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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Being a Man Down the Shore

The Jersey Shore depicts the antics of a group of twenty-something self described “Guidos” who share a house near the boardwalk of a New Jersey beach for a summer. The lifestyle of these people revolves around frequent trips to the gym and tanning salon and large amounts of time spent on perfecting clothing and hair, all in preparation for nights spent at the club. Here, the measure of one’s success in being the ideal Guido is how well one can attract the opposite sex. The obsession with self image and the preening it results in are not typically masculine characteristics, which contrasts sharply with the hyper-masculinity the men attempt to project. The men place increased importance on muscles and aggression in compensation for this and any implication of femininity is deemed the greatest insult. The season finale shows this clearly, as the cast escalates their childish behavior to an even greater level, as if to say farewell to the audience who loved them for it. To be a man on The Jersey Shore not only means to be muscular and aggressive, but also significantly more obsessed with body image than in traditional stereotypes of masculinity, and very insecure about it.
     The men on Jersey Shore definitely objectify women’s bodies; the attraction to clearly fake breasts, artificial tans, and large hair extensions are shown by all of them men, and “The Situation” describes women who do not fit these qualifications as “grenades”.  This could be expected from such a hyper-masculine atmosphere. The interesting thing is that men’s bodies are placed under just as much scrutiny. The perfect masculine body, as espoused by the men and women of Jersey Shore, is large and muscular, tanned, and hairless. None of these are attributes everyone possesses; the muscles come from frequent trips to the gym, the “natural” Italian tan is a product not of ethnicity or even sun but rather time spent in a tanning booth, and large steps are taken to show the product of this labor off. These methods of showing off include decidedly un-masculine tactics such as hair removal and wearing tight, colorful clothing designed to catch the eye. This keeps intact the stereotype of the masculine body, but places beauty ahead of utility as a goal.

     The ways in which the women of the show deal with the men’s appearances show how the male body is actually objectified equally with the female one. The men are frequently seen and heard describing women’s bodies in terms of breasts, butts, and tans.  However, the women also participate in this; J-Woww describes seeing “…a bunch of gorilla juiceheads. Tall, completely jacked, steroids, like multiple growth hormones. That’s like, the type that I’m attracted to”. What is telling about this is the reference to steroid use as part of the attraction. The “juiceheads” in question are assumed to have used steroids as an aid to make their bodies more visually appealing. This accomplishes the same body type as traditional values of masculinity prescribe, but the goal here is looks rather than utility. This implies the steroids in use are akin to beauty products, used to make the body more attractive.

     The men of Jersey Shore show how important they consider being manly to be by their use of insults which imply the worst thing someone can be is not a “real man” and the extreme aggression they show when their own masculinity is called into question. At the start of the season finale Ronnie is being picked up from jail, where he spent the night due to punching an aggressive drunk in the face and knocking him out. The reason he did this was not self defense, like in his other fight on the show, but merely that the man was harassing him in front of the cameras. Furthermore, it has recently been reported that MTV edited out a tirade that Ronnie unleashed on the man, calling him a “faggot” and “queer”. Newman notes that “often slurs become more pejorative when applied to people who are not even members of the group the slur identifies”, (Newman 76) and that homophobic name calling is a common method of insulting someone or “whipping them into an aggressive frenzy”. (Newman 76) Implicit in these slurs is the accusation that the recipient does not conform to standards of masculinity; that Ronnie thought this is the worst insult he could throw at someone clearly identifies his priorities.

     The self conscious effort of the men on Jersey Shore to be as “manly” as possible is definitely not meant to go past the viewer unnoticed. Pozner argues that the goal of reality TV is to display a set of preexisting stereotypes for the purpose of mocking them. She says, “The formula for every successful reality show is an easily understandable premise steeped in some social belief that provokes an audience reaction of ‘Oh my God…What is wrong with you?’” (Pozner 97) The way in which the male characters accidentally violate the traditional definition of masculinity provides the “What is wrong with you?” requirement of the show. This reinforces traditional gender roles by accepting the ideal image of man as muscle-bound and violent but depicting the steps taken to try and mirror this norm as ridiculous and even feminine. Statements by the characters about tanning, hair extensions, gel, or going to the gym are invariably placed in the final cut of the show. Any time the camera lingers on the twenty minute process of Pauly D sculpting his hair, the absurdity of a man spending so much time on grooming is emphasized. In doing this the producers push the image of masculinity, but argue that you should not take any steps to fit this image; you should be manly already.

     Jersey Shore exhibits a group of people who possess firm ideas of what it means to be a man or woman and place paramount importance in conforming to these stereotypes. However, in their pursuit of this they often paradoxically cross traditional gender boundaries. The makers of the show present this deviation from the code of masculinity as an inside joke with the viewer, mocking the men on the show who can’t seem to live up to our definition of what being a man is.

Works Cited

Jersey Shore: Season 1. MTV, 2010.

Newman, David M. “Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Language and the Media”.  Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2006.

Pozner, Jennifer L. "The Unreal World." Learning Gender. 2004.

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