What happens when people stop being polite and start getting really invasive with a toothbrush?
The answer, for MTV reality starlet Tonya Cooley, was to get a lawyer. Cooley and MTV’s parent company Viacom just settled a lawsuit in which the plaintiff alleged that two male cast members of Real World-Road Rules Challenge: The Ruins had violated her with a toothbrush after she had passed out.
Cooley’s suit claimed that producers encouraged bad conduct by providing unlimited free alcohol and rewarding misbehavior with airtime. Viacom responded that the “Plaintiff failed to avoid the injuries of which she complains. For example, while she was a contestant on The Ruins, Plaintiff was frequently intoxicated (to an extent far greater than other contestants), rowdy, combative, flirtatious and on multiple occasions intentionally exposed her bare breasts and genitalia to other contestants.”
Is that Attornese for “she had it coming”? The brief against Cooley could read as an MTV casting call’s list of attributes female reality-television aspirants should embody. It is as much a description of Snooki as it is of Cooley.
Cooley can’t say she wasn’t warned. A Real World contract obtained last year by the Village Voice ironically stipulated that cast members must conform to “generally accepted social practices.” The agreement continued, “I understand that there are risks in any such interaction,” which include “consensual and nonconsensual physical contact,” as well as gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, and other ailments seemingly more contagious to people who can’t spell them.
This isn’t the first time The Real World has morphed into The Rape World.
In 2003, a disoriented guest at San Diego’s Real World house awoke on a strange couch with cameras staring at her. A police report noted that cast member Jamie Chung described how an “unidentified person in the residence told her that they had seen the victim lying naked on the bathroom floor. The same unidentified person told her that they had seen [the alleged assailant] leaving the bathroom and saying… ‘I just hit that.'” A medical examination revealed numerous internal abrasions consistent with a sexual assault. Bunim-Murray Productions neither called the police nor cooperated with them, requiring investigators to obtain a search warrant. Ultimately, the district attorney didn’t file charges — and the show’s producers edited out any reference to the assault, the investigation, and the stonewalling.
What viewers saw didn’t resemble the experience of the program’s “seven strangers.” What editors left on the cutting-room floor did.
Pregnancy, like rape, is too much of a downer for The Real World. “I am not currently pregnant,” the cast contract reads, “and I agree that I shall not become pregnant prior to completion of my participation in the taping.” The document further stipulates, “In the event I do become pregnant during the Program, Producer shall have the right, in its sole and absolute discretion, to terminate me from further participation in the Program.” In other words, terminate your kid or we’ll terminate you.
That’s just what one cast member did in season two. And immediately after the last episode of season three, housemate Pedro Zamora died from a sexually transmitted disease contracted as a minor. But that Real World of repercussions was back when the show wasn’t a vehicle for voyeurs to live vicariously through the indiscriminate hook-ups of the beautiful people.
Producers initially cast the occasional fatso or ugly duckling — those people we see in the real world but not on it. What made the first few seasons interesting is that participants, unlike Ms. Cooley and her alleged assailants, generally held ambitions independent from a career on reality television. The early alumni include a DC Comics cartoonist, a Wisconsin congressman, and a Los Angeles County cop.
There’s plenty of room on television for sex. There isn’t much room for consequences.
If only the real world were more like The Real World, intimate encounters would never end in social disease, unwanted pregnancy, and creepy guys misusing a toothbrush.