Real World Seattle Irene’s must-read indictment of Real World, MTV, and reality TV’s evolution

Irene McGee is best known for her 1998 exit from The Real World Seattle: Citing her Lyme disease as the reason, she leaves the show, only to be hit in the face by a fellow cast member, Stephen, as cameras rolled. Now, 15 years later, Irene tells the story of her time on the series–not just of that moment, but of her disaffection with the production, which is the real reason why she left. It’s a must-read essay.

First, as to the famous scene began with Irene outing Stephen (he later came out as gay), which she writes is “one of the meanest things I have ever done to another person in my life.” She also says that it “was scarring and shocking, but in a way it was just a precursor to the kind of cruelty and violence that has become a necessary staple of reality television.”

Afterwards, Irene writes, “I had terrible nightmares for weeks, seeing a huge hand coming at my face and then staring at the camera crew who did nothing more than film while a female got assaulted in front of them.” Irene points out that MTV teased but never aired Snooki being punched, but today, “keeps gleefully airing” footage of her “getting hit in the face.”

Irene has no love for Bunim-Murray Productions or the people who worked on the show. Of her fellow cast members, she writes, “I hope they’re doing great; it’s the crew I have no respect for.” She writes about the ways in which the production tried to instigate conflict–creating suspicion between cast members during interviews; a mandatory job at a radio station that only had three on-air positions–all of which seem quaint by today’s standards of, you know, no standards at all.

Irene writes that her discussion of the crew’s “process” led to producers having a sit-down meeting. She also takes issue with what happened in post-production: the “narrative was that Lyme disease was making me delusional, which was unfair and cruel: Unfair to people with Lyme disease, and cruel to me.”

Perhaps most damningly, Irene writes, “Today, there is no end to the pain we now witness on reality TV. Cast members don’t have to be goaded by producers to fight, physically and emotionally; these wannabe-stars go in knowing that regular screaming, feuding, and hair-pulling is expected of them, and they want to deliver in order to get airtime.”

Also in her piece, Irene recalls a line that was partially included in the final cut: “They are using all of us. Art shouldn’t have to hurt. This is not art.”

That’s something every reality producer and network executive should have in poster form, hanging above the edit bay. It should be recited before shooting every day, and it should be the standard by which reality TV is judged.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.