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What a Real World cast member’s identity crisis revealed

What a Real World cast member’s identity crisis revealed
The cast of The Real World San Francisco (Photo by MTV)

This is an excerpt from Amanda Ann Klein’s new book Millennials Killed the Video Star: MTV’s Transition to Reality Programming, which explores MTV’s reality TV and “examines the historical, cultural, and industrial factors leading to MTV’s shift away from music videos to reality programming in the early 2000s and 2010s,” according to Duke University Press. The book is on Kindle and will be out in paperback later this month.

The Real World was released in the wake of intense ideological debates about identity in American life revolving around issues like race (the Rodney King beating [1991], The LA Rebellion [1992], increasing fears over the alleged criminality of urban Black youth sparked by the crack cocaine epidemic [~1981-1990s]), gender (Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings and the national conversation about sexual harassment [1991], the so-called “Year of the Woman” in Congress [1992], the beginning of Third-Wave feminism), sexual expression (the end of the “free love” movement of the 1960s and 70s, the beginning of the AIDS epidemic [circa 1981]).

Therefore, when the series premiered on MTV in 1992, it promised viewers a rare opportunity to see American youth grapple with the very questions of racial, gendered, and sexual identity and difference that contemporary Americans were struggling to articulate.

The series exposed a generation of (mostly white, mostly middle class, mostly suburban Americans) American youth (ages 12-to-34 in 1992) to a variety of identities that they might not otherwise encounter in their daily lives. The Real World, and the dozens of identity-focused reality series that MTV eventually created in the wake of its success, gave its young audiences a point of entry into their own identities, or, as Henry Jenkins writes, “reality television is a mediated space that offers audiences a chance to see different people performing themselves on and off stage and to see themselves at the same time.”

In particular, The Real World operates under the ideology that it is only necessary for individuals to claim, name, and explain their identities to others (and in front of a camera) for there to be understanding and discourse. This particular approach to identity throughout the early 2000s was codified via social media and reality television consumption, and accounts for the success of later MTV programs like The Hills (2006-2010) and Jersey Shore (2009-2012)

Although the concept behind The Real World dates back to earlier TV series like Candid Camera, Truth or Consequences, and An American Family, it nevertheless marks the first time that a TV series was based on the premise of placing seven, hand-picked, “diverse,” strangers into a living space to hang out, talk, and find ways to amuse themselves.

The Real World was the result of trying to find a cost-effective method for producing a scripted teen series modeled on the success of series like Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000). Unable to afford writers or professional actors (or sets or costumes), Bunim and Murray decided to produce a reality TV series for MTV instead.

How Perdo Zamora ‘used the performance of his identity’

Real World San Francisco's Pedro Zamora
Pedro Zamora from the opening titles of The Real World San Francisco.

The drama for this series would be generated through the clashes between the diverse identities selected to be in the first cast. The Real World had the price tag of a documentary but the narrative certainty of a scripted drama.

Despite various changes to its format—the introduction of a “job” that all seven roommates must do together in Season 5 (The Real World: Miami), the pairing of cast members with their exes in Season 29 (The Real World: Ex-plosion), and the forced revelation of cast secrets in Season 30 (The Real World: Skeletons)The Real Worlds basic goal has remained consistent since its debut: to find out “what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” To get “real,” the show needed what series co-creator Jonathan Murray calls “diversity.”

Both the viewership as well as the critical consensus on The Real World was unremarkable. However, by Season 3, The Real World: San Francisco, the reality series’ ratings shot up due to the casting of a young, HIV-positive, Latinx man named Pedro Zamora. In 1994, HIV treatments were still largely experimental; being diagnosed with HIV was widely considered a death sentence.

Since HIV disproportionally impacted gay men and IV drug users, two highly marginalized identity groups, Americans were terrified of the disease and incorrectly associated it with moral laxity (“HIV and AIDS”). Season 3 cast members like Rachel Campos were initially worried about the risk factors involved in living with someone who is HIV-positive, and the series used her concern as an opportunity to teach American youth about the disease and how it is (and how it is not) transmitted from person to person.

Although the Season 3 roommates are depicted in the pilot episode, “Planes, Trains and Paddywagons,” as surprised by Pedro’s health status, Murray told me that everyone on the cast knew about Pedro’s medical condition in advance, “the cast knew someone who was HIV+ was to be a roommate, they just didn’t know who it would be.” Jonathan Murray remains (rightly) proud of MTV’s pivotal casting decision, recalling: “I played a big role in putting [Pedro] on the show and I spent time with him before he went on, to make sure it was something he was comfortable doing. I had had friends who died of AIDS because I had lived in New York as a gay man in the mid-80s.”

Murray, and his co-creator Mary-Ellis Bunim, hoped that putting Pedro on The Real World would educate Americans about HIV and AIDS, and they were correct. Pedro received thousands of letters every week from viewers who were personally touched by his story on The Real World (Muñoz 193). In this case, Pedro used the performance of his identity to advocate on behalf of the LGBT community, the Latinx community, and the HIV-positive community, something José Muñoz describes as, “converting identity into a ‘poetics of defense’” (198). Pedro represented one of the few cases in which a cast member on MTV’s reality identity series was able to (successfully) harness the performance of identity for impactful educational and activist purposes.

Real World’s ‘most nakedly honest definition of identity’ ever

Millennials Killed the Video Star

The Real World’s obsession with identity—finding it, cultivating it, and living it—is perhaps best exemplified in a Season 3 episode entitled “White Like Me.” Hunter Hargraves offers a compelling reading of this episode in terms of how it defines white identity as the absence of cultural markers: “What is striking about the early seasons of The Real World, set in the urban metropolises of New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, is how the program affirms difference as a way for its various cast members to educate each other about particular identities.”

I would add that this episode is also important because it serves, in many ways, as The Real World’s thesis statement on identity in relation to youth culture. In this episode, Cory Murphy, a 20-year-old, white, heterosexual cis-gendered woman, has an existential crisis after attending a spoken word poetry event that her roommate, Mohammed Bilal, a Black, heterosexual, cis-gendered man participates in.

The evening’s theme is “Black Love,” and features different Black poets and writers reading work that is, in the words of the evening’s emcee, grounded “in our Africanness, our Blackness.” As a montage of images of Black artists performing plays onscreen, Cory’s voice over explains “Seeing him come together with his people, and sort through those feelings is an incredible thing.” 

In the next scene, which takes place back at the house, Cory reflects on the evening, concluding, “I’ve never felt so white in my life…” Being in the presence of Black people who write, speak, and think about what it means to be Black forces Cory to think about what she is and, to her terror, she believes that she might not be anything. She tells her roommates, who are seated around the kitchen, “…I thought, ‘Gosh, I am so freaking boring.’ I have no major cause, no really close connection to my culture and my history and my race.”

This moment illuminates one primary way whiteness was understood at the beginning of The Real World’s tenure in the early 1990s: as an absence. Cory looks at her skin color, her history, and her culture as something to which she has no connection, mainly because her life and environment have so far never demanded that she see herself as having a culture, a history, or a race. Her culture is the dominant culture and her history, the dominant history. As Richard Dyer notes, whiteness has had the privilege of seeing itself as neutral, as the default, and as “unmarked, unspecific, universal.” It makes sense, then, that Cory, who is just starting to see herself as white, calls herself “boring” and “ordinary.” 

Cory’s sense of being “identity-less” is exacerbated by the fact that her non-white cast members on Season 3 have strong racial and ethnic identities, as well as defined life goals: Pam Ling is an Asian American medical student, Mohammed Bilal is a Black poet, Pedro Zamora is a homosexual Latinx HIV-positive activist, Rachel Campos is Latinx and a Republican Activist.

Cory does not know what she wants to do with her life and implicitly connects that with her “boring” (lack of a) racial identity, thus conflating identity with vocation and purpose. The other two white cast members, Judd Winick and Puck Rainey, are also different from Cory since they, like their non-white roommates, have a strong sense of identity and purpose. Judd is a sensitive, liberal cartoonist and Puck is a brash, anarchist bike courier who is eventually thrown out of the house for his bullying behavior. Still, even a negative identity, like being the house bully, is an identity. 

Being cast on The Real World and meeting people her age with such clear and strong identities has forced Cory to question what it means to be white, possibly for the first time. Cory lacked a context as well as a vocabulary for talking about these complex issues and is confused and uncomfortable. Judd, who is also white, straight, and cis-gendered, but who is older than Cory and, it would appear, more knowledgeable about how to speak about race and identity, tries to warn Cory not to “covet the struggle” of her nonwhite roommates. Cory responds with, “sometimes when there’s not a defining feature that makes you stop and think about what your life means, it’s easy to be carried along by the flow.”

In the 1990s, white youth were starting ask what their “defining feature” was, and could it be something unrelated to racial or ethnic oppression. The Real World seemed to tell its audience: “yes.”

Amanda Ann Klein

This may be the most nakedly honest definition of identity offered in any episode of The Real World. It was as if Cory looked around the fishbowl in which she was placed, noted the Black poet and the Latinx Republican and the Asian medical student, and wondered: so why am I here? What Cory could not see was that she is there for the same reason, that she, too, is filling a representational gap; Cory is the young, naïve, straight white woman of her season.

In this episode, MTV launched an idea for its youth audiences, best articulated by Judd, who tells her, “You’re not boring or ordinary because you haven’t had to overcome something.” This statement is key: as Black and Latinx and Asian kids began to see their identities, not as something to overcome or transcend, but to embrace and channel, white kids, who have generally never had their life struggles linked with their identities as white kids, wondered what they were. They wanted “in” on identity, too. In the 1990s, white youth were starting ask what their “defining feature” was, and could it be something unrelated to racial or ethnic oppression. The Real World seemed to tell its audience: “yes.”

Season 3’s approach to race is very much tied to the colorblind ideologies that were so strongly promoted in American media in the 1980s and 1990s, as illustrated in the same episode, “White Like Me.” Cory approaches Mohammed’s girlfriend, Stephanie, who is a light-skinned, African American, cis-gendered woman, and asks her if she is “part white.” Cory is surprised and saddened to discover that this question upsets Stephanie.

Later, Cory tells Pedro, and his boyfriend Sean, “it’s weird how you can do some things that mean nothing to you, but they are so offensive to other people.” Cory is confused because her experiences on the series have taught her that identity is important, especially to people of color, but her identity-based questions are viewed negatively. Mohammed later discusses the incident with Cory at the dinner table, where she weeps, clearly overwhelmed by her inability to navigate the multicultural world into which she has been cast.

In an attempt to comfort Cory, Pam admits that she only recently discovered that the term “Oriental” should be used to describe objects, not people, while Pedro explains how he is never sure which people prefer to be called “Hispanic” and which people prefer the term “Latino,” and, as a result, he is not always sure how to refer to himself.

These moments, in which individuals with seemingly clear identities admit to their own confusion over identity and identity labeling is a comfort to Cory. The episode implies that navigating a world composed of different races, ethnicities, sexualities, and religions requires listening and also being comfortable with making mistakes and learning from them.

Towards the end of the episode, Cory admits, “What once seemed normal and real and absolute is just crumbling into a bunch of questions.” Although Cory complains about not having an identity, living with people from different backgrounds and experiences has forced her to come to terms with that previously invisible identity—whiteness—and what that means.

Her whiteness, which once felt “normal” or invisible, is rendered knowable and visible (Cory was also quite lucky to have such understanding and patient roommates, who allowed her to make mistakes and learn from them).

Once MTV launches its reality identity cycle in 2004, whiteness as an identity is both invisible (as in The Hills) and highly visible (as in Buckwild).

Read more in Amanda Ann Klein’s book, Millennials Killed the Video Star: MTV’s Transition to Reality Programming. This excerpt is copyright Duke University Press, 2021, and is used with permission.

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About the author

  • Amanda Ann Klein is Associate Professor of Film Studies at East Carolina University, author of American Film Cycles: Reframing Genres, Screening Social Problems, and Defining Subcultures, and coeditor of Cycles, Sequels, Spin-offs, Remakes, and Reboots: Multiplicities in Film and Television.

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