To Have Our Lives Taped
Over the past decade, MTV's The Real World has become a mainline for cultural propagation. The archetype of the "reality tv" genre, this weekly, pretend-documentary consolidates, edits, and cannibalizes culture.
This season, taped in Chicago, showcased what is arguably the most agitating and self-aware cast of characters in its 11-year history. Aneesa, Cara, Chris, Keri, Kyle, Theo, and Tonya, appear to be plagued with hypocrisy, superficiality, and narcissism in various combinations. Like other recent casts, they grew up watching The Real World. Since they were 10 years old and younger, it taught them how to act and look, which problems to have in order to seem complicated, what fights to pick and with whom to seem independent, and what inner obstacles to overcome to seem heroic.
Such an understanding of the expectations held for them was immediately obvious when the seven cast members sat down on their first day together, lolling in their hot tub in order to "get to know each other." All jumped at their chance to reduce themselves to hyphenated identities: Kyle described himself as an all-American-white-fratboy; Aneesa, a Jewish-black-lesbian-princess; Keri, a party-girl-who'd-been-drinking-since-age-13, etc. The catch-quirks continued all the way around the tub. When the camera reached the relatively reserved Chris, the other six appeared shocked that he didn't have a label for himself. But they knew better. In fact, they refused to accept that he could have been chosen for the show without some kind of prefab baggage to be exposed. And the season proved them right: Chris is a former-latent-homosexual-recovering-alcoholic-with-fear-of-commitment. He used to be fat, now he is compulsive about working out and ogling himself in the mirror.
Even more obvious was the moment when Keri called out Kyle's "political campaign" (meaning he sculpted his image for the camera, even more than the others). Every cast member, other than the first season, has been a viewer and so, knows he or she is chosen to play a role and provide dramatic controversy, ensuring massive ratings and swarms of advertisers for MTV and its parent company, Viacom.
These ratings are the point of MTV's "cool-hunting" -- the focus groups, surveys, polls, house visits, and years of relentless programming. Consumers can be turned into product and vice versa. In the event that some consumers create their own lifestyles, or even worse, subcultures, MTV swallows them up and sells them back to its audience by incorporating them somehow into its programming.
Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood, where The Real World XI was taped, is undergoing gentrification. For MTV, this meant sanitized urbanity, an opportunity to reveal the cast in a hip area doing hip things with hip people. Almost immediately, the MTV crew met with resistance. Local shops posted signs that read "No filming inside" and "Go back to the suburbs." Hundreds of activists, artists, anarchists, and concerned residents protested on the street outside the loft after its location was discovered. The bright orange door was hit with a can of red paint, traces of which could be seen on the sidewalk and doorway in certain episodes. Chicago police officers soon began patrolling the area, cordoning off the block, and, eventually, arresting two protesters -- one for writing on the sidewalk in chalk, the other for playing a drum, and both to send a message: disturbances at the loft would not be tolerated. (Not surprisingly, MTV is prosecuting both men.) Despite the turmoil, MTV still got the expected trendy nightlife, city skylines, roommate tears and shit-talking. The protests were simply left out.
While it is surprising that MTV didn't contextually edit the protests into TRL-style mobs of fans, they really didn't need to. The Real World's hand-selected characters, unlikable as they are, and probably because of it, did provide the goods. Kyle led Keri on for (what was edited to seem like) months, before callously dumping her for his ex and making her "feel like shit." Tonya, who just wanted to go home, passed kidney stones to the beat of her internal "countdown to Justin" clock. Cara took us on an ugly quest for male companionship, ugly not because she is "man-izing," as she calls it, but because her behavior is so clearly rooted in low, or no, self-esteem.
Keri, the aforementioned party girl, could, in fact, not keep up with the boys and their drinking, and her performance in the skit, "Bloody Mary," was eerie to watch considering its exaggerated similarities to her behavior toward Kyle (gee, maybe this had to do with his behavior). Exhibitionist Aneesa gave us street fights, numerous teary phone calls to her (understandably) abrasive mother, alleyway urinations, and sensational performances while on the toilet. Chris had a boring fling with the dorky Kurt, and proved to the world that alcoholism can be swapped for shallow self-obsession (one addiction for another). Theo will definitely reach heroic status for his "progress"; getting over his homophobia and caring about the kids he worked with while creating a community mural.
But the most telling aspect of the The Real World is often not how the cast-members act, but how they react. In that sense, the "9-11 episode" was for The Real World's producers, a goldmine, which they wasted no time taking advantage of. Breaking from the formula, they brought a television into the House to ensure maximum reaction from their "characters." This indulgence provided the perfect example of the network's drive to co-opt anything that sells. Much as MTV displays and shapes how "we" live and how "we" should vote (MTV is a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party, right?), here it sells an image of Real Death and Tragedy neatly packaged into "suspenseful" segments mediated by seven of the most wretched people ever caught on tape. They bought flags, lit candles, prayed, cried, huddled, called home, sang the national anthem, and talked about vigilante vengeance.
And then, Cara said she wanted to "kick some Palestinian ass." Such sentiments surely represented those of more than a few U.S. citizens who were saying the same things that day and since. And quite a few Americans did "kick some Palestinian ass" -- except that those "Palestinians" were largely Indian Sikhs, killed, beaten, and humiliated by a dangerous mix of testosterone and patriotic fervor.
Whether you're watching a love-huddle or call to violence, reactions to such horrendous events can be worrisome. Yet for the Real World-ers, privacy is a non-issue, if not a foreign concept. Their instant notoriety and desire for it expose the changing definitions of the words "private" and "public"; both seem to have merged into one convoluted mess. This notoriety is a reward for their unconscious self-revocation of privacy, and it has dramatic affect. For instance, Cara could not believe that Keri would listen in on one of Kyle's confessionals, which to Cara are "private journals." Consider that they are televised to millions of viewers, her attitude demonstrates just how distorted the concept of privacy has become to cast-members, and those who watch them.
Eleven years of The Real World have not only changed expectations of privacy, but have also helped to normalize expanding surveillance, at all levels of experience. The experience of The Real World has come to exist in the actual real world, through social, institutional, and "precautionary" networks of surveillance. It is easy to imagine that the grandchildren of this generation -- a generation who thinks it is "cool" to have their lives videotaped, recorded, and aired for the masses -- will have no problem with omnipresent surveillance cameras, keystroke and email interception, personal information becoming commercially integrated, retina scanning, one-cards, the selling of their genes, bar codes in their wrists, and microchips in their brains.
Chris Fitzpatrick is the features editor at PopMatters.