For television’s whole raison is reflecting what people want to see. It’s a mirror. Not the Stendhalian mirror reflecting the blue sky and mud puddle. More like the overlit bathroom mirror before which the teenager monitors his biceps and determines his better profile.
—David Foster Wallace
Season four of MTV’s The Real World was the first to take place off the American continent. The “true story of seven strangers”—as the now-cliché introductory voiceover goes—featured an international bunch, sent to London to “live in a [town]house” in Notting Hill and “have their lives taped.” The seamless translation of the still-nascent reality-TV formula to a foreign context showcased just how effectively not only MTV culture, but the uniquely American export of reality TV itself, had already been absorbed into global teenage consciousness by 1995.
As in all first episodes of TV series with human subjects, the lead episode introduces the cast. We start with nineteen-year-old Kat, a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed NYU student excited to explore the world (and its older men). She has apprehensions, though: “I have a stereotype that Europeans have a stereotype of us as rude,” she worries. Next we meet Mike, twenty-one, an amateur race car driver from Missouri; we watch his face contort with panic when his dad warns him that London is an “international community where they have gypsies and bombers and terrorists.” Our first Brit, Neil, twenty-four, is an Oxford psychology dropout-cum-rock star, who describes himself as “both misanthropic and xenophobic” and displays his double nipple piercings to the camera. Jay from Portland, just shy of twenty, is a soft-spoken, spectacled, aspiring playwright who is mainly nervous to leave his high-school girlfriend behind. Then there is the glamorous Australian supermodel, blasé twenty-two-year-old Jacinda, who is jaded from feeling like a clothes hanger for the male gaze to rest upon. Our requisite Person of Color, Sharon, is a bubbly singer-songwriter from Essex, and though she is only twenty, she is the mature, non-partying type. Lastly there is Lars, twenty-four, the chain-smoking DJ from Berlin.
Though the whole gang seems equally capable of owning up to their respective assigned roles, the Americans are markedly younger, in reality and in appearance, than the non-Americans, suggesting an imbalance of TV-ready growth hormones across the continents. The Americans, it appears, are ripe and ready at an early age to exhibit themselves, having been raised fully on a diet of exposure.
Real World hype was high in 1995, following the previous year’s season, which had reached peak drama with a string of historical firsts for TV broadcasting. Filmed in San Francisco, the plot of the 1994 season revolved around roommate Pedro Zamora, a young Cuban-American living with AIDS. The candid footage depicted his physical deterioration from illness, his harassment by a homophobic cast member, his blossoming relationship with his boyfriend, and their eventual commitment ceremony on TV. Zamora became a figurehead for LGBT rights (the “Q” was not added until 1996) and HIV/AIDS awareness, lauded by the likes of Bill Clinton. He died shortly after the show aired, compounding the tragedy.
The choice to include cast members like Zamora allowed MTV to make claims about the show’s cultural-political value. Co-producer Jonathan Murray said in a recent (2014) interview with Rolling Stone: “I like to think that maybe The Real World had a part in making this the most tolerant, open-minded generation ever.” And indeed the show was commended by some at the time for its diverse casting, inclusive of demographics typically unrepresented in mass media. As hard as it is to imagine reality TV as a public service today, for a time MTV framed it as a consciousness-raising experiment.
Yet, as became increasingly clear through the many seasons of The Real World—thirty-two and counting—and as viewers of season four may have already begun to suspect, in order to preserve the very ‘different’-ness of the participants, their portrayals ended up consistently flattening their identities into prepackaged one-liners. This, in order that they could be pitted against each other to create a semblance of a storyline. The gay activist and the homophobe. The Southern belle and the diva with the Afro. Or, in the case of the London season, the race car driver from Alabama, who has a meltdown in the supermarket when he realizes the Brits do not sell ranch dressing, and the high-minded, Oxford-educated rock musician, who is endlessly offended by American bad taste. This tendency toward parodic, one-dimensional behavior only increased as a set of personality tropes became established over the years.
In the classic inversion of so many ‘awareness’ campaigns, bringing the lives of minorities to light wound up further marginalizing them. Identity boundaries that were supposed to be transcended were instead reinforced, partially to pander to supposed viewer expectations, but also because of the inherent structure of an ‘unscripted’ show. In order to engineer a semi-organic plot structure, the characters have to be molded into predictable actors who, when put in motion, will be guaranteed to set off certain chemical reactions. Amanda Ann Klein wrote in a 2015 New Yorker article titled “Thirty Seasons of The Real World” that the very structure of the show “implies a belief that bearing witness to difference somehow creates tolerance. And the show depicts intolerance as stemming directly from identity. One is racist because one is from the South. One is sexist because one is a male jock. Just mix, shake, and film.”
Mike, the race car driver from Alabama, has a meltdown in the supermarket when he realizes the Brits don’t sell ranch dressing, in "The Real World," season 4, 1995.
Bright-eyed expectations, or at least justifications, for what reality TV could do—raise awareness, abolish difference, create communities and solidarity—as opposed to what it did do, which is reestablish stereotypes according to market target groups, is not at all dissimilar from the dire trajectory the internet took in the early 2000s. In 1995, the internet’s era of counter-cultural optimism was on the rise just as TV’s was on the wane. Culture critic Mark Greif lamented the lost potential of broadcast media in an essay for n+1 (the magazine he then edited), writing, “[t]he utopia of television nearly came within reach in 1992, on the day cable providers announced that cable boxes would expand to 500 channels. The promise of the 500 channels went to waste. The techno-utopians’ fantasies shifted to the internet. Nothing like the paradise we hoped for came to fruition on TV, that’s for sure. Instead we got reality TV.”
In the MTV era, counterculture was sold back to itself, becoming over-the-counter culture. And, as David Foster Wallace famously described, in the early 1990s the capacity of irony as a subversive political device, for which it had functioned for at least a few hundred years, was subsumed by mass culture and rendered impotent. Foster Wallace traced a twin development in literature of that era: a post-ironic flattening of affect that lost all potency in its attempt to mimic life with no refraction or distance—ending up as neither irony nor its supposed opposite, earnest engagement. In other words, when placing oneself at an (ironic) distance from reality was no longer seen as a primary method of critiquing it, critique attempted the opposite: to get as close to ‘reality’ as possible, to meld with it, to become it. (The issue of proximity to the subject of critique has plagued artistic forms ever since; endless debates revolve around whether or not an artwork is ‘reproducing’ the reality it purports to critique because it is too close, or whether it is so far from its subject it offers no real intervention.) In this way, the draining of irony’s political capabilities led not only to mass media but also to high-culture forms (cinema and literature included) that sold themselves as hyperreal.
Incidentally, one reason for reality TV’s proliferation, which began a few years after The Real World launched (Surivor premiered in 1997; Big Brother in 1999) was that no one wanted to pay creative writers. When producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Murray originally conceived The Real World in 1992, it was intended as a scripted drama à la Beverly Hills 90210 or Melrose Place—but MTV did not have the budget to pay for the screenplay or any A-list actors. Bunim and Murray’s ingenious solution was to outsource the dramaturgy to real people at less than minimum wage (besides room and board, Real World participants back in 1995 were paid around $2,500 for their cooperation, or $500 per month), guided by an army of emotionally manipulative producers. This is assuming payment had not risen since the first season in 1992, when contestants were paid $2,500. Divvied up per month, the payment is well below minimum wage, which, according to the United States Department of Labor, would have been $680 a month in 1995 (based on a forty-hour workweek). Reality TV has, since then, remained very cheap to produce; however high grossing, participants are rarely paid well. Moreover, series are perpetually spin-off-able in new permutations (1995 was also the birth of Road Rules, a gamification of The Real World wherein contestants traveled the country competing in challenges). Naturally there are surges in reality programming following writers’ and actors’ strikes.
Though the concept arose semi-accidentally, Bunim and Murray cite their inspiration for the idea in reality predecessor An American Family, a unique and widely popular miniseries by PBS that aired in 1973, which depicted the disintegration of a real family, the Louds, over seven months in 1971. Despite its success, the reality form remained a novelty; a show of that kind was not reproduced until two decades later when Bunim and Murray stumbled onto the format.
If reality TV can be traced through the history of candid-camera or documentary filmmaking, it can also be understood as an outgrowth of public fascination with social psychology experiments. The Real World creates a microcosm in which to observe human behavior, mimicking the basics of any psychology study (the sadism and schadenfreude duly amplified). But the experiment does not focus on any one behavior; the psychological phenomenon under scrutiny on reality TV is and always will be what psychologists call the “observer effect,” also known as the Hawthorne Effect: the effect of being watched. Not accounted for by the original observer effect was the way that watching someone being watched changes the watcher, in a cycle of increasing self-awareness. “The reality of reality television is that it is the one place that, first, shows our fellow citizens to us and, then, shows that they have been changed by television,” writes Greif. This awareness of self-as-viewer-as-performer is already highly evident in season four of The Real World. All the roommates understand the meta-level (watching themselves) of the semi-scripted lives that they are leading—when Sharon theatrically burns a cake in the first episode she jokes, “this is the sort of thing that happens in sitcoms!”—and yet no amount of self-awareness can lead one out of the trap of performing oneself.
Women in the Relay Assembly Test Room of Western Electric Hawthorne Works, where the "Hawthorne Test" was first realized, ca. 1930. Western Electric Company Hawthorne Studies Collection, 2007 President and Fellows of Harvard College; all rights reserved.
Even by 1995, most reality TV participants had already seen enough TV to know how they were supposed to act; but what may have still been unclear to them, and to audiences, at that point, was the extent to which their performances would be engineered on the production side. Today (thanks to a stream of journalism and popular media ‘uncovering’ what goes on behind the scenes, not to mention TV series that do the same), the instruction and manipulation of participants is common knowledge. The process of building the story is collaborative at best, exploitative at worst. But as many have written, this has made no difference in our fascination, it maybe even exacerbated it. For instance, in an article titled “Doll Parts,” the New Yorker’s TV critic Emily Nussbaum put it this way: “It doesn’t help that I know, as we all do, that some proportion of the show is scripted—that simply helps us enjoy the humiliation without guilt.” Today, cast members refer ironically to the scripted nature of their performances, and in the same breath earnestly insist that they are on the show for the right reasons. Our loop of self-awareness has spiraled far beyond what Foster Wallace pinpointed as the death of irony in the 1990s.
The main thing that stands out when watching the 1995 season of The Real World today is its remarkable lack of controversial material. It essentially steers clear of the political stakes one might have expected, especially after the previous season, instead rolling out hour after hour of banal interpersonal drama. With ‘culture clash’ as its intended backbone, the twenty-three episodes amount to little more than a spineless record of petty jealousies and roommate bickering over a messy kitchen. The apex of drama, in episode six, when rock star Neil tries to kiss a heckler at a concert and gets his tongue nearly bitten off, is treated as a plot point only insofar as it affects his relationship with his on-again-off-again girlfriend. At the end of the season, in an attempt to spice things up, the producers send everyone on safari in Kenya, leading to a round of sentimental bonding and a polite discussion about the ethics of eating meat. Admittedly, it is entertaining, but it is decidedly mild.
The mildness of the material’s presentation is precisely what highlights the violence of the show’s format. This violence can be hard to identify when watching the Real Housewives of today, because it is been buried under so many stacks of self-awareness. But it comes across loud and clear in the early Real World: the personalization and therefore the depoliticization of structural difference through the individuation of behavior. In other words, any actual potential political conflict is panned off as the result of personality difference. For example, Sharon, the unskinny black roommate, is uncomfortable when goaded to try on the clothes of the size-0 white Australian supermodel; this is surely because she is uptight and uneducated in fashion—not because of any larger societal discrepancies between them. With individuals isolated from their cultural contexts and subjected to observer effect, conflicts that undeniably stem from race and class are consistently framed as interpersonal issues resulting from individual pathologies. The pettier the conflicts, the more their underlying causes are neutralized. In season four, we witness the quiet implosion of identity politics.
The actual formal devices of reality TV pioneered by The Real World lend themselves beautifully to this end. The producers piloted those first-person, confessional interviews interspersed throughout documentary footage that have by now become inseparable from the reality genre as a whole, where a scene is followed by someone’s meta-commentary explaining his or her behavior in the scene, followed by a scene demonstrating what has just been explained. This structure performs a constant reinforcement of subject position such that it becomes the root of all behavior.
The erasing of the structural by the personal that began in the 1990s can tell us a lot about what has happened, and is still happening, with internet culture. As Foster Wallace wrote in “E Unibus Pluram” in 1992, “Television […] has become able to capture and neutralize any attempt to change or even protest the attitudes of passive unease and cynicism that television requires of Audience in order to be commercially and psychologically viable at doses of several hours per day.” Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram”: 171. Replace “television” with “internet” and “audience” with “user” and you have a formula to describe why we are all on Facebook for an average of fifty minutes a day.
Reality TV now makes up about 65 percent of all United States-based programming. As broadcast TV wanes and online streaming services take over the domain, the two media—reality and internet—are fusing together, making this a good moment to look back at the lost utopias of both. If reality TV erased structural violence with petty personality conflict, and if the internet rendered all of our personalities public, subjecting us to universal observer effect, the best way forward may be through turning our observations away from each other and toward the underlying structures engineering—producing—our behavior. Trying to ‘really’ see each other is laudable, but it is worth remembering that there is no such thing as verbatim reality: it’s all created. Every episode has a producer.