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The Real World: DC

February 25, 2010

The Real World was a show I had previously steered clear of.  Starting in 1992, it is the original reality programme, and MTV’s longest running show. I couldn’t help but somehow get a sense of trashiness from it. Ironic, considering my reality leanings, but there it was. If I wanted to watch drunken debauchery I can step outside, I close enough to a college campus to make this plausible (and have the entertainment run for more than 44min a week).

For some reason I tuned in this season. I can only attribute this to the fact that this season the show is being filmed in DC, which seems to lend it an air of gravitas not necessarily conferred by Cancun, or Hawaii. And I was surprised. I was interested, it dealt with issues like eating disorders, abuse, drinking violence, depression and gay rights. It was a hotbed of issues being played out by a cast of eight interesting characters.

Real Word DC Cast

Upon further research, it seems the Real World has an impressive history of covering social issues. Born out of the Gen X, Reality Bites angst of the early 90s, the show was “interested in revealing the fears, hopes and lives of people aged between 18-25”. The Real World dealt with people grappling with what it means to be an adult, and showing how sheltered they had been in terms of race, sexual orientation and social and cultural issues. In Season 1, back in 1992, racial tensions were dealt with in the aftermath of the Rodney King trail and LA riots. In Season 2, a housemate decided to have an abortion, and the house debated her decision. In Season 4, in San Francisco, one of the housemates, Pedro Zamora struggled with AIDS, and died the day after the final show aired. 

After this, it seems the Real World’s trajectory plummeted. As the locations of Hawaii and Cancun might have suggested, and as I inferred, it started being about what happens when people stop being polite and start being drunk. The show stopped being about meaningful conversation, and started being about sex. I don’t know if the Real World: DC is a return to the days of old, but I from what I’ve seen it goes beyond meaningless hot tub romps (although there is a hot tub in the Dupont Circle house, so this is not necessarily for lack of trying on the part of the producers).

This season has seen Emily, who was raised in a religious cult, Erika who suffers from depression, Ty who was a foster kid, Callie who has body image issues and Ashley who fled from an abusive relationship. The real shine of the show however, is Mike. A young golden boy from Colorado, Mike is your typical American all-star, who in the last few years came out as gay. We follow him in the show as he struggles with his feelings of acceptance for himself, as he works out whether he is bisexual, or gay, his relationship with his family, and with his boyfriend Tyler. This isn’t an issue of accepting an individual as being gay. Society, hopefully, has come a long way since Pedro’s days in San Francisco in 1996. But Mike’s journey isn’t a caricature of an issue, but reflective of the confusion many people deal with. Mike came to DC determined to work as an environmentalist, but we see his passion grow for GLBT issues, and he begins to work with the Human Rights Campaign. The largest civil rights group dealing with GLBT issues, Mike is working specifically on repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. This isn’t only a progression for him, but is raising awareness and discussion for people watching. I was previously aware of HRC and their work, so I clicked on to the website to see more about this campaign when I saw Mike working on it. I was apparently not the only one, the website wasn’t functioning due to an overload of browsers. HRC are smart enough to know the exposure the show brings them, and have set up an “as seen on MTV” section on their online store. I don’t know what the Real World was like in its glory days, and I didn’t see it in its hot tub schmoozing days, but judging by this stand-alone season, it does reflect the confusion of emerging young people who are trying to find their place in the world. It starts a conversation, and shows us what could happen when people start getting real. 


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