“I wanted to write something that portrayed a young woman’s journey of sexual exploration, and that was an introduction to the New York scene’s wonderful secret world.”
When I first heard about the web series Unicornland, I was pretty skeptical, if I’m totally honest. As a queer, nonmonogamous pervert who has been the “hot bi babe” unicorn for many couples throughout my life, I was expecting it to follow in the footsteps of other media depicting polyamory or kink/BDSM: titillating, upper-class, straight and very very white.
But looking over Unicornland’s successful Kickstarter campaign, I discovered a diversity to the cast that gave me a little bit of hope that maybe, this time, I’d be lucky. Then I watched the series, squealing with delight at seeing things I had experienced on the dating scene depicted onscreen. Then I showed my boyfriend (my wife was watching wrestling at the time, and that’s sacred). It was such a relief and a delight to see a series that depicted nonmonogamy in all its messy, beautiful glory.
When I was offered the chance to interview the show’s producer, Lucy Gillespie, I jumped at it.
Kitty Stryker: I know you’ve answered this before, but it feels like one of those questions I have to ask: what inspired you to create Unicornland?
Lucy Gillespie: After my divorce, the last thing I wanted was to get in another relationship. I knew there was some screwy stuff about my beliefs and expectations about relationships (their purpose and my role in them), and I wanted to deal with that before getting into another one long-term. Also, I’d always been a good girl and never rebelled. Always in serious relationships, I’d never partied or had one-night stands or done anything else that was — in my opinion at the time — wild and crazy and adventurous.
When my oldest friend invited me to a fetish party (The Art of Restraint), I leapt at the chance. The elevator doors opened to a glowing and grinning curvaceous woman in nothing but mardi gras beads. The whole experience was thrilling, from the sights to the people and the conversations. It was all so far from the narrow constraints of what I’d been taught was allowed for women and relationships.
Over the next two years, I got deeply involved in New York’s fetish scene, and through that, the polyamory scene. I learned that the traditional narrative of relationships is something we are fed and buy into unconsciously, but there are truly endless options for how love can work. I realized how much of what I knew of sex and sexuality was derived from fear and inhibition. I was surrounded by myriad unique relationships that modeled communication, consent and respect.
I wanted to write something that portrayed a young woman’s journey of sexual exploration, and that was an introduction to the New York scene’s wonderful secret world. By having Annie date couples (instead of going to parties), she could go one step at a time to process those experiences and lessons.
LG: It was really important to the director and I to honestly reflect my experience of the scene in New York. At a few points during casting, we had difficulty finding actors that fit the ethnicity we wanted. But — for instance — if Julianne in episode 1 is white, it says something totally different about who she is, who that couple is and who Annie is in accepting the date. We worked extra hard to get it right.
People get involved in the scene for very specific reasons. It takes a particular journey through the flowchart of life to reach “question foundations of traditional relationships.” I wanted the characters to reflect that.
I grew up in London, have lived in Chicago and New York and now L.A. — I’ve always been surrounded by a wide range of diversity. And I’ve also always been an immigrant — I was American when I lived in England, and am English now, so I’ve always identified with “the outsider.” The world I know is full of people who wrestle with identity, and their place in society. I’m interested in writing about the intersections between cultures, and complicated moments of cultural evolution.
KS: Does that diversity reflect your experience as a unicorn in the sex-positive community? If not, how did that play out?
KS: I appreciated conversations about consent being pretty clear in the show, and when they weren’t, it was portrayed as an issue. What do you find problematic about mainstream depictions of alternative sexual expressions?
LG: Mainstream depictions of alternative sexual expressions usually get it wrong. They don’t understand, for instance, the importance of the “play” state. When you’re “playing,” there are rules and roles and goals for each player. In 50 Shades of Grey, for instance, Christian is into D/s because he’s “50 shades of fucked up.” In the BDSM world, yes, there are a lot of people who are fucked up, but the community at large represents a kind of play where the dominant and the submissive are consenting, complicit and conscious. They are not in an altered mental state. They are (ideally) sober. Both want these events to take place. Again, in 50 Shades, Christian gets off on Ana’s being new/innocent/unfamiliar with that world. In safe/card-carrying BDSM, the submissive is playing a role that allows him/her to access great sexual gratification. They are not reluctant; they are willing. That is the crux of what most mainstream depictions get wrong about alternative sexual expressions — that they are desired by both sides.
But then, it’s “dramatic” to write a story where someone isn’t happy with what’s going on in bed. And it’s easy for writers to write stories where the woman gets taken advantage of. In conversation with my friend Laura Ramadei (the actress who plays “Annie”), she talked about how she is turned off by porn/movies where the woman isn’t into sex. She only wants to watch and play women who are excited by and on board with whatever it is they’re doing in bed (anything and everything!). That’s also something we don’t see enough of — women who are actively into what they’re doing.
But the list goes on. Mainstream sexuality is very judgmental about bodies, which teaches audiences and filmmakers lessons about who is sexy. Many of my friends in the scene have larger bodies, or differently shaped bodies, or trans bodies, and are staggeringly gorgeous and highly sexual — there’s not a lot of that represented in mainstream cinema.
Another thing — consent is much more important in alternative sexuality communities than it is in mainstream hetero vanilla dating. While playing with people from the scene, consent is paramount. Permission is asked for each action — can I touch this, can I kiss you, can I sit here, do you mind if I watch, what is your STD status? But in the vanilla world, I’ve dated guys who’ve broken every possible rule; who slip it in without permission when I’ve said no, who’ve slipped it in without a condom, who’ve lied about their STD status, or how many partners they have, or the nature of our relationship. Mainstream sexuality teaches men to get something/anything/everything out of women in whatever way they possibly can, which is technically rape. Alternative sexuality/sex positivity is proof that this does not need to happen in order for us to get laid.
LG: I love this question: I’m awkward and unsure of myself in bed. I always feel like I’m doing it wrong, am often in my head, find it very hard to relax and go with the flow. By being in the scene, I’ve witnessed friends having “sexy” sex — the dancey, intense, organic, human animal, involuntary instinctive impulsive kind. I usually lie on the bed next to those people and make distracting jokes. (Getting smacked at and told to shut up.)
My journey started because I wanted to resolve this discomfort, and that’s also what Annie’s searching for: to reconcile and reclaim sexuality for her own soft animal body.
A lot of women are in their head during sex, convinced by Hollywood representations that orgasms should be screaming, that they’re supposed to hold their face a certain way, and that there’s a proscribed list of dirty words to memorize. Sex, therefore, becomes more of a performance than an experience for women. The awkwardness and the vulnerability was key, therefore, to breaking through that bullshit that women are used to seeing (and feeling insecure about). Each episode challenges a conceit of what Hollywood/society thinks is a sexy role for a woman; to ask the audience, well, what makes you FEEL sexy? Not “how can you BE sexy,” but what makes YOU feel it and get off?
KS: A lot of media talked about this as polyamory. Because of the format, though, it felt more like casual play — was that intentional? Will the main character end up pursuing more of a relationship with any of these couples?
The media talks about the show as polyamory because it’s is a buzzword at the moment. Unicornland is not about polyamory. While I’m overjoyed to represent a slice of the NYC scene (including Hacienda, where we filmed episode 8 with the hosts Andrew Sparksfire and Beth), I’m not trying to represent all facets of nonmonogamy. That would be absurd in an 8-episode, 40-minute series! What Annie is doing is experimenting after her divorce in a way that allows her to see how other people make love work. She meets some couples who are technically polyamorous (George and Martha in episode 2, Veronica and Archie in episode 4 and Katharine and Joshua in episode 8).
KS: I loved how each episode was short, and also that they varied — each one took as long as it needed to, and no longer. What made you go with that format? What were the positives and challenges?
LG: Short — money! Some episodes were longer, and were cut down. Neither the director or I were familiar with the film format — in the editing room, we learned a lot about fat/darlings and how to cut/kill them.
Positives: they can be impactful and the message is clear when they’re short. Challenges: it would be nicer to round out the characters more, and to give Annie more of a backstory.
KS: What advice do you have for a filmmaker, especially one who is marginalized and/or is portraying a marginalized community, about the editing process?
LG: Regardless of who the filmmaker is and where they come from, I advise they hire their editor as early as possible — during pre-production or sooner. The editor is as key as the director in the storytelling. In many ways, they have the final say, and if you work with someone you love and trust, who gets the story, who has passion and an opinion on the work and — if possible — a different experience and take on it from the writer/director, then it adds a lot to the final product.
Unicornland is my first film project so I don’t have a broad basis for comparison, but we were VERY well served by our editor on this story. She’s gay, offered insight into the world we were portraying, and had strong opinions on the portrayal of these characters and representation of their relationships. Also, she’s a woman — so we had a consistent female gaze between Arina Bleiman’s cinematography and Catie Stickel’s (the editor) cut. So I would advise any marginalized filmmaker to find someone who not only gets it, but lives it.
KS: Any plans to include trans people or gender nonconforming folks in the next season? What about aromantics or asexuals, or people with disabilities?
LG: Episode 4/Archie is played by Gregg Mozgala, who has cerebral palsy. It was hard to get Gregg — he’s on fire right now and his schedule was nuts — but I fought and begged and am so glad to have him in the series. My brother has CP, so it’s especially important to me to portray characters with disabilities having healthy sex lives.Related: 4 Tips for Dating When You Have a Disability
We also have several trans women as extras: Andi Buch, the sub in episode 8 who triggers Annie, and Emma P — my oldest friend — is also an extra in episode 8.
KS: What advice would you give a unicorn exploring this world for the first time?
LG: Go to a lot of munches and meet people outside of dating before getting involved with them sexually. Maybe go to sex parties first, and observe until you’re comfortable participating. Be selfish. You’re pursuing your own interests within this world.
KS: What do you think makes love (in whatever combination) work?