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Jersey Shore: The Apotheosis of Reality

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A month into the show, I must admit: I absolutely adore MTV's Jersey Shore. Not since the network's legendary Real World Las Vegas have I been so invested in a television show. After all, Jersey Shore represents the triumph of the American Dream, pure and simple. It is kandy-kolored "ego-porn," a capitalist cornucopia that features more money and effort spent on self-beautification and self-indulgence than anything this side of Nip/Tuck and Addicted to Beauty. The castmembers' indolence and collective sense of entitlement is truly awe-inspiring; there's a reason why USSR Gosteleradio never produced a show called Crimea Shore, or why Yellow Sea Dunes probably isn't forthcoming from China Central Television. How extreme is Jersey Shore? There simply aren't enough superlatives in the dictionary. But extremism, of course, breeds controversy.

Now, any reality TV offering worth its salt craves a good old-fashioned shitstorm, of course, but in this maelstrom of criticism, curiosity, and outrage, no one seems to know which way the wind is blowing.

Television critics are angry that their sets and screens have been so befouled by a crummy program. In one of the kinder reviews of the show, Fox News sardonically deemed the program "vintage car accident TV." State of New Jersey civic boosters are angry with MTV's portrayal of the town of Seaside Heights, the program's backdrop: one day after the premiere aired, the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau issued a 164-word statement bemoaning that the show in no way reflects the reality of life on the Shore. Italian-American advocacy groups are badgering the show's sponsors to pull their advertisements (Domino's Pizza and American Family Insurance already have), and the president of UNICO National, the New Jersey-based Italian American service organization, condemned the program as trash. And still others are flat-out pissed off, content to voice their denunciations of the show via death threats sent and called in to MTV employees. The network had to hire more security and bodyguards at its Times Square headquarters.

The superficial spark of the Jersey Shore controversy is one of nomenclature. Many Italian Americans are irate over MTV's and castmembers' -- eight (reduced to seven in the show's third episode) Italian American twentysomethings from New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island--persistent use of the ethnic epithets "Guido" and "Guidette." (Confusingly, the latter term is somewhat problematic, as it's unclear whether a "Guidette" is simply a female version of a "Guido," or is instead more chauvinistically defined by her willingness to get drunk, dance frenetically, and have sex with a "Guido." By this second definition, it would follow, one need not be Italian American--or even female for that matter--to be a "Guidette.") Indeed, the network has been quite brazen in its marketing of the show. In November, MTV billed Jersey Shore as a sixty-minute spectacle featuring the "hottest, tannest, craziest Guidos" who "keep their hair high, their muscles juiced and their fists pumping all summer long."

This "Guido" controversy, though--this "These-clowns-don't-represent-us" complaint--is a red herring.

Now, it's a no-brainer that a network shouldn't promote a show focused on the "hottest" or "tannest" [insert offensive ethnic epithet here], and Italian Americans have every reason to be offended by MTV's liberal employment of the offensive terms. But the criticism, however, doesn't end there. UNICO National lambasted the show for relying on--and perpetuating--crude stereotypes for the sake of ratings, and André DiMino, UNICO's president, complained to The New York Times that the castmembers' behavior is "reprehensible and demeaning in all respects."

Yet by labeling that behavior as stereotypical, Italian American advocates serve instead to underline and call attention to the existence of those stereotypes. No one is claiming that all of America's some 16 million citizens of Italian descent behave like Snooki, J-Woww, and Pauly D. When a man christens his abdominal muscles "The Situation" (as does 27-year-old castmember Mike), and then insists on referring to himself as "The Situation," implying that he is all abs in body, mind, and sprit, it's a safe bet that he represents a constituency of one. Their persistent claims of ethnic pride notwithstanding, the only "ethnic group" that the Jersey Shore septet really represents is Jersey Shore castmembers. Though the cast clearly relishes their shared ethnic background, they use their Italian heritage not as an identity, but instead as a license to develop an orangeish skin tone, use a lot of hair gel, and spend hours lifting weights.

MTV has merely assembled the eight loudest Italian Americans it could muster, and only the most facile thinking would try to rip the cast's outlandishness off the screen, brand it as a malevolently perpetuated stereotype, and complain about it as a false representation of 16 million people. When Larry David picks up his copy of The Nation, we don't suddenly assume that every subscriber is a bald, Prius-driving misanthrope who can't keep his foot out of his mouth. Similarly, blanket claims that the Jersey Shore Seven are offensive to Italian Americans merely validate too-quickly-formed perceptions that are based on the antics of an outrageous (and miniscule) sampling.

Jersey Shore is a positively American creation, a celebration of tawdriness and uninhibited egotism that would be unheard of anywhere else. The candor with which castmembers behave is astoundingly natural, and their intemperate lifestyles are breathtaking to behold. You can't script the 80-proof vanity of this crew any more than you can demand that a character on, say, The Biggest Loser disregard and dismiss the millions of viewers who watch (and criticize) his every move. Like Romeo's Verona, on Jersey Shore, there is no world without Seaside Heights walls. Ironically, this is the "realest" reality show there is.