The remarkable ratings for “The “Jersey Shore,” which concluded its fourth season last week, have caused a great deal of soul searching, teeth gnashing and garment rending among those whose job it is to track the decline of western civilization.
And it is true that the behavior exhibited by the 20somethings on “The “Jersey Shore” is considerably cruder than was portrayed by characters of the same demographic group in the more innocent era of “Laverne and Shirley.” However, as someone who came to the series this year expecting “Fall of the Roman Empire” behavior, I was surprised to discover that the shenanigans on “The “Jersey Shore,” while frequently appalling, are not as completely debauched as advertised.
Indeed, far from being amoral, the eight “Jersey Shore” roommates seem to have developed a finely honed ethical code. When I watch the show, I feel like an anthropologist trying to understand the mating practices and initiation rites of a primitive Amazonian tribe, but I think I have identified a few key rules and taboos.
- No cheating. Sex -- seeking it, getting it, talking about it -- is an obsession on the show, just as it was during the Victorian era; and just as the Victorians had many rules governing sex, so too, do the roommates. One clear no-no is cheating, i.e., having sex with someone else when you’re in a committed relationship. Of course, if you do have a fight with your boyfriend, get blotto drunk and have a quick hook-up with a roommate, your only recourse is to show remorse and throw yourself on the mercy of the group.
- Observe the double standard. The guys can be as promiscuous as they want without approbation, but the girls need to watch themselves. Indeed, despite the relentless talk about sex, none of the girls hooked up with anyone they met in Italy; and even when one of the girls did lure a cute waiter back to the house, the poor guy soon discovered he was there for “cuddling” purposes only.
- Blow your mind -- but only with booze. The roommates drink until they (literally) fall down or get into fights, but they never smoke pot or do other recreational drugs. I guess that would make them into bad role models.
- No talking behind your roommates’ back. This seems to be a rule, but it is violated every show, sometimes to explosive effect.
- Forgive but don’t forget. Bad behavior, no matter how atrocious, is officially forgiven when an apology is uttered, especially if drinking is involved. But if you can’t bring yourself to apologize, expect ostracism.
- Be politically correct. No one on “The “Jersey Shore”” ever utters a racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic or culturally insensitive joke or slur. Whether this is because the producers edit them out or the roommates have internalized politically correct attitudes is hard to tell, but these apparently dumb reality stars do a better job of staying out of trouble than Hank Williams Jr., Tracy Morgan or dozens of other celebrities and politicians.
- Don’t take yourself seriously. This is the basis of Snooki’s appeal. She knows she’s a joke and that we’re all in on it. It’s also why none of the other roommates like The Situation -- because he actually does seem to think he’s important.
- Don’t learn from your mistakes. Don’t make the connection between drinking and bad behavior. Reject all criticism that you don’t like. Call someone a bad friend if he or she points out that you might contribute to your own problems.
- Don’t try to get above your station. Defiantly go out of your way to avoid self-improvement. Dress like a hooker. Don’t read a book or go to a museum. If you go wine-tasting in Tuscany, ignore the tour guides and swill the wine to get drunk as fast as possible. If you’re in the cradle of the Renaissance, do not go sight-seeing until the last possible moment, and even then, treat it as an obligation. And when you walk past the Florentine structure that the rest of us refer to as the Duomo, be sure to call it “the Vatican.”
Of course on a show like this, we only see a tiny slice of the action, so we don’t know what happens between the snippets of drama that are finally broadcast. From what we can tell, the guys are randy, the girls drink too much, but in general they routinely commit only three of the seven deadly sins (wrath, sloth and lust); to their credit they are not personally vicious, avaricious, or prideful. For all their swagger, there’s even a wide-eyed naiveté about them as they try to navigate their way in the world.
What’s most disheartening about “The “Jersey Shore”” isn’t what happens on the show itself, but the way we react to it. The bad behavior is rewarded with riches and acclaim. The more self-absorbed, outrageous, unreflective, and unintelligent the character, the more famous and rich they become. It’s no coincidence that Snooki and The Situation, the two roommates you’d least like your kids to grow up to be, also seem to earn the most in salary and public appearances.
In that regard, it is a little bit reassuring that the saner roommates on “The “Jersey Shore” don’t act out even more than they do, even though it would mean higher endorsement fees or book advances. The fact that some roommates keep their heads about them when the show descends into chaos shows that even in the 21st century, and even in the most outrageous situations, some people will try to maintain some trace of dignity.