The READ: Washed Up

by Ruth Franklin | October 6, 2010

The more I watch “Jersey Shore,” the more it reminds me of the Stanford Prison Experiment, that notorious episode in 1971 when psychologist Philip Zimbardo selected a group of normal college students and assigned them randomly to act as either prisoners or guards in a mock jail. After only a few days, the “guards” turned cruel and sadistic, and the “prisoners” began to break down mentally. Zimbardo, confronted with this ethical conundrum, was compelled to terminate his experiment early. MTV has different standards. Presented with the spectacle of profanity-spewing, hair-pulling, drunkenly hooking-up Guidos and Guidettes (as the characters proudly call themselves), who seem to grow more depraved each week, the network extended the second season of “Jersey Shore” and renewed it for a third. Meanwhile, last week brought the news that Snooki—the diminutive loudmouth whose recent arrest for public drunkenness and penchant for getting into fistfights have made her the show’s most notorious character—has been rewarded with the ultimate confirmation of celebrity: a book deal. She’s not the only cast member taking a foray into the literary world, but she might be the most frightening.

The only thing new about the highly derivative “Jersey Shore,” which recycles the scenario of “The Real World” and “Big Brother” (a wire-tapped, camera-filled group house) and combines it with elements of “The Bachelor” (single men and women looking for love) and “Extreme Makeover” (many of the characters sport unabashedly fake hair, boobs, and tans), is its ability to take reality television to previously unseen lows. As The New Yorker’s Nancy Franklin put it none too gently in her review of the series, our interest in the characters—who are "energetic but essentially aimless, oblivious of their own deficits, and delusional about their attractiveness and their importance in the world"—depends not on "our ability to identify with them but on our ability to distinguish ourselves from them." To be successful, Franklin notes, the show has to "make us feel as though we are anthropologists secretly observing a new tribe through a break in the trees."

But the anthropologist analogy breaks down with the knowledge that there is nothing secret about our observations: The members of this tribe are well-aware that they are performing for an audience of millions, and it’s their lack of shame that makes the show so riveting. On the very first episode, Snooki got drunk, took off her clothes in the hot tub, and came on indiscriminately to all four of her male housemates; the next morning, her vomiting was audible through the bathroom door. She later apologized for her behavior, telling her housemates she was worried they might have gotten “a wrong impression” of her. But Snooki hasn’t given off any other impression: She has continued to get drunk—really drunk—and humiliate herself in more ways than I thought possible.

Shamelessness, in some ways, is a good quality for a writer to have; but, by any other measure, the “Jersey Shore” housemates fall wildly short. If knowledge of books, say, is any standard, they are the least likely candidates to be celebrity authors since Sarah Palin. For nearly two seasons (the second is scheduled to end in a couple of weeks), I’m not sure any of the cast has been spotted reading so much as a tabloid magazine. And yet, the series has already spawned three book deals: a dating-advice book co-authored by Ronnie and Jenni (who claims that, after she has sex, she likes to “bite [men’s] heads off”), a lifestyle guide by Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, and now Snooki’s novel. Tentatively titled “A Shore Thing” (ripped off from one of the episode titles, but never mind), this book, it was reported last week, will be a “fun, sexy novel about a single girl looking for love on the Jersey Shore.” The amount of Snooki’s advance was not published, no doubt out of the fear that unpublished MFA program grads might storm the offices of Gallery Books, Snooki’s publisher.

Gawker had some fun speculating about exactly what form Snooki’s book might take, asking readers to take a shot at writing the first page. (A sample: “It was the fuckin’ best of times, it was the fuckin’ worst of times….”). In theory, it’s an interesting exercise: As any viewer of the series knows, the characters on “Jersey Shore” speak a kind of coded lingo that manages to be at once almost sub-literate and yet highly creative. Most of the innovation comes from the show’s trio of bachelors—The Situation (whose nickname started off as an admiring epithet for his abs), sleazily attractive Pauly D, and adorable Vinny (the closest the show has to an innocent)—who speak of needing their GTL as they avoid grenades and get it in with chicks who are DTF. Does this need unpacking? “GTL” is the slogan coined by The Situation for the three pillars of his personal code of behavior: gym, tanning, and laundry. (If that last tenet seems less than obvious, it just means that you need clean clothes to show off your buff tanness in all its glory.) A “grenade” is an ugly girl in a group of attractive women; according to Urban Dictionary, this charming term comes from the idea that one man will have to “fall on the grenade” so that the rest of the guys can score with the hotties. “Getting it in” is, well, what a chick who is DTF, or “down to fuck,” will allow you to do.

Meanwhile, as the guys speak of “creeping” (trying to pick up girls), the women admire “gorillas” and “juiceheads”—complimentary epithets for buff guys on steroids. If any of this is meant to be ironic, that gets lost in all the mumbling. (The cast members, drunk or not, slur their baffling code-words so badly that I’ve taken to watching the show with captions on.)

Unfortunately, Snooki has proved herself so far to be among the least articulate of the show’s characters. (In terms of clothing, on the other hand…) She is the cast’s queen of malapropisms, responding to a snub from a housemate by saying, “I’m on the outcast” and writing, in last episode’s checklist of qualities for “the idea boyfriend” (a roommate helpfully corrected that to “ideal”), that he ought to be “romantical” and take “an interest into my hobbies.” We’ve heard the boys come up with some smooth-talking pick-up lines—the show’s term for sex is “smoosh”—but Snooki’s language of seduction consists of “Wanna fuck?” and “Make out with me.” Granted, perhaps it’s not fair to judge, since so much of her dialogue is bleeped out that it’s often hard to figure out the substance.

There are real things going on in the world to get upset about, I know. The awarding of a book contract to this woman who cannot complete a profanity-free sentence is not necessarily a sign of the apocalypse. Still, there’s something about the news that had me feeling that this joke isn’t funny any more. It’s not just that Snooki’s book deal is yet another sign of poor judgment in the publishing industry. (Who is the intended audience for this work of literature, anyway? Something tells me her fans aren’t big novel-buyers.) More troubling, it shows how thoroughly we’ve been taken in by “reality TV”—a concept so slippery it should hardly be allowed to exist without quotation marks. Don’t we know by now that there are no “reality TV stars”? These characters aren’t real people; their personas are crafted by a show’s editors and producers, who wade through hundreds of hours of mundanity to extract a single snappy line or sassy eye-roll. Apart from her trademark pouf of hair, which we’ve been assured is her own, Snooki isn’t even her own creation. The idea of such a figure writing a novel—an apparently autobiographical novel, at that!—threatens to shrink the idea of fiction itself to a vanishing point.

Unless, of course, Snooki is a closet intellectual, in which case she shouldn’t waste her time writing novels. With acting talent like that, she’d never have to worry about being “on the outcast” again.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic.

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