Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Real World

It seems like this blog is going to be about MTV's The Real World (Hollywood), but it isn't, although the airing of the newest season was the impetus for these thoughts. Since I grew up with the Real World -- anyone remember Puck? -- it's a train wreck I just can't turn away from each year it comes on. This year, one of the cast members (Joey) is an alcoholic-manic-depressive with suicidal tendencies; the girl he's interested in is a stripper-with-a-warrant-out-for-her-arrest-who-used-to-have-a-coke/meth addiction. As a bonus, she's "into" abusive boys. That got me thinking: what is the "real world?" Not the show -- I mean, what do we mean when we use that phrase?

When MTV named the show, they meant "real" as in "when I hate you, I get to punch you in the face" rather than pretending I like you or I get to call you horrible names or sleep with you and show it on television. "Real" means, on the show, to pull no punches. And, as anyone who's ever seen the show has said before, reality TV is hardly an adequate depiction of what normal humans go through on a day-to-day basis. Very few people would call living in a free house with free liquor and no job an adequate representation of life among the masses. So, of course, that's not real.

So what is? When we were younger, in school, I remember talking to my friends about how this subject or that one wouldn't be useful in the "real world." I guess by that we meant that whatever lesson teachers were trying to impart that day wouldn't be useful to our future careers (I think I wanted to be a car mechanic when I was 6 -- really, who was I to say what I should and shouldn't learn?). But even in academia, instructors talk about our students' "real world." What's going on in their world that we can't get them to understand what's important about ours? Is their world more "real" than ours if they're having problems, like if they're struggling with depression or they've lost a parent? Or does it just mean that their reality is harsher than the one we're trying to teach them about -- that bad grammar and poor syntax and an inability to think properly can affect not just your job prospects but your quality of life, since it affects the way people size you up. Does living "real" always entail a struggle?

Let's say I'm not living in the real world. As a dissertation student with a fellowship, I have mobility I've never had before. I don't technically have a boss, and I get paid to read. I'm sure lots of people think this isn't reality. So the logical question that follows then, is if you're not in the real world, where are you?

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