At the end of her New Yorker piece on the Jersey Shore phenomenon, Nancy Franklin (basically) concludes: "this reality television show is kind of trashy!" Yes, Nancy Franklin, it is trashy. It is the latest in a long line of reality series designed to showcase some of the worst-and most entertaining-aspects of human nature. And Franklin is the latest in a long line of critics and viewers to notice that these Jersey Shore people are kind of weird with their questionable aesthetic choices and their odd vernacular and also, they drink and go out dancing and occasionally mack on each other!
Unfortunately, Franklin's piece, though it epitomizes the collective horror Jersey Shore has provoked, fails to go beyond stating the obvious and, worse, fails to articulate why Jersey Shore is so much more of an assault on our senses than a show like The Hills or Rock of Love (which, in its third season, featured one contestant drinking a shot out of another woman's vagina). I've begun to wonder how much of the lingering disgust cultural critics cough up on the page is not an objection to the violence-which has become a staple in a show that has so far aired only six episodes-but an aversion to this particular ethnic subculture.
I mean, sure, even I, as an Italian lady, have no interest in seeing the inside of a tanning bed or "battling" or dissertating endlessly on the correlation between my Italianness and my awesomeness, but once you've accepted the Jersey Shore reality, how long can you keep harping on how these people are so astonishing (and sometimes adorable!) with their "different" conception of the world?
The Jersey Shore cast members define themselves by their ethnicity, participating in a self-validating subculture; people who reject that subculture take pleasure, in Franklin's (accurate) view, in recognizing how foreign that subculture is to them. Is one act of self-definition less annoyingly superior than the other? You don't tan, have no interest in clubbing and working out and getting your nails (silk wraps or acrylics!) black-French manicured? You might not belong in the Jersey Shore world. You might, if you are a young New Yorker who keeps her nails short and thinks about Serious Things and blogs about New Yorker articles, be as much of a curiosity to these people as they are to you. We (I) laugh at bon mots like "You don't even look Italian!" (the insult that Sammi "Sweetheart" flings at the blonde blue-eyed "grenade," who must have a Ph.D in cockblocking) but, ridiculous as it is, that assessment betrays a value system: Skinny blonde pale WASP princesses are deemed not attractive when measured by the JS aesthetic. And this seems curious and laughable to us.
"You don't even look Italian!" is crazy funny but is the underlying judgment (dark hair/olive skin/Italian-looking = pretty; the inverse = not pretty) any worse than any other standard of beauty? It's an alternative perspective, one that I suspect is so funny partly because it is so unfamiliar.
Franklin herself calls Snooki "very peculiar" but: is she? Snooki is a 22-year-old who likes to drink, party and hook up. She is obviously deeply insecure (no surprise: she is a pudgy girl who is all of 4'9) and she copes with that insecurity by acting out, doing flips and cartwheels on the dancefloor-probably so people will say "who is that crazy girl?" instead of saying "who is that midget?" or "who's the fat chick?" or ignoring her entirely. So, Nancy Franklin has never met a 22-year-old who drinks, gets sloppy, is down to fuck and wants to be the center of attention because she is plagued by insecurity. I question whether Nancy Franklin has met any 22-year-olds at all.
But of course Franklin means Snooki is peculiar because she is orange, she likes "Guido juiceheads" and has preferences that are hilariously invalid because they just aren't acceptable to Franklin. MTV has succeeded, Franklin says, in making "us feel as though we were anthropologists secretly observing a new tribe through a break in the trees," except "anthropological study" is just code for "watching unfamiliar practices, which are therefore Strange." And the New Yorker illustration helpfully nails this point by featuring the cast behind zoo-exhibit glass. Which would be totally cool! If this were the 19th century. But right now, it feels kind of like an icky fetishization of difference to which a WASP-y Olympic-level douchetool like Spencer Pratt will never be subject.
But! Maybe Franklin will leave us with something more illuminating than "GROSS!" Here's her final line, commenting on the skeezy Jacuzzi-as-seduction method:
As such, [the Jacuzzi] fits right in, being both of Italian-American descent and an embarrassing reality-show cliché.
This is fun and snappy, but is it noting correlation or establishing causation? Does it intend to do one and, in effect, do both? Let's see: As such, [Nancy Franklin] fits right in [in intellectual circles], being both a reviewer for the New Yorker and possessing a very peculiar sense of cultural authority. Fair?
Regina Nigro is a writer and editor. She is Italian, embarrassing and clichéd.