IF YOU'D WATCHED THE FIRST SEASON OF THE REAL WORLD WE WOULDN'T BE IN THIS DAMN MESS
I don't know where the Republicans were in 1992 and why they weren't watching The Real World: New York. I guess they were too busy hanging out with George H. W. Bush and being old and white. But—it's real embarrassing y'all—we grappled with these exact same shitty American problems twenty five years ago in New York City when seven strangers stopped being polite, and started getting real. (CAN YOU GET THE PHONE?)
So what can 2017's Republican Congressmen shitheads learn from The Real World: NYC? Only fucking everything. Racism, homophobia, feminism, EMPATHY—it was all on MTV
TWENTY FIVE YEARS AGO
Clearly Republicans need Kevin and Heather B. and Norman and Becky and Andre. (I need Eric.)
Today's Republicans need to follow their surrogate Julie—sweet wide-eyed innocent fish out of Southern cross water protagonist Julie—right into that Soho loft and learn all the important lessons they missed the first time around.
1. Yes, you're racist. Be better.
The major theme of America's first reality TV program? Race.
Picture it: episode one, we've all just arrived at the loft, assembled around the kitchen table, and queen Heather B's beeper goes off. Sweet, naive, Alabama Julie says "Do you sell drugs? Why do you have a beeper?"
Alabama Julie has no idea that she's being racist as fuck. But my twelve-year old ass does because Heather B. and the gang tell her so and we're off to the races. If you were twelve years old when The Real World premiered like I was, you were paying attention. I can still hear in my mind the exact intonation of Julie's voice when she says, "Do you sell drugs? Why do you have a beeper?" Maybe because Heather B. is an early adopter, Jules, ever think of that? Point being, if you're twelve years old, you were learning some important shit. Like: question your assumptions, dummies. Where do they come from, what bullshit do you believe and why do you believe it?
This is the platform from which housemate Kevin preaches. What Kevin (a poet, writer, and educator) is talking about twenty five years ago is what white people are just now starting to grasp: systemic racism, privilege, code switching, micro-aggression, white fragility. Julie tells Kevin that she thinks he's "racist towards white people" and his head 'bout explodes. Becky and Kevin get into it over whether or not this is a "great country" and Becky won't accept that perhaps "greatness" is dependent on your privilege. (Becky's blindspot is an unfortunate harbinger for the next twenty five years of whypipo political discourse and the bootstrap myth.) “Race plus power equals racism!” Kevin yells at Becky. She's literally wearing a Cat in the Hat striped top hat and jean shorts with black tights (because the 90s) when she says pretty much, if you think I'm racist, don't hang out with me. (Gross, Becky. And every other white person who thinks this is the answer to being called on your shit.) Kevin also clashes with Eric and writes Eric a letter that says “I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth” and “your life is valued twice as much as mine," to which Eric counters with his belief that "black people are by far dominant over white people,” alluding to sports and entertainment (yeeeeeeesh). No wonder Kevin is sick of your shit, amirite?
Let's talk about the infamous fight between Kevin and Julie. Background: when the cameras aren't rolling Kevin and Julie get into an argument over a phone call and each recounts a very different version of what transpired to the housemates. So why does everyone believe Julie's version of events? Because she's an innocent white virgin? Because they're better friends with Julie and Kevin is sort of MIA most of the time (and when he is around he's accusing everyone of being racist)? Or because when a black man is assertive he's immediately labeled as aggressive, and since that's the societal narrative, it's easy to believe?
It reminds me of a chat I had with the author David Bradley after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. David said, "Look, the definition of justifiable homicide, even for police officers, is that they are in fear for their lives. Okay, if you had in your head an assumption that says black people are more dangerous than white people, then you are going to be in fear for your life. Bang, that’s justifiable homicide. I didn’t shoot him because he was black, I shot him because I was in fear for my life. But in other circumstances, you wouldn’t have had to fear for your life. Well, yeah, but I had that fear. Okay, well, your fear is what rationalizes your behavior—how do we attack that fear?"
After a day of he said / she said, Kevin and Julie take their argument to the streets in what's one of the most famous fights in reality TV history. This is not a perfect fight. But Kevin's arguments are sound. He asks Julie if she "knows what's going on in the Bronx right now," and of course she's exasperated, like why would she know, how's she supposed to know. But that's Kevin's point, isn't it? Perhaps if we'd all spent the past twenty five years knowing we wouldn't be in this dumpster fire today.
Look, Kevin isn't perfect. Objectively it can be said that he's inappropriate here, using his age (he's 26, she's 19), size, and maleness to intimidate Julie. But his message is important and he never misses an opportunity to put his platform in front of the camera, which is smart as hell considering no one even knew what reality TV was yet and what it could do. And at 19 years old, Julie is pretty tough, she's right there in it and when she calls him on his intimidation tactics, she's not wrong. Look, Julie's a nice person (I actually really like her), she's trying to learn, she's trying to be better, and it should be said that Julie and Heather B. are one of the best reality TV odd couple friendships of all time (who can forget when these two wack-a-doos "won" a trip to Jamaica and just started prank calling people from the phone book to tell them about it). But look, you can be a "nice person" and still be racist. Be better.
None of the housemates think they're racist. And really, who thinks they're racist? And that, chickens, is the point. Twenty five years after The Real World: NYC premiered, noted bigot Donald J. Trump is president, Republicans dominate both the House and Senate, and every damn discussion about race on this show from 1992 is relevant right this very second. So you do the math.
2. Men have been fucking other men since the dawn of time, get over it.
If the early seasons of The Real World have a theme it's that if you stop and get to know a person, it might just change your entire worldview. Research tells us that it takes more than just one encounter to achieve results, which is why your Dad wasn't affected by the fabulous gay man who sold him a sweater at The Gap but the coming out of your gay cousin really rocked his world. In The Real World: NYC, your dad is played by Alabama Julie and your gay cousin is played by Norman.
Julie and Norman go rollerskating and he comes out to her as bisexual. (Obviously, chickens, he's a gorgeous artist and they went rollerskating. No straight man is thoughtful enough to take you rollerskating unless you're a contestant on the Bachelor.) Later Julie calls home to the confederacy and says, "They played like disco-y music and there were a lot of homosexuals there. Isn't that funny?"
Is it funny? Here "funny" isn't actually what Julie means but instead serves as an Alabama toe testing muddy Alabama waters. Her tentative use of "funny" leads us to believe her family's acceptance of homosexuality is most likely... well... limited. (I'm being generous.)
It's 1992. Will & Grace won't premiere for another six years. Oprah won't have gold medalist Greg Louganis on until 1995 (Oprah won't have her first trans guest, Jenny Boylan, on until 2000 and Caitlin Jenner won't come out as trans until 2015). Ellen won't come out on her eponymous sitcom until 1997. And one of the sexiest shows of all time Queer as Folk won't premiere until the year 2000. So tip your damn hat to Norman because in 1992 it was a radical act for an openly gay man to appear on television and be openly gay.
Norman's an artist. He's got a dog. He's dating. And he's a nice fucking guy. Who would've thought you can suck dick and still be a normal well-adjusted person, you guys? Well, let's be real, a whole lotta people in 1992 (like Julie's family) thought you couldn't suck dick and be a normal, well adjusted person. When Julie's mom comes to visit, Julie brings Norman to dinner because he's delightful and she wants to take the pressure off of herself (moms, amirite?). Julie says, “I always think it’s funny the way that my mom feels about gays so I thought that would be funny." HILARIOUS, JULES. But dammit if Norman isn't a good sport about it, charming Julie's mom and teaching twelve year olds all across the U.S. of A. about generosity, tolerance, and living one's truth. I mean that's a nice fucking guy. And a brave one.
If Norman opened the door for positive representation of gay men on reality TV, Pedro Zamora kicked it the fuck open. Two years after NYC, MTV premiered The Real World: San Francisco (1994), which prominently featured Pedro Zamora, a Latino gay man living with AIDs. Not only was Pedro living with AIDs, but he was also in an interracial relationship with his (super hot) boyfriend Sean, who he married in the Real World house in one of the first ever televised LGBT commitment ceremonies.
From 1988-1992, 89.5% of people with AIDs in the United States died. 181,212 people died. And here's this guy facing a death sentence following in Real World: NYC Kevin's footsteps, appearing on the show to educate a mainstream audience about his cause: AIDs prevention / education, and normalizing homosexuality. As an adult person I find his courage and selflessness astounding. As a 14 year old person, he influenced my safe sex practices and general understanding of the human spirit for decades to come.
Coincidentally, 1994 was also the year that my mother came out as a lesbian. Cultural attitudes towards queerness (at least in the Midwestern suburbs where I lived) at the time were not open, welcoming, or normalized. We described my mother's partner as our "roommate." My mother will tell you today that she genuinely believed she could've been fired from her teaching job if she were outed. I was teased by other kids because our suburb was essentially The Gap and the Olive Garden and yaaaaaawwwwn.
I don't explicitly remember the moment I was told that my mother was a lesbian, but I do remember the Real World and the pivotal scenes that explored queerness. Isn't that funny? (Clapping back, Jules!) Here I'm using "funny" to mean surprising. And really it's not that surprising. I'm fourteen years old and in peak DEAR GOD JUST LET ME BE LIKE EVERYONE ELSE mode and slapped with a you're-never-gonna-be-a-cheerleader-and-you're-about-to-get-a-whole-lot-weirder reality. I turned to television for answers. Sally Jessy Raphael and her wild teen episodes kept my behavior in check and Norman and Pedro provided a lens through which to view my new circumstances. A way to view my mother as just a normal person making an acceptable choice. If MTV said being gay was ok, well then it must be ok—they gave us Madonna, didn't they?
Pedro died of AIDs-related causes just hours after the final episode of The Real World: San Francisco aired. (Can you believe that? It's true.) I sobbed over his death on a corduroy couch in our TV room. Pedro's contribution to education and representation was so wide-reaching that when he died, President Clinton said—
"He taught all of us that AIDS is a disease with a human face and one that affects every American, indeed every citizen, of the world. And he taught people living with AIDS how to fight for their rights and live with dignity. Pedro was particularly instrumental in reaching out to his own generation, where AIDS is striking hard. Through his work with MTV, he taught young people that 'The Real World' includes AIDS and that each of us has the responsibility to protect ourselves and our loved ones."
It's not an overstatement to say that the early seasons of The Real World influenced millions of people's attitudes on queerness in America. On June 26, 2015, twenty three years after The Real World: NYC premiered, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide. Yet somehow just two years later we're living under a President and Vice President who are blatantly anti-equality. According to the Washington Post—
"During the Obama administration, Mike Pence — then governor of Indiana — opposed the U.S. government’s effort to protect LGBT rights nationally and internationally. He argued that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people should not be recognized as a legitimate minority group separate from the rest of the population."
Jesus fucking Christ. How the hell are we here again?
3. Women can and should fuck or not fuck who they want when they want.
Ah, sex in the 90s. All it takes is an unexpected waft of Drakkar Noir on a city-sidewalk-breeze and I'm immediately transported back to my hey day of fucking on waterbeds to R Kelly's Down Low (on repeat).
We don't see anyone have actual sex on The Real World: NYC. Isn't that quaint? There are allusions to intimacy and love and horniness, but this is all before catching someone mashing their privates against someone else's became the hot pursuit of reality TV producers and boom mics everywhere. It's sort of comforting how earnest the Real World: NYC is compared to, I dunno, the reality-tv-heavy-breathing-deluge of today.
Did the original Real World producers deliberately cast their housemates as archetypes? Or did reality show archetypes develop from the success of the original Real World? Here we have Eric (the hot bro), Norman (the gay guy), Kevin (the black guy), Andre (the fringey lifestyle guy, toss those Gen X locks, Andre!), and then the girls, Heather B. (the tough exterior, melty interior real talker), Julie (the small-town virgin), and Becky (the sexpot).
Obviously Julie is a virgin. She's 19, she's from a small town, and she wears A TON of fleece and lime green polos. Kevin on Julie's virginity: “I’d hate to see Julie get with a guy and lose her virginity one night and him not be there the next week or the next month or whatever.” And really that's about it—Julie's virginity is mentioned a couple other times but it's not a main focal point of the show, at least not in the way virgins are trotted out on reality tv today, as if a decision to have sex or not have sex is the most interesting thing about a woman. Julie's a paradox, she's naive, but spunky. She's a virgin, but sexy as hell. (Watch this dance scene and 1) tell me that Julie's not sexy as hell 2) sports bras had no sap in the 90s 3) Julie teaching Eric to dance is probably the entire reason that Eric got to host The Grind.) Julie's edit showcases her as a full-fledged person learning and making mistakes and not just as a sexual being. Julie's main focus is not her looks, it's not getting men to like her, and dammit, if you're a twelve year old pre-teen gal virgin, that edit is important stuff.
Then there's Becky. Becky's storylines are mostly that she wants to sing some folk songs and get laid. Do you, girl! Becky's sexuality is empowered. She's a fashionista, she crafts her lewks (bra, no bra? red lips? tiny skirts!) and her languid speech patterns and body language to showcase her sexual prowess. Eric on Becky, "If she wants something from you, she’ll get it, because she knows how to get to you with, like, her looks and the way she talks and stuff like that.” Mmmm hmmmm.
Becky's horny. And empowered. And smart. WHAT. That's a thing? Are you sure that's a thing? You're sure?
Becky alludes to boning her music producer, but not seriously. Becky describes losing her virginity as thus, “Good kisser, terrible lay, and we did it on his waterbed.” (A girl after my own heart!) Becky's most memorable storyline is when she famously seduces a Real World director (dios mio!) and pulls him through the fourth wall and onto a boat in Jamaica.
But don't get it twisted, Becky's not "the slutty girl." It would take the Real World a few more seasons before it completely devolved into just a whole bunch of good looking, uninhibited, drunk people fighting and fucking. Becky's sex-positive edit is just as important as Julie's neutral one. Becky and Julie and Heather (who's main lust moment comes when she meets Larry Johnson) are just ladies living their lives, pursuing careers, sometimes interested in sex, sometimes not. WHAT.
In the past twenty-five years a drastic change has occurred in reality TV's representation of young female life in America. Now being a reality TV star is a potential career (ugh) and the more of a splash you make with your looks, sexuality, drunkenness, and argumentative behavior, the better. We have Snooki. J Wow. (LOL I'll never get over these nicknames, puhhh-lease. Imagine being known as "Snooki" for the rest of your damn life.) The Kardashians. All the damn Housewives. The Bachelor / Bachelorette. 2938293872 seasons of the Real World and it's spinoffs.
These shows are fun and I watch them, though honestly I find them less and less entertaining as I inch towards 40 and feel the weight of their superficial concerns and storylines. I have to think Julie has to feel good about being remembered as a good-hearted racist, because at least she was educating and providing a service. I mean, what am I supposed to do with the cipher, Kylie Jenner? What are the twelve year olds of today supposed to do with Kylie Jenner? Have you ever heard this woman say one interesting thing in your life? Has she ever considered the meaning of life outside of makeup and Instagram? Yet she has more screen time, platform, and influence than Malala Yousafzai.
These shows, they tell us what our concerns should be, how to live, what our hair should look like, how much we should weigh, and they do it under this insidious guise of "real people." This isn't Friends where we know we're never going to have that apartment or hair. These are "real people" with "real problems." Sure we know it's not "real." But do we? Do the twelve year olds?
I think I'd rather watch the early seasons of the Real World where women got to be actual people and wrestle with actual issues. One year after NYC, producers took the show to Los Angeles (1993) where we'd meet Tami and accompany her to an abortion. Again, that's some seriously brave shit that I will never forget. I can still picture Tami being led out of the clinic with a white bandage on her hand where the IV had been and recovering in the Real World house.
Reality TV once wrestled with what it means to be human. What it means to be young and imperfect. What it means to be different and how to hear and see someone else's experience. And of course times change, the pendulum swings and swings back. But if reality TV is in some ways a reflection of our current societal climate, I think I'm ready to head on back to 1992 where empathy trumped salaciousness and it just seemed like everybody was working a little damn harder to make the world a better place. Or at least the producers were.