Why Was MTV’s ‘True Life: I’m Occupying Wall Street’ So Confusing?

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Over the weekend, MTV aired its much-discussed True Life episode, “I’m Occupying Wall Street.” The half-hour documentary follows two protesters, a 23-year-old punk named Bryan, a leader at Zuccotti Park, and Kait, a formerly apolitical 20-year-old college student radicalized by the mass arrests in early October. When the network released a preview two weeks ago, it seemed that the episode would portray the Occupy movement in a sympathetic light; the portraits that emerge, however, aren’t particularly flattering.

About two-thirds of the uncharacteristically lopsided episode is devoted to Bryan. We learn about his background: he grew up middle-class in Northampton, MA, where he began to notice the growing class inequality around him. He has been at Occupy Wall Street since the beginning, in mid-September, and has placed himself at the center of Zuccotti life by taking on a necessary but unglamorous job — spearheading the sanitation committee.

The MTV cameras follow Bryan during a tense few days in which the protesters are preparing for a battle. Zuccotti’s private owners, with support from the New York City government (which, of course, include the NYPD), have announced that the occupiers will need to temporarily vacate the park for cleaning. Recognizing the demand as a veiled eviction notice, Bryan and his compatriots decide to give Zuccotti a thorough scrubbing on their own. Although he has a visibly tough time getting his fellow radicals to pick up a mop, everyone eventually pitches in, and activists fill the newly gleaming park to stare down the police. In the midst of the stand-off, word comes down that the official cleaning, and thus the eviction, has been “postponed” — a victory that we see Bryan celebrating.

Kait, meanwhile, seems to appear every now and then to dispense a suspiciously simplistic platitude. She joined the movement after a mass arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge because, as she tells it, “If 700 people are willing to get arrested, maybe I should find out what’s going on.” During an anti-big banks action, she explains, “It’s empowering to walk past [banks] and yell at them.” At a mass march on Times Square, she gushes, “I can’t imagine myself going to Times Square for New Year’s Eve, let alone to protest.” Kait sums up her giddy view of Occupy Wall Street: “This is like my Red Bull.”

Taken together, Bryan’s and Kait’s stories represent two kinds of naïveté. Kait’s is the most straightforward. We hear about her uncertainty for the future; like much of her generation, she’s incurred lots of debt to finance college and isn’t confident she’ll be able to get a job that will make it worthwhile. But despite the personal story, it feels like she’s at Occupy Wall Street for the party, for the feeling of being a part of something exciting. Bryan, although less ridiculous, represents the miscellaneous minutia and petty drama that fills the days of Occupy’s inner circle. His fight, it seems, isn’t so much with big banks or the US government as with an NYPD bent on kicking him out of the park. And the inclusion of Bryan’s struggle to get other protesters to help with the cleaning obliquely pegs OWS’s supporting characters as privileged dilettantes.

But the way the protagonists are portrayed isn’t the only problem with the episode. “I’m Occupying Wall Street,” unlike many other serious installments of True Life, completely fails to educate viewers about the aims of and context for the Occupy movement. Whether MTV assumes that young people already know all about the protests or Viacom doesn’t care to get into the specifics of the 99 percent’s grievances, the show only perpetuates the myth that activists in Zuccotti and around the world are both aimless and clueless. On top of that macro-level misrepresentation, the episode fails, over and over, to explain what is happening at any given moment. Kait is in Times Square. Then she’s in Washington Square Park. Then she’s in Zuccotti. Since I’ve been following the Occupy movement, I can figure out what she’s doing in each place (on October 15th, tens of thousands marched on Times Square in solidarity with the occupiers; on weekends, OWS has been holding general assemblies and other events in Washington Square Park). I’m not confident a curious 18-year-old MTV fan in Duluth would be able to put the pieces together.

It isn’t clear that MTV meant to make a confusing documentary. Yes, corporate media has its reasons for not fully embracing radical politics. Even so, much of the episode’s structural sloppiness was clearly the result of a rush to pitch, shoot, edit, and air the show in the space of a month. Still, as someone who’s spent time in Zuccotti Park out of both curiosity about and solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, I was disappointed. MTV did not capture the cooperative spirit and practical capabilities of the movement I know and value, or the diversity of the protesters. It failed to answer the basic questions high schoolers across the country — who are, after all, the network’s audience — might have about what the Occupy movement is and why anyone would want to be a part of it. You can watch “I’m Occupying Wall Street” all week in reruns, but if you really want to understand what’s rallying young people in America to the cause, turn off MTV and go see for yourself.