It's a Jersey Thing

No one would think of the call for papers as a literary genre. But the CFP can be distinguished from the usual run of academic memoranda by its appeal to the reader’s curiosity, ambition, and capacity to daydream -- and occasionally by its test of one’s power to suspend disbelief.

July 13, 2011

No one would think of the call for papers as a literary genre. But the CFP can be distinguished from the usual run of academic memoranda by its appeal to the reader’s curiosity, ambition, and capacity to daydream -- and occasionally by its test of one’s power to suspend disbelief.

A few days ago, I came across the Facebook page for the University of Chicago Conference on Jersey Shore Studies. It appealed for abstracts of 500 to 600 words for “the first conference to interrogate the landmark MTV reality television show ‘Jersey Shore,’ ” to be held in October.

The program, which debuted in late 2009, follows one of the standard templates of reality TV, “young people living in a group house.” Video cameras document the usual inebriation, hot-tub sex, personal conflicts, and arias of bleepable language. What sets the show apart, I understand, is its exploration of “the guido lifestyle,” in which hair gel and year-round full-body tanning play an important part. Female guidos call themselves “guidettes.” The National Italian-American Foundation is not amused, not one little bit. Be that as it may, “Jersey Shore” is MTV’s highest rated show. Its fourth season begins in August.

“The fact that this conference is occurring may very well be a sign of the downfall of Western civilization,” said one Facebook commentator. Another just wrote, “oh dear god why.” Then again, 706 users have indicated that they plan to attend. A Facebook commitment is not one of society’s stronger bonds; still, this suggests rather more visibility than most academic conferences receive. And at least three people have chimed to say that they were already engaged in "Jersey Shore" scholarship and are glad to know about the conference. Clearly the field is making great strides.

The idea of a conference on "Jersey Shore" being held at the very institution where Alan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind seems just a little too good to be true. (See also Jurgen Habermas’s Twitter account.) To find out how serious the whole thing might be, I got in touch with David Showalter, whose email address appeared on the CFP.

We spoke by phone. The short answer is, perfectly serious. Showalter has just finished his junior year as an undergraduate in the tutorial studies program, which is described by the University of Chicago as “an alternative for students who propose a coherent course of studies that clearly will not fit within a regular major.” When he came up with the idea for the conference about year ago, he says, friends thought he was joking or being eccentric. But he has received $3,000 in funding, and has received about 10 abstracts so far.

Before anyone gets too excited, let me make clear that Showalter’s pursuit of “a coherent course of studies that clearly will not fit within a regular major” does not mean that the University of Chicago is giving him credit for watching MTV.

“I don't study popular culture in my normal academic program,” Showalter told me. “My course is on issues of crime and punishment, particularly criminal law surrounding vice activities and sex offenses. I've come to an awareness of the literature on reality television almost wholly through my fascination with 'Jersey Shore' and the books I've found in the University of Chicago library system and through interlibrary loan. So I can't claim any sort of authoritative knowledge about the state of the discipline of television studies, or any expertise on the existing literature.”

Please note the earnestness. Before saying anything more about the conference, or about "Jersey Shore" itself for that matter, it bears stressing that at no point in our exchanges by phone or e-mail did Showalter seem to manifest any of the so-called “pop culture irony” that has become such a prevalent mode of self-protecting self-constitution in an era of almost unbearably dense mass-media saturation. It comes in many finely graded variants. And after 20 years of it, all of them make me tired. Showalter enjoys the show and wants to think about it -- he doesn’t merely “enjoy” the show and want to “think” about it.

Demurrals notwithstanding, Showalter quickly shows an extensive familiarity with the media-studies and social-science literature on reality television. "Many criticize 'Teen Mom' (another MTV show) for glamorizing teenage motherhood," he notes in an e-mail message, "and thereby encouraging teenagers to become pregnant. But a report by the Public Religion Research Institute claims that people who watch shows like 'Teen Mom' are actually more supportive of abortion rights and believe abortion to be morally acceptable at higher rates than non-viewers. The relationship between reality television and its viewers is much more complicated than simple approbation of the content of the shows, and so viewer response data can be quite useful in adding nuance to that picture."

Now, to be honest, I had never even heard of "Teen Mom," let alone considered its social impact. But somebody needs to do it. The possibility that "Jersey Shore" merits careful thought seems rather counterintuitive, but Showalter is clearly someone to make the case. His conference will be serious, not a festival of agnostic hipness.

But what is there to be serious about? It turns out that a few sprouts of "Jersey Shore" studies had already appeared before Showalter first circulated his CFP. The earliest entry in some future bibliography of the field will probably be “Sailing Away from The Jersey Shore: Ethnic Nullification and Sights of the Italian American Female Body from Connie Francis to Lady Gaga,” a paper delivered by Roseanne Giannini Quinn, a lecturer in English at Santa Clara University. It was delivered at the National Women’s Studies Conference in Denver in November.

Seriousness in this case meant disapproval. The paper has not been published, nor was I able to obtain a copy from Quinn, but her abstract in the conference program says it “takes as its starting point the degrading representation of Italian American women in the current popular television reality show 'The Jersey Shore,' ” using this as a point of departure to consider various “feminist and gay cultural icons” who both challenged “destructive stereotypes as well as often participated in the mass media reinforcement of them.”

And in May, the University of Oklahoma offered an online intercession course called “Jersey Shore-GRC: Depictions of gender, race and class on the shore,” which will be repeated in August. The instructor is Sarah E. Barry, a graduate teaching assistant for first-year English composition. The catalog description, while useful as a survey of likely topics in “Jersey Shore” studies, is altogether horrifying as a piece of prose.

Here it is in full, and minus any [sic]s: “We will look at European, specifically the Italian diaspora and how American’s response to the nations globalization and subsequent cultural contact constructed the image of the Italian-American, beginning in the 19th century and how that compares to images and personalities of the Jersey Shore cast. Additionally we will explore how aspects of critical theory, specifically gender studies, understanding of the self and the ‘Other’, class conflict and racial issues come together to reflect how popular culture views and interprets socio-economic and socio-historic conditions and how the youth is responding to these conditions. Finally, we will look at the impact this phenomenon is having on society and youth identity formation.”

Oh well, cohesive syntax isn’t everything. While trying repeatedly and unsuccessfully to contact Barry to find out how the course had gone, I did manage to get in touch with one of the featured speakers now confirmed for the University of Chicago conference. Alison Hearn, an associate professor of information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario, is at work on a book called Real Incorporated: Explorations in Reality Television and Contemporary Visual Culture.

“I have not written about ‘Jersey Shore,’ per se,” she told me by e-mail, “but will for this conference.” She described her area of interest as “the relationship of reality television to broader political, cultural and economic concerns - specifically the changing world of work and its impact on processes self-making, or, more aptly in a world marked by promotional concerns, self-branding.”

Certainly the denizens of “Jersey Shore” have developed some expertise in the commodification of lifestyle and personal identity. They endorse various products (alcohol, clothing, tanning methods) and have book details. In papers from the International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics and the Journal of Consumer Culture, Hearn writes about “the spectacularization of self” that is both fostered and manifested by reality TV, among other media forms.

The audience participates in the “spectacularization” just as much as the “stars.” (You, too, can be a guido.) In one of her papers, Hearn describes meeting with a group of teenagers in Boston who show themselves eager to explain just how suitable their personalities make them as potential cast members for a reality TV program. Reflecting on this encounter, she cites a passage from one of Jean Baudrillard’s later essays: “We are no longer alienated and passive spectators, but interactive extras; we are the meek, lyophilized members of this huge ‘reality show.’ ”

Here, a gloss on Baudrillard's more obscure word-choice proves illuminating: “Lyophilized, meaning ‘freeze-dried,’ seems an apt description of the responses I receive that day in Boston,” writes Hearn; “they are pre-set, freeze-dried presentations of self, molded by prior knowledge of the dictates of the reality television genre and deployed strategically to garner attention, and potentially, profit.”

Abstracts for the Chicago conference are welcome through August 1. Showalter tells me he is receiving no academic credit for the undertaking, which has a shoestring budget. He received $2580 from The Uncommon Fund, a student-run initiative at U of C to “support creative ideas that may otherwise not be implemented at all.” Various academic departments have made verbal commitments to lend modest support this fall, though the paperwork remains to be done.

Has anyone from “Jersey Shore”– whether in the cast or on the production crew – expressed any interest in the conference so far?

“I wish!” he answers. “It would be fascinating to get their perspectives on the conception and development of the show. I’d also like to hear their answers to some of the criticisms from Italian-American groups and from officials in New Jersey who complain that the cast members aren’t even from the area.” It turns out most of them are actually New Yorkers.

The show often generates an intense, even visceral, response. (I have never gotten through more than a few minutes of it, but did watch as the residents of South Park formed an alliance with Al Qaeda to drive out the Jerseyites who were invading their town.) Then again, any cultural phenomenon capable of generating both strong negative affect and a tremendous revenue stream may prove “good to think with,” to borrow Claude Levi-Strauss’s phrase.

“If anything,” Showalter told me, “the vehemence aimed at ‘Jersey Shore’ has only made me more interested in watching the show closely. I've also enjoyed observing the cast members strike out beyond the series into other markets and products. I think Snooki's novel, A Shore Thing, is a great example of this; what appears at first to be a purely empty money-maker actually contains a rather complex and frenetic plot line, not to mention all kinds of subliminal autocriticism from Snooki herself. The universe of endorsements and branded products that has grown up around ‘Jersey Shore’ has made it a much more rich and engaging phenomenon.”

During an interview with the Maroon, U of C’s student paper, Showalter noted “the danger of people just taking Pop-Culture Phenomenon X and Obscure Author Y and trying to combine them together.” So far, abstracts for papers have been submitted by scholars working in English, media studies, sociology, and gender studies.

“There’s been nothing on issues of ethnicity and race,” he told me, “which is really surprising.” It certainly is. If anything, it seems like the topic for a whole panel. In an oft-cited remark, “Jersey Shore” cast member and literateur Snooki has stated, “I’m not white…[I’m] tan.” Discuss.


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