and Americaness. Quinn agrees to have Darius as the bachelor because she thinks: “The minute he lays black hands on a white ass, Twitter will melt down.” Chet wants to replace Darius with someone, as he puts it, more “Midwestern.”

Darius is coming off of a PR nightmare (he called a white reporter a bitch) and a serious injury he’s been hiding from his team. Darius is smart and wary – he instinctively distrusts Rachel – but he’s also vulnerable. She sells him on being Everlasting’s bachelor as a chance to rehab his image with white America. Pointing out one contestant, Rachel explains,“The girl is blonde, beautiful, rich, and white. If a girl like that forgives you, America forgives you.” However, Darius has already had a lifetime of trying to please white audiences. His mom raised him to “know that the rules would always be different for me.”

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The question of what white audiences want to see has also fueled some critical and viewer backlash to the death of Poussey. Ashleigh Shackelford referred to the show as “white trauma porn,” and other critics have also cast the show in this this lightThis is in no small part driven by the knowledge that the OITNB writer’s room doesn’t reflect the diversity of its cast, a problem shared by UnREAL and all the rest of television (an issue I discussed in last month’s column.) 

One of Shackelford’s main points is the lack of any romances on OITNB featuring two actors of color. UnREAL dramatizes this issue by having Rachel and Quinn suggest Darius will only get what he wants if he ultimately picks a white woman, even though he is “dating” women of several different ethnicities in addition to Ruby and African-American debutante Chantal (Meagan Tandy). The assumption is that whiteness must win out.

Think Progress’s Carimah Townes, Laurel Raymond, and Aria Velasquez have argued against dismissing OINTB, particularly the work of actors Samira Wiley and Danielle Brooks (playing Poussey’s friend Taystee). Townes says, “the reality is, mass incarceration disproportionately impacts black people, so a story about the criminal justice system can’t be disassociated from black people. They’re at the core of this narrative, and always have been.” But Raymond also pointed out that by using images and language associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, the phrase “say her name,” and the manner of Poussey’s death, the writers latched onto a movement familiar to “white eyes.”

TV easily disposes of black bodies for entertainment.

One of the prominent themes of OINTB’s season was the growing Latino population in the prison, with a story line specifically focused on the way guards seemed to be targeting Dominican inmates for harassment. It’s hard not to wonder then if the reason Poussey was marked for death was because the writers believed a Black Lives Matter story line would be more easily accessible to the viewing audience. In last night’s episode of UnREAL, Rachel discovers that the injury Darius has been hiding could leave him paralyzed if untreated. But Rachel has a show to produce, so she is willing to endanger his safety if it gets her what she wants. Both OITNB and UnREAL’s new seasons remind us how easily television disposes of black bodies for the entertainment and edification of certain audiences.

Liz’s List: What to Watch/Follow/Listen To/Read

  • Watch ESPN’s OJ Simpson: Made in America.
  • Follow Full Frontal with Samantha Bee on Twitter to fill in the time between episodes.
  • Listen to Pheobe Robinson’s new WNYC podcast about comedy, Sooo Many White Guys, starting July 12th.
  • Read Ijeoma Oluo’s scathing review of The Free State of Jones in The Stranger.