“MTV’s Making the Model Minority” Season III

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by Brian Su-Jen Chung

MTV’s Real World should really be called the “Unreal World.” Since African American Kevin Powell (African American male) and Julie (White female) rumbled in the streets over issues of race in the first season, there has been a whole lineage of angry and aggressive Black men in the history of show. In VH1’s “Illest Minority Moments” special documenting racial stereotypes in television, commentators note how Real World’s recycling of one-dimensional and “problematic” Black characters too obsessed with race as their formula for drama and conflict. However, besides this Angry African American (AAA) stereotype, there was nothing said about the Asian (and Latino) characters on the show. But, that’s not surprising since there probably hasn’t been enough Asians (and Latinos) in all of Real World’s history to count on two hands. Upon looking at the few Asian American female characters (Pam from San Francisco, Janet from Seattle, and now Jamie in this season), their visibility (or should I say lacktherof) on the show seems to be a stereotype in it of itself. The subtle and almost silent Asian identities are in stark contrast to the hypervisibility and representations of Black characters on the show. The contrast in racial minorities seems to produce a conservative politics of “real world” racial dynamics that seem to convey that Asians as more assimilable to the rest of the Real World community (most who is White) because they’re less vocal and unconcerned with race. In reality (no pun intended), it seems that Real World utilizes the Asian model minority stereotype as a tool to serve up an unhealthy batch of color-blind politics.

The exploitation of the model minority stereotype is no more evident than in this season’s Real World Asian character, Jamie. Admittedly, the Korean American girl, Jamie, seems to resemble other more outspoken Real World characters from the past, following in the same vein as the Kevins, Daves, Corals rather than the Pams and Janets. As Jamie stares into the camera during her audition tape, she says, “If you have a problem with my Asianness, then f*ck you.” I thought, “Finally, there is a racially conscious Asian American on mainstream television.” However, that was the last of Jamie’s racially sensitive attitudes.

Jamie went quickly from being young, hip, and ethnocentric to playing the “model minority.” Whether by her own accord or that of the producers (or both), she has gradually blended into the house and become almost invisible. In the second episode, which happened to be token show on race, Jacquese (the AAA) feels like an outcast in the house. He confides in Jamie about his feelings and she says she feels the same. Jacquese makes it known that he feels left out, but Jamie doesn’t. Later in the episode, the “race” conflict escalates as Jacquese and Robin (a White female roommate) get into a conflict over her use of the N-word. As Jacquese isolates himself to think about how to handle the situation, the others are deliberating over what to do, but Jamie is passed out on the couch. Her model minority status is made even more evident later in the show as she weeps to the rest of the roommates that “growing up, she never felt comfortable in her skin."

As we watch this weekly “documentary” of the so-called “Real World,” the positioning of Jamie’s indifference and non-confrontational style in contrast to Jacquese’s hyperracial-sensivity marks her as the “model minority.” Her “model minority” role is re-affirmed again as we get color-blind politickin when Jamie recognizes “race” as only being skin deep. Jamie understands that her Asian features are what everyone recognizes her to be, but her comments show a bitter attitude towards that reality. At the end of the show, it leaves us believing that Jamie disappearance during the racial tensions and discomfort with her appearance represents Jamie as yearning to be “normal” and White like everyone else. Jamie and Jacquese’s divergent racial conscionsness and racial identities place them in competition with each other for the acceptance and loyalties of their White roommates with Jamie winning by stepping on less peoples’ toes in the process. Jamie’s nonchalance to how “race” matters is an issue, but not quite as large as MTV Real World’s parochial selection process of racial minorities and also their politics of race.

The racial dynamics portrayed on the Real World show is part accomadationst and part melting pot theory. On the one hand, there is an emphasis on the melting pot myth, by showing how the few Asian characters on the history of the show have been seen as blending in effortlessly into the predominantly White household. On the other hand, it also stresses an accomadationist stance as well, since the Asian characters are not only voiceless, but also practically more background than the furniture. Despite feeling the way Jacquese does, Jamie refuses to reveal to the rest of the house her secret feelings of exclusion. Instead, her silence contributes to the idea that Asian Americans are able to assimilate easier because they’re just not as racially confrontational. The critique doesn’t try to deny the authenticity of Jamie’s feelings, but perhaps to show how MTV chooses Asians to be model minority workers to spread the “we are all part of the human race” rhetoric to general public.

The characters of color on MTV’s Real World are practically used as spokesmen for color-blind initiatives in recent past. Attempts at creating “dialogue” on race issues have not attempted to discuss how race matters, but have merely attempted to increase ratings and spread the attitude that people need to stop being sensitive to race in general. Real World needs to be put on blast not because it’s not entertainment, but because that’s all we should recognize it for.