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What 'UnREAL' has to say about harsh realities for women in Hollywood

(L-R) Caitlin FitzGerald, Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer in season three of Lifetime's
(L-R) Caitlin FitzGerald, Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer in season three of Lifetime's "UnREAL."
James Dittiger
(L-R) Caitlin FitzGerald, Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer in season three of Lifetime's
John Horn with "UnREAL" showrunner Stacy Rukeyser.
Monica Bushman / KPCC

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"UnREAL" is a TV show with a lot to say gender dynamics in Hollywood and, more broadly, American culture.

It’s a fictional series about the behind-the-scenes drama of a “Bachelor”-style reality show called “Everlasting.” The story centers on the often contentious, sometimes co-dependent relationship between producer Rachel Goldberg (played by Shiri Appleby) and executive producer Quinn King (Constance Zimmer).

“UnREAL” was co-created by Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a former “Bachelor” producer herself. In its first season, “UnREAL” won a Peabody Award for its biting social commentary that called out gender stereotypes and sexism.

The third season premieres Feb. 26 on Lifetime, with Stacy Rukeyser, a senior writer and executive producer on the show since the beginning, taking over as show runner. The twist this season is that instead of a male “suitor,” as the bachelor is called on “Everlasting,” there’s a female “suitress” — a venture capitalist and feminist named Serena.

The Frame host John Horn recently spoke with Stacy Rukeyser about the new season of "UnREAL," and also about a guest column she wrote in The Hollywood Reporter last year about her experience working on the WB show, “One Tree Hill.” That show's creator, Mark Schwahn, was accused of sexual harassment by 18 women.

Rukeyser was a writer on “One Tree Hill” for two seasons, her first as just one of two female writers, and her second as the only woman on a writing staff of 12. It was a situation that she now describes as a “misogynistic quagmire.”

Interview highlights:

On the double standards for women that season three's female "suitress" storyline illuminates:

That is part of what is very confusing about being a woman today. At work we are encouraged to be go-getters — Rah, rah — you "reclaim your time," you "lean in," you get a seat at the table, you speak up. But then often times those aren't the qualities that men find attractive. And you go on a date and you are expected to turn into a much more traditional definition of femininity. And that is very confusing. And Serena says that right in the first episode, that she's done everything right, and why is it that she and her friends are still single? And, you know, we started crafting this character and this whole season back at the time when everyone — everyone in Hollywood at least — thought that Hillary Clinton was going to be the next president of the United States. So there was a question of whether these issues were still relevant. We were about to have our next female president, so aren't smart strong women celebrated in this country? And I really saw the real vitriol that Hillary received on the campaign trail. And it became really clear to me that a smart, strong woman is one of the scariest things in the world to a great portion of this country. 

On "UnREAL"'s examination of America's reality television fascination:

Right from the beginning of the show, what we've thematically been looking at is this princess fantasy that competition dating shows put out there. Which is that it's perfectly fine to go on a show to have a man be dating 20 other women along with you, [that] you should just look great in a bikini and sit in the hot tub and be perfectly fine with whatever he's doing. Even the idea that you should compete for a prize, which is a man, and in exchange he will pick you up in a helicopter and take you to Bali — that is what relationships between men and women look like. That's incredibly destructive because it's not based in any reality. And yet the show is incredibly popular because [among] their demographics for women who watch the show, there are a lot of high earners and big career women who watch the show. What is it in us and our society that that still feels like the escapist fantasy? We still want Prince Charming to show up on a stallion and take us to Bali for dinner. 

On giving women the chance to be the anti-hero:

The Can she be more likable? note is the note you get the most often with female characters. Glen Mazzara, a show runner who I've worked for before, has what I think is the best solution when you get that note — you look for vulnerability. Because its not really about taking away the bad things "that they do," but understanding more why they do them. For example in "UnREAL," right from the get-go you had Rachel, who had already had a breakdown, and had already realized how conflicted she was about being on this show. But then also in the first season, in the third episode, we went home with Rachel to meet her crazy mother, and that's unusual that you would break pattern that early in the first season where you would leave the mansion, you would leave "Everlasting," you would go home with Rachel.

But I think it went a long way to understanding why she keeps coming back to this place, to Quinn, and why the relationship to Quinn feels like love in a lot of ways, to her. It's understanding and vulnerability that I think helps it go a long way. For me, I never think about writing an anti-heroine. I just think about writing real, complicated, flawed characters. Because that's who human beings are to me. When I first came to "UnREAL," I had read the pilot that Marti Noxon and Sarah Shapiro had written, and I just loved that character of Rachel Goldberg so much because I understood this sort of crisis of conscience that she was having and how conflicted she felt about herself and what she was doing. How she hated herself for working in this place but also sort of got off on the fact that she was really good at it. I think that's very relatable. People find themselves late twenties, early thirties, in this career suddenly, thought you might have gone down a different path, but here you are and what the heck are you doing?

On how she works to create a safe workspace as a show runner:

You do need to really set the tone. I will say that the week those stories about Mark Schwahn and Andrew Kreisberg (creator of "Arrow," "Supergirl") came out in the press, I went up to Vancouver and we had a table read. And I made sure that everyone there knew how important it was to me that they felt safe, how I wanted them to have my phone number. And to know that they could call me day or night and I would take these things seriously and that something would be done about that. I didn't think that was unusual at all, but there were several people that came to me and said how much that meant to them. I think you have to put your money where your mouth is because when you're working on a show and you've got 100 people working for you, stuff comes up. And so, we have dealt with it, right away. I'm really proud of how the studio and the network have helped us deal with stuff — not even necessarily about sexual harassment, just any personnel issues that come up. It's important to do that, certainly in a writers room. It's important to say, This is a safe space, you can say anything, you can tell any joke. But we do not attack each other, we don't make it personal, we don't direct it at people, and if you ever do feel uncomfortable you can come to me. My door is open. 

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