LaToya Mitchell: THE REAL WORLD


ìThis is the true story 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."

This is how every season of MTVís The Real World begins. The television show, which spawned the resurgence in the voyeuristic reality show, premiered 10 years ago. As the opener says, every season, creators Mary Ellis Bunim and John Murray pick seven twenty somethings from different parts of the country to live in a fabulous house in some hip locale and have their lives taped for our enjoyment. The cast of these shows is consistently diverse offering a microcosm of our country with all its prejudices and conflicts. Is this casting done specifically to cause conflict in an effort to boost ratings? Or is the show actually helping race relations by exposing people to others unlike themselves?

For the purpose of this discussion, Iíll confine my research to the last season of ìThe Real Worldî which took place in New Orleans. The cast consisted of , David, a 22 year old from Chicago who aspires to be the first black president, but will settle for being a famous singer, Danny, a 22 year old gay man from Georgia, Matt, a 22 year old devout Catholic designer from Georgia, Melissa, 22 year old half black-half Filipino woman from Florida, Jamie, a rich kid from Illinois who believes in the philosophy of Ayn Rand, Julie a sheltered 20 year old Mormon from Wisconsin, and Kelley a 23 year old blond from Arkansas. The seven reside in a mansion in called ìBelfortî which makes Melissa, exclaim, ìOh my goodness. I live in a plantation house." upon her arrival. The previous season included a black male, bisexual Filipino woman, gay white man, two white women, and a white male (Hawaii). The casting is so consistently mixed in this manner that everyone notices the pattern. Says Matt, ì I figured Danny was gay because what else could it be? There is always a gay roommate, and no one else was boasting a secret other than Mormon Julie.î (

ìBlack America and white America still live separately. Most whites live in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods; most blacks live in majority black ones. Americans of different races still tend not to live together, socialize together, or chart their paths in this society together. What we know about one another, then, is often secondhand, passed through a filter- the filter of the media.î (Chideya- xiii) If this is the case, the forced diversity of The Real World can be a learning experience for both the cast and the audience, providing a social value that shows like Temptation Island lack. Creators Bunim and Murray were unavailable for interview, thus this researcher cannot report whether the showís casting methods exist to enlighten college age youth or simply to boost ratings. I believe that in the minds of the creators, ratings come first and that any positive effect on society is a nice bonus. ìWhat we look for are people with a strong point of view and people who are unafraid to express that point of view," says Real World's casting supervisor Andrew Hoegl . (

Television voyeurism is nothing new. Thirty years ago, American viewers caught glimpses into other peopleís lives through such programs as ìCandid Cameraî and ìAn American Familyî. In 2001, however, we are deluged with new programs which probe deeper into peopleís lives for our passive entertainment. Examples: The Real World, Big Brother, Temptation Island, and Survivor. As more of these shows appear the debate over the boundaries of privacy and good taste gets more heated. ì...The genuine fakery of Reality TV is invading the small screen with the tenacity of a computer virus, and itís more than a passing fad. Itís the New Pornography, a mainstream peep show in which everyone gets to be an exhibitionist or a voyeur.î (Johnson-56)ìIt takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a nation to accept this sort of idiocy as entertainment.î (McKissack). Why are these shows so popular? Are they detrimental to our society and our perception of home? Or are these shows simply good clean entertainment?

While Alan Funtís ìCandid Cameraî focused on playing practical jokes on people (similar to todayís ìAmericaís Funniest Home Videosì), ìAn American Familyî (which first aired in 1973) was a twelve-hour documentary which chronicled the Loud familyís every trial and tribulation including the divorce of the parents. (Calvert 42) Imagine having every personal detail of your family life on view to the American public. This used to be strictly the dilemma of the rich and famous. With the proliferation of the reality TV show, every ìregular Joeî has the opportunity to open themselves up to media scrutiny and public ridicule. Is this a good thing? ìOur desire to watch and the willingness of others to be watched suggests that notions of privacy are shifting and that our sense of individualism is in a state of decline as we desire to live our lives watched by others.î (Calvert 47) What is lacking in peopleís lives that they have such a desire to watch and be watched by others?

In the case of the Louds, was the presence of television cameras too much of a strain for a family to bear? Could the Louds have resolved their issues if they had the privacy that most of us hold so dear in our home lives? Perhaps we will never know the answers to these questions, however, William Loud, the patriarch of the family has gone on record as saying that he believes his family was misled by the editors and that the documentary was overly negative. (Calvert 42) When asked about the new television show Survivor he remarked that it was ìNumber 1 on my must-not see list.î(Harper)

The Fox Networkís Temptation Island is the most hotly debated reality TV show and its focus is on couples.

ìFour unmarried couples have embarked on an incredible journey. Although they are in long-term relationships, they have traveled to a remote Caribbean island to test their devotion to one another and answer the ultimate question, "Have I found 'The One' or is there someone better out there?" (

This is the premise of the show as described on the Fox website. If one is in a committed, long-term relationship as these couples purport to be, why would you test the relationship by going to a tropical island where 13 members of the opposite sex will vie for your attention? Isnít the real world enough of a test for monogamous relationships? You donët have to go to a Caribbean island to find out if there is ìsomeone better out there.î ìThe idea that it is sport and amusement to see if one can destroy a relationship for the purpose of securing ratings and profit is just unacceptableî stated Rabbi Kenneth D. Roseman. (Harper A5) In addition, both the American Family Association and the Parents Television Council are against the show. (Harper) A recent editorial urged readers not to watch the show; ì The divorce rate in the country is already high. We shouldnít be endorsing a television show based on infidelity. Just say no to ìTemptation Islandî.î(Resist) But if there was no audience for Temptation Island and the other Reality shows, there would be no debate. So, who watches reality TV and why?

Christine DiPrima is a 20 year old who watched Temptation Island religiously, has moved on to Survivor and is anxiously awaiting Boot Camp, an upcoming reality show from the Fox network. When asked why she loves these shows she simply states ì Because it deals with real people. Honestly, I like watching how stupid people can be.î This view is echoed by Calvert in Voyeur Nation ì... these shows may create a sense of power - in particular, a feeling of superiority- in individuals who feel the peopleís lives they are watching are beneath them.î (Calvert 70) Does this sense of superiority impede day to day relationships? DiPrima watches these shows with her boyfriend and sometimes with her parents. ìTemptation Island really sparked some very interesting conversations between me and my boyfriend, so, no I donít think that the show is bad for relationships. I feel itís the opposite. When we watch these people doing stupid things on the island, we say ëlook at how stupid these people areí or ëIíd never do that.íî ìWe may watch television to learn values and self-understanding or alternatively, to reinforce or solidify our pre-existing values.î (Calvert 58) Arenít these goals attainable through healthy relationships with friends, families and significant others?

While some couples may use the reality shows as a springboard to important discussion, critics still say these shows are dangerous to anyone seeking a healthy relationship. DiPrima contends ì I like Survivor because its interesting, you really do learn things and Survivor and The Mole have to do with trust. The people on the show have to learn to trust each other (but) they get screwed in the end because only one person wins.î The sheer greed and competitiveness that these shows foster outweigh any educational value of shows like The Mole and Survivor.

ìIn the world of television everything is everyoneís business and the viewers are curious, invisible, silent third party voyeurs peeking into other peopleís lives.î (Robert Abelman Reaching a Cultural Mass cited by Calvert 55)

Is the success of the reality TV shows fueled by an insecure population which needs to watch other peopleís daily dramas to make them feel better about themselves? I believe this is a large part of the issue. Instead of looking towards the television set for validation, people need to look within and around themselves. People should be aware of their own reality instead of the so-called reality of these shows.

ìIn brief, social comparisons through mediated voyeurism may help us understand our own place in society and, in particular, give us a sense of superiority to others.î(Calvert 71)

ìUnfortunately not all my roommates were portrayed too well. Jamie was grilled in the interview and he handled himself well. But the Real World/Road Rules alumni ripped him apart. The irony was they were doing to him what they were accusing him of doing--judging. Watching this gave me an idea how viewers pick apart every word that is said.î Matt (

ì I know Melissa doesn't like assuming the "brown girl" (in her own words) who is consumed with her color. Melissa did talk about her race a lot. How could she not? Never having an absolute identity with a single race pulled her apart through out her life. Raised by a black father and Filipino mother in a white neighborhood, how could you not be conscious of your color?î

( Jamie on ìThe Casting Specialî

Melissa: . My job was to be the token brown girl and the editors definitely made me seem racially fixated. They don't show you where I was questioned all the time about my ethnic makeup etc etc. I was comic relief. But, in the end, they can only put together what you give them. Some people don't adjust well to the cameras and censor themselves. Sometimes I wish I had censored, but I just didn't.(

For Howard, the telecast highlighted a long-standing gripe: her belief that production company Bunim/Murray insists on showing only the most extreme sides of her personality.

"I begged on my hands and knees, literally, with tears streaming down my face for them to not expose my father as an alcoholic during my childhood, and I was given a promise and obviously it has been broken," Howard notes in a recent e-mail to the Times, saying the company offered to pay for eight visits to a Los Angeles therapist.

"My parents know my story lines are carrying the whole season," Howard says. "They say, "That's just part of being the star of the show, Melissa.' Their unconditional love . . . it's amazing."

A spokeswoman for MTV denied the company promised not to air the footage.

"Going into this, they all know they will be living in a fishbowl in which anything they say can become part of the show," reads a statement from executive producers Mary Ellis Bunim and John Murray faxed to the St. Petersburg Times. "Melissa is a remarkably open . . . and intelligent young woman who . . . we will continue to support in every way."

Still, Howard seems to have a love/hate relationship with The Real World, now about halfway through its 22-episode season. (

Perhaps, MTV ís Real World alumna Kevin Powell best addresses the solution to the voyeuristic television phenomenon when he says ì I just wish people would read more books.î (Poniewozik)

ìUmofia had indeed changed during the seven years Okonko had been in exile. Not only the low born and the outcast but sometimes a worthy man had joined it .î (Achebe - 174)

ìHe has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.î (Achebe 176)

ìEnochís devotion to the new faith had seemed so much greater than Mr. Brownís that the villagers called him the outsider who wept louder than the bereaved.î (Achebe 185) Julie weeps over he gaffe of calling her black roomates colored. She is despondent after hearing stories of racial prejudice from David and Melissa.

ìThere is no story that is not true, ì said Uchedu. ìThe world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others. We have albinos among us. Do you not think that they came to our clan by mistake, that they have strayed from their way to a land where everybody is like them?î If what is good among one people is an abomination with others , how can people of different races and sexual orientations ever get along?

ì Whenever the thought of his fatherís weakness and failure troubled him he expelled it by thinking about his own strength and success. And he did so now. His mind went to his latest show of manliness.î (Achebe - 66) Like, Okonko, Davidís overachieving ways stem from his need to be different from his absentee father. David loves to be the center of attention and he is serious about his music career and working out.