Thinking Jersey Shore
“As soon as you flush the toilet, you are right in the middle of ideology.” —Slavoj Žižek1
“I shit like a bear.” —Ronnie
Pregaming: Same Shit, Different Toilet. By the time JWoww finally calls the plumber in season 3, episode 10 of Jersey Shore, the toilets have been clogged for two weeks. All of them. Shit is literally piling up everywhere, and the Guidos 2. For simplicity’s sake, “Guidos” refers to both male and female members of the cohort, self-identifying “Guidettes” notwithstanding. Masculine pronouns are similarly intended to refer to the-Guido-as-such. 2 are at a loss. In the early days of the clog, Vinny reported the presence of corn in the bowl as he gamely wrestled a coat hanger into the S-bend. By the end of the crisis, algae and maggots are the principal concerns. The camera lingers on the putrid bowl, its contents artificially blurred into an indistinct brown pool that threatens to overtop the brim and invade the bathroom proper, while the men of the house huddle in fear of what they have created. Everyone is in an apocalyptic mood — Vinny pleads for deliverance in the confessional booth, close-up, Blair Witch-style.
What are we to make of the fact that one of the principal narratives of one of the most popular television shows of the past decade concerns a struggle against fecal matter? Žižek suggests that variations in European toilet architecture, and by extension the entire host of means by which Western humans relate to their excrement, are in a very tangible sense the product of national ideologies, particularly attitudes of disgust and valuations of that which has been made external to the body. Schematically: the French are revolutionary, and thus their shit is swept away rapidly and efficiently, guillotine-like; the English are pragmatic, allowing their fecal matter to float passively in water; and the Germans are contemplative, taking the time to inspect their bowel movements in a form of deep introspection. But all three acknowledge that what is inside must come out, and when it does we must have in place some mechanism to manage it.
And yet what is astonishing about the three-episode long scatological saga on Jersey Shore is the cast’s apparent ambivalence to this managerial imperative. Every toilet in the house is clogged, and has been for days; Vinny attempts a resolution only under the most immediate kind of compulsion: he has to defecate. And yet even this failure, and the further metastasization of the clog, does not prevent one anonymous member of the house from “tak[ing] an extra shit in it,” as Ronnie says, visibly shaken. The cast is wallowing in shit — each person’s own shit and the shit of others — and yet their disgust and distress find expression in only the most theatrical of forms: exaggerated sniffs and wide-eyed, open-mouthed horror. One gets the feeling that they are just trying to get a better whiff.
Jersey Shore, more than any show of the recent past, has been defined by its critics as “trash TV,” stuck firmly “in the gutter,” and scatology is perhaps the mode in which Jersey Shore attains its full thematic density. The movement from interior to exterior lies at the very heart of Guido identity: a transformation of genetic, biological Italian ancestry into a constellation of visual signifiers: tanned skin, gelled hair, toned muscles; the reduction of psychologically embedded values of family and communal life to the performative ritual of ‘Sunday night dinner’; and the substitution of inculcated cultural heritage for the perfunctory sightseeing of the cast’s recent trip to Italy.
3. Indeed, in a grammatical nuance that has seemingly escaped all other commentators, Pauly D describes the Guido thusly: “It’s just a lifestyle. It’s being Italian, it’s representing, family, friends, tanning, gel, everything” (emphasis added). Guido identity arises through a process of stylization and re-presentation of invisible relations (being Italian, family, friends) as visual cues (tanning, gel, and the evocative “everything”). 3 For the Guido, all of this shit is coming out, continuously, and though he must eventually do something about it, he hesitates to simply dispose of it, because he cannot forget how dependent he is on these very remainders. And so we are forced to watch poor Vinny, the one true Italian in the bunch, for whom these transformations present the most dramatic crises of self, locked in an interminable agonism with the shit. What was once inside has come inexorably out, and it is no longer a problem merely for the Guidos, but for us all.
BOARDWALKING. In Chapter 25 of Snooki’s first novel, A Shore Thing,
4. All citations in this section are to Polizzi, Nicole. 2011. A Shore Thing. New York: Gallery Books, pp. 165-179. 4 Giovanna “Gia” Spumanti —“a.k.a. Snooki,” as IRL Snooki informs us in her canonical Matt Lauer interview 5. Available at
41017987 5 — finally gets to go on a date with Frank Rossi, a daring and hunky firefighter. For the Guidette, such an occasion demands extravagance: “lacy, silky sexy things” underneath a “stretchy, tight, silver sequined dress,” accented with “two rows of lashes, black liquid eyeliner, and heavy mascara…three layers of foundation and gloss,” and “a dark stroke of blush on her cleavage to make her boobies look even bigger.” Gia “had never felt sexier.” To the Guidette, this is a sartorial display of the highest magnitude, a showing fit for the glitziest balls or the most exclusive of clubs. This is what one wears when one wants to be noticed, an outfit that bespeaks one’s membership in the uppermost echelon of Guido society. And yet Gia is not preparing for a night out with other Guidos and Guidettes of her rank; nor is she headed to the VIP section of Karma, the Guidos’ club of choice — Gia has gotten all gussied up for a simple walk on the boardwalk, the most pedestrian of destinations.
The boardwalk is literally a tourist trap: a winding liminal space between beach and town, a threshold that all vacationers must cross, and that therefore bristles with commercial diversions, gaudy trinkets, cheap burger joints, and an unbroken rampart of drinking establishments. It is designed for the extraction of capital. And yet it is also classless and somewhat democratic: no one walking on the boardwalk can make a claim to be above the rest, physically or otherwise, and if the boardwalk is designed to exploit our desire for gimcrack prizes and evanescent entertainment, well, at least we’re all being exploited. The boardwalk channels the tourists, drunks, libertines, drifters, and Guidos into one carnivalesque parade, a swarm of undifferentiated humanity, a pageant in the middle of the most overpowering sort of pageantry.
And yet this is a place in which Gia must look her absolute best. Certainly she is on a hot date — Frankie the fireman is quite “yummy,” as Gia puts it — but isn’t this all the more reason to spend the evening at a locale more befitting their Guidosity? Clearly the boardwalk exerts an irresistible pull on the Guidos — they are drawn to it “like monkeys to the jungle,” as Vinny says, or “like flies come to shit,” as Ronnie says in a different context. The boardwalk holds the promise of comfort and contentedness for the Guido, as though it were, in an ecological sense, the habitat in which they belong.
After the funeral.This attraction is the result of the structure of Guido identity. As has been said, the Guido constructs his identity through a self-conscious and continual process of externalization and stylization, and yet such a process would clearly exhaust itself were it not also supplied with fresh material from the outside. The boardwalk, in what I will call its metaphoric plenitude, provides the onslaught of sensory data that the Guido in turn can repurpose in service of his own self-creation.
This nutritive relation between boardwalk and Guido becomes clear from the moment Gia and Frank step outside. The early evening sky was “pinky orangey,” just like Gia’s skin tone; “When I get home,” she decides on the spot, “I’m painting my room that color.” They stroll past the stores, talking about Gia’s uncle’s deli (where she was forever screwing up), her college career (aborted), before discussing, as was inevitable from the moment they stepped into the bronze(d) glow of the evening, Gia’s summer job at Tantastic, the local tanning salon. They agree that this is truly the job for Gia, her “place,” the linkage between her habitat and her habitus, between the summer sun and her summer skin.
Frank buys Gia some saltwater taffy as the walk continues, and the aroma reminds her of her childhood spent on the Shore. This confirms for Frank that she is a true “Jersey girl.” They stop to play a carnival game — tossing softballs into an inclined basket — and Frank proves himself a champion by winning Gia her choice of the largest prizes. And here Gia faces a choice: which animal should she pick? We can imagine the choices she faced from scouring video evidence from Jersey Shore itself: alligators, bears, giraffes, and gorillas. She is drawn “immediately to the giant gorilla doll,” and yet the sight of the toy evokes far more than the triumph of victory or the thrill of material acquisition. As anyone who has seen Jersey Shore can attest, the “gorilla” is the highest masculine Guido ideal; a “gorilla” is a man whom any Guidette would be proud to bed, and especially to be seen with. And Frank Rossi is just such a man. “I don’t need a stuffed gorilla,” Gia thinks, “[I’ve got] the real thing right here” (emphasis in original). She chooses a giraffe instead.
The conversation turns serious. Gia feels as though she has no direction in life; she wants to start a family, but doesn’t think she’s ready. Her parents, she reveals, went through a nasty divorce when she was young, from which she may not yet have recovered. She just discovered, she continues, that her father’s second wife is pregnant. “That’s rough,” Frank responds. Gia suddenly realizes that she has opened herself to Frank, this random Guido whom she barely knows, even more than to her best friend.
And what compelled her to place such trust in this man? “Gia felt like the bouncing softballs, popping out of one basket after another. Frankie didn’t bounce, though. He could stick.” It is Frank’s metaphoric resonance with a carnival game that convinces Gia of his integrity. Indeed, what recurs over and over again throughout this chapter is the web of associations between the scenery of the boardwalk and the most essential parts of the Guido’s self. Gia decides to remodel her bedroom, her sanctum, based on the glint of the Jersey sun on her skin; she finds her home at the tanning salon for much the same reason; the experience of taffy consumption demonstrates the truth of her New Jerseyan identity; and likewise the toys at the game booth corroborate Frank’s status as a Guido gorilla. And after this intoxicating glut of sensation, Gia and Frank, positively vibrating with allusive energy, planted on the physical stage of their mental lives, finally become enveloped in a “pink, shiny bubble” of love (or maybe gum).
TWO THEMATICS OF THE SHORE. Gia’s relationship with Frank, her only love interest for the rest of the summer, her object of total devotion, “the ultimate future husband,” is built entirely on a foundation of metaphors and metonyms drawn from the boardwalk. The boardwalk is a fount of imagery so powerful that one might wish to say that for the Guido, in this environment, seeing is only barely distinguishable from knowing; thoughts arise and the truth of those thoughts are verified on the basis of their correspondence with the material world in which the Guido finds himself: an almost complete articulation of mind onto world.
Guido identity, therefore, could be said to rest ultimately upon a habitation among — or at least proximity to — the material signifiers of ‘the Shore.’ The Guido must be located, must place himself within the proper environment, in order to attain a full expression of self. In contrast, what Vinny has called a “generational Italian” derives his identity from membership in a genetic community that, through diaspora, has eliminated the need to localize that identity through residence in a motherland. It could even be that geographic and mnemonic distance from the motherland serves to define it as the legitimating origin of an identity, legitimate precisely because of its absence, its mythic status. The obscure remove of the individual from its origin authenticates the depth of a true, inner self. The Guido reverses this relation of identity to place: rather than founding a community through a relation of absence and therefore of inscrutable interiority, the Guido forms himself as a pastiche of ready-to-hand symbols. This reliance on external stimulus for self-creation requires a localization that is accessible in actuality.
Gia’s stroll on the boardwalk is thus just one instantiation of a much more general problematic on Jersey Shore. Boundaries between interior and exterior — between body and world, self and surroundings, innards and excrement — perpetually trouble the Guido, and deserve more attention from scholars of the show. In the Guido’s tribulations we witness a tumultuous attempt to establish a novel mode of being, and we should take the opportunity to thereby call into question the foundations of our own identities. Jersey Shore is the most important sociological experiment of our time, as Brian Moylan has compellingly described it, not merely for its exposition of Guido culture and its extreme experiments in surveillance and isolation, but for its profound reflexive utility for scholars and thinkers of all stripes. The Guidos are not alien or profoundly Other. Rather, they are up to many of the same things that we all are: making our way in the world, and making ourselves in the process. The shit that they produce (in all of the meanings of that word) challenges us not only to think Jersey Shore more deeply, but to think ourselves as well.