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