The last half of MTV's new documentary series "If You Really Knew Me" caught my eye earlier this week. It was past normal programming hours, and looked like a late night "Cable in the Classroom" style PSA intended for teachers to record and use in class — which I'm not even sure teachers do anymore.
What I saw made me check the full episode online.
The scene wasn't terribly unfamiliar: some 60 kids plucked out of class for "Challenge Day," an intense motivational session — a "Scared Straight" lite — aimed at stopping cliques, gossip and bullying. A handful of kids from the various typecasts — jocks, band geeks, freaks, student government — are featured giving reactions throughout.
After a round of ice breakers, session leader Sela (aided by some editing) jumped right into the meaning of gender roles, explaining that from birth, boys are taught things like "big boys don't cry, don't be a mama's boy," and that girls are confronted with body image issues and how to be feminine.
Enter Vinny, the reformed ex-con. Cue the teenage tears.
The kids break up into small groups for the signature portion of the show:
"With your eyes closed," Vinny says, almost whispering into his mic, "I want you to go to that internal world where it's just you. What's it really like to be you and does anybody know? … I guarantee you have no idea what the people in this group have been through. You have a couple of minutes to finish this sentence: 'If you really knew me, you'd know this about me.'"
Among the answers: "I don't make my parents proud right now because of all the trouble I get in to," "The people I love are usually the people I take my anger out on," "I almost killed myself on Monday," and, drum roll please, "If you really knew me, you'd know that I'm gay."
A couple of kids came out to their peers, one saying that no one should have to be told they're going to hell by their parents.
Pretty heavy stuff for MTV.
With the support of their peers, the kids re-enter everyday high school life, briefly venture into alternate cliques, vow to end racism on the football team and hope for better relationships with their distant parents.
Call me a cynic, but I call bullshit.
While I applaud MTV's efforts to curve bullying, a problem that's plagued sissy boys like me as far back as I can remember, I find the show counter productive, and perfectly illustrative of mixed media messages.
The show ignores the fact that cameras are present and that the experience itself is a construction. What happens when the cameras leave? What happens when Vinny isn't there to tell the gay kids it's all right to be different?
What happens when the show itself is broadcast?
I was a peer mediator back in my middle school days. I tried to take it seriously, but the kids who were ordered to undergo mediation never did.
We had the "Just Say No" presentations. We all know how well that worked.
Breaking these kids down, jocks and gays alike, might be a first step to making things better, but real progress can't be made on an MTV "reality show" highlighting the dangers of bullying, when MTV itself perpetuates the gender roles, body image issues and anti-gay rhetoric.
Change happens when MTV stops body conscious advertising from making the chubby girl feel ugly… when anti-woman or anti-gay artists aren't allowed in top 10 countdowns.
Change happens when the gay kid who comes out isn't a "band geek" or "valedictorian." Bullies expect that, right? When does the jock come out? When does the troubled student of color come out?
"Gay" is a label that lasts long after high school, and even though MTV addresses these troubles in this "raw" format, it also likens it to being a jock or a cheerleader.
Until MTV stops sending mixed messages, they'll always be a part of the bullying problem, not a part of the solution.
Note: MTV is the first network to receive an "excellent" rating from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation in its third annual Network Responsibility Index for its commitment to portraying lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. What do you think? Does MTV portray LGBT people accurately and fairly on its shows?