Lessons from the Jersey Shore

by Susan McWilliams on May 11, 2010 · 17 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

Nightclub

Claremont, CA. This summer, MTV will air the second season of Jersey Shore, a show that seemed to surprise everyone last year when it turned out to be the most-watched original cable series among 12-34 year olds.

(Apparently, it was a popular show in the White House as well: President Obama referenced the show in his remarks at the increasingly lamentable White House Correspondents Dinner last week.)

It’s hard to believe that this second installment of the series is going to have the kind of improvisational and genuine appeal that the first season did. The cast members needed to taste only a soupçon of fame before they started blinging up and booking appearances all over kingdom come, making MTV worried that the show’s “brand” could become overexposed. The network reined in their young stars, but not before it became clear that during the next season, we’ll be dealing with self-conscious divas, buffered by agents and bodyguards and mindful of the cameras at every turn – as opposed to the un-self-conscious divas of last season, who seemed unaware that anyone would watch what was being filmed.

And home-state pride compels me to lament the fact that the show’s second season isn’t even being filmed in New Jersey. Wanting to ride the wave of interest in the show, the folks at MTV decided the second season needed to be taped this spring – a time of year not fit for beaching in the Garden State. Instead, as I write this, they’re filming in Florida.

So before Jersey Shore: Miami arrives to muddy up the waters, I want to make a case that there is something serious to be learned from the show’s first, unrehearsed season. Specifically, I think Jersey Shore teaches us something about the tragic dimensions of the culture in which we live, and in which we raise young people.

But first: If you haven’t watched the show, the basic gist is that it follows a handful of twenty-somethings as they spend a summer at the Jersey Shore. These twenty-somethings are all strangers to each other, and all hand-selected by MTV. None of them are from New Jersey, but all of them claim to be “guidos” or “guidettes.” (It’s not clear whether all the cast members – I’m thinking of Jenni “JWOWW” Farley – are Italian-American, but the show has angered Italian-American groups for the clear play on stereotypes.)

On the model of The Real World, these strangers are put in a house, where they are largely cut off from their “real” lives and must try to get along with each other. Mostly, this means that they drink too much, get into fights, make out with each other, get into more fights, get hangovers, and then repeat the cycle. They use lots of bad words. That’s about all that happens, action-wise.

But what’s charming, and I think quite striking, about the first season of Jersey Shore is how almost all the cast members, at one time or another, let down their guard and admit that it sure would be nice to fall in love and settle down. Vinny can’t stop talking about how much he loves his mother, and how he hopes one day to find a girl who is as caring as she is; Ron, despite many early pronouncements about how summers are not the serious-relationship season, ends up in a serious relationship and waxing poetic about the power of love; and Nicole (aka “Snooki”) describes her desire for a “real” boyfriend or a husband on pretty much every episode.

At the same time, each of these cast members admits the obvious: the culture of the Jersey shore does not lend itself to soulmate-finding. If you spend most of your time in clubs where no one can hear anyone else talk, you’re not likely to end up in a meaningful conversation. If you get totally wasted before you go out on the town, you’re not likely to remember the people you meet – even if they seem interesting to you at the time. If you go to places frequented mostly by strangers, you’re not likely to interact with an eye to the long term. That doesn’t mean that love is impossible at the Jersey shore, as Ron’s ability to forge a relationship with Sammie testifies, but rather that the Jersey shore makes love pretty hard to find.

(I should also say that, contrary to what you might imagine, this culture doesn’t result in people having lots and lots of sex; although plenty of the cast members lock lips with someone during the course of the first season, there is little sexual consummation. Mostly, it seems like everyone is too drunk to get that far.)

Snooki talks about this at length, on multiple episodes of the show. She wants to find that special someone, and she knows she is not likely to find him over shots of tequila at the kind of sticky nightclub that you have to be blitzed to be able to tolerate. But she keeps going to those clubs because she doesn’t really have anything else to do. She’s hitched to a culture that, for all its talk of beachside “freedom,” doesn’t give her many options about how to spend her time. There’s something about it that’s quite tragic.

It’s true that you can blame Snooki, or any of the other cast members, for their particular manifestations of idiotic behavior. Plenty of people do.

But doing so neglects the fact that, for so many of us, the essential dynamics of Jersey Shore life are not unfamiliar. Well outside the bars in which hair is “pouffed” and fists are pumped, American young people confront much the same choices – or non-choices – every weekend. I can personally attest, as a recent supervisor of undergraduate dorm life, that there’s not much different between watching events unfold on Jersey Shore and watching events unfold on the Princeton campus.

But as MTV has figured out, this show has hit upon something that’s about more than a particular beach, or a particular subculture, or a particular class, or a particular region. Without question, Jersey Shore got such high ratings not just out of voyeurism, but out of recognition.

What the show did so well, I think, is posit the question: “What are the chances of finding love in a culture that seems to discourage love at every turn?” It’s the same question that, at a recent panel on my own campus, weighed heavy in the atmosphere. It’s certainly one of the great questions confronting American young people today.

I, for one, will keep tuning in with the hope that love will prove stronger than Jagermeister. I’m rooting for Snooki.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Brandon May 11, 2010 at 8:36 am

Thanks for posting this, Susan. As a 22 year old college student, I understand what you have mentioned first hand. I have long rejected the superficial lifestyle offered up to today’s young people and have suffered socially for it. My peers cast a confused gaze on my “eccentricity”. I don’t even own a TV for God’s sake! GASP! I don’t like clubbing or drinking or MTV! OH THE HORROR!!

But as Emerson once said, “Whoso would be a man, must be a non conformist.”

I’d rather be a man. ;)

avatar Jon S. May 11, 2010 at 9:50 am

Susan,

I had a discussion with a class of mine this semester about the possibility of arranging folk dance lessons (I happen to have a colleague in History who is skilled in folk dancing). The suggestion was greeted with enthusiasm by my mostly female class. They were well aware of the problem of passing the time in a manner other than getting drunk at the local club. What is apparent is that we have done a very poor job teaching our young people any life skills. They don’t know how to dance (I will not call what happens at clubs dancing), they don’t know any lawn games or card games (other than poker, perhaps), they don’t read, and so on. Some of my male students fish and hunt, but that’s about it. And this is on the Great Plains where I suspect certain traditions are stronger than in most places. The fact is that our young people have no hobbies. They don’t know what to do other than drink, watch TV and play video games. That’s why their favorite pastime is “hanging out.” What our young people need more than almost anything is a good square dance lesson.

avatar Peter B. Nelson May 11, 2010 at 9:57 am

Never watched it and never will, but even so the blasted production flew under my defenses and penetrated my consciousness. So I read your piece for an intelligent analysis of the barbarians at the gate, and the more I read the worse it sounded.

But does your description support your conclusion? The courtship hardships you describe all stem directly from drinking, drunkenness and nightclubs, yet you go on to accuse the culture at large. Are they contractually bound by MTV to not stay sober and clear of disreputable establishments?

Do they suffer a corrupt youth culture, or a corrupt alcohol culture? The former, such as it is, is a modern consequence of family breakdown, divorce, licentiousness, factory-schools, secularism, materialism, capitalism, radical individualism, and so on. The latter is as old as Dionysus.

avatar Russell Arben Fox May 11, 2010 at 1:45 pm

I’m just amazed that anybody still watches MTV.

avatar Kevin J Jones May 11, 2010 at 8:16 pm

RAF: “I’m just amazed that anybody still watches MTV.”

According to MTV’s social media manager Tom Fishman, MTV’s target demographic is 12-34. I wonder how many viewers are minors.

avatar Mariella May 12, 2010 at 8:24 am

I am one of those people really annoyed by the play on Italian-American stereotypes. Of Italian American heritage from New York myself, I was told to never use the word guido or guidette because they were offensive to other Italians. But to hear my college students in the rural midwest using these words really disturbs me.

avatar WmO'H May 12, 2010 at 10:26 am

Glad to read this article.

I think it’s also worth pointing out that Jersey Shore was watched by young people like myself with a sense of amused horror and scorn. I would posit that very few of the audience members actually look to Snooki or the Situation as models; rather, in their enthusiastic embrace of the guido stereotype these people were the butt of their own jokes.

That is not to deny, however, that there is a lurking charm to the show and that even ridiculous people like this can grow on one (as you pointed out). It is to say that by holding up the Shore lifestyle as a cheesy object of ridicule, perhaps MTV is unwittingly exposing the shallowness of the culture they promote in the rest of their programming.

Or maybe we just like watching JWOWW go out in little more than an a yard of ace bandage.

I would add to the active professors here that 99% (no exaggeration) of your students, thoughtful or not, will be watching this show. It might be helpful to watch it yourself to know what they are talking about.

avatar Jeffrey Polet May 14, 2010 at 10:06 am

I haven’t seen the show so can’t comment on that, but I appreciate your insights. As the father of a newly minted college graduate and two teenage daughters, I have a strong interest in the sexual cues our children receive (in the case of my kids, not MTV, but given the ubiquity of the cues limiting TV access only accomplishes so much). Caitlin Flanagan continues to write intelligently about this problem (her Atlantic essay from a number of years ago “Are you there God? It’s me, Monica” is must reading) and in the most recent Atlantic she wrote this:

“What might we expect as the next thing for today’s girls? They just spent the better part of a decade being hectored—via the post-porn, Internet-driven world—toward a self-concept centering on the expectation that the very most they could or should expect from a boy is a hookup. We didn’t particularly stand in the way of that culture; we left the girls alone with it, sat idly by while they pulled it into their brains through their ubiquitous earbuds and their endless Facebook photo albums and text messages. We said, more or less, “Do your best.” And then we gave them iTunes gift cards and Wi-Fi connections in their bedrooms, and we warned them about dangerous online trends only after those trends had become so passé that we could learn about them on Dateline. And now the girls have had enough. We’ve sunk pretty low, culturally speaking, when we’ve left it to the 14- and 15-year-old girls of the nation to make one of the last, great stands for human dignity. But they’re making it, by God.”

The point of Flanagan’s essay, and earlier ones she has written (including a very interesting one on the meaning of the “Twilight” series), is that the current generation of teenagers are pining for romance, commitment, chastity, and genuine love. There is hope for the children, even if their parents have proven to be complete dolts.

avatar Jeffrey Polet May 14, 2010 at 10:10 am

WmO’H:

I make it a point to exempt myself from the things my students are watching, and enjoy my blessed ignorance of it. I like to offer an alternative, not an endorsement.

JP

avatar D.W. Sabin May 15, 2010 at 10:28 am

….”the shows brand could be overexposed”……..oh the horror, that something should be beat to death, dug up, beat again, buried….. then exhumed again and thoroughly beaten to a weak gruel…on television no less.

These “guidos” would last about 60 seconds with the itralians I know. The “guidettes”, maybe 90 seconds.

avatar WmO'H May 15, 2010 at 10:31 am

Jeffrey:

Certainly Dante traversed hell that he might provide a vision of the alternative?

avatar WmO'H May 15, 2010 at 10:31 am

Just a thought. I certainly understand your reluctance.

avatar Franklin Evans May 15, 2010 at 9:36 pm

My children (27, 23.5, 17.5) are not typical, though the youngest is enjoying her immersion in the more superficial aspects of current culture. I worry about her a bit, but if judging her by her friends is a reasonable exercise, I have little to worry about. Good kids, no less mature than they should be.

I have a biased view of suggestions like folk dancing, having been a folk dance club leader for nearly 20 years mostly in college milieux, and deriving most of my social life from folk dancing until my knees forced me to stop. It appeals to women (I opine) because it offers a flexible social event where one can immerse oneself in the dancing, be more social than physical (as it were) or be a member of the audience. There is no overt pressure there. It lacks appeal to men for much the same reasons, albeit by reaction and from my view of the club scene: Women have more control over the environment, thus men have less opportunity to “pounce”. Clubs are cages for female prey. They either let themselves be “caught” or they leave, nothing in between. (Please extend my admission of bias through to my view of clubs.)

Folk dancing and clubs actually are members of the same set. They are both places of “common ground” where men and women can meet and socialize without prior, formal introduction. One could (though I would prefer not to) see them as choices, matters of personal preference. I remain rather cynical when I see or hear young people bemoan the lack of alternatives. What they are really saying, says my cynical self, is that they could be making other choices but would seem to be abandoning their friends in doing so. I see that as a false view, an excuse to stay “safe” in their circle of friends even while feeling trapped in making certain choices they find lacking, if not downright unattractive.

avatar Wessexman May 20, 2010 at 6:53 am

Peter Nelson is correct about alcohol. I’m a raging reactionary and I still drink too much.

Being a 20 year old Brit(well actually half-Brit, half-Aussie but at heart a Dorsetman and an Englishman.) in Australia, having lived in Britain until I was gone 15 and in Australia since, I do look on you Yanks as being affectionately naive in these areas. In Australia and Britain the old sexual and social mores seem to be almost ghosts. Young people here have no compulsion when it comes to premarital sex or indeed most traditional sexual values. I say this as a traditionalist who does not welcome this.

However despite this and my Christianity even someone like me is tempted mainly because I want to find love and a wife and unless I trawl Christian youth groups(who here are rare and considered fringe.) for girls it would be hard to have a long term relationship in Autralia(and Britain.) if you absolutely refuse to have premarital sex. So take a look at Britain or Australia, and I believe most of Western Europe, and consider that at least you Yanks haven’t quite slide so far as us.

avatar Wessexman May 20, 2010 at 6:54 am

That should be compunction not compulsion of course.

avatar Brandon May 20, 2010 at 9:00 am

“In Australia and Britain the old sexual and social mores seem to be almost ghosts.”

In America, too, the old mores are basically ghosts as well, albeit fairly active ones. How active depends on what part of the country you are in. The east and west coasts are similar to Europe in orientation, I presume.

avatar James May 24, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Great insight. Beyond love and its associations with exclusivity, sexuality, and singular devotion, I think you could similarly ask the question “what are the chances of finding friendship in a culture that seems to discourage it at every turn?” We’re told that humans are innately social, that we need each other and our shared insights to survive. Yet so much of so-called “socializing” these days involves strikingly anti-social behavior. You touch upon it in your piece—the cycle of “pre-gaming,” then sitting in a bar with music blasting so loud you can’t hear the person you just met, and getting so drunk you can’t remember the name of the person you just met. How are we to learn from each other, to develop deep and lasting friendships, to become aware of ourselves and our surroundings, when the most meaningful conversations often happen the next morning and usually start with, “you won’t believe what happened to me last night?”

I suppose the question I’m really asking is what’s so wrong with spending Friday night in that loose, semi-lucid state that usually comes with the second beer, in the pub, among friends?

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