A show of Haarts but no soul

My Unorthodox Life, the latest reality docu-drama miniseries from Netflix, could have very well been a TedTalk. Instead, it chose to occupy 9 episodes of manufactured drama to tell a story. You'd wonder, how good of a story could it be?

Julia Haart, the matriarch, is a force to reckon with. She quit on her Jewish fundamentalist community and family and extrapolated herself from the frum (orthodox Jewish coterie) to build herself an empire, singlehandedly, and further elevate all their lives to bring them a step closer to living, breathing, eating, sleeping, gestating fashion and sex-positivity. She now leads an international talent agency, dabbles in fashion, encourages other members of her family, frum, and strangers to get out of the hell-hole of conservatism by showing them a good time in the real world. What’s not to like about this radically unorthodox story?

For starters, it’s wholly one-dimensional. Everything you see and hear is from the perspective of Julia, her kids, her current partner, and her best friend who doubles up as her favourite work colleague. It's as if, I'll ask my bestie, my folks, my sibling, my last hook-up and their sibling to root for my work and endorse me on LinkedIn for being a grade-A writer. Why at no point, does the show not engage with any other source material is a question that is lost on me.

I don’t mean that they should have brought about a Rabbi or an anthropologist or a narrator but any external source, written material, or archival data on the family history and Julia’s powerful initiation into the world of fashion and the new lifestyle would have made for a stronger story using external aids to add as facts. The device to tell this supposedly incredible story with just family and BFF falls flat on its face, especially since she's an entrepreneur who led a shoe line and then successfully sold it, and at the time of the shoot launched her own label (E 1972). She's a business mogul and her larger-than-life story could have been done with some amount of external people (a la Will Buxton in Drive To Survive) adding to that.

On top of that, there is no contradiction between Julia’s narrative and her perspective. As a Punjabi family kid, I find it hard to believe that all members of the family are constantly hyping one person. Very on-brand for Barjatya film production company screenplay, not an international reality TV show on Netflix. Even the Kardashian argue and have different POVs from each other.

The other reason why My Unorthodox Life really fails to make an impact is the screenplay that it chooses to weave with the characters. The Haart family has intriguing members— eldest child Batsheva, a digital content creator who married her fellow Frum sweetheart Benjamin (at 19), followed by the eldest son Shlomo (still a virgin at 24 and supposedly a problem for all the sex-positivity), followed by Miriam (aka Julia lite) and the youngest son, Aron, who believes with every fiber of his being that talking to women and watching TV is not encouraged in Judaism (he's my favourite guy). If you take a step back and recalibrate yourself, the family members write themselves to be fascinating individuals you definitely want to learn more about.

In the pilot, you are given a sense of how these are all very different people and together as a family experienced something vastly different from most of us, and yet, nine episodes in, the whole feeling crashes and burns when you watch the glamour of the American dream overtake a story you’re here for. By all means, amp up the glam but if your foundation is patchy, then the fancy make-up won’t stay for long.

There is a thin line between making a point and manufacturing drama and the Haarts are unable to straddle that without falling down to the dramatic side. It’s as though, the family and the people they are married to, all vowed to be so extra that watching them “take on things” seriously make you question, “Is this empowerment, and am I doing my life wrong if I’m not wearing 9-inch heels with a mini skirt at home in the middle of a pandemic?” Maybe I am doing it wrong. Watching Julia in those outfits and picking from her closet made me want to dress up so that would explain my cycling shorts, crop top, and space bun look for the day.

I digress, but, the things they take on in the show include (and is not limited to)- a motion for learning to masturbate with dildo before having sex with another person, body positivity by throwing a funeral for insecurities (on a yacht, no less), introducing the men in the community to dating before they make up their minds to marry, and/or dedicate their respective lives to the frum, getting glamourous makeovers as a way of communicating a break up with the frum among others.

The way these things are highlighted makes for an exhausting watch and you constantly long for any reference to their old life so you can learn what they are fighting here. If I’m here for your "unorthodox" life and you give me pure hedonism and little context, then I’m gonna be fucking bored. The only glimmer of hope I saw in the "unorthodox" bit was Benjamin react to Batsheva wearing jeans since the women in the frum are not allowed to wear any pants or trousers, and instead, it encourages skirts or dresses that cover the legs and protect the modesty of the woman. The pilot gave lots of hope but it all flat out fizzled by the end of it.

Julia’s daughter Miriam, aka Julia lite, has mega Kylie Jenner energy, with her entrepreneurial gigs in the tech, whereas Batsheva is a lost Kardashian (Kim, perhaps) who’s trying to make her career come together via her influencer stardom on TikTok. Well done, girl bosses.

The sons are nothing to write about except they still come across as some part authentic with looking hella awkward on-screen negotiating their lives with the women in their family. The orthodox Jewish community encourages the males to be the authoritative figure but in Julia's handbook (aka the regular life), nobody can tell her daughters and other women what to do (go Julia). Somehow, this bit is fleshed out via the awkwardness of the males to assimilate in the world they now inhabit, where people are equal (or atleast trying to be). Only Julia can tell people what to do, including scheming a dinner plan with her ex-husband to introduce his new girlfriend to her family. Everybody, say Shalom!

The highlight for me was seeing Julia’s BFF (not her assistant as a disgruntled Rabbi listed him in an article based on the promo) Robert Brotherton meet his biological parent, which was, well, worth the dramatic side character arc. It’s a whole different can of worms to open, but long story short, My Unorthodox Life is pretty much what Karan Johar did with Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, it’s all about loving your family and make of that what you will.
Given how little we actually know about the way Julia transitioned and how each W in her life came to her, I’m happy to believe that she binged her way through Karan Johan’s filmography (excluding Kaal) and then found her way to Kris Kardashian’s empire and her role as a momager in Keeping Up With The Kardashians. I am also cognizant of her credit as an Executive Producer on the show in aligning my conspiracy theory of this watchlist.

At the surface level, My Unorthodox Life scratches the SJW itch by countering religious fundamentalism with fashion and sex-positivity on steroids. With the number of dildo references and monologues on self-love casually included, you’d wonder if the show or the family is sponsored by an up-and-coming vibrator brand. But, as far as we know, they’re not. We get it, Julia, vibrators good and men bad, but you don’t have to make a whole reality docu-drama about a PSA like that. Twitter and Instagram are still effective to disseminate your girl-boss story and make a point about dildos doing one better than relationships. I agree with you.

The Girl Boss narrative is a slippery slope to trek on. You can very well climb your way to produce a motivational media object— a phony literary prize-winning book, a viral YouTube video, second innings with a career as a stand-up comedienne, an influencer with over a million followers—and yet all girl boss check posts have a thing in common— the stories are set straight. There’s never concealing of facts or truth from their audience. If a person comes from a space of privilege they talk about it, if they don’t come from money, they talk about it. If they have fucked up, they talk about it, if they are being extra and getting called out, they still talk about it.

Julia is a mega babe in control of everyone and everything— from her BFF's dating life (and the lack thereof) to her son’s preference to be religious and her take on all these is the girl boss approach. However, Julia and the women in the family, in the ecosystem of being girl bosses, don’t quite balance the factual element well. You’re one search result away from knowing that Julia’s second husband Silvio Scaglia Haart (who took on her made-up surname after their marriage, which has roots from her maiden surname) had first acquired La Perla before he made her lead the business. You wonder how did a person who was not allowed to mingle with anybody other than women and her family go from selling insurance to running a fashion empire without any of those questions being addressed.

The facts are never revealed, the ideas are presented like small talk at a party. All that you’re told is her version of the truth; a version dangled like carrots in front of the cart to take you through 9 episodes of reality TV glamour— a trip to the Hamptons, Paris fashion week, LGBTQIA+ discourse, siblings drama, gay BFF drama. You’re never actually told anything other than very cerebral words describing Julia’s life with her ex-husband Yosef and her years as his wife who was unhappy. Sure, she was not allowed the same privileges as her husband, but what do we know about Julia besides when she got married and when she left her community, it’s all in the dark including why she was so miserable and whether her husband was for or against her leaving the community, and what followed. It's very hazy and definitely shady because the show doesn't address the fact that to get from where she was to where is, there would have been many support systems and people between, but it fails to address that. Her Wikipedia page tells more about her past life and the present than the show. You can uproot your life and make it big, but you cannot do it alone and these missing pieces of puzzle come as questions gnawing at the viewers' sensibilities throughout.

What truly sucks about watching My Unorthodox Life is that the story that occupies the lives of Julia Haart, which makes for the core of the show, was lost and never explored beyond what she reveals in the first episode. The other episodes carry a sense of “afterlife” of Julia, and that’s okay because that’s her "unorthodox" life but it eliminates the narrative on who she is, and what she’s fought for years to achieve. If her story to inspire others and empower others in her community is all about her vacation to 13th-century castles in Europe and endorsing Louis Vuitton without actually saying very much about how she got to the point of being able to afford that lifestyle and doing what she did, there’s a very limited crowd she’s actually targeting. I'm thinking of the actual target audience: a woman from the frum, wanting to end her life or trying to leave, and watching Julia have so much fun without actually revealing details on how to quit and run away, really dilutes the point of doing the show and telling the world that you're an inspiration.

Despite it all, I’d say, the show is worth a watch and definitely worth your time since it looks at a community from afar (in little moments) and gives some perspective, even if it is manufactured and has certainly riled the orthodox Jewish men as visible from their comments left on the Instagram profile of the Haart family members. For what it’s worth, Julia Haart is the new Kris Kardashian and she’s here to stay with her family, might as well ride this wave before it’s too late for you to know.  

 The series is available for streaming on Netflix in India.

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Anisha Saigal

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Pop-culture omnivore. Survived publishing, academia, film school. Struggling with the pandemic.