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‘The Real World’ Royally Botches Its First #MeToo Scandal—Again

·7-min read
Kenneth Capello/MTV/Paramount+
Kenneth Capello/MTV/Paramount+

On Thursday, Paramount+ dropped the second episode of The Real World Homecoming: Los Angeles, the reboot of the iconic MTV reality program Real World that reunites former castmates to rehash the most dramatic moments from their seasons and give viewers an update on their post-show lives. The latest episode picked up where the premiere left off, in the middle of a heated discussion between former cast members Tami Roman and David Edwards over one of the most jarring moments documented on television that resulted in Edwards being the first person ever kicked off a reality show.

Referred to as “the blanket incident,” episode six of the original Los Angeles season, which debuted in 1993, captures Edwards trying to rip a blanket off of Roman while she’s lying in bed—and eventually on the floor of a hallway—while she repeatedly tells him to stop and resists his tugging. After Edwards removes the blanket, Roman, wearing only a bra and underwear, runs to hide in a bathroom and later confronts Edwards and the rest of the men in the house for laughing and egging him on. After a night of litigating Edwards’ behavior, Roman and the other female roommates, Beth Stolarczyk and Irene Berrera-Kearns, ultimately convince the rest of the house to vote for Edwards to leave.

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What unfolds among the house between the incident and Edwards’ exit is a frustrating dialogue about boundaries, consent and communication that is extremely uncomfortable to revisit, particularly in an age when this behavior would spark tremendous outrage if it had occurred on, say, Big Brother or Love Island. Plus, a younger generation of roommates would (hopefully) have a more immediate understanding of the violation that took place. However, on Real World, the male cast members had to be hand-held by the women into empathizing with Roman’s discomfort and humiliation. Cast member Jon Brennan, who decided not to participate in Homecoming, expressed fear over the women’s ability to get Edwards removed from the house, comparing it to a false rape allegation. And Edwards, who exposed himself immediately after the incident and continued to follow the women around the house despite their objections, failed to take responsibility for the harm he caused his castmate, reducing a rather traumatic act to a joke and a misunderstanding.

Eighteen years later, Edwards’ interpretation of the incident has yet to evolve. After being shown the footage on a giant flat-screen TV in the living room on the Homecoming season premiere, Roman says that she’s willing to give Edwards a “pass,” explaining that her laughter during the incident may have confused him but was nevertheless out of discomfort. Edwards rejects Roman’s olive branch, which leads her to reveal her battle with body dysmorphia that made the incident particularly jarring. As the producers roll more footage, Edwards’ reaction becomes more and more flippant to the point where he bursts into laughter.

The expression of pain on Roman’s face and exasperation in her voice as she’s forced to reopen this wound is hard to digest. As much as the producers and audience would like to believe that these adults have all gained a clearer, more informed perspective on the event almost two decades later—although Edwards’ interviews leading up to this scene say otherwise—it feels like there should be some sort of mediator present to validate Roman’s feelings and keep Edwards from manipulating the situation that occurred. Instead, the trauma Roman experienced that night and Edwards’ claims that the cast’s vilification of him affected his burgeoning comedy career are oddly equated as similar acts of harm.

It’s astonishing watching the last four years of dialogue around the topic of sexual misconduct completely collapse on a self-proclaimed progressive platform such as Real World. What should be a moment of accountability and steps toward healing rather oppositely feels like a documentary on the dangers of #MeToo and a desperate attempt to find a gray area in an uncomplicated matter.

Likewise, Edwards uses Roman’s revelation about her body struggles as a crutch for his lack of understanding at the time about his behavior, as if trying to expose a nearly naked woman is only an offense if she has a negative body image. He eventually apologizes but in a breezy manner that doesn’t acknowledge the fact that he ignored Roman’s objections to his “joking” or that trying to publicly expose someone’s naked body is a legitimate act of sexual harm. He then shifts the focus of the conversation to Stolarczyk and Berrera-Kearns comparing his actions to rape on the original season and, according to him, destroying his career. It’s a pretty far-fetched claim in that, one, it assumes that Edwards would’ve been this huge comedy star if not for this incident and, two, that the world was judging him based on the women’s comments about him and not the broadcasted footage of him violating Roman. His assertions that he was “cancelled” are also negated by the fact that he went on to appear in films like Half Baked, House Party 3 and Scary Movie 3 after his Real World tenure while also continuing to do stand-up. He was also invited by the producers to compete on the Real World spin-off/competition show The Challenge.

Both Stolarczyk and Berrera-Kearns explain that the comparisons they made to rape were out of fear and not completely unjustified, which Edwards doesn’t even engage with. Yet Edwards is still given the opportunity to be sympathized with when the producers roll footage of the female cast members speaking with executive producers Mary Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray after the incident that makes him feel like he’s “watching [his] crucifixion.” They also show him crying to Murray after being informed that he must leave.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p><em>The Real World Homecoming: Los Angeles</em> cast</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Paramount+</div>

The Real World Homecoming: Los Angeles cast

Paramount+

While it’s likely that this never-before-seen footage was utilized to defend the producers against claims of negligence (even though they should’ve intervened during the several minutes that the blanket incident went on), both clips cause the female cast members to cry and ultimately apologize for not being willing to work through their issues with Edwards on the show. It’s a disappointing and frustrating conclusion that’s capped off even more grossly with a pointed scene of David meeting with his daughter—who, of course, takes her father’s side—to discuss what went down with the castmates.

Real World’s fatal flaw, despite being one of the best programs on television, has always been its assumption that people of different identities and, therefore, different levels of power could simply hash out their “differences” without considering how emotionally and mentally taxing this process is for people with less power—typically the women, people of color, and queer people they cast. Likewise, no matter how well the producers might’ve assumed Roman, who’s made a name for herself as an assertive, outspoken personality on VH1’s Basketball Wives and social media, could handle the situation—which is nevertheless a racist speculation that leaves Black women unprotected—she was never approaching this discussion on the same playing field as a cis, straight Black man who could ultimately weaponize his marginalization against her and invalidate her experience.

While it seems like there will be more drama between Roman and Edwards in upcoming episodes, The Real World Homecoming can’t afford to broadcast these dangerous, unbalanced narratives surrounding #MeToo-related topics at a time when Black women are continuously rendered invisible and unheard for the sake of Black men. So far, the abrupt start to this season has proved that the franchise is willing to “go there,” but they’ll only get so real.

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