The Real World Prototype and Reality TV

The Real World Logo

As a network developed to provide a new platform for music’s developing stars, MTV changed the lives of countless young artists looking for a break into the industry. During the 90s, MTV featured shows that primarily emphasized music: Yo! MTV Raps, MTV Unplugged, Alternative Nation, Club MTV, and Total Request Live are several programs that linked the entertainers and fans together by giving the fans control over what content aired. MTV’s popularity anchored itself in the young viewership of teens and young adults between the ages of 18-25; the pride of the network centered around creating a space dedicated to youth popular culture and the decade’s hottest rappers, rockers, and pop stars.

MTV also designed programming that focused on broader topics, like MTV News, in an effort to round out its offerings. The network’s longest running series, MTV’s The Real World, highlighted the day-to-day lives of young people from various backgrounds living together in a predetermined city. The show’s introductory tagline became ubiquitous with its content, and viewers could always count on an explosive combination of personalities to fuel each season’s unpredictable episodes:

“This is the true story of seven strangers, picked to live in a house, work together, and have their lives taped. Find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real…”

For twenty-five years, young people from different geographic locations and with varying backgrounds came together in cities throughout the country for our viewing pleasure, making The Real World the first successful reality television show broadcasted in America.

The Real World was modeled after Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place, as an alternative to major network soap operas targeting middle-aged women. Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray, the show’s creators, opted for the “reality” format of The Real World, because their budget didn’t allow for writers, set design, actors, etc. So, they decided to let the participants create the storyline. The show’s first season was set in New York City and filmed over a three-month period, with each cast member receiving $2,600 for appearing on the show. And in New York, things got really real (well, at least according to mainstream TV content in the 90s).

What later becomes typical behavior amongst The Real World castmates was exciting and fresh during its 1992 debut (and for a few seasons thereafter). The thirteen episodes of Season One show Becky, Kevin, Heather, Julie, Andre, Eric and Norman working through romance, sex, illness, familial relationships, and social issues. The roommates are divided by gender 3:4 (female-to-male), and 5:2 ethnically (with two African-American cast members). Race plays a factor is several episodes, with Kevin Powell leading many conversations that highlight divisions within the house. His (in)famous confrontation with roommate Julie Gentry demonstrates the organic manner in which controversy arose, making the episodes worth watching.

Norman Korpi, Andre Comeau, Julie Oliver, Rebecca Blasband, Heather B., Eric Nies and Kevin Powell of The Real World New York Cast (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

The abridged version of the confrontation goes as follows: Julie accused Kevin of threatening her with physical violence and spitting at her after she refused to let him use their house phone (remember: this show’s original airing predates cell phones and all things technologically mobile). He admitted to being upset with her but denied spitting at her. When Norman and Eric sided with Julie, Kevin pointed to race as the underpinning for Norman and Eric’s alignment with Julie, but Julie sited what she determined as Kevin’s past record of aggressive behavior as the justification for her sentiments. The parties later reached some type of amicable resolution, but this episode created a precedent later followed by other seasons, where not only race, but religion, gender, and sexual orientation often divided the castmates. The show’s best moments are those credited for opening up tough conversations among young people.

Future roommates, almost always from various upbringings and of different ethic backgrounds, would confront similar issues: race, gender discrimination, differences concerning sexual orientation, political beliefs, body image issues, and religion. In Season Two, The Real World: Los Angeles, castmates Tami Akbar (m. Roman, later star of VH1’s Basketball Wives) and David Edwards divide the house after what begins as a prank targeting Tami. The incident escalated to a physical confrontation between the cast members, ultimately resulting in the decision to remove David from the house.

The Real World may be credited as the pioneering reality television program, and its influence remains evident in various popular “reality” TV shows on various networks. While there’s a show out there for a number of interests—meant quite literally, as every network, from HGTV to The History Channel, offers some reality-based series— few strike more intrigue than those offering insight into Black culture. More specifically, many shows feature African-American women feigning friendships, chasing men, and digging into entrepreneurial endeavors. And no Black reality TV show is complete until an episode features a shade-throwing-, tea-spilling-, let-me-get-you-together-type confrontation. The entertainment factor is undeniable, though, as shows like Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta and VH1’s Love & Hip Hop have reached ratings as high as 4.3 and 3.8 million, respectively.

Bunim and Murray’s reality TV formula allowed for an organic plot-development (although film was edited to help establish a traceable storyline), and the issues the casts encountered mimicked situations relatable to the audience. As The Real World progressed, audiences criticized producers for what many perceived as scripted conflicts and contrived conversations. It seems, however, that recent reality TV shows are only popular if the drama is “too good to be true.”

Nonetheless, our favorite reality starlets are also feeling a little shade from their fanbases, too. Ratings for many shows reflect a decline in viewership over the years, and in an effort to remain relevant, many storylines have expanded far too far away from “reality” (Do they have to fight every week?). And more troubling, for some, is what’s frequently cited as a collective misrepresentation of Black woman and the threat of conveying a distasteful, inaccurate message to young Black girls about Black womanhood in America.

Because of a history of oppression, subservience, dispossession of the body, abuse, malicious sexual intrigue, and marginalization by American at-large, we may question if Black reality TV supports or disrupts the perpetual race- and gender-based pursuit of acknowledgement, acceptance, and encouragement of Black women (and other women of color) in society. Are these women our entertainers, role models, or stereotype perpetuators? Shari Arnold












Gang Wars and Peace Truces in Early 90s Media: From NY and LA to Little Rock

“What’s crackin cuz?”

“What’s poppin blood?”

Depending on your location, situation, and ability to understand gang-related terminology, your answer to these questions could determine if you lived or died on certain streets in the 1990s. During that decade, a language that many outsiders interpreted as young urban slang came to signify real insider knowledge, especially at a time when urban youth increasingly defined themselves by street cred, street cred by street violence, and street violence by gang violence, which in turn, became mass mediated gang wars.

From Los Angeles to Little Rock, gang activity experienced a surge across the United States in the early 1990s. This is particularly true of the Southern region. According to a 2010 government History of Street Gangs in the United States, “the southern region led the nation in the number of new gang cities, a 32 percent increase” from the 1970s through the 1990s. By 1998, the South had more states reporting gang problems than any other region in the nation. In fact at the time, this made the South look like it was catching up with the West, Midwest, and Northeast in terms of gang activity.



One HBO documentary from 1994 attempted to capture this spike in southern gang activity as it was felt in Little Rock, Arkansas, of all places. Director Mark Levin’s footage of Hoover Folk, Crip, and Blood gang member initiation rituals, ceremonies, and their groups’ deadly impact on children in a small city shocked the nation. Levin tracked this impact by following Steve Nawojczyk, the Pulaski County coroner at the time (and still-active community leader for inner city youth), to portray a sad state of affairs for Little Rock, and by extension, a narrative of decline for small cities in the South that were similarly affected by gang violence.

What’s interesting about this documentary is how it leads with a largely white, racially and sexually integrated set of Chicago’s Hoover Folk, showing its teenage members sitting in public parks around Little Rock, listening and singing along to Tupac, while later “beating in” a young woman who wants to be initiated. The priorities laid out in this sequence of events are clear: young white kids are being influenced by rap music, and they’re doing violence to one of their white female peers.

This sequence follows a familiar pattern, one well-known among the American black community—a pattern where young white kids are portrayed in the media as being corrupted by the influence of black American communities where “all the trouble started.” The documentary participates in this narrative by telling the story of a slightly older black men who came up in the Crip and Blood scene of Los Angeles, but later moved to Little Rock in the 1980s, where the documentary suggests the man becomes a major kingpin of that city’s 1990s gang scene.

Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock is unique in its mass mediated portrayal of gang violence affecting white urban youth in a small city, but its subtle portrayal of the American black community as the root of such violence is all-too-familiar. Throughout the early 1990s, movies, television, music and documentaries engaged in a systemic pattern of portraying gang-related crime, gang violence, and gang wars in ways that made that violence look peculiar to American black communities, especially black youth in the inner cities of Los Angeles and New York City. We can see such depictions most readily in movies like Boyz in the Hood (1991) and New Jack City (1991), which show young black men struggling to survive gang violence within their predominantly black neighborhoods in Los Angeles and New York City, respectively.

Then on television and again in 1991, national and international audiences witnessed the initial filming and eventual fallout from the Rodney King beatings in the form of the LA Uprising, whose television news coverage repeated the same systemic pattern of negatively portraying black communities as hotbeds of criminal and gang-related activity. Filtered through an implicit bias about violence on the West Coast—which we also see iterated in the Little Rock documentary when Levin focuses on the city’s supposed kingpin from LA—this event took place in Los Angeles, where the violent video images of white LAPD officers viciously beating the young black King within an inch of his life were broadcast and looped on national news networks for over a year between 1991 and 1992.

Perhaps one day, we will regard this “beat-in” as the horrific act of gang violence it actually was.

But what isn’t often remembered in mainstream accounts of the LA Uprising (an event formerly called the “LA Riots”), which directly followed the acquittal of the white LAPD officers who beat Rodney King, is that it was directly preceded by the Watts Truce between Crip and Blood gangs in 1992. Gangs such as the Crips and Bloods had been around for your years before the decision to call the 1992 truce, and issues of police brutality and racism was not the only thing that led to the truce. Active and non-active gang members on both side had realized how much destruction they had caused on their own neighborhoods. For a short period of time, there seemed to be some end to the madness that was brewing between two rival gangs. Entertainers such as Snoop Dogg and football legend Jim Brown were both vocal about keeping the peace. Here, we see black entertainers (mostly rappers and activists), highlight the possibilities of representing black people in a more positive light.

And yet just days after this small armistice and positive media coverage, the LA Riots, or what many now consider the LA Uprising, began after the white police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted of their crimes. From television news coverage of looting to beatings in the street, the Uprising had people around the nation tuned into the their TVs to see what was going on in LA. And although Watts Truce was still fresh, there was resurgence of violence between the groups because of the LA Riots. Both gangs used the time of chaos to attack each other which ultimately destroyed what many had hoped would end the violence between the two.

However, while short-lived and a little too early, the Watts Truce sent a powerful message, not only to white Americans, but also to black Americans, that change was possible if mortal enemies united against much larger common enemies, such as police brutality and racist media coverage. In Black Looks (1994), bell hooks explains why such racially biased mediations exist by calling attention to their (mostly white) American mainstream audience, which has an implicit, complicit, perverse, and voyeuristic desire to observe representations of black men’s bodies being assaulted by “white racist violence, black on black violence, the violence of overwork, and the violence of addiction and disease” (34). Indeed, it should come as little surprise that both movies and television—two forms of media that are most often made with that mainstream, mostly white audience at the time—reinforce these stereotypes.

So from New York to LA to Little Rock, the 90s were a unique period in the history of representation of black culture in the United States. Indeed, the LA gang peace treaty and the LA Uprising were critical events in that history: one that, if we listen only to 90s media, is simply a story of gang wars and occasional peace treaties that largely affected African American communities. However, if we listen more closely, particularly to the voices of those communities, we might, sometime in the future, begin to hear how to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.

One of those voices comes from West Coast rapper Kam, who might have said it best in his 1993 song “Peace Treaty.”

— Andy Reid and Joshua Ryan Jackson

Works Cited

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End P, 1992.