The 99%: Trashy People Talking Trash on Trash Television, or Jersey Shore

the tanned cast of Jersey Shore hanging out on the beachSo, Jersey Shore is back again.  I guess I can’t avoid writing about it any longer.

The show has drawn ire from Italian American groups for its stereotypical portrayals and its use of the terms “guido” and “guidette.”  It’s aired scenes of Snooki getting punched in the face by a man and had castmate Ronnie arrested for aggravated assault. It has survived rumors that the entire cast has herpes and the withdrawal of corporate sponsors.  The show is a mess of sex, violence, ethnic stereotypes, shrill voices, tan bodies, and bumped hair.

Like its predecessor Jerry Springer—with its title sequence featuring a television in a trash can—this is Trash TV, featuring people with lower-class backgrounds, indiscriminate sexual appetites, the capacity for violence, extreme alcohol use, and moral compasses that point to the tanning salon rather than due north.

It’s a trash show. Really.

They trash talk. And wear “trashtasic get-ups.”

Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi’s clothes are trashy—and she writes books full of trash!

A former castmate is referred to by the nickname “Trash Bags.”

And, seriously, Snooki wakes up in a garbage can “at least once a month.”

This diction? It’s not just describing the show and the quality of entertainment it provides.  It’s beginning to describe the people.

Trailer trash, white trash—these ways of describing low-income people aren’t new.  They’re meant to make people quite literally disposable, a way of denying their humanity and their potential to offer anything of value.

With Jersey Shore, though, we get the “trash” without talking about money at all.  What the castmates wear, how they behave, how they style their hair, how they speak, these all communicate to the viewer their lack of cultural capital and, consequently, their social standing. 

If that was in any way unclear, Abercrombie and Fitch spelled it out in a publicity stunt last summer, when they paid Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino to not wear their clothes: “This association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand.”  Get it, trashy people?  You can’t wear our clothes, and you really shouldn’t aspire to them; they are simply too far above you.

The castmates play up this image; they embrace and caricature it—but really, what else can they do?  They’ve become the spectacle, but they aren’t the tastemakers.  They’re the slut and hoes, the trailer trash, the stereotypes, the embarrassment.  They’re the butt of the joke – even if you’re President Obama.

More than that, though, is the knowledge that if poor people really are trash—if they’re violent and drunk, if they’re hypersexual, if they’re stupid and uneducated, if they present themselves in a way that can’t “pass” as anything but what they are—then we can blame them for their own poverty.  Being poor isn’t a function of systemic inequality, then, but laziness, incompetence, and moral laxity.  It becomes easier to look the other way, to dismiss human beings as garbage, while still sitting riveted to our television sets by the spectacle they represent.

Previously: Class Warfare and the Privileged Politics of Mitt Romney, “But look how far we’ve come!” Downton Abbey and Historical Representations of Social Class

by Gretchen Sisson
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Gretchen is a research sociologist with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco. She studies cultural representations and constructions of parenthood and reproductive choice.

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13 Comments Have Been Posted

Is that really the message? I

Is that really the message? I don't watch the show, I've caught clips, I've seen/heard assorted jokes/satires, I'm vaguely familiar with it but certainly not an expert on the Jersey Shore. So my ignorance of the show now established, is that really what one would get out of it? The cast, to the best of my knowledge, are not poor nor have they ever been. They're not uneducated, not scholars of course but I'm assuming at least graduates of public schools in the suburbs. I think (and this is among the reasons I avoid the show) they're demonstrating what having too much time, a bit of money, a bit of fame and not much sense will net.

"Dirty Jersey"

I do agree that the show, The Jersey Shore is trashy, defined as "in poor taste." However, I draw the line at deeming or judging the individuals in the show to be "trashy" people. Aside from my awareness of the fact that reality television is scripted and that my values don't allow me to stand in the moral judgment of my fellow human beings, I am entirely uncomfortable and intolerant of stereotyping a group of people based on caricatures constructed by people who should know better-- or who think that they do. I agree with Bitch Media, in so far as this: words, especially words that invoke labels are political, absolutely shape our perspective and unfortunately are tools of lazy thinkers. AND if the Jersey shore might sometimes offend my sensibilities, lazy thinkers offend my intelligence.


I think it's important to note that the entire cast of Jersey Shore has made an incredible amount of money by being "trashy" on television. So, it's no longer about the spectacle of them being "low class" or "low income," it's about what happens when you give "the trash" fame and money and huge amounts of alcohol. I'd like to think that the cast members will come to a point where they realize what they've given up to be famous- and I don't mean their privacy; I mean their dignity.

“This association is contrary

“This association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand.” Get it, trashy people? You can’t wear our clothes, and you really shouldn’t aspire to them; they are simple too far above you.

The most compelling part is that the Jersey Shore cast is, quite clearly, "aspirational" - authoring books (however terrible), acting as spokesmodels (however poorly), hosting events (fairly well, I've heard), and participating in publicity interviews. They're more-than riding the Jersey Shore brand; they've created and developed an empire. Worth a mention that A&F doesn't equate "aspirational" with "lifestyle-ambitious", "career-forwarding" or "wealth-collecting", but (I guess) cultural capital. Or maybe that's the irony that was lost on the entire world.

Would you really call the

Would you really call the members of Jersey Shore as coming from low-income families? J-Wow owned her own graphic design firm before going on the show, The Situation comes from a town with a median income of over $100,000. With the exception of one castmember, everyone else comes from an area with a median household income of over $50,000. So I would not say that they have lower-class backgrounds, I'd say that most come from middle-class backgrounds. People just assume that they're from lower-class backgrounds, from working-class families, when they're really not.

It was my understanding that Ambercrombie and Fitch didn't want Mike to wear their clothes was because of his behavior and of the behaviors of the other castmates.

And this whole thing is so ridiculous because they make SO MUCH FREAKING MONEY from this show! I just can't believe you have the gall to say that they're poor, when Mike made FIVE MILLION DOLLARS in 2010. They are NOT poor! They EACH get around $100,00 PER EPISODE. Hardly poor.

They're laughing all the way to their seven-figure bank accounts.

What you should be talking about is how Americans and reality TV rewards bad behavior. Not "poor poor Jersey Shore castmates are from low-class backgrounds (which they're not) are the butt of everyones jokes! Everyone thinks they're trashy!" They like it, they embrace it, they perpetuate it because the more outrageous they act, the more outrageous things they do, the more money they get.

Before, they came from average American families with average incomes, and now? Now they're multi-millionaires with endorsement deals, get paid thousands to do club appearances, book deals, clothing lines, etc etc etc. I hardly feel sorry for them, and they hardly represent or even compare to the kinds of people who appear on shows like Jerry Springer. If you want to make the argument that you're making, choose a different example, because using an example where the people involved are multi-millionaires, your argument holds no water.

I think a more apt example

I think a more apt example would be Teen Mom or 16 and Pregnant. Those people really do come from low-income backgrounds and are made a spectacle of. Those girls don't deserve the criticism they receive. Those girls are victims of "trash TV". Most of them are still living in poverty and are still dealing with immense issues such as the absence of their child's father, absent parents, lack of income, lack of child support, lack of any real support, and MTV films them and then people sit back and criticize, which is why I hate the show.

The point I was really trying

The point I was really trying to make -- and perhaps should have clarified more -- is that it actually doesn't matter how much money the people on Jersey Shore have, or had, or make on the show. They present themselves as "low class" and they capitalize on the simultaneous presentation of lower classness and "trashiness." I'm not saying we should feel sorry for them -- I'm saying that this presentation is a carefully calculated one (probably on MTV's part) to portray certain people a certain way with a certain tone and judgement attached.

I agree, though, that the class implications of Teen Mom are more interesting. Please check out my earlier post: "The 99%: The Hidden Class Politics of Teen Mom 2"

poor white trash speaking

"Trashy" is quite a versatile slur. It contains many layers of racist, sexist, and classist judgment. As a poor Appalachian, I have often heard the word used to describe women (myself included) who act "too frequently" on sexual urges, especially when those urges cross race boundaries. Countless times my male peers have used the word "trash" to condemn a white woman who dares to sleep with a black man. It only makes sense that folks would call the women of Jersey Shore trashy-- not because of their socioeconomic status, but because all of their sexual encounters are in the national spotlight. Not to mention the crime of proudly flaunting their ethnicity. However, I won't even begin to tackle the issue of Italian American representation; my partner is Italian and expresses extreme discomfort when the show comes on. I don't feel that I could understand or fairly present all the dimensions of racism in the show.

In the low-income community where I live, "trashy" is used by poor people to insult other poor people who do not conform to the "noble, hard-working poor" stereotype. People who receive food stamps or "shack up" instead of marrying (something I'm rather fond of doing) are deemed less respectable. To call someone trash is to discredit them, sweep them under the rug. I sometimes tell others right from the start that I am poor white trash and proud of it, because I cannot bear the way they search my life for "unacceptable" behaviors. I feel that the word should belong to those of us who have spent our lives running from it. Do the cast of Jersey Shore have a right to it? Maybe, maybe not.

While I don't exactly like Jersey Shore, the language critics use to dissect it is hurtful. Some of the comments for this article disturb me, too. The issue isn't the show itself, or how much money the stars have. "Trashy" is a slur, and it should *not* be used to describe something in bad taste. It is a weapon that has been used to shame, dehumanize, and disempower poor people, especially poor women. I am frustrated beyond belief that MTV markets the show in this way, and I am devastated that so many folks describe the show in those terms. The fear of becoming "trash" hovered over my life until I developed a strong sense of self. Although Snooki et. al. are wealthy, the aggressive classism inherent in the media's complaints definitely needed to be addressed. Thank you for this article.

(Dorothy Allison has written about the concept of "trash" with great honesty and insight. I recommend her work for anyone interested and would love suggestions for further reading.)


I appreciate that Bitch tries to assess pop culture analytically, but this piece is short on critical analysis and long on indignant alarmism. These people are trash because they exploit themselves and each other- people of all races, genders, socio-economic statuses and cultures do that, all over the world, and have as long as humans have existed. Perhaps the intent of the article was that by casting mostly Italian-Americans, it presents a false representation of that culture. The few times I've caught the show, however, I didn't see Italian-American people or traditions devalued, I saw "douchey" people mistreating women, saying ignorant things, and generally being shallow jerks. Those are assessments of specific individuals, purportedly playing themselves. They have the means to act however they want; there is no oppression at work here. The conflation with poor people was ill-considered at best, and as other comments point out, completely divorced from the representations in the show. I find it particularly strange that there aren't any specific examples of specific incidents to support the article's confusing thesis.

This is not the first time I've seen a Bitch article distort an issue, receive feedback in the comments completely negating the poorly-articulated premise of the article, to which the writer responds by sticking to her unsubstantiated guns. That's not an analysis, that's sophistry. Nothing wrong with feeling what you feel, but bear in mind that anti-feminists charge Feminists with false outrage over real issues because of logical pretzels like this. Instead of seeking offense where none exists, I would rather see more space devoted to cultural representations of women that are actually problematic and reading real women's experiences within that context. I remain a devoted reader because I support Bitch's Feminist values, but I cannot support creating a straw (wo)man to fill column inches when there are real issues ripe for analysis (for instance, the latent and manifest forms of slut-shaming on the show, if you're looking to take down JS specifically).

I actually agree with the

I actually agree with the idea that the cast is effectively marketed as disposable people. For one thing they exchanged Angelina for Dina. So they litterally could be anybody of that "trashy" stereotype. The other thing is that I watched this show h8er this summer ( I think it's on the CW) and it had Snooki on it. The premise of the show is that Snooki is trying to convince this guy that she is actually a real human being with multiple facets and that a lot of what she does, and says on the show is to make the show more funny and interesting to viewers. I think the guy litterally called her trash. The regular Joe was especially pissed that Snooki made as much or more per episode than his retired, cop father made a year. I think he talked about how unfair it was that, "you people" are making so much money. Again promoting the idea that some poor people are more deserving than others (you trashy, lazy, stupid drunk people).

Kick-Ass Commentary

In the commentary for Kick-Ass, Matthew Vaughn describes generating the living spaces of the villain (played by Mark Strong). In it he talks about how typically in a mob movie the villain, no matter their income, are portrayed as being dopey and without class. They don't understand art, they don't wear the right clothes, a lot of class markers are missing. He comments that this is some sort of morality play about how since they didn't "earn" their money that they don't have any class. So in his film, Vaughn attempted to give his villain as much class as possible. He is a ruthless man, but he is supposed to be cultured.

I don't like thinking about jersey shore.

Yes, class is an issue

Class is involved regardless of what the incomes or family circumstances of the cast members were prior to the show becoming a success. The "Guido" label/stereotype has always involved some class and income implications. I don't think it is associated with poverty, but there is this idea that this is not how nice, white, suburban, middle class people act. The idea of calling someone "low class" can not be disconnected from economic class. That is why the term is an insult, because people in the higher classes are not supposed to act like those in the lower classes. Also a lot of Guido "culture" emulates or is similar to" urban" culture in many ways, which is automatically denigrated in a classist manner. There are people who are promiscuous, degrade women, and engage in other similar behaviors of the cast, but that alone doesn't always result in them constantly being called trashy and low class. I think this has more to do with the cultural designations applied to them in addition to their behavior. I do think ethnicity and geographic prejudices also play a role, and these coexist with and reinforce the class element.

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