25 Years Later, MTV’s Real World Says More About Society Than Its Own Cast

on May 23, 2017, 12:00am

You probably don’t watch The Real World anymore.

Nobody would blame you. The show never transcended its zeitgeist-capturing third season, which had everything: a hero, a villain, an ingenue, a message, and conflict. Lots and lots of conflict. There was the eminently watchable Puck, doe-eyed conservative Rachel, and Pedro, who shined a spotlight on the realities of living with AIDS in an age of misinformation on the topic. Pedro’s impact, which resounded that much more when he passed just hours after the airing of the season’s final episode, even caught the attention of President Bill Clinton, who publicly praised his activism.

Can you imagine any subsequent season of the show doing the same? For a while, at least, The Real World remained relevant, if not necessarily diverse; Jonathan Murray and Mary-Ellis Bunim’s creation offered a variety of political, sexual, and ideological perspectives. Come 2002, however, the 12th season surprised viewers by front loading its Las Vegas cast with firecrackers, the likes of which you’d likely find at a frat party. Less prevalent were politics and earnest discussion; here, hot tubs did the heavy lifting in fostering sexual tension between beauties who have well been plucked from Central Casting. Naturally, it received the highest ratings of any season up to that point.

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As seasons progressed, the show’s central question evolved from “Will these people get along?” to “Who will make out first?” or “Who will throw the first punch?” In speaking on the show’s first season, The A.V. Club’s Meredith Blake wrote that the cast was “defined primarily by their aspirations, whereas today’s Real World cast members are often defined by their pasts.” And this was written before the show even switched up its format. After receiving disastrously low ratings for its 28th season, set in Portland, The Real World betrayed its initial intent to a comical degree by incorporating gimmicks. In 2014, a season set in San Francisco invited the cast’s exes into the house halfway through. Furthermore, it adapted to the Instagram age by tearing down the fourth wall—we watched the cast engage with cameramen, call producers, and repeatedly reference the fact that they were being filmed. Gone was the iconic intro (“This is the true story (true story)…”), replaced by a dubstep soundtrack and bright, flashing clips. It was called Real World: Ex-Plosion and, believe it or not, the gamble worked. Ratings went up.

Real World: Skeletons followed, filling the house with the “skeletons” in the pasts of its cast. Another, Real World: Bad Blood, surprised the cast by bringing in enemies from their past; in one instance, an ex-girlfriend; in another, a cyber bully. Now, the self-awareness inherent to Real World breaking of the fourth wall extended to its concept. By adopting the gimmicks (and, perhaps most importantly, ditching the intro), The Real World made it clear that it wasn’t real life it sought to capture but rather a carnivalesque maelstrom of manufactured conflict. Bad Blood, the latest season, unfortunately suffered from abysmal ratings due to the network itself relegating it to a late night slot with minimal promotion. Oops.

So, yeah, you’re probably not watching The Real World. But maybe you should be. Because what the show’s evolved into is something infinitely more interesting in an era that’s perhaps best described as “post-truth.” When our every action is chronicled via pics and statuses, our lives beautified with filters, our views manipulated via hashtag bandwagoning, the concept of reality has become a fluid one. When The Real World premiered, the desire to fashion one’s life as a digestible narrative was a relatively foreign one, relegated to those important enough to merit themselves a memoir. Now, it’s become standard. We’re all authors in the social media age, not just in the storytelling of our own lives, but also in those of our friends and enemies. Narratives are created everyday, then disseminated on public platforms with no vetting, no fact-checking. The accepted narratives are the ones most easy to digest, the ones scoring the most likes, shares, or retweets. We strive to make the world celebrate the things we love, to vilify the ones we hate.

That reality TV serves as a means for cast members to rewrite their own narrative is no great revelation. It’s been part and parcel of the medium since its inception, more or less. “Cast members are never unaware of their own ‘narrative’,” Blake said of modern Real World casts, “a state of affairs that is the inevitable by-product of two decades of reality television.” What’s starting to emerge in our post-truth era, however, is a deep anxiety regarding just how in control of our narratives we are. Nowhere on reality television has this been more apparent than on recent seasons of The Real World.

MTV’s rejiggering of the concept is partly responsible. By bringing in skeletons from the pasts of its cast, MTV is essentially goading these poor souls into subtweeting their enemies before tagging the offending parties in the mentions. Bringing these people into the house is ostensibly a means of repairing the relationship, but their arrival is primed for combustibility, with exes interrupting budding relationships or estranged friends and family serving to puncture a period of vulnerability. What the cast members tend to reveal in these moments is a quiet betrayal, the realization that they’ve been thrown a curveball and the narrative they’ve sought to construct has now been ripped from their control. Damage control ensues. Meanwhile, their cast mates laugh at the awkwardness, the humiliation. Until it happens to them, of course.

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In Bad Blood, MTV surprises volatile sisters Katrina and Anna by reuniting them in the house. Anna’s response isn’t quite what the network likely expected, however. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity for confrontation, she bursts into tears, mourning the fact that her arrival will take the experience away from her sister. Katrina responds similarly. They don’t want to broadcast their fights on TV, as neither wants to humiliate the other.

That’s nice, but a rarity. What these modern-day cast mates understand is how fast humiliation travels in the age of social media; what they do on the show will be screencapped, gifed, and shared throughout Twitter. The savviest of cast members have exploited this knowledge as a means to ignite or intensify that response. In Ex-Plosion, for example, meathead Corey begins hooking up with roommate Jenny right off the bat, then is put off by the arrival of her clingy ex, Brian. In the midst of a blowout fight between the two, Corey screams at Brian that, “Everyone will know.” Everyone will know, Corey is saying, that Brian’s ex-girlfriend gave it up to him after one day in the house. Brian could dismantle Corey in the moment, but Corey doesn’t care; in his mind, there’s no sicker burn. That saying as much makes Corey look like an asshole doesn’t matter. It’s worse to look like a loser online than a jerk. Humiliation hurts far more than a fist to the face.

So effective is online humiliation in this age that it’s transcended into public shaming, the art of using social media as a means of burying an offending party beneath a torrent of jokes, memes, and threats. In 2015, Welsh author Jon Ronson released a book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about the phenomenon and how it’s triggered both a bloodlust in online communities as it’s simultaneously inundated us with a palpable anxiety. Ronson’s books show how online shaming ruins lives. It shows how it promotes the dissemination of misinformation and shatters the concept of nuanced discourse. If you’ve ever wanted to see Ronson’s concerns made manifest, watch the season of The Real World that premiered the following year.

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Called Go Big or Go Home, the show’s 31st season amassed what’s by far its most unlikable cast for a season that tasks them with facing their fears via extreme challenges, lest they go home. At the center of the season was a classic Real World pairing: On one side, there was Chris, an excitable ex-Mormon who came to identify as pansexual after leaving the church, and then there was Jenna, a sweet Southern girl who’s still Mormon and comes from a community with outdated ideas about race and sexuality. As in countless seasons previously, the expectation was that Chris would help open Jenna’s mind to different lifestyles while Jenna would help him appreciate her rustic roots and way of life. It’s a feel-good story. This is what happens on The Real World.

At first, the two get along swimmingly, bonding over their mutual experiences in the Mormon church. Then, after Jenna makes an offhand comment about how the thought of gay people having sex disgusts her, Chris turns on her. He calls her a homophobe. When she tries to defend herself, Chris cuts her off, attacking her for having not attended college. He calls her “stupid” and a “bitch” and a “liar.” When Jenna makes an insensitive comment about race, Chris immediately deems her a racist. He reveals in confessionals that Jenna “refuses to be educated” and “isn’t learning anything.” So vicious and knee-jerk are his reactions, Jenna leans into the offenses. Not a single effective discussion is had. Not a single mind is expanded. Instead, fights break out. Names get called. It’s incredibly ugly.

Jenna’s comments are offensive, but it’s reaching to classify them as malicious or hateful. Really, they’re pretty tame considering some of the stuff that’s been said on previous seasons. As in those seasons, a meaningful conversation could’ve been born from them. Instead, Chris anonymously leaks to the press that Jenna is a “racist homophobe.” The tabloids pick it up. Jenna’s mother calls her in tears. The other roommates are taken aback. “All the statements online could be really damaging to her future,” a roommate says. Chris lies when the roommates ask if he did it. He tells a producer that by doing so he’s “starting national conversations about inequality” when what he’s actually doing is creating a villain to play opposite the hero he sees himself to be.

To build his narrative, he must rip hers to shreds. This is the Internet.

I wonder if Bad Blood’s Mike watched this season before he set off to film his own. A tattooed, beefy dude from Spanish Harlem, Mike is cocky, bullish, and emotional. He tells a story about joining the Aryan Brotherhood in prison in order to not get raped. Bad Blood’s cast is filled predominantly with people of color so it’s off-putting when he starts dropping the n-word in casual conversation with his black friends in the house, especially after his aforementioned prison story. At first, the men give him a pass. “We have a bond,” they say.

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One night, however, Mike is out with Jordan, a biracial fellow cast member he’s seeing, when he jokes about how she and her black friends “run coconut oil on your ashy-ass skin together.” Jordan isn’t amused. She tells her friends in the house. When Mike finds out she told people, it’s as if the cameras suddenly become real to him. At the house, he begins hastily packing his bags. “I’m really embarrassed that I’m gonna get played out,” he says.

He begins screaming at the cameramen. “I had my fun,” he says to the camera. “You will air me out. I’ll crush it in the first couple episodes, and then you can come up with some dope-ass reason why I dipped.”

When a black housemate tries to get Mike to open up, he’s reduced to hysterics. “Everybody else in this spot cannot have a conversation about it with me,” he says, gesturing to the other cast mates, few of whom have any clue what’s going on. “I really don’t care what you have to say to me,” he says to Jordan, who is begging him not to leave. He avoids eye contact, doing everything in his power to rush out without having to confront another soul.

Because Mike knows it’s too late. If he offended one person, he’s offended everyone. As any victim of online shaming knows, the more you defend yourself, the deeper you dig your hole. Mike is running for his life at this point. He is burning the pages of his narrative before anyone else can pick up the pen.

“It should be so clearly obvious that this is not how I am,” he says in an interview with a producer. “I’m sorry for being ignorant. I’m sorry for being uneducated.”

It’s depressing. At its most idealistic, The Real World was created as a safe space where people could fuck up. Where they would fuck up. It was inevitable that they would fuck up. The question was how they would work it out, how they would come out on the other end. Here, Mike is too scared to confront his actions, terrified of an environment where your sins serve not as a learning opportunity, but as a death sentence for your reputation. Before the end of the season, three more cast members would leave the show. This is on par with previous recent seasons. When David Edwards left the second season, it was shocking. It was rare. When a cast member leaves now, it’s more often than not treated as an inevitability. It’s an achievement just to make it to the end of the season these days.

Tears in his eyes, Mike pleads, “But how can you blame me if I don’t know any better?”

When The Real World began, the idea of “blame” wouldn’t even come into it. There would be fights, sure, but there would be steps taken towards enlightenment. There would be hands held, bonds strengthened. It’s not that The Real World was ever some pure social experiment, but it did once embody a certain naiveté. Where once we watched to see how everyday people’s personalities changed in the presence of cameras, it’s now fascinating to try and discern between any given cast member’s humanity and persona. There’s something both thrilling and queasy about the simultaneous construction and destruction of narrative perception, the sweaty desperation that comes with protecting yourself from the potential pitchforks waiting on the other end. 

The Real World used to be about seven strangers, about individual growth and community. If it wasn’t all true, it was at least real. Now that there’s no novelty to the idea of being filmed 24/7, the show resonates as a snapshot of our culture embraces, exploits, and crumbles beneath that particular reality. It’s not about who we are anymore. It’s about who we want people to think we are. 

Reality is a non-factor. 

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