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.

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