Monday, April 18, 2011
Is The Real World Real?
I find myself watching the Real World on MTV but not because I think that it is “real” or a true representation of how someone should behave. I plop down on the couch, having Tivo-ed this week’s episode in order to see what teens and some tweens are being exposed to on a daily basis. I will admit that it is easy to get caught up in the casts’ antics and drama. I liken it to seeing an accident on the freeway. You know that slowing down to stare worsens traffic and keeps you from getting to your destination but you cannot help but look to see what happened. Whether it is to stare at wreckage, see what is making you an hour late for your appointment, or if anyone was seriously hurt, just about everyone can admit they have slowed if not stopped and stared.
Cut to MTV’s The Real World. It is a new kind of car accident and still; I stare with almost morbid curiosity. On any given episode viewers get to see binge drinking, people acting drunk and disorderly, bed-hopping, and fights between roommates that are cast for their potential volatility. These roommates are placed in a huge professional decorated home with fancy furniture, kitchens, aquariums, and bathrooms. The space that they will inhabit for the next three months is specifically designed to test privacy boundaries, expose the cast to co-ed bathrooms and bedrooms, and even have a room designed specifically for confessionals about life with six or seven strangers. Unfortunately, the confessional is used primarily for trash-talking. There is always some sort of social issue that one or more cast mates have to overcome. In past seasons cast members have struggled with cutting, eating disorders, sexuality, domestic violence or teen dating violence, rape, drug abuse, and alcoholism. These are weighty issues that magically seem to set off a barrage of conflict until the issue is “exposed”. By the end of the season the afflicted cast mate is healed with a lot of help from their roommates and maybe a little bit of counseling during their three-month stint in the Real World house. To further their forced interactions they are not allowed to have cell phones or TV’s. There is access to one telephone that is not cordless, again no hiding for privacy. They have a phone room and all their calls are recorded for the show. There however, never seems to be a shortage of alcoholic beverages available. They have limited access to the internet for email. Combine all of this with the fact that there are cameras in every room and that a camera crew follows each roommate around 24/7 and you have a recipe for disaster, conflict, and hopefully, in the end, some sort of personal growth.
What I find troubling is that teens’ exposure to the media and internet is increasingly becoming their source of guidance and direction for their daily lives. Teens are seeing how late teens and twenty-something’s are behaving, living, and interacting with each other. Just like in the case of siblings, imitation of the older by the younger is the next logical step unless someone is there to provide a balanced and logical interpretation of what teens are really seeing. As a teen, seeing someone getting to live in a cool house, do whatever they want, having the ultimate freedom, and the allure of all things new and un-experienced looks totally awesome. Why wouldn’t a teen want to live in the lap of luxury and do whatever they want? The current season was filmed in Las Vegas. Never was there an environment designed to produce dangerous behavior by the very motto the city lives for, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” It is all edited to look like a blast and if I were an unwitting teenager that would be what or how I wanted to live when I got older, at least for a little while.
As an only child, I learned things from my older cousins, peers, and friends. Even if I hadn’t watched the “cool” shows of my teen years, as I wasn’t allowed to watch risqué shows like Beverly Hills, 90210, it certainly didn’t stop my desire to fit in and be like the characters depicted on TV. My parents thought that at 13 or so, I was too young to watch shows about other teens having sex, drinking, having unlimited access to money, and drug addiction. But you can bet that my peers’ parents weren’t as strict and we definitely talked about it at school. I did my level best to act as though I had seen it all. I didn’t want to be the only kid that wasn’t cool enough to watch the new “it” show. I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t seen at least a few episodes at a sleepover or party. I remember those characters looking so cool. From what little I had seen of them, I wanted to look like them, wear their clothes, act like them, and be as cool as all my friends thought they were. Fortunately, my parents warned and warned and then warned me again about drugs, sex, and risqué behavior independently of 90210. After all, they thought that I had never seen a single episode. While I wasn’t imitating everything I saw, it didn’t stop me from trying to copy at least a little bit of what I was seeing, I did want to be cool in the eyes of my friends.
With that being said, a typical American teenager aged 9-14 spend over 20% of waking hours watching television, compared to 9% on hobbies and 3.5% on homework, according to Teen Health and the Media-College of Education at the University of Washington. Additionally, the average American teenager spends 20 hours a week watching TV, according to the same group at the University of Washington. Teen Health and the Media also reports that the only thing teens spend more time on than watching TV is sleeping. Additionally, the Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 76% of teens said that one reason young people have sex is because TV shows and movies make it seem normal for teens. It is logical to make the argument that if TV and movies make teen sex look normal then what else is being made to look normal? Maybe drug abuse, domestic violence, teen dating violence, eating disorders, binge and/or underage drinking? We can see by these statistics that TV is a major time consumer and influencer of teen and tween behavior. Who should step in and provide direction or a review what teens see on TV versus what they do in their lives? Should it be parents, guardians, teachers, peers, or older siblings? Should TV stations be responsible for their content, viewership, or influence that they hold? Should every show not only come with a rating system but a disclaimer about production, writing, and what “reality TV” really is? These questions are not easily answered but worthy of discussion.
So is the Real World real? My opinion is no and then yes. The Real World is carefully orchestrated, cast, and created to produce conflict, encourage boundary crossing, and exploit cast members by plying them with alcohol, opportunity, and motivation to behave in a specific way because they are being filmed for TV. The problem is that teens and tweens are watching it thinking that it is an accurate representation of reality and how they should be acting now or in the near future. Teens then imitate what they see and make the Real World real.