The Dim-Post

January 25, 2011

On the cultural significance of Jersey Shore

Filed under: tv — danylmc @ 1:38 pm

‘One minute you got three girls in the Jacuzzi, the next minute someone’s in jail and you gotta bail them out.’ – Mike ‘The Situation’ Sarrentino.

I watched the first season of MTV’s hit reality TV show Jersey Shore this weekend, digesting all nine episodes – each clocking in at about forty minutes – over about twelve hours.  I was repulsed but fascinated, and I’ve spent a lot of time since trying to understand why a show in which drunken, orange skinned imbeciles repeatedly mate and/or fight with one another is such compelling viewing.

A lot of critics feel that Jersey Shore is the most horrible TV show of all time, and they have a strong case. But it’s also wildly popular, and as this column in the Wall Street Journal shows, many cultural commentators think there might be a deeper significance beneath the fake tans and endless tequila shots.

And there is, there really is. After some thought I’ve decided that Jersey Shore addresses the same theme as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (I really do think this). Both works convey the message that humans are social animals reliant on each other for one another’s happiness, and the current cultural fixation on individual freedom as an unqualified good leads to general misery and alienation.

I was gonna try to uppercut her, but at that point I had too many bouncers wrapped around me. I just wish for like three more seconds. I woulda done justice. – J-WOWW

The premise of Jersey Shore is that eight young, attractive (by the seriously warped standards of the show) people get to live in a house together at a wild beach resort and party all night every night. They’re free to do whatever they want, and for the show’s target audience this scenario represents heaven – but just as Franzen shows in Freedom, when everyone in a society is focused purely on indulging their own pleasures the results are not happiness, but rather frustration and anger and emotional breakdown, all of which is the norm on the Jersey Shore. It helps that the cast are so selfish and stupid and perpetually drunk they’re incapable of showing anyone else even the slightest courtesy. There’s never any room for debate or compromise – even the most minor disagreement instantly explodes into verbal or physical violence – and whenever they attack each other they’re inevitably screaming ‘I’m just trying to have fun.’

The ‘breakout’ stars of the show, who’ve gone on to achieve super-celebrity status are: Mike ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino, Nicole, ‘Snooki’ Polizzi and Paul ‘DJ Pauly D’ DelVecchio. The Situation and DJ Pauly D provide much of the comic relief. Every night they go out looking for babes to lure back to their hot tub – a rooftop jacuzzi teeming with venereal disease – to engage in some casual, consequence free-sex. Every night they meet some girls and bring them home, and every night things go horribly wrong, because even the skanks that would sleep with Pauly and the Sitch are people with their own lives and agendas, instead of the disposable sex objects the guys are looking for. So when Pauly D makes out with an Israeli girl she falls in love with him and stalks him for the rest of the season, ruining most of his subsequent dates. The Situation brings a girl back to his bed but he’s woken up by her friend banging on the front door, screaming that the girl’s family are frantically searching for her because she’s been missing for hours. For a show about alcohol fuelled orgies and casual sex, Jersey Shore is surprisingly conservative in tone, always showing the dire consequences of every thoughtless, drunken impulse.

Then there’s Snooki, a tiny woman with huge eyes, enormous breasts, a chocolate colored tan and a penchant for wearing lingerie in public. Snooki is desperate to meet the right guy and settle down, and the best way to find Mr Right, she reasons, is to spend every night drunkenly making out with random, heavily tattooed muscle-bound gorillas (she calls this technique ‘snooking for love’). This is not a successful approach to finding true romance and Snooki is genuinely heartbroken whenever it fails, which is every single night.

‘If I was just gonna get sloppy, I should have just pounded out what’s her name on Friday night.’ – Ronnie

A relationship forms between two cast members (Ronnie and Sammy) and they appear to have genuine feelings for each other. But since their lives are all about instant self-gratification, the second they’re apart they instantly start hitting on the nearest strangers (in one episode this happened literally one second after Ronnie went to the bathroom at a club. The show’s editors thoughtfully pause the footage so we can see that Ronnie was still in frame when Sammi gave her phone number to an off-duty cop). Since they actually care about each other this breaks the other person’s heart, and they always end every evening back home yelling at each other and crying, only to go and do the exact same thing the next night.

Instead of being a laid back libertine’s paradise the Jersey Shore house is an unhappy, tense environment prone to savage conflicts and sudden outbursts of  violence. By the eighth episode the show needs to hire security guards to protect the cast members from one another.

‘I regret that I got caught. I don’t regret that I hit the kid, because he had it coming.’ – Ronnie.

The easiest way to defend Jersey Shore is to argue that it holds a mirror up to America. Consider how all of the cast members regard themselves as the most awesome people on the planet, the guys especially, on account of how deeply tanned and muscular they are. They treat everyone they meet with utter contempt but if anyone shows them the slightest disrespect they fly into a psychotic rage. The girls hurl fat jokes at almost every female to enter the house, but when someone teases Snooki about her weight she’s plunged into a suicidal depression. ‘There’s some things you never say to a girl,’ she sobs, even though she herself has said the same thing or worse many many times. There’s your rogue super-power writ very small.

The treatment of religion – while subtle – is also revealing. All of them are superficially Catholic – they wear crosses, they say grace before dinner. But they’re all creatures of base, carnal appetites without a flicker of morality. When DJ Pauly D’s Israeli stalker tells him they have to get married before they can have sex his expression is one of stupefied disgust, even though this is a central tenet of his faith and he has a gigantic crucifix tattooed on his back. For Pauly D Christianity is just another form of tribal identity; it has nothing to do with the way you treat others or live your life, and if that isn’t a metaphor for religion in contemporary America then what is?

‘Like when I left Karma, I didn’t even know what was going on in my head, like I’m gonna fucking knock a bitch up.’ – Sammi.

There’s yet another level to Jersey Shore, best approached by describing the basic format of the show. Every day is the same: the cast wake up with hangovers, confront one another with the monstrous crimes they committed during the night and then scream and cry for a while. They devote the rest of the daylight hours to ‘GTL’. Gym. Tanning. Laundry. Night falls, they hit the cocktails and once they’re all blind drunk they stumble off to the clubs to hook up. Their favourite hangout is a place called Karma where they drunkenly grope strangers, get their phone numbers and make out with them, but just as frequently they storm out of the club in a rage, or they get thrown out, or they get into a fist-fight. The people they lure back to their house for sex are just as likely to attack one of the other cast members, or throw up everywhere and pass out as they are to engage in intercourse.

The parallels with Buddhist theology are obvious. The cast of Jersey Shore are bound to the wheel of suffering and rebirth by their base physical desires. Each day Snooki, The Situation, DJ Pauly D and the rest of the cast chase the fleeting pleasures of the material world, and at the end of it they are punished and rewarded by Karma but no matter the outcome they are doomed to endlessly repeat the same mistakes. In his famous Fire Sermon the Buddha likens our lives in the physical universe to a vast and terrible bonfire being consumed by the flames of time; Jersey Shore makes the same point by showing us poor, lonely Snooki drunkenly cart wheeling around nightclubs while wearing a short skirt and no underwear. The medium is different but the eternal message is the same.


  1. Enjoyment of this show may be further enhanced by a retranslation of its (alleged) Japanese title: The New Jersey life of macaroni rascals

    Comment by harvestbird — January 25, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

  2. lord of the flies meets animal house in an horrific monster truck pile up

    Comment by k.jones — January 25, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

  3. I watched the first series as it aired last year and at the time had two college educated people from New Jersey living with me in Kerikeri. Their disgust and embarrassment was equalled only by my similar feelings when watching any working class populated reality show from Britain.
    It is modern day circus freakery neatly packaged and displayed on the electric fish tank.

    I disagree with the suggestion that it is the worst tv show ever made. An opinion that most people who have watched “I love money 2” would agree with.

    Comment by Barnsley Bill — January 25, 2011 @ 3:15 pm

  4. Wow, great write up. It sounds like Shakespeare crossed with real life Trailer Park Boys. On one hand, I can’t wait to watch it, but on the other, I don’t think I’ll have the stamina to stay with it.

    Comment by Karen — January 25, 2011 @ 4:05 pm

  5. The only thing you need to remember when watching Reality TV is it isn’t real. It is highly edited and for all we know the whole series might have been filmed over twelve months and when the camera isn’t around they are all in fact Ivy League graduates engaging in post modern irony. Or not. Who cares, actually? It rates.

    My personal take on the popularity of these types of shows is that in a time when social mobility has practically vanished and the United States is retreating into a third world country the identifiably lower class, low wage, trailer park trash that are famous (FAMOUS I tell you) as a result of this show allows the viewer to hold out the faint hope that one day they might escape thier minimum wage drudgery with no health plan and achieve something approximating to the American Dream.

    Comment by Sanctuary — January 25, 2011 @ 4:32 pm

  6. LOL, you’re pretty sheltered if you find these retards OTT. Your taxes and mine support their dopplegangers in NZ Inc.

    Comment by leon — January 25, 2011 @ 6:38 pm

  7. in a time when social mobility has practically vanished

    Talking about things that aren’t real…

    Comment by Phil — January 25, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

  8. Proof that Danyl is currently in prison. Add to that the lack of posts this summer – it all fits.

    Comment by Pat — January 25, 2011 @ 10:29 pm

  9. Danyl – Reading Tom Wolfe – The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. Your social analysis is spot on with the rider that Sanctuary makes about editing. Their ratings come from their irrational behaviour meaning they are highly incentivised to persist with that behaviour. At some point the line between reality TV and a drama with actors is crossed. The only thing I wonder is how much of it is actually scripted. The show represents a kind of massively magnified reality as sanctuary suggests but the fact that much of it occurs in public means it can only be partially scripted.

    Almost the funniest thing is that your google ads are for
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    Comment by sagenz — January 25, 2011 @ 10:41 pm

  10. The English equivalent of Jersey Shore, or at least the equivalent of The Hills, which it lovingly rips off, is the fantastically vacuous The Only Way Is Essex. All you need to know about it can be gleaned from this 150-second mashup:

    Comment by Ethan Tucker — January 25, 2011 @ 10:53 pm

  11. Fascinating post. I never understand why my girlfriend loves “The Hills” so much. But I never thought about it as a metaphor for buddhist philosophy.

    Comment by Will Truth — January 26, 2011 @ 3:07 am

  12. Sagenz – yup. The very first reality TV show was probably the Antiques Roadshow which, when you think about it, is instructive of genre in general. Each show is tightly planned, with scouting parties identifying items of interest in a district ahead of time, and off all the thousands who show up only about ten people make it to air.

    Does the Antiques Roadshow capture a reality? Or is it highly edited to produce a show that produces a false view of what you can find at a car boot sale in Walmington-on-Sea?

    Comment by Sanctuary — January 26, 2011 @ 10:23 am

  13. I don’t agree with any of your argument here. But did anybody ever tell you that you think too much?

    Comment by LucyJH — January 26, 2011 @ 10:27 am

  14. I meant disagree sorry. Apparently there was a book (not fictional) recently published by a scientist about how people need to make meaningful, long-term relationships with other people a priority in their lives or else they become terribly unhappy. Somebody was telling me about it on a tramp. You’d probably like it…

    Comment by LucyJH — January 26, 2011 @ 10:28 am

  15. That review/essay was so compellingly done that I now want to watch it. Great writing!

    ‘If I was just gonna get sloppy, I should have just pounded out what’s her name on Friday night.’ –

    If that’s not love, I don’t know what is…

    (Btw, and I’m sure you knew this, but it was Jonathon Franzen who wrote the deservedly acclaimed “Freedom”. But you knew that 🙂 )

    Comment by Matthew Littlewood — January 26, 2011 @ 9:36 pm

  16. Now that we have learned about their strange and foreign bodies, we have to take a look at their sophisticated argot so that we can understand how they communicate with each other.

    Comment by andy (the other one) — January 27, 2011 @ 7:54 am

  17. Are you the Kiwi incarnation of Bernard-Henri Levi? That was quite brilliant. And terrifying.

    Comment by TerryB — January 27, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

  18. I remember staying at the rive gauche hotel in Paris listening, alongside the rest of the hotel, to a couple from Jersey fuck themselves up in various ways for several hours during the night. My suggestion up the stairwell that they fuck off and die wasn’t taken up so I left a letter for them at reception. It wasn’t very nice.

    Comment by leon — January 27, 2011 @ 7:25 pm

  19. @Leon, this programme will be set in the US state of New Jersey. In paris, when people talk aboput people from Jersey, they’re likely to be from the original Jersey, an island off the north coast of France. Were these people who ruined your stay in the Paris hotel from New Jersey or the real Jersey?

    Comment by kahikatea — January 27, 2011 @ 10:14 pm

  20. Kahikatea, there are many places called Paris, and one cannot be sure leon even knows there is a Paris in France.

    Comment by Sanctuary — January 27, 2011 @ 10:42 pm

  21. Leave Leon alone you brutes. His treasured “Parisian episode” is as close as he’s likely to get to the phenomenon of human* copulation.

    (*Fantasising about Rodney Hide doesn’t count as human.)

    Comment by JoeW — January 28, 2011 @ 7:23 am

  22. there are many places called Paris

    Them Texan’s sure don’t like those damn Yankees.

    Comment by Phil — January 28, 2011 @ 10:06 am

  23. I’m sure a “Jersey Shore” set on the shore of the original Jersey would be riveting viewing.

    Comment by Sam F — January 28, 2011 @ 10:13 am

  24. Such potty mouthed invective. Jersey is what New Yorkers call their Jersey whereas the ‘real’ one is where I banked once upon a time.

    Comment by leon — January 28, 2011 @ 2:35 pm

  25. I love the write-up, but I hate even walking through the lounge when my flatmates are watching this. I sometimes go out the front door and come in the back just to avoid having to see even five seconds of it on my way to the kitchen, so it doesn’t put me off my dinner.

    Comment by Pearce — January 31, 2011 @ 10:16 am

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