By Sarah Gertrude Shapiro
Updated Feb 23, 2018 @ 12:45 pm
Sarah Shapiro Reality TV
Credit: Photo Illustration: Photos: Copyright 2018 Alexey Klementiev/Stocksy, Getty Images

I worked on The Bachelor, as a creative producer, for three years—or, in Bachelor years, nine seasons. When I started, I was an artsy, happy, hardcore feminist. It wasn’t a great fit to say the least, but as a young filmmaker trying to pay my rent, I was initially happy for the day job, and then a contract mix-up kept me there. It was kind of like a vegan working in a slaughterhouse. Some people love the job, but I couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed to the material.

I was also weirdly good at it. I was unfortunately a natural at playing the frumpy best friend prom queens spilled their guts to—very useful when you need hours of heart-barf interviews to make great TV. What a lot of people don’t know is that the role of a creative producer on a reality show about falling in love is less about barking commands into walkie-talkies (though there’s a ton of that too) and more about cultivating weirdly fake-deep relationships with contestants so that you can manipulate them into doing things that, when cut right, make them look just unhinged enough to keep your plot juicy and viewers tuned in to make fun of them.

I’ll never forget the night I knew I needed to quit. I've replayed this memory in my mind so many times that at this point the details are hazy but haunting: I was so exhausted and desperate and tired that I used what I knew about a girl's eating disorder to make her fall apart on camera and look like a pathetic, psycho stalker. She also happened to be an attorney, a pretty successful one from what I remember. As she was leaving that night—crying in a an evening gown, wheeling her bag to a minivan to be driven to LAX—she looked me in the eyes and said, “I hope you know you ruined my life.” And she was kind of right. From what I understand, when she got home she lost her job. And I did that. To a strong, educated, feminist woman. I lost her her job. To keep mine. A job I didn’t even want or believe in. It's that story, that memory, that guilt that drove me to make my short film Sequin Raze and that eventually inspired UnREAL, my Lifetime drama series about the making of a Bachelor-like reality show.

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Credit: James Dittiger/Lifetime

By the time I left that job, I was depressed, I was 30 lbs. heavier, and I hadn’t been on a date in three years. Learning how to destroy other women, I ultimately destroyed myself.

It happened gradually, in stages. During my tenure with The Bachelor, I’d become a pro at evaluating women like a frat boy, rating contestants from 1 to 10. I easily sorted them into sub-categories, horrible terms we nicknamed these women when they weren’t listening: Slut, Fatty, Fugly, Dumb-Dumb, Loudmouth, Boring, Wifey, Horny, Broken, Damaged Goods, Psycho, Stalker, Crazy Eyes.

I also learned horrible insider “locker-room” stuff I never wanted to know about. For example, behind the scenes on set, one guy explained that he evaluated all his dates for “FP” (Fat Potential), a nauseating equation he’d invented that took into account whether her mom had ever gotten fat, her childhood body type, and her eating habits in college. We are talking about someone looking for a life partner here, a mother to their theoretical children.

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Credit: Bettina Strauss

Another blowhard, who genuinely thought he was doing me a favor, assured me that we women were overthinking marriage compatibility; all any man wanted in a wife was a girl who could bake cookies and give blowjobs. You didn’t even have to be that hot or smart at all! And no one gives a rat’s ass about your job. Boring! The people working and competing on the show weren’t necessarily all rotten (or maybe they were?), but the environment encouraged this type of careless commodification of male-female relationships, and that encouraged a show of unveiled sexism that I truly didn’t know existed. It was like all my worst fears about what men were saying about us in private were true and made me so, so, so terrified to put myself “out there” in any way because I knew exactly how I would be judged by them.

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As much as I laughed this stuff off (these weren’t real people’s opinions! It was a joke, fiction that existed only in and for the sake of the Bachelor Nation vacuum!), I also internalized it to some degree. The problem with learning to evaluate women like a bro was that eventually, I turned that cruelty on myself. How could I not? I was rating every female “character” who walked into the mansion on a scale of 1 to 10—but these people weren’t actually characters, and of course, when I looked in the mirror at the end of an 80-hour work week, I was also rating myself, and that’s an exercise in disempowerment. So was telling myself that all anyone really wanted me to do was bake cookies and give blowjobs. Why was I so overthinking my life? College, career, politics, friends, family, integrity, my brain: who cares?

I finally begged my way out of my contract by saying I was going to kill myself if they didn’t let me out and leaving the state. I moved to Oregon, ostensibly to become a kale farmer and play in folk bands, swearing off Hollywood forever. But the misogyny I'd internalized haunted me long after I'd made my escape. The kale farmer thing didn’t last long. My life's path was still filmmaking a writing—I had just gotten brutally side-tracked. When I did come back to the industry, I did it on my own terms, with my own story to tell.

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Credit: James Dittiger/Lifetime

The scars and guilt that that misogyny left me with are what drove me to create UnREAL, whose third season premieres Monday. I made it because I realized that the grosser we as women feel about ourselves, the less likely we are to stand up for ourselves, know our worth, and fight back. UnREAL is an effort to take a deeper look at the corrosive effect of bully TV on women’s self-esteem. I had a funny feeling that what it did to me, was kind what it was doing to women on the whole.

I know a lot of women, feminists among them, who “joke watch” those kind of shows. And I get it—I think there is a part of us that wants to believe in a simpler path to love or at least to figure out what we are doing wrong: Why do we feel so alone? Why can’t we get people to love us? But I’m not sure the way we consume these messages is a joke.

I can’t watch it anymore. I've often suspected that I have genuine PTSD—like trouble making my eyes focus on the screen, Clockwork Orange pry-them-open-with-toothpicks style. And while I know it feels good to trash talk the “stupid” girls on the show who are blowing it at every turn, I really believe it only feels good in the moment—like mowing down a nice, big bag of Cheetos. Do you really feel good at the end of the night when you are wiping orange cheese dust off your face and nursing a belly ache? This stuff feels fun, detached in the moment, but eventually, it makes us feel bad about ourselves too.

There’s a lot of me in Quinn and Rachel, the producers of the reality competition dating show at the center of UnREAL. My hope is that by creating female characters who are falling into all the same traps I did—buying their own bullshit, accidentally believing in the princess fantasy even while making fun of it—we can start a conversation about whether consuming this kind of media is really good for us on the whole. Even if we are making fun of it, isn’t it still seeping in somewhere, corroding our sense of power and of ourselves? On top of that, I really wanted to make a show about two women at work who talk about work and whose primary focuses are work and camaraderie.

We need to start creating a kinder self-images. And we need start to asking how what we consume is actually doing to us. Reality TV is not just a joke. After all, it gave us our president.

UnREAL Season 3 premieres on Monday, Feb. 26, at 10 p.m. ET on Lifetime.