By Jeff Fuller
MTV definitely had a role in opening my generation up to frank discussions of sexuality. Initially, this expression came through music videos, but by the early 1990s, MTV’s programming started giving way to reality television, a phenomenon that would ultimately transform mass media, help bring about greater acceptance for the LGBTQ community, but also begin to use queer lives to promote products.
MTV’s The Real World was probably one of the most important reality shows of the genre, but also notable for its inclusion of gay cast members. The show’s premise was to document the lives of seven strangers chosen to live together in an exciting city and “find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” The gay and lesbian cast members from the first several seasons probably had the most impact, including Norm (New York), Pedro (San Francisco), Danny (New Orleans), and Genesis (Boston). Rather than seeing LGBTQ characters portrayed in a fictionalized story, viewers got to encounter these people in a more realistic way and learn about their struggles and triumphs. Most poignant was probably Pedro’s on-screen battle with HIV/AIDS which ultimately claimed his life after the San Francisco season ended. Pedro even gained the attention of President Bill Clinton, who released an official statement praising him for raising AIDS awareness and helping give audiences a personal connection with someone suffering the disease. While The Real World often broadcast the most dramatic parts of the participants lives, the show generated a great deal of goodwill and empathy, particularly for its LGBTQ characters. The Real World brought openly gay people’s lives to closeted parts of the country.
In the mid-1990s, the Generation X movie Reality Bites offered a fictional portrayal of the reality phenomenon. The movie follows a documentary producer named Lelaina, played by Winona Ryder, who turns her cameras on her group of friends who are struggling in recession-era Houston, including a gay friend who comes out to his parents. Lelaina begins dating a man who works with an MTV like network who promises to produce her documentary so that it can reach a wider audience. However, the finished product turns out to be an over-produced commercial. She ends up leaving him and instead runs after the brooding Ethan Hawke character. While Reality Bites isn’t the best movie in the world, it was already aware of the commercializing tendencies of reality television.
Today, the initial power that reality television had to shape attitudes or provide ground-breaking material concerning LGBTQ lives is somewhat lessened (although there are some notable exceptions). It is now more marketing driven and less of an art form, something that even MTV’s The Real World quickly fell into. By the mid-2000s, smartphones, Facebook and Instagram made everyone a reality star. People can now document and share their stories, photos and videos of their lives, showing at least the parts that they want you to see. The social media platforms for these ultimately seek to serve the purpose of marketing. Despite the tendency of mass media to turn everything into a commercial, there still is a need for LGBTQ people to share their own authentic stories. Sharing real stories still has the power to create real change.
Apart from being a Gay Generation-Xer, Jeff Fuller is an attorney, writer, travel blogger, historian, and military spouse. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Jeff went to college, graduate school and law school in the Southeast. He has called Atlanta home for the last decade but recently moved to DC to follow his husband on his military career. He occasionally blogs at journeyingjeff.com.