Yesterday a coworker of mine got engaged to her boyfriend. He surprised her with a ring at their moving-away party, and the women of my company spent a large part of today in throes of ecstasy over it. There were pictures of the ring, typed-out squeals of joy with so many exclamation points, and declarations that “even though I don’t believe in love, this convinced me.” Then this evening I finally watched the season finale of UnREAL, the fantastic Lifetime show whose tar-dark heart speaks directly to mine.
And those two events made for a fascinating juxtaposition: one a sincere display of love, one a show dedicated to exposing its fallacies, and both on some level peddling the same lace-and-roses fantasy. The showrunners of Everlasting, the reality dating show-within-a-show on UnREAL, traffic in all the trappings of love, ensuring that every ugly barb the contestants throw at one another is gauzily lit and gorgeous. But while Rachel and Quinn live every day steeped in cynicism, even they’re susceptible to the bullshit they create. Rachel has become so good at manipulating people that she manipulates herself into falling for the handsome, mercenary suitor. Quinn delights in sizing up and labeling each girl — whore, virgin, MILF — but when she lets her guard down she realizes she’s let herself get filed into the “long-suffering wifey” category. And the girls themselves, come hell or high drama and despite hard evidence of the falseness all around them, get sucked into the dream of — if not love, at least low-level fame. It’s astonishing.
But the real mind fuck, the genius trick the show pulls off, is working its magic on us. We are literally watching a television series about terrible people doing terrible things to others in the service of a terrible show we the viewers are supposed to scoff at — and yet UnREAL‘s showrunners manipulate us, through compelling television, into rooting for them. We root for Anna to win, we root for Quinn to be happy — hell, I even found myself rooting just a tiny bit for Rachel and Adam to end up on that beach together.
There’s a reason The Bachelor has run for 19 seasons, and it’s because we are inundated with these very specific fantasies of love and fulfillment, so constantly and so consistently, that they are impossible not to internalize. Even the most hardened cynic feels a prickle when listening to wedding vows; even the most avowedly anti-establishment badass would be touched by a proposal of undying love. “Will you marry me?” means will you join this club to which only I can grant you access? It means yes, I am willing to pledge myself to you legally, and thus you can be satisfied that the little question you always have, that question of am I good enough? am I desirable? has been answered, at least for now. I desire you, and thus you are desirable. And now that desire must manifest itself in bunting and china patterns and KitchenAid mixers that all, individually and collectively, must symbolize exactly who you are now that you’re attaching yourself to another person.
I’m not immune to this by any means. It’s all too easy to get me started on a tirade about the ickiness of the wedding industry, but I always cry at weddings and I secretly live for the Grand Romantic Gesture in movies. Thinking about someone proposing to me, about going through the steps of planning a wedding together…it feels thrilling and beautiful and, disturbingly, right. Disturbing because I have no idea how to separate what I want from what I am spoon-fed minute after hour after day. Like Rachel and like Quinn, I am seduced by the bullshit. I am told, “This is what you want,” and though I don’t want to want it, I do.
This isn’t to say that love doesn’t exist — even UnREAL has the glorious, albeit unconventional depiction of true love that is Quinn and Rachel. It’s just that in the fight against the tide of white satin and happily ever after, the deck is stacked so far against us that we can’t see the top. So even I, even the incredibly smart and deep-thinking women I work with, can’t help but give in.