Real World: Boston #7: “The only way to get your mind off a man is with another man.”

montana-bed

Episode 12 – “Sweet Tarts And Sour Hearts” – September 24, 1997
Episode 13 – “No Man Is An Island” – October 1, 1997
Episode 14 – “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire” – October 8, 1997

Despite The Real World joking about Montana’s “Love Geometry,” it was clear — almost from the first moment we saw them together — that Montana and Vaj’s relationship would not be fun and games. I maintain that a long-distance, seeing-other-people arrangement is difficult under normal circumstances and nearly impossible in The Real World, and by the midpoint of the season, Montana and Vaj’s delicate balancing act falls apart.

I’ve generally been more favorable towards Montana than Vaj, but her behavior eventually starts to tip the balance. She wants the best of all worlds: she has asked for Vaj to give her space to live her life and let her see other people without consequence, but says she’ll stop if he asks — an unwinnable position for Vaj, who would then be asking her to sacrifice her independence. She berates him for not being there for Valentine’s Day, but when he offers to visit, she says she already has plans (with Matt). It’s a cat-and-mouse game.

It’s not just frustrating for Vaj: the housemates aren’t sympathetic to the game she’s playing, either. Jason confesses that she has to “make a damn decision.” Kameelah tells her that she could be seen as “hoe-ish” depending on how far her relationship with Matt is going, and Sean — ever the manchild — thinks its fine as long as “boobies and cooter” aren’t involved.

When Vaj visits, the tension is palpable. Montana still wants him to keep his visit short and sweet, and Vaj jokes, “I could go now if you want.” Their day-after-Valentine’s date is a night at a hotel with a “$7 bottle of Champale,” during which Vaj gives Montana a painting that is “very romantic and at the same time totally gruesome.” The kicker is that the painting is only halfway finished because when Vaj painted it, his “soul was only halfway full.” Montana thinks that — and the painting’s “eternal, intense, burning love” inscription — is “a lot of pressure to put on a person.” She refuses to promise that they’ll be together again. “Make me no promises, tell me no lies.”

painting

Vaj doesn’t want any lies, but he also wants to remain as blissfully ignorant as possible. When Genesis’s friend Adam asks (over speakerphone!) which of Montana’s boyfriends is visiting, Vaj loses it. “Oh, you son of a bitch, I’m climbing through that phone and ripping out your spine,” he jokes (air-quotes around “jokes”). He wonders how many boyfriends she has, but admits he doesn’t want to even know.

After Montana — in an act rich in symbolism — shaves Vaj’s head, the two prepare for his return to New York by appraising the uneasy visit. “You’ve just been so distant,” Vaj says, “I don’t even feel like I should be here: I feel like I’m impeding on your life.” Montana has gone from calling every night to pushing for him to leave; Vaj doesn’t know what to think. She maintains that he came up expecting too much from her: “How many times do I have to say I love you?” Vaj says it’s not just words, but actions: he’s putting up with a lot because he cares for her. He leaves sad, angry, confused — as he should.

The group’s trip to Puerto Rico both complicates the geometry and provides insight into why Montana is the way she is. In San Juan, she goes on a date with a local (with Elka briefly as the awkward chaperone), touring a cemetery and eventually frolicking in the waves and making out on the beach. She calls the guy “a great diversion” and ends the night with a kiss but nothing more. “The only way to get your mind off a man,” she explains, “is with another man.” To that end, she continues her flirting with Sean: she flashes his video camera when they’re on a boat, and he can’t help himself, showing the clip to anyone who will watch it. “I should have know that men are going to men,” she acknowledges. “Even if they’re good men, they’re still men.”

sean-cam

Montana’s issues with men are well established, but a late night discussion provides more insight. She never met her real dad, and her only exchange with him is heartbreaking. “I wrote him once,” she explains. “All I wrote in the letter was ‘I want you to know who I am, I’m eight years old, I like hopscotch, I like science, I like dissecting things. I don’t want anything back — I just want you to know what your daughter is like.’” Her father sent the letter back, unopened: return to sender, do not write to me.

Montana is nothing if not self-aware about how this lack of a father has affected her. “In my teen years, I sought acceptance from men through dating and having a boyfriend. I think it’s sick: I’m a feminist, I think that I’m a strong, independent person, but at the same time, it’s a little scary for me not to have a man in my life because I don’t have a father. I know why I’m that way, but what do I do about it, I don’t know.”

When she returns to Boston, the predicament is no clearer. She still has feelings for Matt, but wishes she didn’t. “That would be my dream: to have no feelings for him,” an empty wish that Elka calls a “Santa Claus prayer”: Montana hasn’t done anything to help herself. Montana finally takes action. She explains that she envisioned hooking up with someone in a bar, not meeting her new Valentine. Matt understands and they pledge to stay friends.

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Montana’s relief is short-lived, as she gets a page from Vaj: “It’s over, I don’t love you anymore, love doesn’t mean anything, he can have you. You have one month to get your stuff out of my house before I throw it in the streets.” (My father had a pager and I only remember being able to send a number; I had no idea that leaving blocks of text by pager was a thing that existed in 1996/1997.) Before she broke it off with Matt, she was finally honest about the relationship with Vaj, and apparently she had been sleeping with him; that seems to be the final straw for Vaj, understandably.

With the housemates listening in, Montana makes one of the season’s most infamous phone calls. No matter what she says, Vaj’s retort is “WHORE!” As Kameelah notes, Montana hasn’t apologized: she’s still rationalizing and trying to explain her way out of the mess. “I deserve a woman who won’t immediately get into a hardcore relationship,” Vaj says.

The next day, when the shock of the argument has worn off, Vaj calls and says he wants to put all the negative stuff behind them and move on; Montana apologizes and asks for forgiveness. She goes back to New York to patch things over, and concludes that they needed time apart to appreciate what they have. It’s more bullshit on a pile of the stuff, but at that point, they both seem happy to believe a lie rather than deal with the truth anymore.

Best Music: “I’ve been a bad bad girl / I’ve been careless with a delicate man / And it’s a sad, sad world / When a girl will break a boy, just because she can.” How could the show not use Fiona Apple’s ‘Criminal’ as Montana’s unofficial theme song? Besides being perfectly appropriate for the scene, let’s reflect on ‘Criminal’ for a moment: Apple wrote it in 45 minutes on a whim and recorded it before she turned 19, and — due to what I can only assume was record label incompetence — it was the fifth (!) single from Tidal. Plus, the iconic, Lolita chic video was directed by Mark Romanek, who also helmed — you guessed it — ‘The Perfect Drug’.

Real World: Boston #6: “I could never be your woman”

genesis-sex

Episode 11 – “Don’t Look Under This Sequined Tree, With Anyone Else But Me” – September 17, 1997

When we last saw Genesis, she was adjusting to life on the show, questioning her sexual identity and generally trying to find her place in the world. “I’m still a little bit weirded out,” she said, “but I’m okay, and it will only get better.” That sense of gradual progress toward self-acceptance continues, but it’s not without its challenges.

We first got a glimpse of Genesis’s deeper issues when the housemates opened up at the volunteer training. Perhaps lost amongst the heated discussion of rape was Genesis’s recollections of her childhood. With a mother passed out on drugs and booze, and a stepfather at the Air Force base, she was left to take care of her brother: she bathed him, fed him, got him to school. But when her parents split up, the kids were separated, and she was alone. “I didn’t want friends,” she says. “I only wanted my brother back, he was my right arm.”

As expected, her childhood had lasting effects. “I wasn’t mentally abused, but in a lot of ways, I was put down a lot,” she confesses. “I keep these things in the back of my mind.” Her feelings of inadequacy affected her social development, contributed to her feelings of isolation from the housemates (especially when they have discussions of social issues) and came into focus when she started volunteering at the after-school program.

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She airs her frustration to Anthony: she doesn’t know the kids’ names, she has nothing in common with them and she seems to be the only one who can’t do the job. She was never around kids during her childhood and she doesn’t have anything good to reflect on, no games or arts and crafts to revisit. This isn’t Anthony’s first rodeo, and he asks, “Did you have a childhood?” When she answers “no,” he gives her a new challenge: “Set a goal of being a friend to one child.”

This goal soon leads to one of the season’s most iconic scenes. A few girls are talking with Genesis and Kameelah and teasing each other when one mentions Michael Jackson being gay; another, Jessica, says her mom hasn’t let her watch Ellen ever since Ellen DeGeneres came out. Then, the dagger: “I don’t like gay people,” Jessica says. “I just have a feeling that I hate them.”

Kameelah quickly sees a teachable moment, using step-by-step logic to try to rewire this elementary-age girl (which she does, appropriately and deftly). She asks if Jessica would still like her if she was gay, and Jessica says she would. Kameelah asks “if I like girls and I don’t want to kiss you, why does it matter?” Jessica says one of her friends said she was gay, and she still likes her. Then, from the mouths of babes, one of the kids offers this: “It doesn’t matter if they’re gay, it matters how they treat you.” Genesis has been silent the whole time, and she leaves, wiping away tears.

When the housemates meet with the after-school staffers, this “informative” conversation is brought up, and it’s assumed that Genesis did the talking. Kameelah explains what she said — that there wasn’t anything sexual or age-inappropriate — and her reasoning: “I wanted to have [Jessica] think about it, and not just regurgitate what her mother was saying.” But Elka’s conservative Christianity bubbles up and lets the air out of the balloon. She sees herself in Jessica, and if that had happened to her, she would have been taken out of the program. “Maybe it isn’t our duty to ‘inform’ them about this.” Dammit, Elka!

Genesis seemed to be finding her footing in Boston, but now seems shaken by the whole ordeal. “I don’t want to be gay anymore, I want to be straight,” she tells Kameelah. “I’m sick and tired of being hated by people, and stereotyped.” Still on her A-game, Kameelah has an answer ready: “That shouldn’t make you not want to be gay, that should make you want to be the most open gay person you can be,” suggesting that she bring a gay pride flag to the center and start a real discussion. Genesis sarcastically runs down the stereotypes and the attacks — it’s a choice, it’s a perversion, it’s a ticket to Hell — and takes a drag on her cigarette. “Life’s a bitch.”

Thankfully, Genesis has continued to “find her people” in Boston, free of her relationship with Tammy. Her friendship with Adam, who performs in drag as Eve, has continued to blossom; gay clubs and drag shows have seemingly replaced late nights in trans chatrooms. Sean is confused by the whole thing, and Kameelah — who had just been so good on verbalizing gay equality — can’t wrap her head around Genesis being “attracted” to a drag queen. (In 2001, Genesis told Out: “I was never sexually attracted to a drag queen… but because Adam was a drag queen and he was my best friend, they jumped on that I was having some sexual attraction to him.”)

genesis-adam-drag

“In a lot of ways, I think drag queens are more beautiful than women,” Genesis admits. “They know how to do their hair and wear the right clothes.” She’s transfixed at Adam’s drag performances and when they’re on the dance floor she confesses, “You’re turning me on!”

The sexual identity crisis has continued. She tells her mom that she came to conclusion that she’s bisexual, and though she’s dominantly into women, she’s been attracted to two drag queens (“I don’t know what you’d call that”). Her mom — or her mom’s therapist, apparently — has a theory: maybe Genesis isn’t “a true blue lesbian.” Genesis sees some truth there: “Everyone keeps saying that to me.”

Her friendship with Adam is becoming something more, at least from her side. “I’m lost without you, I don’t know what to do,” she cries. “You’re more beautiful than I am, you’re sexier than I am — you’re everything I wish I could be.” Adam denies her claims and tosses back a joke, “What am I, the wind beneath your wings?” It’s here when we see the depth of Genesis’s self-doubt and abandonment issues, problems that started in childhood and continued through her only adult relationship. But even as she struggles, she’s starting to learn about herself. “I give of myself so freely to people and I get nothing in return,” she realizes.

tarot

Some clarity comes — in dramatic fashion — from Montana. Previously, she read Genesis’s palm, and now she reads her tarot cards, because of course she reads tarot cards (spoiler alert: Montana is now an acupuncturist, herbalist and massage therapist). “You found a real trusting relationship — you found a friend, but it could be more,” she explains. The card that shows Genesis has the power in the situation, even though she doesn’t think she does, is a woman “stroking a big snake.” This elicits some giggles from Genesis and Adam, because COME ON.

Adam knows Genesis had “asked” the tarot about him, and eases her fears. “You know I do love you, right?” Genesis knows she’s clinging onto him for dear life, and for good reason: he understands her, possibly like no one else has. “You always put everybody first, you never think of what you want, that’s why I’m pushing you to see what you want to do,” he explains. “That’s why you’ve thrust yourself in my life so hardcore: you want to be accepted, you want somebody to be there when you’re feeling weak. This is the time to say, ‘what do I want?’ If you don’t like something, it’s time to say it, don’t you think?”

Adam’s pep talk works. “I’ve gained a new respect for myself,” she says, and she sees her relationship with Adam continuing as just that: the ultimate, best-friendship. Adam says he doesn’t want her to have unhealthy relationships, with him or anyone else, and considering what she’s been through, that’s a good start.

genesis-adam

Best Music: These episodes were loaded, both with nostalgic favorites (White Town’s apropos ‘Your Woman’, Shawn Colvin’s ‘Sunny Came Home’) and songs that are a few degrees removed from nostalgia. I don’t remember Republica’s ‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’ as well as ‘Ready To Go’ (which I could have sworn was in Clueless, but it looks like I’m misremembering this scene in Vegas Vacation), and Chantal Kreviazuk’s ‘God Made Me’ makes me think of her ‘In This Life’, which would soundtrack Saved! — but not until 2004.

PS: In the wake of the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling, Alan Sepinwall argued that gay TV icons like Ellen DeGeneres, the characters of Will and Grace and Real World: San Francisco’s Pedro Zamora helped normalize gay culture and, eventually, marriage. In a longer piece, I’m sure that the scene with the kids overcoming homophobia would be included.

Real World: Boston #5: Stereotypes suck, but so does Syrus

syrus-luetta

Episode 9 – “Dating Policy (aka Syrus Plays by the Rules, part 1)” – September 3, 1997
Episode 10 – “The Girls in the House … (aka Syrus Plays by His Own Rules, part 2)” – September 10, 1997

Two character tropes that The Real World frequently portrays are the Horrible Roommate and the Angry Black Man. The Horrible Roommate is typified by Puck, whose long list of aggressive asshole behaviors got him evicted from San Francisco; Hawaii’s Justin is a close second for his sociopathic manipulations. The Real World relied on the Angry Black Man from the start, pitting activist-writer Kevin against “fish out of water” Southerner Julie and watching Los Angeles comic David come into conflict with his housemates until he was evicted for infamously pulling the covers off an underwear-clad Tami.

Boston’s Syrus is portrayed as a combination of the two types: someone who is constantly in conflict with his housemates over his bad behavior, and someone who is quick to see racial differences as the cause for everything that happens to him in the house. The Real World is certainly responsible for casting, shooting and editing in a way that conforms to these stereotypes — but Syrus definitely does not help himself.

In the first third of the season, Syrus is defined largely by two things: his habit of bringing home women at all hours of the night, and the fact that he thinks that women “cry rape” because of an incident that happened in college. The first is an issue of respect (or lack thereof), the second seems to be a sign of some deep-seated misogyny, and both are problematic on their own. When his disrespect of his housemates and his disrespect of women intertwine, though, things go south quickly.

At the after-school program, Syrus hits it off with Luetta, the mother of one of the kids. His logic is simple: half the mothers are single, and it’s a matter of “supply and demand.” When Syrus brings Luetta to the firehouse, Kameelah’s shocked face says it all. “I don’t care what Syrus does, I’m not his mother,” she explains, “but when it concerns all of us — like that mess right there — that’s when I have a problem.” Kameelah — to be honest — does care what Syrus does in his personal life, but she’s not alone: Elka thinks him dating Luetta is unprofessional, if it’s even allowed at all. Unsurprisingly, Syrus’s most vocal critic is Montana, who doesn’t think he should use the after-school program as a way to pick up women. She also doesn’t think he’s taking the program seriously: the two argue when he jacks his ankle playing basketball and decides to call in sick, and she calls him an “embarrassment.”

syrus-montana

Syrus and Sean have bonded as the house’s two bros (and, to their credit, they’ve also started a dialogue about race), and Sean gives him a heads-up that people are talking, and that his dating Luetta could get him fired from the program. The gossiping and debate continues behind his back. Elka says he isn’t adding anything to the house or the program, and Kameelah says that if he gets fired, he should have to leave the house; Montana agrees, in a nice bit of foreshadowing.

Kameelah and Elka seem to think it’s a bridge too far to straight-up tell on him, but Montana is undeterred: she tells the program director, Anthony, that he “better have a talk with Syrus” about the policy. Kameelah thinks that Montana is a “troublemaker” who wants Syrus out of the house; she later confesses as much, saying, “If he didn’t live here, I’d be ten times happier.” For Syrus, the feeling is mutual: “If I get a chance to take her down, I’m going to take her down.” As we’ve seen before, when Syrus’s persecution complex crops up (“It’s like I’m in prison!”), it isn’t pretty.

Anthony eventually speaks with him about dating a parent. “I think it’s unprofessional, it’s a huge conflict-of-interest, it could be a pending lawsuit,” Anthony says, adding that “common sense” should have told Syrus not to do it. First, Syrus tries to weasel out of it on a technicality, saying he didn’t read or sign anything that said he couldn’t date a parent, and when Anthony tells him to think it over, he plays the race card. “Being a minority, I’m used to giving in to stuff I don’t agree with, so I don’t have to agree with it to do it,” he says. “I’ll do what you need me to do. I’ll take care of it.” Syrus has no doubt seen his share of racial injustice — and this definitely isn’t that.

Syrus tells everyone that he’ll stop seeing Luetta, and then promptly continues to do so behind their backs (but, as always, on camera). He doesn’t limit his bad behavior to seeing the mother, as he continues to treat the house like — in Montana’s words — “an hourly-rate motel.” The last straw for Kameelah is when one of Syrus’s friends, Ed, hooks up with a random woman in their bathroom. She kicks them out and isn’t buying Ed’s “let’s be friends” bullshit. “I’m about to get mad,” she tells him. “This is the end of the conversation.”

kameelah-ed

Syrus thinks he’s getting singled out, that the other housemates are allowed to have company and he isn’t. Again, he’s conflating the issues: no one else is bringing the party back home once the club closes, no one else’s guest are hooking up with each other all over the house. He argues with Montana about getting calls at 2am, and he argues with Kameelah about this alleged hypocrisy. “All my female roommates are bitches, except for the blonde girl,” he tells his fellow revelers. “Other than her, fuck ‘em all.”

Montana may have been a “troublemaker” when she ratted out Syrus at the after-school program (STOP SNITCHING), but his behavior in the house is the real problem. “The part I’m not happy with,” she explains, “is being threatened and being called a bitch and told to fuck off.” She confronts him in the light of day, and explains that it seemed like he was about to hit her. Syrus says that definitely wasn’t the case — he’d never hit a woman — but he apologizes for coming off that way.

While he apologizes and tries to mend fences (“Did you do something with your hair?”), their confessionals tell the true story. “I don’t see how the biggest bitch in the house can be threatened by words,” he says dryly, as he continues to completely miss the point. “He can apologize until the cows come home, but I’m not going to forget it,” says Montana, echoing what she said after their rape discussion: these issues don’t go away with an apology — they linger in the back of their minds, ready to crop up during the next battle.

Montana’s fear of a physical confrontation with Syrus is real, but what part did her history of abuse, her uneasy relationship with Syrus, the incident itself, and a socialized, irrational fear of black violence play? These are questions unasked and unanswered by The Real World — and the real world, too, for that matter.

Best Music: The Indigo Girls’ ‘Shame On You’ soundtracks the Big Reveal that Syrus is still seeing Luetta, despite all the drama, and while its “shame on you” chorus is a bit on the nose, the song’s anti-racist message is oddly appropriate.

Real World: Boston #4: “I have a little problem being monogamous…”

montana-vaj

Episode 6 – “200 Things a Guy Has To Be To Date Kameelah” – August 13, 1997
Episode 7 – “If A Tree Falls In The Firehouse…” – August 20, 1997
Episode 8 – “He Loves Me, She Loves Me Not” – August 27, 1997

The Real World is a crucible for relationships, adding the heat of constant temptation to the pressure of long-distance dating. Turning the cameras on a relationship is one of the easiest ways to get good television: tearful break-ups and full-throated fights, either on the phone or in person, are on the horizon of any relationship that goes through the Real World gauntlet. Over this stretch of episodes, we see relationships at their beginnings, middles and ends.

We first met Montana’s boyfriend Vaj in the season’s first episode; he seemed like a jerk and was openly peeved about Montana doing the show. They’re open to seeing other people while they’re apart, with the intention of continuing their relationship after the season; Montana doesn’t want “some little stupid mistake” to derail their plans for a life together. “I don’t have any problems being monogamous,” she claims. “Well, I have a little problem being monogamous, but not when we’re in the same city.”

If this all seems delusional and doomed, it’s because it is. I’ve never known anyone who has tried the long-distance, see-other-people thing and remained unscathed, and I’d bet The Real World has never helped matters, either. Montana wants to believe that Vaj isn’t jealous, like he says, but she guesses that “he isn’t as cool as he says he is” with their arrangement.

While she intends to marry Vaj one day, she sees Boston as her “extended bachelorette party” and she’s unapologetic about it. “I want to go live in the rainforest, man,” she tells Sean. “I want to take all my clothes off and wear a little belt made out of beads and live among the Yanomami.” Her confessional is even more succinct: “I want the best of both worlds” — a safe relationship later and some fun now — “so what?”

ramen

The first person to test Montana’s theory is Sean. They flirt and play fight constantly, and not just to annoy Elka; Syrus picks them as the two housemates that will eventually hook-up. As they playfully share a bowl of ramen, Sean even acknowledges their energy, wondering aloud what Vaj will think about their relationship. (This scene also provides possibly the best Montana Anecdote™: “Female monkeys, I swear to god, will lay down and masturbate for the male monkeys to get them to give them oranges,” she giggles. “I’m not lying, I’m an anthropology major, I know how the world works!”)

When is comes to Vaj, Sean is prescient. Vaj visits and he’s the same soul-patched ass that we met the first time around, this time with a skateboard and a Che poster. He either doesn’t like Sean’s all-American attitude or does indeed feel threatened because of Sean’s friendship-plus with Montana. When Sean tries to make smalltalk, he cracks stupid lumberjack jokes and sarcastically says his tattoo came from an extra-large Cracker Jack box; his shrill laugh haunts my nightmares.

Montana and Vaj put up a “Gone sexin’” sign (literally) and get the physicality of their relationship back on track. But their emotional and mental relationship is still uncertain. Vaj doesn’t want to know if Montana has seen anyone else: “Do everything under your power to allow me to labor under the illusion that I’m the only one,” he pleads, “even though it’s not true.” At approximately this line of contrived dialogue, I realized that Vaj is the amalgamation of the Jason Lee’s characters in Mallrats and Chasing Amy, if only the bad parts.

Montana wants to keep Vaj’s visit short-but-sweet. The same goes for their phone conversations, because she always feels worse when they talk. Clearly, having Vaj at the forefront of her mind only underscores their distance, and reinforces the cognitive dissonance of wanting to see other people while in a relationship with someone you love.

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“She needs attention from men even if it destroys her life,” Sean explains in his confessional. This becomes clear when Montana meets Matt, a Bostonian law student that looks like a New Kids on the Block reject and has “more stories to tell” than even Montana. They hit it off and trade numbers, but Montana feels guilty: she knows talking to guys and getting numbers would hurt Vaj’s feelings.

When she next talks with Vaj, Montana prods for information about dates that he’s gone on and seems surprised that he’s dated “so soon.” She admits that he has mixed feelings: Vaj dating stings, but it also alleviates her guilt for the same behavior. To his credit, Vaj says this is exactly what he didn’t want to happen; he’s happy to stay monogamous and wait for her to return, an offer Montana refuses; he seems like Casey on Sports Night, going on dates because Dana made him.

While Montana’s relationship with Vaj is on the rocks (“it brings me no pleasure because it bring me pain”), her relationship with Matt is going so well that it gets a falling-in-love montage (to the tune of Gina G’s ‘Ooh Aah… Just A Little Bit’). Matt wants to know if he should “practice for the New York bah” (phonetic Boston accent) but is shocked when he finds out Montana lives with Vaj. “If I’m putting myself on the line, I’m the only one that has something to lose,” he says, but Montana disagrees: “I have a lot to lose… you’re rocking my world.”

Montana is struggling as she juggles relationships with Vaj, Matt and Sean. The show cuts the tension with a credit-sequence about Montana’s Love Geometry, charting her move from love triangles to love parallelograms. Jason is a similar position, but thankfully his problem is just a love line: he left his “incredible” girlfriend Timber back in Boulder, and unlike Montana and Vaj, he didn’t work out an arrangement in advance.

jazzpoet

Jason admits that he’s never been faithful in a relationship, and while it doesn’t seem like he’s going to start now, he says he wouldn’t cheat without telling her. It’s not a particularly brave stance, but it’s an honest one: he’s a poet-writer searching for answers and human connections, and he can’t do that while in a relationship. “I don’t want my girlfriend around because I’ve got to learn some things about myself and I’ve got to go through some crap right now.”

Timber shocks him with a surprise visit; no matter how well he fakes it (not very), he definitely does not want her to visit. While admitting that it’s “very awkward to have someone from the outside world” visit, he tries to make the best of it… with shower sex. The bliss doesn’t last, though: Timber “sometimes” becomes belligerent when she drinks, and “when she starts crying when she’s drunk, there’s no stopping her.” Inevitably, Timber gets drunk, belligerent and tearful; the two fight and Jason is pissed: “I love you but I hate you right now.”

Both Jason and Timber are carrying some serious parental baggage. Jason says Timber’s behavior reminds him of when his mother would drink, and Timber allegedly has abandonment issues because her father walked out when she was five. With their joint damage in mind, Jason wants to try to work it out; Timber considers moving to Boston to save the relationship, but Jason asks her to let him go it alone.

“It’s always easier to walk away than it is to deal, and I’m the king of walking away. Without my girlfriend around… it makes me feel like I’m in the wind by myself,” he says with both sadness and hope in his voice. “To be on your own, is very lonely but also very free.”

braces

Montana and Jason are not the only housemates dealing with a long-distance relationship. Genesis, 20, has been dating Tammy, 28, for three years, which means at no point did their relationship meet the tried-and-true “half your age plus seven” rule. It’s Genesis’ first serious relationship, and the familiarity of time has washed away attraction and sex; she says they haven’t had sex for two years and they feel more like sisters than lovers. But familiarity breeds not just contempt but also paralysis, as Genesis worries she may never be able to leave Tammy.

Much like the gay bookstore, Genesis finally visits her first gay bar, and — “like a bird that was let out of her cage” — her sense of freedom and belonging is palpable. That can’t be said for everyone: Sean was uncomfortable with everyone being so “sexually expressive in their gayness, and even self-styled progressive Kameelah isn’t ready for a gay bar with a drag show.

Genesis hits it off with a drag queen named Adam/Eve and with an unnamed girl on the dance floor, who she ends up making out with — the first person she’s kissed other than Tammy. “Tammy is going to kick my ass,” she thinks, but Tammy’s reaction couldn’t be anymore different: she asks if they should just be friends, and Genesis admits that’s all they really are at that point. A quiet, natural break-up: how un-Real World.

The Real World doesn’t care about pre-existing relationships. In fact, recent seasons have drifted further away from the original concept of the show to focus on the relationship angle specifically, moving exes into the house for the gimmicky Real World: Ex-Plosion season. There’s no footage in happy couples that remain intact despite time and distance: an on-screen graphic is perhaps the only mention of Sean’s girlfriend Becky, a person whose mere existence was the most shocking development in these three episodes. Maybe that love parallelogram was more complicated than even The Real World could deal with.

Best Music: Three episodes and about a dozen songs to choose from, including first run Robyn (‘Do You Know (What It Takes)’), a personal favorite (Fiona Apple’s ‘Sleep To Dream’) and an alt-rock staple I could never stand (Soul Coughing’s ‘Super Bon Bon’). Still, the pick has to be Savage Garden’s ‘I Want You’, an at-the-time guilty pleasure that still evokes memories of sixth-grade dances.

Some Wiki research reveals that the song would be an appropriate one for the sexually-fluid Genesis: Savage Garden lead singer Darren Hayes was married to a woman for five years before eventually coming out as gay; they remained friends and Hayes described her as more like a sister to him. He officially came out in 2006 when he announced a civil partnership with British artist Richard Cullen.

Real World: Boston #3: Virtual Insanity

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Episode 5 – “Elka’s Shell” – August 6, 1997

It was the summer before seventh grade, and I’d just hit a milestone: getting dumped by my first girlfriend, which quickly put an end to my first summer romance. Sometime around then, I had an even more important formative experience: I saw the video for Nine Inch Nails’ ‘The Perfect Drug’. While I had been a casual music fan until then (Discman checklist: Presidents of the United States of America, No Doubt, Space Jam OST), that’s the first time I realized that music could be more than just entertainment — it could be identity.

Seeing and hearing Nine Inch Nails hit a switch in my brain: “this is who I am now.” I didn’t go full-on Goth (either then or ever), but I found the next-best teen archetype: JNCOs, Airwalks, PacSun tees and a ball-chain necklace made me a “skater” (although my lack of skateboard also made me a “poser”). Nascent feelings of antiestablishmentism and an affinity for counterculture were crystallized in this readymade identity. Rather than being not-cool, I could define myself in opposition: I was anti-cool.

But as the proverb goes, the clothes don’t make the man. Skater style didn’t give me entre to a skater clique; I was stuck with the same neighborhood scumbags and the same handful of part-time school friends as I figured out how to establish a sense of self. I was getting by socially, but I was still an outcast, even from the other outcasts.

That’s probably why I was drawn (like seemingly everyone else I’ve spoken to about this season) to Genesis: even though I was a straight, male, seventh-grade skater and not a 20-year-old lesbian from Mississippi, outcasts can smell their own.


After coming out to them, Genesis seems at ease with her roommates, if not totally comfortable. Naturally, the (straight) men of the house are cool with the chill, lipstick lesbian, even if their ideas on homosexuality in general aren’t as progressive. Syrus is *this close* to saying something about “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” and even Sensitive Poet Jason can’t contain himself with thoughts of “soft lips” and “soft bodies” together: “Sexuality seems to inherently come from woman, and when I see two women joined, it seems really natural.” Gross. Genesis isn’t surprised, though, telling them stories of guys who want to tape her having sex with her girlfriend.

The women fare a little better. Kameelah claims that she “rarely” sees feminine lesbians, but Montana corrects her: Kameelah only thinks that because the butch, masculine stereotype is what she’s been conditioned to look for when identifying lesbians. Montana, naturally, also has the best lesbian anecdote: “I knew a woman that was inseminated with a turkey baster and the kid was born on Thanksgiving,” she claims. “I’ve just led an interesting life.”

While she’s letting the men open up about their fantasies (she even gives Sean a back massage) and helping the women move beyond stereotypes, Genesis is having her own crisis. “I’m about to die because I haven’t been around a gay person since I’ve been up here,” she tells a friend. “I’m going through withdrawals — I’m starting to find guys cute. I’m in a house full of straight people and I’m beginning to wonder if I’m turning straight myself.”

She quickly backpedals, but waffles: “No, I’m just joking. Well, actually I’m telling the truth. Kind of.” In her confessional, she admits that’s she’s sexually fluid, that it’s not impossible for her to fall in love with a man: she’s going to be in love with the person, regardless of gender.

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Alienated from the housemates, she finds herself up late at night in Internet chatrooms. Even that proves to be a challenge: when all the lesbians want to have cyber sex, she ends up in the transgender chat room, a classification she defines as “bisexuals, transvestites and crossdressers” (a definition that might not hold up these days). She quickly strikes up a friendship with Joe/Jolene, a bisexual transvestite that is married to a woman.

Until I rewatched this episode, I hadn’t thought about chat rooms or cyber sex in years; they are such ‘90s concepts! I definitely spent my fair share in AOL chat rooms (no cyber, though), eventually finding a specific tribe: Star Wars role-players. 1997 was the year of the Special Edition, and Star Wars fandom was resurgent. Who knows how I ended up pretending to be a character spun-off from Shadows of the Empire, but chat rooms provided an early refuge for outcasts of all stripes.

Soon, Genesis’ online chatting approaches obsessive levels. The housemates are concerned, if unsure what to do. Elka thinks she seems sad but doesn’t want to intrude; Kameelah tells her that Joe/Jolene — regardless of his bisexuality or transvestism — is a man who can still hurt her (her views on men well-established at this point). Only Jason recognizes that “she’s getting something from there that she can’t get here.” When Genesis confessed to him that she was “so lonely,” even Jason — possibly her closest friend in the house — didn’t have much to offer, other than vague metaphors about friendship.

Ultimately, Genesis takes Kameelah’s earlier advice to “find her people,” venturing to a gayborhood and finding “her element” at a gay bookstore, something she wouldn’t have been able to do in Mississippi. “I’m still a little bit weirded out, but I’m okay, and it will only get better,” she maintains. Identity crisis averted — for now.

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Genesis wasn’t the house’s only outcast, though. Coincidentally, it was the person painted as her opposite: virginal, conservative, very-Catholic Elka. I remember thinking that Elka was sweet, but I didn’t identify with her. Even though her isolation is clear in retrospect, my budding atheism/agnosticism gave me a Jesus-sized blindspot to Elka’s trouble.

Elka is a prude: she doesn’t like Sean’s lame jokes about “crusty undies” and she is flabbergasted when, after a night of drunken carousing, Sean, Montana and Jason have a mock-threesome on the pool table, dry humping and dropping trou. (She’s watching this on the closed-circuit TV monitor, because of course the house has monitors — how else would you spy on your housemates and stir up shit?) Sean admits, “We did it just because it freaks Elka out,” and Montana goes even further: “Let’s go fuck on Elka’s bed!”

Montana says that taking the action to Elka’s bad was a “spoof,” a failed attempt to “pull her out of that shell.” It doesn’t work: Elka growls at them to get out — party over. “I have never seen drunk people be so crass and vulgar in my life,” she says, exasperatingly adding, “not even during spring break!”

Elka’s mother died of cancer just two months before the show began, and along with processing her grief, Elka is keeping her mother’s memory alive by maintaining the ladylike behaviors she taught her. But cracks are starting to form in her Girl Scout demeanor. She’s secretly smoking, and no one is supposed to know; Genesis keeps her secret and is promptly thrown under the bus when Elka doesn’t put out a cigarette in the bathroom. When Kameelah catches her smoking (on the monitors, naturally) and confronts her, she says that Elka is coming across like a spoiled princess: “No one in this house knows who you are.”

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Montana and Jason finally crack Elka’s shell when they form Scotch Tape, a fake British-Irish-Scottish “band” that gives them an excuse to wear the Union Jack, sport eye glitter (Elka) and velvet belly shirts (Jason), smoke a few cigarettes and have an impromptu photo shoot. Elka is given the moniker “April Christ,” which she seems to get a kick out of, blasphemy be damned. In her confessional, the way she says “Scotch Tape” and laughs like it’s the most ridiculous thing anyone has ever said is heartbreakingly adorable.

As with Genesis, Elka’s quest to discover and accept herself is a process. “I think that there are certain qualities about me that no one else has, and other people have other qualities that I wish I had,” she says. “I feel out of place, but I think I’m adapting okay in Boston.”

Even if I didn’t identify with her, that sentiment should have hit a nerve for me: I was starting to figure out who I was, who I wanted to be and how to find comfort along the way. Whether smoking alone or staying up all night in chat rooms, outcast life is a lonely one — while it lasts.

Best Music: This episode was a parade of ‘90s curios and fascinations: swing revival (Squirrel Nut Zippers’ ‘Hell’), female singer-songwriters (Joan Osborne’s ‘Crazy Baby’ and Shawn Colvin’s ‘Sunny Came Home’) and whatever the hell Jamiroquai was (‘Virtual Insanity). The latter is a nostalgic joy now, but I couldn’t stand it at the time, mostly because it won the Video of the Year moonman at the 1997 VMAs — beating ‘The Perfect Drug’.

Real World: Boston #2: “Everyone is whacked in their own ways”

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Episode 3 – “Black & White” – July 23, 1997
Episode 4 – “Blast From the Past” – July 30, 1997

For the show’s first decade or so — before it became just another reality TV flesh parade — The Real World was most notable for how it brought The Big Issues — race, gender, sexuality, religion, addiction — to homes across the world. While it did so by casting people with widely different perspectives and little-to-no filters, and then instigating situations that would make for good TV, that doesn’t make any of the hot buttons pushed any less real, the conversations around dinner tables and water coolers any less crucial to socialization of a generation (or two).

The Real World: Boston wasted little time before touching on some of these issues. While black housemates Kameelah and Syrus were given short-shrift in the first few episodes, their interactions quickly led to a house-wide discussion of race. While they initially hit it off, their conversation goes south when the topic of interracial dating arises. Syrus doesn’t discriminate: he dates “the whole rainbow” (including Asian “ninjas” — a line that will prove to be one of the least offensive things he says in these episodes). When he says he would marry a white woman, Kameelah goes cold.

When Sean broaches the subject, Kameelah cuts to the chase. “I personally don’t appreciate it when black men date outside of their race,” she says, pointing to the gender disparity between black students at her school, Stanford. “That hurts me, when I come home and I’m just like, I’m lonely, and I want a black man to be with me.” She’s not as open to the “rainbow” as Syrus, telling Sean that while he’s cute, “Y’all aren’t doing it for me — black men are beautiful!” Sean, ever the Midwestern bro, counters that he can meet her “emotional needs” as well as anybody, and almost immediately makes a joke about having never felt black hair. “You haven’t, you never have!” Kameelah erupts with a laugh — Sean has made her argument for her.

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The issue comes to a head later, as Syrus provides the season’s first flashpoint with his habit of bringing women home after the club: usually a few, and — from what we’re shown — exclusively white. Kameelah calls them “groupies,” and she has a point: “I’m on The Real World” would certainly be a good pick-up line for a certain type of person, male or female. Syrus’s late night visits are deemed bad housemate behavior by the group, and while pretty reasonable ground rules are established, Syrus opts for a typical Real World overreaction: “It’s like I’m in prison!”

When speaking with Montana and Genesis, Sean connects the dots: Kameelah’s main issue is not really the visitors, it’s the interracial dating. He’s not wrong: Kameelah feels alienated from Syrus; she’s upset that she has “nothing” in common with him. “I was praying that I would not be the only black person in the house,” she admits, “[and] I am the only black person in this house!”

While Kameelah’s alienation from Syrus has a lot to do with race, it also has to do with gender. In the next episode, Kameelah and Sean fight over getting directions after the group gets lost: she thinks it “kills” him that she took control of the situation, while Sean is tired of her “attitude” and calls her a bitch. When they discuss it later, Sean says she has been rolling her eyes at him since Day One, and the well-edited montage of shade backs him up. “That’s how I dismiss people,” she confesses; she dishes out attitude “because [she] can.” Everyone in the house has encountered her no-fucks-given approach; they just deal with it differently. “As long as she uses her attitude for good and not evil,” Montana tells a few others, “I’m all for it.” Then and now, women who don’t take shit from men (especially women of color) are painted with the bitch brush.

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But for Kameelah, her issues with men go deeper than Sean’s disrespect or Syrus’s dating preferences. As part of the team-building exercises at the afterschool program at which the housemates volunteer, she says that her father abandoned her and her mother, and that her stepfather was an abusive, “evil man.” “Men have basically jerked me around a lot,” she confides in Montana. “I just cannot deal with men… I don’t trust them.”

“I have issues with men,” she says, laughing through tears, and Montana establishes her feminist bona fides: “I think it’s hard to grow up a girl nowadays without having issues with men.” She somewhat sarcastically adds that “men are basically weak, stupid, base…” and Kameelah interjects: “And they’re everywhere!”

Montana has similar issues with men, both in the house and historically. After the Syrus incident, she notes that “he doesn’t respect women,” foreshadowing her next encounter with him. At the volunteer training session, the housemates discuss rape. “If a woman is raped, that’s going to affect her for the rest of her life,” Montana explains. “It’s like signing a piece of paper that says, ‘I’m signing to you years and years of pain, and part of you will never come back’.”

Syrus claims to have been falsely accused of rape during college. He says he was “tormented” because of the incident, and that he had to live the rest of his time at college in fear. “I didn’t rape that girl,” he maintains. “She lied – I didn’t lie.” Ever since the experience, he has “a problem believing women who say there were raped.”

Montana calls bullshit, thankfully. “Whatever it was, you knew that something was wrong and you chose to overlook it,” explaining the difficulty of even reporting rape and asking why anyone would go through that trauma just to “cry rape.” “I think that those [cases] are the minority. I don’t want you to think that most of the women that say they were raped or abused are lying,” she says, revealing that she not only knows women who were raped, but that she was sexually abused as a child.

Understandably, Montana isn’t going to give Syrus a pass for the incident in his past, or his persistent, misogynistic attitude about rape; while she doesn’t think he’s lying, she doesn’t (and can’t) know the accuser’s side of the story, either. Syrus apologizes, but only for how he expressed himself in a moment of passion; his “I would not have wanted to offend you in anyway” non-apology is an outrage culture staple. Still, it serves its purpose: they reach an uneasy detente, even as they acknowledge that the conflict will always be in the back of their minds.

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This discussion of rape is not new. However, it does feel especially timely, with the college rape epidemic — and rape culture in general — in the spotlight. The viewpoint that Syrus shares is still commonplace, and Rolling Stone’s UVA debacle has only fanned those flames. Similarly, the issue of interracial dating certainly wasn’t new in the mid-90s, and it remains a minefield for different people and for different reasons. While Syrus comes across poorly because he’s a bit of a player, his open-mindedness doesn’t — not during the original airing, and not now, even as the myth of “post-racial America” falls.

In the real world and The Real World, formative experiences shape our opinions, whether first-hand or via cultural representations. The abuse suffered by Kameelah and Montana, and what Syrus experienced at college, have obviously affected their viewpoints. In kind, seeing these personal stories explored on a show like The Real World affects viewers, especially pre-teens and teens who are able to contextualize these “hot button” issues. I can’t imagine that Montana’s point-for-point rebuttal of the “crying rape” myth didn’t affect my understanding of the issue. I also can’t imagine that there weren’t viewers that came away with the opposite opinion, especially considering the neutral-to-sympathetic treatment Syrus is given by the show.

But The Real World isn’t Game of Thrones, a show that exploits rape as a storytelling shortcut. While producers do have the power of editing to mold raw footage how they see fit, and the unseen power to provoke people into creating that footage, these conversations happened naturally (or as naturally as can be expected on reality TV). The issues of 1997 are in many ways the issues of 2015; The Real World just isn’t part of the conversation anymore.


Notable Music: Who thought it was a good idea to underscore Syrus’s story about being accused of rape with Korn’s ‘Blind’? The nu-metal fury is ridiculously tone-deaf. Still, this is as good an opportunity as any to revisit a song that I had on repeat at this time: my first garage band spent many hours trying to recreate this one, albeit without any seven-string guitars, or a bass player.

Real World: Boston #1: First Impressions

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Episode 101 – “Moving In: Boston” – July 15, 1997
Episode 102 – “Religion” – July 16, 1997

As I watched the double-sized first episode of The Real World: Boston, I was amazed at how familiar the series is, and how readily it came flooding back to me. This season aired nearly two decades ago, and unlike The Simpsons, Scrubs and The Sopranos, I haven’t re-watched these episodes ad nauseam in syndication and streaming. I vaguely recall seeing these in repeats, but even if that’s not my memory playing tricks on me — we’re talking over a decade in between viewings.

The first episode of a Real World season is all about first impressions, as the housemates meet each other, and the audiences meets the housemates. By the sixth season, some of the broader character types had been established, if not yet calcified into caricature, and a few of the housemates slide right into their roles.

Elka is the conservative Christian who admits she has “a lot to learn” about herself and others; Sean is the flannel-clad jock in search of a hot tub and a good time. Interestingly, he’s also the one who seems most self-aware about the budding reality TV tropes: the future Congressman was already on the look-out for the gay housemate and the “Puck” housemate.

Sean thinks that Jason might be the “Puck,” but he’s wrong. Jason, with his nose-ring, wallet chain and going-out guyliner, is more a moody loner than the antagonistic San Francisco scene-stealer. He’s reminiscent of Gen X poster boy Ethan Hawke circa Reality Bites, dropping poetry bombs about the “midsized Honda sedan bandwagon” lifestyle. In retrospect, I probably identified most closely with Jason, with his outsider/outcast posture; this was right around my not-quite-goth-or-skater phase. Jason is done with the “white bread America” of his Boulder home, and he’s got “bad vibes” already, mostly about the Type A Sean. “I already see the whole game plan,” he tells Genesis, in hushed, conspiratorial tones.

Genesis is the requisite gay housemate that Sean is looking for, but not in the show’s previous molds. Not only is she the show’s first lesbian, but she’s not an activist like San Francisco’s Pedro or flamboyant like Miami’s Dan; she spends the entire first episode figuring out how to come out to each of her roommates, dipping her toe in the water rather than jumping right in. Her coming out to Elka is teased for the entire episode, but ultimately, it’s much ado about nothing: Elka’s reaction is a little overblown by modern standards, but she learns about lipstick lesbians and keeps the party going. “There’s a first time for everything” quickly becomes her motto.

Speaking of Real World requisites, Boston includes two black housemates for the first time since the inaugural New York season. Kameelah and Syrus are given relatively short-shrift in the first episode; she comes across as a little bougie, and she’s quickly given the “bossy” tag by a few housemates; alas, Ban Bossy was still 17 years away. Syrus quickly becomes running buddies with Sean; he toasts “may we have fun together,” which will quickly become his motto.

Rounding out the group is Montana, who — to be honest — I’m not sure fits one of the stereotypes that had been already established by the show. She’s an open-book oversharer, quick to expound on her views on Christianity (she ain’t fer it, she’s agin it) and tell tales about post-boob job, wandering-eye nipples. The first comparison that came to mind was Jessa of Girls, but on her best day and without the malice.

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I don’t remember my first impressions of these characters, but I was shocked that they still seem so much older on screen, even though Elka and Kameelah were 19 when the show was filmed; Sean and Syrus were the oldest at 25. It’s as if they’ve been imprinted as “adults” in my brain, and even with the handful(s) of years I have on them now, I will forever be looking up to them like a middle schooler looking at college kids.

Maybe I felt 13 again because of how wonderfully ‘90s the show is, with its blurred logos and rollerblading intros. The house (a converted firehouse) is decorated with a mix of Friday’s flair and proto-Urban Outfitters artifacts, all lava lamps, fish tanks and phallic art. Jason and Genesis don’t know what a French press is (“I think it’s a tea thing”) but they quickly find a Polaroid camera, and — in a move that made my day — they take some selfies: a good reminder that “selfies” and self-portraiture are not some new thing millennials came up with to piss off boomers and Gen X. This was a few years before digital cameras became mass market consumer goods, and a decade from cameraphone ubiquity, but in this transitional period between analog and digital, I’m not sure if Polaroids were ironic yet.

In the same way that it was a transitional period for photographs, it was a transitional period for The Real World. The shock-of-the-new of the early seasons had worn off, and the self-awareness of both the housemates and the show was becoming apparent. I’m not sure how the editing and storytelling compared to earlier seasons, but watching it now, the foreshadowing is clear: Genesis notes that she’s only been attracted to guys in drag, and Montana’s relationship with boyfriend Vaj (with his soul patch, hipster workshirt and forced smiles) doesn’t seem long for this world. But perhaps the foreshadowing is only clear in retrospect.


Notes about music: Between the dialogue and the VHS noise, placing the musical cues is proving more difficult than I would think; most songs are familiar, but some titles are stuck on the tip of my tongue. When in doubt, however, on-the-nose artist names and song titles usually win out: Alice Cooper’s ‘House of Fire’ for the firehouse, Faithless’ ‘Insomnia’ during a night out and conversation about religion, and so on. I feel like I’m going to have to pick a “winner” for the best use of music each episode.

Best Music: Reel Big Fish’s ‘She Has a Girlfriend Now’ soundtracks Genesis’ first coming-out moment, but the punk-ska group (a personal favorite) must have been in heavy rotation: ‘Sellout’ and ‘Snoop Dog, Baby’ also make appearances.