Friday, July 8, 2011

Jersey Shore & Postmodernism

By Evan Trapp

Jersey Shore is the story of us.

The fourth season of the MTV reality show begins airing next month, where we will be following our favorite group of Guidos and Guidettes and the inevitable creeping and house music that comes with them to Italy, in which hilarity will undoubtedly ensue. The hit show has created celebrities out of the cast members, specifically in the case of the pint-sized poof-sporting Snooki and the older-than-you-would-believe Mike “The Situation.” The negative response to the show, most notably within the Italian-American community, is not without merit. The characters on the show indulge themselves in drinking, fighting, promiscuous sex, and, perhaps most damaging to the human psyche, the art of fist pumping. Jersey Shore is not only an evolutionary step in the world of reality TV (where it has one-upped all other reality shows in both popularity and ridiculousness) but it is also an evolutionary step, negative or not, in how we define what America is.

A Newsweek article from last summer addressed the Shore’s (I can all it that, we’re friends) role in how America is viewed internationally. The article suggests that the show’s international success (and it is very successful internationally) can be explained as a result of Anti-Americanism. International viewers can watch the show and laugh at the ridiculous Americans on the screen. They can scoff and jeer our indulgences. The strange thing about this is that within America we essentially began watching the show for the same reason. I will readily admit that I initially watched the show to laugh at the Guido culture. I am by no means a fan of reality TV, but I was drawn to watch the show out of curiosity and the potential entertainment value of this ridiculous American sub-culture.

I visited New York a few years back and I went to a bar in Manhattan that was swarming with Guidos. Being a West Coast man, it was my first time encountering this bizarre group of hair gel and fake tans and shirts with a bunch of shiny dramatic designs on them[1]. While I didn’t stay long, I felt the need to relate this story to many of my friends, poking fun at the culture the entire time. Because of the fragmentation of America, we are often put in this position of encountering vastly different sub-cultures within our own borders. The initial draw to the show can be explained as us wanting to view this culture within a pseudo-real context, as one goes to the zoo to see a “real” lion.

But what is left to be explained is the (literally) hours upon (seriously) hours I’ve spent dissecting the show with friends of mine. On several occasions we have had to defend our infatuation with the show, failing miserably in the process. The show is carelessly labeled a guilty pleasure, except that I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. There is a guiltless reason to enjoy what you personally enjoy. Why was I, like so many others, drawn to this seemingly “trashy” reality TV show? Why did I find myself discussing which character my personality was most like within the show? (I ended up, reluctantly, being labeled “Ronnie,” mainly because of my notorious drunk goggles[2].)

The intrigue is that Jersey Shore is not only a postmodern television show; but rather that it is the postmodern television show. The transition and movement of the show through the seasons displays exactly how postmodernism works: how something that is (arguably) interesting, intriguing and somewhat new will inevitably, because of commercialism, fold back onto itself and become a bizarre imitation of, not exactly itself, but rather what it believes itself to be. We are watching our postmodern society within the routine of gym, tanning, and laundry. The success of the show is not accidental.

The initial intrigue of the show (viewing a foreign sub-culture) is on full display during the first season. At the time, the show seemed fresh and different, because it was a reality show that didn’t have to be referential to our own lives. Jean Baudrillard, in his piece “The Precession of Simulacra,” refers to the “hyperreal” as “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality.” We are watching this reality TV show about a reality none of us can know or relate to. Therefore, “It no longer has to be rational, since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance. It is nothing more than operational.” We can view The Real World as if it is our own life, as if we are a member of this cast. But with Jersey Shore this is not possible for the vast majority of viewers. Italian-Americans were upset because they were falsely cast into this role when they are just as foreign to this world as us.

Jersey Shore is a reality show without a reality to base it on. It is The Hyperreal World.

The world is founded on a hyperreal platform, and, in a strange way, has become, as Baudrillard suggests, “operational” in that it not only maintained itself but also has flourished into an international hit. This foundation has created the Jersey Shore world, and with the second and third seasons we begin to really view how this world represents postmodern theory.

“Pastiche: in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.”

-Fredric Jamison, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”

Whatever freshness we found in the hyperreal world of Jersey Shore’s first season was diminished by the second season. The characters undeniably became aware of what they were supposed to do, and were no longer acting as their own character. Obviously, the first season displayed the self-awareness of the created Guido and Guidettes, but the characters that the cast played were formed within their own, private lives prior to MTV. When MTV came along to exploit them, their characters no longer were their own but rather became the consumers, and it is obvious that cast members were aware of the characters that they were now supposed to be. The example that comes to mind is “The Situation’s” introduction during the second season of the term “land mine.” One of the more successful phrases during the first season was “Situation’s” term “grenade,” used to describe an unattractive female. In what Jamison describes as a “Nostalgia Mode,” “The Situation” introduces “land mine” to describe an overweight unattractive female. This is an obvious homage to himself during the first season, and the premeditated phrase is there to comfort the audience and to take them back to the original hyperreal world. Season 3 brings the cast back to the Shore, as the audience once again feels this “Nostalgia Mode,” even if it was just a year before that we were first introduced to these characters. The return to the Shore has a feeling of trying to capture a long lost summer. While nostalgia at one time was meant to convey decades, in our instant Internet generation, nostalgia can be used within as little as a year.

Jamison states, “In a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.” Seasons 2 and 3 are essential this - characters speaking how they think they are supposed to speak, using the styles that MTV crafted and edited them to have. The show in the later season feels less fluid because of this and, no matter how well it is edited and dramatized, becomes, for lack of a better word, inane.

In a way, season 1 of Jersey Shore was modern in that it was the foundation for what was to follow. While during the first season the characters on the show seemed absurd and foreign, they began to feel normal during the postmodern seasons 2 & 3. Jamison talks about how Picasso and Joyce were, during their time, viewed as “weird and repulsive” but are now seen as normal and realistic. The show's progression has followed this basic artistic progression of modernism to postmodernism. What began as a trip to zoo ended up with us the ones caged.

In Baudrillard’s piece, he illustrates Disneyland as an imaginary world that we go visit seemingly as an escape for our own world. We feel the “warmth and affection” of the masses there, only to be left in the “absolute solitude” of the parking lot. What Disneyland actually offers us is both the “delights and drawbacks” of the real America.

“Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer the real.”


The television serves us in the same manner. We are able to escape into this other world, one that is not fictional, but described to us as “real,” and we are left after the program, with the television off, with what is also described to us as “real.” Jersey Shore has created a world, unfounded on reality, which is as American as the country in which I reside. What the show has done in a matter of three seasons is sum up the past century of artistic progression and in doing so has unintentionally taught us about the historical period we find ourselves stuck in. And next month, we shall see what season 4 has to educate us.

[1] While I’ve never been a footnote man (typically preferring parenthesis as a substitute), I’m going to use a few in this piece in homage to Peter Stephens, AIC’s resident Footnoter. In reference to the Guido shirt, I was actually going to spend a lot more time analyzing these so-called “Douche bag” shirts. While not everyone that wears an Affliction-type shirt is a douche bag, the douche bag-to-cool ratio is startling high compared to any other type of t-shirt.

[2] Notice the footnote within the parenthesis. I’m really fucking with you now, huh? There have been several times in my life where my group of friends have compared ourselves to a previously established group. This Ronnie comparison reminds me of my WWE comparison, Mark Henry. Kenny argued that I am like Henry because of my changing styles, but mainly I was like him because at one point Henry tried to get with Chyna. I can’t believe all my comparison spawn from drunk goggles. Damn you, drunk goggles!!!

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