As a child of the 1980s, I was literally raised on MTV. I’m not using the word “literally” here in the way that my students do (“Dude, I was literally puking my brains out last night!”). I mean: I spent so many hours of my youth watching music videos that I could argue that the music station raised me. It shaped my musical predilections (I still love 80s music), my fashion tastes (yep, still fond of leggings), and my idols (to me, Hall & Oates will always be cool). When MTV started airing original programming, I watched that too. My favorite show was Remote Control, a game show that rewarded the one thing that I did best — watch TV! The show’s theme song really spoke to me “Kenny wasn’t like the other kids, TV mattered, nothing else did. Girls said yes but he said no! Now he’s got his own game show. Remote Control!” Finally, something I could win. But I needed to be 18 to play. Needless to say, I was devastated when the show was cancelled in 1990.
In 1992, when the wonderful first season of The Real World premiered, I was there to see it. The season enthralled because it was the first time that I had ever seen “a group of seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” How could they agree to this? Were they crazy? I was also enthralled because the first cast was filled with such fascinating people. They had interesting careers and career aspirations: a folk singer, an indie rocker, a rapper, a poet, a model, a painter, and a wide-eyed, young Southerner. As a 16-year-old living in central Pennsylvania I loved seeing these smart, artistic people, living together in New York City, putting up with each other’s differences, arguing, and coming to resolutions, however brief. They were very different from my 16-year-old peers. And their conversations were way more interesting.
From that season on, I was hooked and watched almost every season of The Real World up until Back to New York in 2001. At that point my reality TV plate was pretty full, what with American Idol, Survivor, and Temptation Island all vying for my attention. I didn’t miss it too much. But then, in 2002, the Las Vegas season happened. The scene that pulled me back in was the one in which Trishelle, Brynn, and Steven make out in a hot tub. If memory serves, they had only known each other for a few hours (though really, when is the “appropriate” time for a three-way in a hot tub?). I was appalled and intrigued by the sleaziness and the exhibitionism of these well-toned twentysomethings. I was back in.
Although this version of The Real World was quite different from the series I had originally fallen in love with, I remained fascinated with each new casts’ total incapacity for introspection or self reflection. They seemed to exist in a perpetual now. They’re like those birds that keep flying into the same glass window day after day. This is the mindset of the typical Real World cast member. The same mistakes are made over and over — they get drunk and make asses of themselves, they throw themselves at lovers who just aren’t interested, they shirk commitments made to employers and to each other — and yet, no one emerges any wiser. When these situations blow up in their faces, they’re usually surprised. Just like those birds. “Why am I puking my brains out? Why is there a window there?”
I suppose I also enjoyed watching these young people screw up because it reminded me of what I was like in my early twenties. I often drank too much and made an ass of myself. I too fell in love with the wrong people. I let down bosses, friends, and family. This is the how life is when you are old enough to live on your own, but too young to concern yourself with living a responsible life. To see this behavior so raw and bare on my television screen reassured me about my own youth. Or rather, it reassured me that my youth had passed. I was no longer that out of control 20-year-old. I had stopped flying into windows. So I continued to watch The Real World, basking in the Schadenfreude of it all … until Cancun and Ayiiia made me rethink the series.
Ayiiia is an ideal Real World cast member: she is young, physically fit, a heavy drinker, aggressive, outspoken, thin-skinned, and, unfortunately, mentally unstable. MTV has a history of casting mentally unstable people whose exposure to MTV’s unrelenting cameras ultimately drives them to perform an onscreen freak out or breakdown (see Irene from Seattle, Frankie from San Diego, Paula from Key West, Ryan from the most recent season in New Orleans). True, Ayiiia was not picked by MTV’s producers; she was the winner of a contest in which MTV fans were allowed to choose the final cast member for the Cancun house. Nevertheless, all potential cast members for the show are subject to background checks and psychological evaluations. The producers would have known about Ayiiia’s history of self mutilation. Now, I’m not saying that The Real World shouldn’t feature cast members who are struggling with addictions, phobias, or even fatal diseases. Pedro Zamora is a great example of how casting someone with a particular ailment, in his case, HIV, creates an opportunity for dialogue and awareness.
People who self mutilate do so under extreme stress. When they feel angry or powerless or attacked, they will cut and tear at their own skin as a way to manage their pain. And being on The Real World is highly stressful. By the end of any given season, almost every cast member has been involved in at least one screaming match with another roommate. And many of these battles are ongoing, cropping up whenever two particularly hot-headed roommates are forced to interact and work together. Indeed, roommates are cast because they are likely to fight with one another. It’s like placing a mongoose and a cobra into a glass case and then wondering why there’s blood all over the walls.
Sure enough, after weeks of constant fighting with her roommates, Ayiiia began cutting herself again. And after watching this season I felt complicit in this young woman’s pain and exploitation and so I gave the series up all together. And my husband promised to stop watching too. However, a few months later, I came home from teaching to find my husband curled up on the couch watching the premiere of The Real World: Washington, D.C. “What are you doing?” I demanded, “We quit this show!” My husband replied “But I didn’t even record it!The DVR just…did it. And there was nothing else to watch.”
And just like that, I was back in it. Now I find myself watching season 25 (!) of The Real World. As I sat through the first two episodes last weekend, I felt like I was trapped in the movie Groundhog’s Day. Everything I was seeing, I had already seen before. For example, when Heather, an attractive young blonde, introduces herself to the MTV audience she tells us, “I’m very impulse driven. I do what I want to do.” And this makes you different from every other college student how? Later, Heather is gobsmacked by the differences between Leroy, a sexually frank, adventurous African American, and Michael, a sexually naive, sheltered Caucasian, “They just couldn’t be any more different!” she marvels. Later on, Adam, a former juvenile delinquent, calls his “girlfriend” (those are MTV’s quotation marks, not mine) and complains: “Some of these people might not like me because they’re completely different from me.” This is true. But they may also not like Adam because he gets black out drunk on his second or third night with the roommates, acts the fool, and refuses to apologize for his awful behavior. It’s a good thing that Nany is probably going to reward his douche-y behavior by becoming “his girl” (and dumping her long term boyfriend back home). Yes, Nany, I’m sure Adam will treat you much better than the string of women he has already brought home for one-night stands.
There are many good reasons why I should stop watching The Real World once and for all: each season blends into the next; many of the young people cast on the series are mentally ill and should not be placed in situations where their vulnerabilities can be provoked and exploited; and finally, there is so much great TV out there, do I really need to spend one hour a week on this? But I will keep watching. Not because it’s a great program, but because I can’t quite give up my MTV just yet.