Did Marlon Make “The Real World” Interesting Again?

The Portland housemate’s sexual disclosure was a stunning bit of television.

Real World Marlon
At first glance, and maybe a few more afterwards, The Real World: Portland’s Marlon Williams appears to be cut from the same central casting mold as the other young, good-looking African-American males the MTV show has featured over the course of its twenty-year run.

He possesses the athletic swagger and deep-voiced masculinity that is not terribly unlike those who came before him. Steeped in a hyper-machismo bordering on the cartoonish, he describes vaginas as “the most powerful thing ever created”, refers to his penis as, “Chocolate Thunder” and, when discussing a newly arriving roommate, prays aloud that she’s “hot, have big boobs and likes black guys”.

Then comes that inevitable moment when the roommates talk candidly and excitedly about their sexual experiences and conquests. Every edition of The Real World (TRW) has this moment, usually taking place in the near-naked confines of a hot tub.

Only this time, there is no hot tub. Oh, and also Marlon is about to deliver an unembarrassed and unapologetic accounting for himself that obliterates any and all previous conceptions of him.

Averey: “We were talking about anal sex, so who’s tried it?”

Marlon: “I have tried it. But mine was a guy, though.”

If reality is truth, Marlon just delivered a huge dose of it to audiences who never saw it coming.

As he explains on the show, Marlon, a former college football player with Texas Tech, is the son and grandson of – in his own words, a “very religious” family. Indeed, his father is a preacher. At a time of his life when he felt particularly lost, he was accepted into a community of gay men and his worldview opened significantly.

“I was just searching for a place to belong. A place to be accepted. A place for a fresh start”, Marlon tells us in the show’s confessional interview. “Austin has a really hot gay community and they accepted me and just brought me in with no judgment.”

While pretty much exclusively attracted to women (in an interview with The Advocate, Marlon walks back from the bisexual identity he claimed during the show’s taping), he nonetheless confidently owns his experience with another man without, so far, a hint of ignominy and that makes him quite compelling, particularly through the lens of traditional exhibitions of sexuality and masculinity within the African-American community.

Indeed, in the fourth episode of the show, he talks to Nia, his roommate and an African-American woman Marlon is actively courting (or the closest one comes to courting on this show) about his experience with another man and the overall evolution in his thinking.

“For me, it’s like you’re going to go through certain things in life that’s just going to make you a better person. And doing that [sex with a man] helped me to understand that, like, I shouldn’t judge gay people”, he tells her. “I realized they are just people like everybody else.”

This is not an everyday occurrence within the black community. It is, frankly, stunning to see this on television. End. Of.

Real World's Marlon and Nia

Does this mean that The Real World franchise is going back to its roots as a topical and cultural touchstone? Are we finally seeing the end of its desolate run at trying to out Jersey Shore the Jersey Shore? Is it even still capable of being, if far from its revolutionary early years, at least closer to the spirit of its groundbreaking predecessors than has been evidenced in many a year?

Real World Portland Cast

It is fun to think about. After twenty years, the formula of The Real World is so set in stone that it has achieved its own iconography and its own set of groan-inducing clichés.

Seven strangers? Yep. Picked to live in a house — and by house, they mean mansion-cum-television studio — that’s still there. Their lives are still taped and we viewers watch gleefully as they stop being nice (often during the first episode) and start getting real with each other.

And, for a little while, they were getting real with us, too.

From Becky and Kevin’s epic fight about race and privilege, to Pedro’s out loud and proud truth as a gay man living with HIV/AIDS, the show has allowed us to glimpse into the lives of young people struggling to find their way, their voice, their purpose in the world and struggling to understand the lives of people far different from themselves.

They formed bonds, faced their prejudices, engaged in intense and heated debates, learned from each other (or not — Hi, Puck!) and absorbed a world larger than they thought was possible; the very real world. It was highly entertaining, but underneath the cool was a working brain.

But the once a fascinating social experiment has devolved into a surface-deep soap opera of pretty and vapid people hooking up with each other, drinking, fighting and generally behaving badly. Now serious issues are touched upon and swept aside as the housemates dress up and go barhopping. This is television when it has given up being anything other than television.

So while it’s fun to think about TRW turning back to its roots, the truth is that we’re looking at an interesting isolated incident and not a dramatic change in TRW dynamic. That would be as shocking a move as MTV playing music videos. Those days are well and truly over.

But there’s still a place for, perhaps, glimpses of interesting stories before the drinks flow. Many past editions of The Real World have had GLBT cast members and each of them allowed for greater visibility of our community.

The Portland edition may not actually feature anyone that ultimately identifies as GLBT, but it does inspire, however briefly this may occur, a fascinating conversation about sexual identity and exploration in POC communities even though said conversation is sparked by a guy who uses (and I groan alongside with my bi brothers and sisters here) bisexuality as a waiting room until his real orientation shows up (and so that no one thinks him gay in the meantime).

Does this get even more fascinating or does it die on the vine? It’s hard to know. After all, we’re only four episodes in at the time of this writing. But we will keep following this season to find out. Stay tuned.

(Photos: MTV)

Real World: Portland airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on MTV. You can watch previous episodes online at MTV.com