The latest installment of MTV’s The Real World contains the same cast of stereotypes with a small quirk that has populated the show for years: there’s the Hooters girl with family issues, the tough Masshole who loves puppies, the finicky model, the athlete with one hand, etc. Interestingly enough, this season has no LGBTQ castmates, a role that can sometimes lead to interesting TV but has started to become a stereotype in itself. The Real World: Portland has one cast member who is a little different.
Marlon Williams is another jock type, a former football player at Texas Tech who comes from a religious background, is a part-time rapper and a serial skirt-chaser – his background and personality traits have been a staple on the show throughout its run.
In the second episode, the roommates are idly sunbathing and discussing sex, as all Real World cast members are wont to do, when the following exchange takes place:
Averey: “I’m a bartender, obviously we know this, we were talking about anal sex, so who’s tried it?”
Anastasia: “Who has tried it?”
Marlon: “I have tried it.”
Anastasia: “Were you wrapped when you did it?”
Marlon: “Yeah. But mine was a guy, though. Let it get silent, let it get silent … it was a dude.”
And just like that, reality TV was turned on its head. Marlon goes on to explain that after college, he was in a rough spot and was embraced by Austin, Texas’s gay community. Not only did Marlon, the swaggering alpha male of the house, freely admit to a homosexual experience, he embraced it. He knew what the reaction from his cast mates and audiences alike would be, and frankly, he didn’t give a shit. The other cast mates were understandably taken aback at first, but the admission’s initial shock devolved into mere childish curiosity and even praise for Marlon’s bravery. The rest of the episode relatively proceeded as normal.
It’s unclear whether Marlon’s past will come up again, but this tossed-off statement early on in the episode is a radical new look at homosexuality and masculinity, especially for a show in which a previous season’s cast member’s past in gay porn was a season-long source of conflict and embarrassment. The Real World, and reality TV in general, has not been especially groundbreaking in its depiction of LGBTQ people – most of the time, LGBTQ characters are flamboyant caricatures or struggling with their sexual orientation and wholly defined by that struggle. They are the token gay character – never the character that just happens to be gay.
Yet on The Real World: Portland, Marlon becomes that never-before-seen character. He’s not Marlon, the gay one, or Marlon the bisexual one, or Marlon the one that denies his sexuality. He is Marlon, the outgoing, athletic former football player who happened to once have sex with a man, no less masculine than he would be if he never made the admission. By sheer admission and embrace, what would on most shows be a defining trait becomes just another facet of the character.
This type of alternative take on masculinity and resistance of stereotypes is all too rare on reality TV where one-sided characterizations and easy judgments are the norm. It also offers an intriguing alternative reality show, one in which real people can simply be real people, full of contradictions, positives, and negatives. Imagine The Bachelor if the girls admittedly knew how ridiculous their situation was, or The Real Housewives as regular suburban moms. It’s highly doubtful that this small change on The Real World will carry over onto other shows, or even through the rest of its own season, but it took a moment like that to draw attention to the outlandish stereotypes on TV ostensibly depicting “reality.”