The 5 biggest culture clashes on DC reality TV

Almost since the concept’s beginning, reality shows have existed to exploit cultural conflict. Take a mix of strangers from a variety of backgrounds and throw them together for a few weeks, and you’re almost certain to spark some quality reality television.

This might be why DC, with its mix of classes and cultures, loomed large in 2010 as a reality TV destination. Yet the contrast between DC and the city portrayed in the reality shows couldn’t be sharper, as Mike Riggs aptly pointed out in a recent City Paper essay. Reality television celebrates luxury lifestyle products, conspicuous consumption, haute cuisine. DC has all of these things, to be sure, but they don’t define life here for most of us. So we’re curious, what do the culture clashes of DC reality shows reveal?

Here are our picks for the best culture clashes of the year in DC reality television. Add your picks (and your thoughts) in the comments.

5. Top Chefs encounter exotic food

Top Chef usually resists the pull of “weird food” challenges, but when they came to DC, they apparently couldn’t help themselves. In episode 6, the judges have to make meals out of ingredients such as yak meat, duck testicles and foie gras. Food, of course, is a common touchstone for awkward cultural moments, and this could have easily been played as an occasion to gawk at unfamiliar cuisines. But to the chefs’ collective credit, they mostly took this in stride. Emu egg? No problem. Let me just get my saw.

4. The Real Worlders talk religion

Given that we’re in something like the 300th season of The Real World, the cast members now arrive with enough self-awareness to know that they’re supposed to occupy neat demographic slots, chosen for optimum conflict potential. From the moment the DC housemates get to their lavishly appointed pad, they start pegging each other’s demographic traits, ticking off the arrival of the “hot black guy,” speculating over who the virgin might be, and trying out all the usual cultural flints – race, sex, politics.

Somewhat surprisingly, they settle on religion. In the clip starting at about 25:30, the housemates go out for what the producers suggest is their inaugural dinner together, and after a brief flip-out over Mike’s announced bisexuality, “hot black guy” Ty outs himself as an evangelical atheist. Needless to say, this get the conflict flowing.

3. The Real Worlders meet actual people from DC

And then there’s the moment four episodes in where The Real World housemates stop being polite and start meeting genuine DC residents. The cast members find themselves at a bar we’re led to believe is The Big Hunt. The drama begins when a bar patron starts yelling for Carson Daly, and Texas Ashley and Colorado Mike differ on how to respond to the locals. As Reality Check guestblogger Lindsay Diokno points out, this is the first time the show’s really acknowledged the presence of actual DC residents. (Fast-forward to 5:45 or so.)

(Bonus points for the moment later in the episode when the show’s three heterosexual guys go to Nellie’s Sports Bar, not realizing it’s a popular gay hangout.)

2. A Real Housewife goes to a soul food banquet

The Real Housewives franchise couldn’t exist without class/culture disparities and the conflicts they ignite. The show even uses the class-laden term “housewives” ironically; many of its stars are highly-compensated professionals who leave nitty-gritty domestic matters to others. In this episode, DC lifer Stacie delegates the cooking to her aunt Francis, inviting the other Housewives to her aunt’s place for a down-home soul food meal.

From her first moment on screen, Stacie’s been gleefully baiting some sort of conflict between the Housewives and “real DC,” and British newcomer Cat doesn’t disappoint. At Aunt Francis’ dinner, Cat gets her first exposure to Southern staples such as collard greens, and she’s apparently not a fan.

This episode prompts the inevitable “Are you uncomfortable around black people” conversation in a Real Housewives roundtable.

1. Marion Barry – Mayor for Life

Even though the video’s no longer available on the YouTubez, the first episode of Marion Barry’s reality show has to top our list – the show might have already cost someone his job, according to Washington City Paper’s Alan Suderman:

The first casualty of Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry’s “reality” show (besides the D.C. Council’s collective dignity) appears to be Andre Johnson, a former communications aide for Barry who is currently, but not for long, the communications director for Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander.

Alexander called LL this morning to say that Johnson will soon be out of a job, because she says he lied to her about his involvement in the show.

The culture clash in this instance? Between reality TV and political reality. A good reminder that behavior on-camera has consequences in the real real world.

Have any nominations for more DC reality TV culture collisions? Share them in the comments!