Forget Modern Family. Forget The A List. The gayest show on television is MTV’s stalwart The Real World/Road Rules Challenge. The show, which brings together all the most crazy/histrionic cast members from the two shows and forces them to compete against each other in events like cliff-diving and mudwrestling. Of this season’s 30 castmembers, six have had same-sex relationships on camera. That works out to 20 percent of the cast, which is higher than the average reality – or scripted – show.
The Real World: Key West‘s Tyler Duckworth is openly gay. The Real World: Cancun‘s Ayiiia Elizarraras is a lesbian, and her castmate Emilee Fitzpatrick is bisexual. Emily Schromm, from The Real World: DC identified as bisexual during her season but told afterellen.com that she “absolutely hates labels.” While both The Real World: Key West‘s Paula Meronek and The Real World: Denver‘s Jenn Grijalva (pictured at left) have been shown hooking up with women, both say that they are straight.
Considering who we’re dealing with here (unemployed 20somethings who want to be famous for acting the fool on television), it’s often speculated that women on MTV who identify as gay or bisexual are just doing it to arouse men and get attention – and more camera time – for themselves. Take the case of Jenn, for example. Despite having a romantic relationship with Road Rules‘ Rachel (an out lesbian) during a previous Challenge, Jenn has repeatedly insisted that she is straight and sleeps with men, even referring to her tastes as “100 percent weiner.” However, having watched Jenn profess her love to Rachel and cry when Rachel broke up with her, I think Jenn’s feelings are much deeper than she lets on. Rather than being a woman who kisses other women just to look sexy to men, I suspect that Jenn is actually much more attracted to women but feels ashamed or confused about her sexuality and overcompensates when talking about her straight identification. She has never responded to a man the way she did to Rachel, nor been as heartbroken when a man ended his relationship with her.
What is it about the Challenge that brings out such a queer cast? The cast is incredibly young – the age cutoff for The Real World is 24, and most Challenge competitors are in their 20s, with the occasional ‘blast from the past’ cast member whose age is more pronounced against the stream of college-aged competitors. Most of the people on this show were raised in an age that has been more accepting and understanding of sexuality than any generation before. Of course, there’s still a long way to go, but Emily, Tyler, and the rest have doubtlessly seen more cultural examples of out and proud gay individuals than their parents or grandparents did. There’s also the history of The Real World, which loves to cast at least one queer housemate per season, invariably to put them at odds with the ultra-religious cast member. One gay person per season results in a good-sized pool of future Challenge contestants to choose from.
That said, just because the Challenge has a high percentage of gay and bi contestants, it doesn’t mean the show – or MTV – is going to be on the forefront of gay rights in the country. Visibility is one thing, but I don’t see the Challenge airing an episode where, say, Tyler and Ayiiia discuss gay marriage rights. There’s often a perfunctory Real World episode where the token gay cast members cries about their coming out experience or some kind of oppression they’ve faced, but when choosing between showing gay people having important conversations about identity or showing them hooking up, MTV will always choose the latter. And considering that the Challenge exists mostly to watch attractive people make out and punch each other, that isn’t likely to change any time soon.