So, I watched The Act, which is an eight part miniseries on Hulu based on the real life of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and the murder of her mother, Dee Dee Blanchard. Dee Dee medically abused her daughter, convincing her and those around her to think she was debilitatingly ill. She forced Gypsy to undergo invasive treatments and procedures, shaving her head and making her spend her entire life in a wheelchair she didn’t need. She then went on to use her daughter’s fabricated illnesses in order to con charitable organizations. I don’t usually go in for crime dramas and even less so for the “based off true events” breed of storytelling, but I’d heard so many positive reviews that I decided to give this one a whirl.
Now there’s a lot to unpack with this show. I could have written about the moral complexity of the two protagonists’ relationship or the real life public reaction to the story, but I’m sure there are a million people more qualified than I am to sort through that mess. Instead, I wanted to focus on how it functions as a drama and whether or not dramatizing real life events is a… morally sound form of storytelling.
The show itself isn’t as graphic as you might think it is. There are a few violent scenes and the ones that do make it into the series are deeply unsettling, but you could count all of them on one hand. Most of the violence is implied, with long, uncomfortable scenes where little or nothing happens, but the viewer is constantly made to feel that Gypsy is never quite safe, like something horrible could happen at any moment. This is broken up with just enough physical abuse for the threat to be credible – a much more effective way of telling the story than reveling in bruises and broken bones the way some of these thrillers do. This is doubly true since it is a story about abuse. It puts the viewer in the position of never knowing if or when something bad will happen and brings us closer to Gypsy as a character.
It also doesn’t hurt that all of the actors’ performances are outstanding. Patricia Arquette and Joey King both play their roles perfectly. King plays Gypsy as sweet and innocent, while simultaneously growing progressively more curious and frustrated as her mother stops her from exploring her burgeoning adulthood. Arquette plays Dee Dee as a manipulative southern sweetheart that’s all smiles in public, and Cathy Bates from Misery behind closed doors. The dynamic between them feels perfectly natural, while also being profoundly unsettling.
But here’s where things get more than a little meta.
As a drama, this show is top tier and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to someone. There is a terrifying anxiety to it that I haven’t experienced this successfully in very many other pieces of media.
That said – it is a show based on true events.
There really was a Gypsy Rose and Dee Dee Blanchard. Gypsy is a real life human being who you could meet and talk to. Her story is something that actually happened to her, it isn’t a work of fiction, but this miniseries is.
Hulu is very careful to show this disclaimer in every episode.
I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on the case. I was only vaguely aware of the story before seeing The Act and while I probably should have done a ton of research before writing this post, frankly, I didn’t want to. So I can’t personally tell you exactly how much of the miniseries was true to life and how much was fiction, but what that disclaimer essentially means is that while the bare bones of the story (the events that take place and the people that took part in them) really did happen, probably 95% of the dialogue was fabricated by a writer on a laptop. These scenes were composed by an author for drama, not accuracy.
Now if you read what the performers and creators have to say, they’ll talk about how they tried to do justice to Gypsy’s story, that they researched the events and watched the interviews. They’ll tell you that they did their best to emulate body language, speech patterns and get into the nitty-gritty motivations that make the characters feel real – and I’m sure they did those things – but for all of that, the performance will always take precedence over the facts.
But isn’t that how all adaptations are?
Well, yes and no. Dramatizations aren’t meant to be documentaries. They aren’t supposed to be impartial and they are allowed to dabble into fiction in order to fill in the blanks, but there are three major things I see that separate The Act from stories like Into the Wild or The Imitation Game.
- Gypsy is still alive.
- This is a story about trauma.
- Gypsy did not give Hulu permission.
The real Gypsy Rose Blanchard has gone on record stating, “I feel it is very unfair and unprofessional that producers and co-producer Michelle Dean has used my actual name and story without my consent.”
This is once again problematic in terms of accuracy, since the only living person who was present for most of the events of the story wasn’t consulted during its creation, but it also raises a more important moral issue.
Is it okay for Hulu to profit from an unwilling person’s story? Is it okay for them to spread their fictionalized version of a real life woman’s trauma?
Journalists are beholden to slander and libel laws. It is their job to be objective and report facts, not construct narratives.
Because this is a dramatization however, Hulu doesn’t have to follow these rules or face the consequences for breaking them. They are free to simultaneously dodge journalistic responsibility by claiming it as a work of fiction, and to sensationalize the story by announcing that it is based on true events.
The danger in this is that we, as viewers, don’t know exactly what percentage of this version of events is true and what isn’t. It features dozens of real live people whose characters and decisions have been warped by the lens of fiction and broadcast to the entire world. Now they have to live with a public perception that has been doctored.
If you think watching the show is hard, imagine watching it as Gypsy. Imagine seeing the worst parts of your life acted out by strangers in a way that prioritizes maximizing the drama and suspense, and the most traumatic thing that you ever experienced was now on display to Hulu’s 26.8 million subscribers. Imagine them getting details wrong, showing you as more, or less of a victim than you were and knowing that’s how people in the real world will see you now. Does that seem right?
So what’s the verdict?
In the end… I don’t know.
I’m sorry. I know that’s a crappy thesis.
I feel that the show is a success as a work of fiction. The acting, directing and cinematography are all absolutely top notch. Since it is a dramatization, Hulu hasn’t broken any laws and didn’t legally need Gypsy’s permission to tell a story based off events in the public record.
I know that for a lot of people, the fact that it’s based on true events is a major part of the appeal, but I feel like I’d be more comfortable giving it a recommendation if it were a clear cut work of fiction or if Hulu worked harder to advertise it as one instead of acting like it kind of, sort of, might be, a little bit less than perfectly accurate. I also feel like it would be a lot more cut and dry if Gypsy herself were onboard for the production.
But as it is…
I just don’t know.
Let me know what you think,