Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Real World New Orleans Does Gender and Pop Culture

There are assumed generalizations made about gender, race, and religion in US society. Pop culture and reality television add to these views due to the growing popularity of television shows and the people cast in them. In society, men are viewed to be tough, emotionless, and less accepting of others while woman are portrayed as reserved, emotional, and nurturing. What happens though when these stereotypes about gender are shown in a different light and assumptions are proved wrong? Pop culture and most notably, reality television has the power to recreate meanings and messages about gender, race, and religion, changing societies perspective on gender, races, and religious groups. Meanwhile, the media and reality television is partially responsible for the initial messages being sent and specific stereotypes shaped. In MTV’s quest to portray “reality” and break down barriers, the Real World New Orleans attempts to alter constructed understandings about gender, race, and religion in society through implementing cast members that fit specific stereotypes yet clash with one another.

By specifically casting males and females that fit the normative definitions of masculinity, femininity, and cultural standards, MTV and the Real World producers are assuring their audiences that specific molds exist in society. “Producers cast for type, choosing contestants they can mold into predetermined slate of characters.” (Pozner 98,” says Pozner. At the same time, by also casting people who do not meet these standards or ideals, the producers are guaranteeing friction amongst housemates and recreating meanings about gender, race, and religion. MTV and Real World producers are contradictory in the messages they send about gender, race, and religion which sends conflicting messages to the shows audience. By continuing to cast the typical blonde hair, blue eyed female who tends to be sheltered and even ignorant at times and the meat head male who is homophobic and a womanizer, the show illustrates these characteristics to be a part of the normative definitions of masculinity and femininity. I found this theory to be most evident in Season 9 of the Real World which took place in New Orleans. The cast fit gender, racial, and religious stereotypes however when living together and interacting on a daily basis, the show recreated messages that the media sends out about these people.

Season 9 of the Real World, which was filmed nearly ten years ago, is less tainted by the genre labeled to be “Reality TV”. In a society where Reality TV is anything but real, the New Orleans cast was filled with raw emotion, often fighting about race and religion for the cameras to see rather than hide their personalities and feelings. Producers cast three women and four men. Julie is a Mormon college student from BYU, Melissa is a hothead who struggles to come to terms with being biracial, and Kelly is the typical white sorority girl. The men included an All American jock named Jamie, Danny who is gay, David who fits the typical black man stereotype, and the devout Catholic Matt. Producers carefully picked these seven young adults in hopes that they would clash and break out of the norm.

When Danny’s boyfriend Paul comes to visit his face is blurred to keep his identity a secret. The reason for this is the fear of Paul being ousted as he serves in the military. Paul and Danny are worried that if the military finds out about Paul’s sexuality that he will be shunned by his peers or even kicked out of the Army. The reason for this Newman stresses is that “American culture is considered heteronormative – that is, a culture where heterosexuality is accepted as the normal, taken for granted mode of sexual expression” (Newman 60). With there being nearly two million men and women who serve in the military, it is hard to imagine that every single one of them is heterosexual and abides to what is considered to be gender norms. Gay men are often portrayed as extremely flamboyant and incompetent, however Danny and Paul do not fit these stereotypes. Danny looks like an average man and Paul is extremely masculine. By hiding Paul’s identity they are confirming the common belief that gay men are a risk in certain professions therefore they must hide their true identities. Although his identity is concealed until Paul leaves the military at the end of the season, he challenges the stereotypes placed upon gay men and the belief that they are not masculine. This helps recreate the ideals placed forth on homosexuals and alter the messages and stereotypes portrayed in the media.

Because Julie is both a female and a Mormon, she is held to higher standards than the other cast members despite how unfair this is. Most women in Julie’s position are already married with children. She is expected to settle down, start a family, and be a good wife. However, Julie does not fit this criterion and fails to meet the normative definition of a Mormon woman. She struggles to follow the guidelines strictly outlined by her faith, risking expulsion from BYU and being rejected by her family. Because she is a woman, Julie’s openness to talk to strangers is often poked fun of by Melissa. Even Matt, one of Julie’s closest friends in the house, chastises her for being outgoing and flirting with men. Several of her housemates disapprove of her behavior and feel that she should be more reserved due to her religious status. Even when Julie’s parents come to visit her father reprimands her for living with men and for being so sociable. When Julie gets upset, her father says that she is just being emotional which is typical of a female. During Julie’s time in the house she changes how Mormon girls are viewed and breaks the model set forth by her parents and religion.

Due to being biracial, Melissa is portrayed as a woman who struggles to come to terms with who she really is. This insinuates that race should dictate the woman she becomes. When it comes to race, many people although certain ideologies shape how they conduct themselves and alter their personalities. Newman states this by saying, “Identities are the definitional categories we use to specify, both to ourselves and to others, who we are. They are social locations that determine our position in the world relative to other people. At times, we purposely call attention to them, through how we dress, walk, and use language, whom we choose to associate with, perhaps even where we live. At other times, though, people ascribe identities to us, whether we want them to or not (Newman, 2007, p. 33)”. Although she is half Black and half Filipino, Melissa fails to fit in with a specific group. She is rendered as someone who wants to fit in with a specific race and niche yet because she doesn’t she is eccentric and argumentative. Because of this, she is wrongfully categorized as the angry black girl when in reality she is more complex than that.

The media has greatly influenced the messages sent to US society however it is also the main source of recreating such messages.


Newman, David M. Identities and Inequalities. New York: McGraw Hill, 2007. 33-60

Pozner, Jennifer L. The Unreal World. 98.