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.
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.
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.
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.