The Real World: Williams

No entry experience is complete without the conclusion that “we should be on TV.” Whether it’s the drama or the antics, or both, the combination of 20 or so bored college kids inevitably results in episodes of what seems like The Real World.

However, the show has not always been so reminiscent of entry life. Past seasons of The Real World, now in its 21st go-around, quickly degenerated after exhibitions of humanity’s basest instincts: homophobia, anti-semitism, political and religious conflict and sexual voyeurism. In fact, seasons that failed to feature hot tub threesomes and excessive screaming were considered boring. While entries may have occasional brushes with such lascivious topics, they rarely match the drama.

This season is decidedly different, in such a way that a future Real World: Williamstown seems not so far off. I began watching the latest season, set in Brooklyn, having only seen little of the show and then stopping prematurely in disgust. In 10 episodes, as I write, there has been no sex on camera at all among the housemates or otherwise, meaning that the producers have been committed to omitting gratuitous and irrelevant sex. Arguments have been few and serious in nature. As a consequence, this season cannot be plausibly retitled The Real World: Jersey Shore.

Brooklyn’s plotline, unlike the others, is more real than surreal with issues that actually relate to our experience at Williams. How many of us have actually had the opportunity to have sex in a confessional or conduct a threesome in a hot tub? Now that rampant sex has been taken off the table, the more poignant issues have come out.
The most conspicuous is the serious treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. The inclusion of the post-operation transsexual Katelynn has brought forth questions of sexual diversity as frat boys Chet, Ryan and Scott try to reconcile themselves with her gender. One of the most endearing yet cringe-inducing moments of the show was when Ryan, who had suspected her operation all along, finally confronted Katelynn about her gender asking, “You were born a guy, weren’t you?” and “When did you do it?” while making snipping motion towards his crotch. The awkwardness of the encounter and Ryan’s discomfort with appropriate word choice is reminiscent of my First Days experience. Plucked out of my homogeneous Boston suburb, I found myself in this heterogeneous mix that is Williams. Not until Williams, for example, did I get to know a gay person well. Much like Ryan, I had trouble phrasing such delicate questions. Everybody’s First Days experiences involved meeting and trying to understand lifestyles of different origins.

One issue that is implicit, yet blatantly obvious to the viewer, is the question of social visibility. At Williams, we are constantly striving to hear the voices of people from underrepresented perspectives. In the show, Scott and Baya are these underrepresented people. My friends and I like to remark that each is generally allowed to do an average of two things per episode. Scott, an award-winning body builder, usually works out and then says something unintelligible in a Boston accent. Baya, an aspiring dancer, is allowed to doubt her dancing abilities and then hug someone. The caricature of the meathead and the insecure pretty girl have served MTV well, but they have become thin and transparently inadequate as convincing portrayals of personality. They are the focus-group tested versions of the people we so often deem at Williams as “that guy who’s always working in the library” and “that girl who always raises her hand in class,” one-dimensional dismissals of people who are probably awesome in their own right. This becomes clear in the show when, despite their previous differences, Scott loans Katelynn money when her financial situation almost forces her off the show.

But beyond such heavy considerations, this season of The Real World also features commonplace aspects of having 20-somethings living together. Katelynn likes to walk around in her underwear, an uncomfortable reminder of her operation for some. Chet and Ryan play pranks that endear them to some and distance them from others. A large fight ensues over the girls’ unwillingness to clean up after themselves. These tensions should all sound familiar to anyone who has lived in dorms (i.e. every student at Williams).

For me, these things, and many more, each correspond to aspects of living at Williams with other 18- to 25-year-olds. Though we may be stuck in some proverbial purple bubble, the real world may be closer than many of us think.

Mo Zhu ’11 is from Belmont, Mass. He lives in Brooks.