Tag Archives: Real World

Real World: Boston #3: Virtual Insanity

aprilchrist

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.

chatroom

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.

bookstore

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.”

scotchtape

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”

syrus

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.

syruswomen

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.

eyeroll

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.

working2gether

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

group

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.

selfie

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.

13 going on 30: revisiting The Real World: Boston

realworldboston

When I think back to my coming of age in the second half of the ‘90s, a monolith of pop culture rises from a horizon littered with alt-rock CDs, Kevin Smith VHS rentals and all-black band tees: MTV. While we’d later reminisce about a time when MTV “still played music,” music is secondary in most of my MTV memories, even at a time when music videos were still a key part of the channel’s brand. It is episodes of the personality-defining Daria, the then-shocking True Life documentaries or even the MTV-after-dark drama Undressed that define this period, more so than increasingly-infrequent music videos caught at off-peak hours or on TRL (begrudgingly, of course).

Yet no matter when your peak MTV viewing took place, one show remained a constant, a stand-in for your first glimpse of adulthood: The Real World. Premiering in 1992, The Real World kicked off the modern era of reality TV and set the trope table, establishing everything from the identity and personality checklists favored by casting directors to the video vérité style and confessional interview segments that have become TV staples (in reality TV and beyond).

My earliest memories of The Real World are from the 1996 season, and the allure to a 12-year-old is obvious: good-looking twentysomethings living and loving in a Miami dream house, with the occasional clandestine bathroom threesome. My interest was piqued, to say the least, but I didn’t fully take the plunge until the show’s sixth season in 1997.

While I would go on to watch the show for a few more years — including the iconic Seattle season and the sociopathic Hawaii one, along with parts of the mostly-forgettable New Orleans and return-to-New-York seasons — The Real World: Boston is the season that registers most clearly as a Key Part Of My Youth. I’d like to think it’s because Boston is objectively better, whether in storytelling or “character” development, but it’s probably because anyone’s favorite season of The Real World is the one they watched when they were 13. I didn’t have a bar mitzvah, I had The Real World: Boston.

I recently watched the first several episodes of Lifetime’s UnReal, a much-better-than-it-should-be drama that peaks behind the curtain of a Bachelor-style dating show, with heavy doses of satire and dark comedy. The show got me thinking about the roots of reality TV, portrayals of reality TV in fiction, and moments when reality TV has broken it’s own fourth wall. Without spoiling UnReal, I was reminded of this key moment from Seattle: the tearful fight between cast-member David Burns and Bunim-Murray casting director Kira Gourguechon, the latter of whom lost her job for mixing reality with reality TV (the fact that this is the second most iconic moment of Seattle is probably why the season is near the top of most “Best Of” lists).

In a desperate, post-midnight search for more Real World episodes, I was faced with the cruel facts: apart from the first and most recent nine seasons, the show doesn’t exist online. Whether it’s because MTV has misjudged the nostalgia market, or doesn’t want to deal with the music licensing issues that delayed Daria and The State reissues, it’s a huge missed opportunity, especially when everything else seems so readily in-reach in the age of on-demand culture.

But this isn’t my first rodeo. I managed to track down grainy VHS rips of The Real World: Boston, diving back into a world that is immediately as familiar as any of the TV shows that I’ve lived with in the intervening years. Even in the first episode, I was struck by the moment that Boston captured, not just for me, but for the medium. Characters were developed, cliques were formed and plot lines were foreshadowed, right at the moment as The Real World cast became self-aware. This is excellent TV.

With that in mind (and a gentle nudge from a friend), I’ll be blogging my re-viewing of The Real World: Boston. I still hate recap culture, and while this may seem as asinine an endeavor as proving the Caine-Hackman theory, I’m intrigued by the novelty of visiting a cultural artifact, and seeing how my memories of watching it at 13 compare with the experience of watching it at 30.