If someone would have told me a year ago that MTV was in the midst of producing a reality show based on the guy from “My New Haircut,” I can’t say I would have been surprised. It would have been the nail in the coffin for a network that has sported a misnomer for far too long.
“Nobody gets his/her music from MTV!” I would have said. “What’s more, they’ve run out of ideas, and their viewers know it!”
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Indeed, MTV’s ad revenues have declined 20 percent since 2006. MTV is dead, I would have told you, a machine with no input reworking its former self into new, sadistic perversions.
I’m still holding out judgment about whether MTV is alive or merely a reanimated corpse. But whatever the case, “Jersey Shore,” far from ending any debates, made things infinitely more complicated.
Since its premiere in December, the show has generated more publicity, more controversy and higher ratings than any MTV show since “The Hills.” The “Shore” crew has been making the rounds at clubs on the East Coast, offering several-thousand dollar price tags for appearances. On Thursday night, “The Situation” made an appearance at Static, the new club on Crown Street, and just last week, Vinny came to New Haven to party at a packed Elevate Lounge. Snooki is expected at Gotham Citi in February.
MTV has no doubt influenced our generation’s perception of television; its brand of digestible drama and constant quick cuts have been both lampooned and incorporated into our understanding of entertainment. After an era in which they gave us trashy TV we would simply tolerate as opposed to trashy TV we would enjoy, MTV just may be in a position to save itself, to adapt to a changing youth culture that is less patient and more critical than before, and to become at least a little cutting edge, if not exactly artistically legitimate.
But “Jersey Shore” has produced more questions than answers: Who is the butt of this joke? What does it mean for MTV to be dealing in stereotypes? And perhaps most importantly, what does this mean for the future of reality programming? One thing is certain: “Shore” has undeniably changed the “reality” landscape forever. It has tipped the power balance between the viewer and the viewed, and it has set a new threshold for edgy reality. If MTV doesn’t deserve our admiration, it has at least earned a status as a network in flux that is intentionally or inadvertently pushing the boundaries of television, even if it is doing so in ways that occasionally disgust us and often make us uncomfortable.
In a recent article in The New Yorker, Nancy Franklin argues that the popularity of shows like “Jersey Shore” is based on their ability to show us how different we are from the buffoons pictured on screen. Although that is certainly a part of this phenomenon (and in the case of “Jersey Shore,” a large part of it), something about the show is more universal. The absurdity of the show appeals to both highbrow and lowbrow sensibilities. On the one hand, MTV’s winking self-awareness has turned the show into a postmodern “reality” extravaganza, the perfect fodder for snarky blogger types and college students alike. On the other hand, it’s funny to watch drunk people make asses of themselves, and the “Jersey Shore” crew is drunk all the time.
In an informal poll of “Shore” fans here on campus, most students said they think the show is the funniest of its kind amid a field of competitors that has stagnated in its dramatic and comedic content. The format may not have been so new (which explains its slow start in the ratings), but the show is tasteless, offensive and shocking enough to keep people from changing the channel. Maybe the show’s outrageousness piqued the interest of Yalies like us — we tend to have a penchant for the laughably absurd. Plus, as one dining hall employee told me, Pauly D is cute, stupid and fun to watch.
For those of you who have been living under the boardwalk for the past two months, “Jersey Shore,” which premiered Dec. 3, follows the lives of eight mostly Italian-American 20-somethings from New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island as they “work,” party and live together in a house in Seaside Heights, N.J.
Angelina “Jolie” Pivarnick, is an abrasive, bellicose girl from Staten Island, N.Y., who prides herself on her all-natural figure and who left the show early in the season due to her unwillingness to work. There’s Jenni “JWOWW” Farley of Long Island, N.Y., a young woman with a propensity for showing off her breasts and cheating on her boyfriend. Michael “The Situation” Sorrentino, the self-named “man of the house” from Staten Island, starts off the season as cocky and inconsiderate, but ultimately reveals a more vulnerable side. Arguably the most absurd character on the show, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi hails from outside Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and achieved fame on the show after being punched in the face by a man in a bar. She has since garnered attention through her crazy antics and her habit of striking out with men, and has been described as an Oompa Loompa and a “hobbit Elvira” on the Slate and New York magazine culture blogs, respectively. Paul “Pauly D” Del Vecchio, the oldest housemate at 28 years old, is from Johnston, R.I., and is most notable for the amount of time he spends on his hair and his relationship with JWOWW on the show. Ronnie Ortiz Magro is from the Bronx, and despite his one rule to never fall in love at the Shore, he ultimately enters into a relationship with Sammi “Sweetheart” Giancola that lasts the duration of the show. Sammi, the only member of the show from New Jersey, gained a reputation among the housemates for “stealing” Ronnie away and being overly jealous. Vinny Guadagnino of Staten Island is the youngest housemate and probably the most mature of the bunch. In fact, in a recent interview with Us Weekly, Vinny mentioned that he had briefly considered applying to none other than Yale Law.
The show immediately attracted the wrong kind of attention, which, in television, often translates into the right kind of attention. According to The New York Times, the show received criticism from The New Jersey Italian American Legislative Caucus, Unico National, the Order of the Sons of Italy in America and the National Italian-American Foundation almost as soon as it went on the air. The government of Seaside Heights officially expressed its disapproval of the show, releasing a statement that explicitly said it did not condone the behavior depicted. Italian-American celebrities, most notably Alyssa Milano, also criticized the show and called for its cancellation.
And with good reason. The people featured on the show are ignorant, oblivious and self-absorbed. The men follow a dogma of “GTL” (gym, tan, laundry) and are often misogynistic; the women express their love of juiceheads (i.e., steroid users) and dress inappropriately. Everyone pushes the line between a healthy tan and an orange sheen. Everyone drinks too much. And everything, from their clothes to their garage to their wall ornaments, is adorned with the red, white and green of the Italian flag.
To make matters worse, the show’s cast members freely identify themselves as guidos and guidettes, a traditionally derogatory term for Italian men and women. The term nowadays is accepted among some groups of young Italian-Americans as merely being a style of living and dress. Pauly D describes being a guido on the show as “being Italian, representing, family, friends, tanning, gel, everything.” When asked what it means to be a guido, Snooki told Conan O’Brien: “We like to look good, we like to go out, be [the] center of attention.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines guido as “a person regarded as socially unsophisticated, esp. one whose attire and behaviour are viewed as typically lower-class suburban. Also: spec. an Italian-American man, esp. one who is aggressively masculine and vain regarding his appearance and possessions.” On Jan. 21, The New York Times reported on a colloqium on “guido culture” at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College. The speakers who attacked the show’s usage of the word did not object to the word itself, stating that it never held a negative connotation when they were growing up, but was merely being exploited by MTV. Speakers made reference to such characters as Tony Manero from the 1977 classic “Saturday Night Fever” and Vinny Gambini from 1992’s “My Cousin Vinny,” who were depicted as guidos but ultimately had great talent and high aspirations.
“Jersey Shore” may have complicated the “guido” debate to the point of futility. At the very worst, it is no better than the “n-word.” At the very best, it is a word that has become divorced from its origin as a derogatory term for Italian-American men and has become a signifier for a lifestyle and attitude adopted across a wide ethnic spectrum. The difference between the people on “Jersey Shore” and Joe Pesci’s character in “My Cousin Vinny” is the redemption provided by Vinny’s aspirations and talent. With the exception of Snooki’s scattered mentions of her passion for veterinary medicine and Vinny’s distaste for “The Situation’s” immaturity, these people lack goals or foresight. When asked what the future held, “The Situation” told Conan, “There’s a lot of opportunities coming from this show we recently did. I wouldn’t mind doing another reality show.”
Perhaps the reason the offensive implications of “guido” never occurred to the cast of the “Shore” is one of the reasons we find these people so laughable: They are completely removed from the realities, subtleties and complications of the world that plague the rest of us. When Pauly D famously encountered an Israeli girl who also happened to be an observant Jew, he said in a testimonial that he didn’t “understand that religion or what it is. [He] just [wanted] to get to the business.”
The show is designed to encourage just that obliviousness: If you take a bunch of people linked by their ignorance and self-centeredness and pay them to live in a house and party together, chances are you are going to reinforce their behavior. One of the strange side effects of this particular experiment, however, and the reason that it was so drastically different from “Real World,” is that after a certain point, these people slowly understood that the allure of the show came from the fact that their viewers found them ridiculous. What’s the point of cultivating talents or even getting a job when you can generate a pretty steady cash flow by following the old mantra “be yourself” literally?
Judging from the cast’s recent prevalence on television, in the tabloids, and on the Internet, simply being who they are seems to be going pretty well. I’ve lost track of the number of “Situation” and “Snooki” jokes I’ve heard in dining halls, at parties and on Facebook, not to mention the recent influx of “Shore”-themed parties on campus. The crew was notably turned down by the Chandelier Room of the W Hoboken hotel in New Jersey after offering to make an appearance for $10,000. And speaking of $10,000, they are currently in negotiations with MTV to get $10k per episode in the show’s second season. Despite rumors, a second season has not yet been confirmed.
What I find most interesting about the “Jersey Shore” crew’s meteoric rise to fame, however, is not merely that they are the human being equivalents of cartoon characters, but how they stand to change the nature of reality-based celebrity forever. One of the things that made the show so successful was the way in which it distinguished itself from similar programming, especially on MTV. Shows like “Real World” have become tiresome and stale because the people in them are so self-aware. The supposed premise of reality television was perverted as soon as it was executed because people fed into what they thought we wanted to see. They cast themselves as “the gay guy” or “the slut” or “the racist.”
While there is obviously an element of that in “Jersey Shore” — each of these people is probably something like what we see on television — none of them is exactly like that. It feels different! In their obliviousness, they were innocent. They told us things that anyone who had any semblance of what they were saying wouldn’t say (“I feel like this job is beneath me. I’m a bartender. I do — you know — great things,” Angelina said in one episode). The atrocious acting skills they exhibit in the moments in which they showcase their self-awareness (such as a hilarious clip on “Funny or Die” in which Situation, Snooki and Pauly D play classical actors playing themselves) leads me to believe that there was at least some sincerity to their drama and testimonials on the show.
Fair enough, but what does this all mean for MTV? It means that MTV’s newest reality shows are tweaking the meaning of the “reality” in “reality TV.” There was an almost anthropological bent to the advertising and presentation of “Jersey Shore”: REAL LIFE GUIDOS! If you’ve seen the commercials for MTV’s latest ventures, “My Life as Liz” or “The Buried Life,” you can see elements of the same style. “There’s a new show on MTV, and it’s dedicated to all of the little people out there,” Liz says in a promo for her now show. “Don’t let those other reality shows fool you!” the ad campaigns seem to say. “This is what it’s really like.”
The fact that the people on these shows still feed into many of the same archetypes doesn’t really matter. The level of unmasked sincerity on “Jersey Shore” arguably changed the paradigm, which is to say, they knew they were on television, but the game-changing fact was that they didn’t seem to get the joke, at least not while they were filming. MTV’s challenge now, or at least the way it seems from their recent marketing, is to attempt to recreate that feeling of “realness,” to find people who will give them something watchable without knowing what about what they’re giving is watchable. It’s a single-blind study in reality television. The new MTV marketing campaign specifically seems intent on convincing us that these new shows present people who are just as they are, or at least as close as they are going to get on reality television.
Which, at least in my mind, helps to explain why “Jersey Shore” has gotten so much negative attention. Michael Farina, an Italian-American and a senior lector in Italian at Yale, sees this as a discussion that should have come to light sooner.
“It just seems to be that Italian-Americans can continually be mocked in the media from the news to ‘The Sopranos’ to the ‘Jersey Shore,’ and it’s seen as acceptable,” he said.
People get worked up about “Jersey Shore,” but why? MTV edits its footage to mold how we view the “Jersey Shore” crew just like a director and a writer create an image of how we see Tony Soprano. The difference, and what “Jersey Shore” has illuminated more than ever before in my mind, is how confusing our relationship with reality television has become.
“Jersey Shore” stands inadvertently poised to redefine the terms of the relationship between art and life. Reality television, as anyone who has watched “The Hills” family of shows can tell you, has become as scripted as “scripted” television. Any reality show has at least one story coordinator, who works through footage to create a narrative for each episode.
We’ve known these things for years, but “Jersey Shore” seems to be the first time that we have been seriously offended by it. The celebrity of the players involved only further highlights how nonsensical the whole thing has become. Why exactly are they famous? Because they were on reality television? Does that make them somehow more real than your average real person?
I was confused when I went to Elevate last week to see Vinny because I wasn’t sure what exactly I was going there to see. Isn’t the point of reality television that the people who are on it can’t be stars? Isn’t the point that they’re just regular people? Or is the point to illuminate people whose merits as personalities alone makes them worthy of celebrity? “Jersey Shore” has complicated the philosophy of reality television. MTV gave us clowns, people who were performers almost without knowing it, and they insisted that it was real. They even suggested in the way they portrayed their characters that the show might contain ethnographic elements.
My search for Italian-American students who find the show offensive was ultimately fruitless, possibly because of this strange tension. MTV got too ridiculous; they stretched the boundaries so that they were making fun of their own schtick as much as they were making fun of the butts of their joke. The whole thing seemed like a con, but it was unclear who was conning who.
“It’s too much of a satire of itself to be taken too seriously,” Max Saltarelli ’13, an Italian-American freshman, told me in an interview when asked if he found the show offensive. “I find it funny that these people tried to create this whole subculture and tie it together with an Italian flag when that’s actually really irrelevant to the whole thing,” he added.
Perhaps it’s telling, then, that MTV’s shift toward “realer” reality is being paired with a shift toward more scripted programming. In a Jan. 14 article, the Los Angeles Times reported that “The Hard Times of RJ Berger,” a new MTV series about a high school nerd with a big penis (seriously!) will air this summer as part of MTV’s new project to reinvent itself for a changing youth demographic. The network will also premiere a new show called “Warren the Ape,” starring a character that appeared on the 2002 Fox show “Greg the Bunny.” Odds for success are, in my opinion, pretty low. The last really great scripted MTV shows came out of MTV Animations, and that’s long gone.
Meanwhile, all signs seem to show that the stars of “Jersey Shore” continue to dream big. What exactly that dream means is unclear when your success derives from the blank look you get in your eye when you say, without a hint of irony, “Girls are supposed to cook, guys are supposed to eat, you know what I mean?” (Pauly D, of course). In any event, these guys deserve our praise for making MTV realize that it can’t be a fence-sitter any longer.
Give us reality or give us … er … a script!