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Menace is the sisterhood of the Instagram series

The locally produced dystopian comedy has a big mission for a small format.

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The creators and stars of Menace, from left: Devon Carson, Sarah Alò, and Flavia Borges - ANGÉLINA FERREIRA
  • Angélina Ferreira
  • The creators and stars of Menace, from left: Devon Carson, Sarah Alò, and Flavia Borges

Before the three main characters of the new video series Menace speak a single word, their phones buzz with an emergency alert: "Females seek shelter immediately. Attack in your area." One thousand women in Chicago have been killed by a group of radical men's rights activists, jokingly called GuySIS. Our heroes find themselves holed up in a tiny apartment, forced to rely on women they barely know for survival. And the whole story is told in 13 one-minute episodes on Instagram.

"It's about sisterhood," says Devon Carson, 33, one of the show's creators and stars. "It's about the struggles and the failures and the successes brought out of necessity and growing bonds and becoming close through process. I think [sisterhood] is huge both in real life in what really happened, and also in what we wrote."

Carson, Flavia Borges, 31, and Sarah Alò, 27, were practically strangers when they decided to collaborate. All three women were tired of relying on all-male crews to execute their creative visions. As a team they've spent the last year exploring different feminist perspectives, challenging themselves with a constrained format, and imagining the worst-case scenario of a present-day attack on women's rights. The result of that process is Menace, premiering on Instagram at @MenaceSeries on Thursday, November 9.

The series portrays financial dominatrix Daisy (Carson), illegal immigrant Ana (Borges), and domestic abuse survivor Jane (Alò) all reacting to a nationwide femicide while also dealing with body-image issues, race, sexuality, intersectionality, sex-worker stereotypes, beauty standards, and feminist ideals. And these three extremely different women have to learn to accept each other, acknowledge their own flaws, and come together as a force to counteract the building threat against womanhood.

The creators wanted each character to reflect a conflicting duality they experience in their own lives. On one end, there's the effort to uphold feminist ideals; on the other, their habits of judging other women, defending problematic men, and further actions that are often frowned upon in the scope of the sisterhood. Every act of strength is followed by a distinctly nonfeminist action.

"Our instincts and emotions might not match the logical thing that we're supposed to think or feel or believe," Carson says. "When we were writing these characters, we didn't want them to be perfect feminist icons. That doesn't exist."

When Jane, the domestic abuse survivor, is first introduced, she's portrayed as having made sacrifices to protect herself and become self-sufficient. But Daisy and Ana soon discover that she's the poster child for white privilege.

"I was really excited to write Jane as a white feminist, as someone who doesn't get intersectionality," Alò says. "I thought it was important to force that type of woman into a situation where she can't just look away and pretend what's happening isn't real or that there aren't still inequalities between women. I was trying to be able to be compassionate to her while also keeping her accountable for the ways in which she has inadvertently caused inequality in her own life."

It's a lot to pack into 13 minutes on a social media platform. But the claustrophobia serves the story. Most of the series takes place in a cramped apartment, made to feel even smaller by the dimensions of Instagram on a cell phone. The setting forces the women to confront each other. And the limitations served as a quality checkpoint during the writing process—within that 13 minutes not one second is wasted.

"I think it always helps to have constraints," Carson says. "Everything gets chopped, but it's good because then you really pick out the chunks that are important, simplify everything."

When Carson, Borges, and Alò first collaborated, the possibilities were boundless. There were no scripts, no set visions, and no expectations, just a group of women who wanted to express their points of view without a male perspective sneaking its way into the creative process.

Borges was the glue that connected everyone. As an actor, she found herself being cast only in roles that relied on her sexuality. She wanted to explore her history as an immigrant and woman of color, and began work on a screenplay. But she found the process extremely isolating. She wanted feedback on her work from other women, and she reached out to Alò and Carson, two of the very few female artists she crossed paths with in creative workshops and classes in Chicago. Borges remembers being impressed with Carson's ability to pull amazing performances out of actors as a director during local filmmaker meetups. And after Borges met Alò in a Second City class, the former was inspired by a video sketch that the latter wrote and directed called "Love at First Catcall."

"When I wrote that sketch, the whole group of people that I actually wrote and produced it with were men," Alò says. "When Flavia approached me, I was definitely supereager to write with women. Also, her perspective on it was not just that we would be creating and writing, but that we would be hiring a female crew and get it as much out of the hands of men as possible." In fact, the only time a male actor appears in the series, all you can see is his hands—in the credits the character is simply called "faceless man." More than 75 percent of the production crew is female.

When Carson, Borges, and Alò finally started working together, it was bumpy at first. Much like the characters they ended up writing, they were forced to confront each other's flaws in an intimate environment and put their egos aside for the sake of a greater cause.

"It's easy to get into that, 'Oh, we're besties! We get along so well all the time!' and it's the only way women can collaborate," Borges says. "That's not true. We can recognize our differences, understand each other and share that, and still have a partnership. We don't have to agree on everything. We're all different. That's what makes it so good."

During the first few writing sessions, the trio couldn't even agree on a genre. Borges loved drama, Alò's work was mostly in comedic sketches, and Carson wanted to explore sci-fi and fantasy. Instead of fighting each other's instincts, they blended their strengths to create something that they never would have come up with as individuals: a dystopian fiction that's funny but also has very dark and dramatic moments.

Borges, Carson, and Alò fend off GuySIS, a radical men’s rights group, in Menace. - ANGÉLINA FERREIRA
  • Angélina Ferreira
  • Borges, Carson, and Alò fend off GuySIS, a radical men’s rights group, in Menace.

To reinforce the validity of the topics the three women wanted to address, they gathered focus groups of females in Chicago to find out what issues were most important to them and how they preferred to consume media. During that time it became clear that Instagram was the social media of choice among the series' target audience.

"We all know creators," Borges says. "We've seen a lot of webseries be made. In this day and age, it's easier because we all have phones—you can put it out there automatically. But then there's the challenge of finding your audience and letting them know you're there. One of the things for me that was an appeal to using Instagram was the fact that it was a social platform. Not only could we find our audience easier, but they could also find us."

At the time of this writing, @MenaceSeries has more than 90 posts on its Instagram page and nearly 5,000 followers. That means there's the potential for almost 5,000 people to just scroll to the first episode in their feeds without needing to take extra steps to seek out the series on another platform.

Just because Menace is being hosted on Instagram doesn't mean it looks like a casual social media post. Despite having only two days to shoot all 13 episodes, the female-centric crew created a visually engrossing story with a high production value and performances to match. Viewers (or in this case, followers) are introduced to each character in 30 seconds or less. In that time they see brief texting exchanges with men, carefully curated surroundings, and a range of complex emotions from each actor that quickly builds a well-rounded world without a single word being spoken.

Each character has a naturalistic look, an intentional creative decision that correlates with the series' feminist cause. "An important part of how we decided to tell this story visually is not to oversexualize or glamorize ourselves," Carson says. "You see it so much in film, narratives that are told about women where they wake up and look beautiful, their makeup is perfect and their hair is perfect. The only makeup that was actually put on us was just to make sure we didn't have lights shooting out of our heads."

The show's trailer asks "Is the future still female?" Even though the world of the series is fictional, the creators based it on their very real fears for what could happen in the future. Women aren't being murdered in mass numbers in the streets of Chicago just yet, but Carson argues that the oppression and violence that women face in other countries could easily be replicated in the United States, especially with the current state of the nation. If that's what it comes to, the creators say, it's dependence on each other, sisterhood, that will keep the female army strong enough to fight whatever comes its way.

"You can't just defriend these women, you can't just walk away from them, because you kind of depend on them because you're in a scary situation," Alò says. "Why can't we work through those problems in everyday life with people who are not exactly like each other?"

Until the menace truly strikes, though, they say it's important to continue creating together and supporting each other.

"Ultimately we came together out of necessity," Borges says. "We're artists, we're passionate, we want to work, and we have things to say. We just got tired of waiting for gatekeepers, waiting for someone's permission. We knew we had each other and we could trust each other, and it was a wonderful discovery."  v

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