It was a cultural reset: 10 years on from Jersey Shore

Despite remaining iconic meme fodder, the chaotic precursor to shows like 'Love Island' champions a toxic masculinity that has not aged quite as well.

by Ross McNeilage
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28 April 2020, 1:00pm

It's hard to believe, but Jersey Shore, the show which brought us Snooki, the concept of GTL (gym tan laundry) and impossibly tall hairstyles debuted a little over a decade ago. Yes, it's 10 years since Jersey Shore disrupted reality TV and rewrote the rules of a vapid and predictable genre. Eight strangers moved into a house for four weeks and within 12 months became MTV’s most lucrative stars, enemies of Italian people everywhere, and subjects of university courses around the world. In 2020, revisiting the series is jarring.

If you’ve ever seen a straight man physically recoil while justifying watching Love Island then there’s a good chance you’re aware reality TV is marketed as the ultimate guilty pleasure. Culturally insignificant, mindless entertainment -- 'trash', even -- widely considered to be made for women and gay men. Some of us, however, hold zero guilt over watching 200+ episodes of The Real Housewives of New York City and none of Chernobyl because growing up with The Osbournes and Big Brother proved natural human behaviour was often more compelling than fictional drama.

But back in 2009, when Jersey Shore was first conceived, the genre was stagnant. The famous had outgrown the small screen once again and the 'ordinary' girls from The Hills being sold to us were now already-rich teens faking Teen Vogue internships to score relatability points. In an era when social media was in its infancy, reality TV was our only chance to watch so-called regular people’s antics. But reality had also lost its sense of chaotic "normality". That is, until MTV planted a bunch of unknowns at the New Jersey seaside to have their attempts at debauchery filmed by television crews for a summer. That summer lasted three years and six seasons, and inadvertently captured the last of a dying society.

The dusty premise offered little innovation but the jackpot casting of entitled twenty-something ravers with the social etiquette of K-Fed made it feel revolutionary. Any citizens going by the names of Snooki, The Situation, Pauly D, JWoww and Sammi Sweetheart were destined for parody. Add in the fact their common denominator was identifying as 'guidos' and 'guidettes', it’s no surprise the show inspired SNL skits after just three episodes. Their aggressively Italian-American personalities revolved around either being or being into “juiced, hot tan guys” who need hair gel and weight machines to survive. With tag lines like “I’m the sweetest bitch you’ll ever meet” and housemates hooking up on day two, it was reality TV gold from the jump off.

Intra-housemate relations were intensified by unlimited booze, which fuelled their fist-pumping, flirting, and morning fear. Unlike most shows before it, the lack of structure besides nightly clubbing meant all interactions were either the precursor to or aftermath of blackouts. The result was pure television id, the epitome of the uninhibited teenage mindset, so obviously Jersey Shore was catnip to the youngest millennials. Gifs of catchphrases like “It’s t-shirt time” and “cabs are here!” flooded Tumblr dashboards. Snooki’s infamous beach arrest inspired a thousand memes. JWoww smacking The Situation in the face for body-shaming Snooki felt like a thrilling win for sisterhood, while the girls writing an anonymous note to tell Sammi her boyfriend had cheated on her was hilarious rather than devastating.

“I first came across the show from Snooki’s note being used as a meme,” 19-year-old Chloe tells me. “Someone said it was more influential than the U.S. Constitution, and the letter was so ridiculous I went and watched the episode and it was all so stupid. It seemed fake to me.” Coming to the show via random episodes years later, it could easily be consumed with the same emotional distance as old episodes of Made In Chelsea. Especially the goofier, prank-based episodes. At its peak, though, the drama was relentless -- and it’s what people had been waiting for. Even Beyoncè was watching it.

The third season of Jersey Shore had triple the first's average audience tuning in, and by episode four ratings were at an all-time high for MTV with 8.87 million viewers. Why? The 40-minute ride starts with Snooki returning from jail and ends with her consoling a heartbroken JWoww, who discovered her boyfriend had drained her bank accounts and left her dogs alone at home. That episode, 24-year-old Rachael recalls, was a game-changer. It wrapped their trashiness in a wholesome bow, officially positioning it as a heartfelt show about the unbreakable bonds of friendship.

But behind this chosen family facade, the show was mainly characterised by toxic male entitlement and rampant misogyny. Three episodes after the show's most watched instalment, Sammi would leave the house to escape her violent relationship with Ronnie. Cameras rolled as he destroyed her belongings, screamed in her face, and lifted and flipped her bed as she stood on it. The latter scene circulates as a meme every few months as a disturbing reminder of the extremes some classified as mindless entertainment, and how we failed to protect a young woman thrust into B-list fame.

“Watching their fights again now is horrible because as shocking as it was then, part of me definitely thought that’s just how couples are sometimes,” says Annie, now a 28-year-old teacher. ”We don’t expect to just watch people beat the shit out of each other anymore. It’s not normal.” Sammi and Ronnie’s relationship continued until the show’s original run ended in 2012. When the cast reunited in 2017 for the inevitable reboot, she did not return.

To see the incredibly toxic relationship being condensed into drastically edited clips for others to judge is unthinkable by today's standards. During production, no cast member was ever removed from the house, let alone the series. Post-production, there were no disclaimers aired prior to episodes, unlike it’s UK version Geordie Shore, which kickstarted the “This programme contains…” spiel we can still hear in Gaz Beadle's Newcastle twang.

The behaviour celebrated in the show is hard to watch through a modern day lens. The men incessantly bragged about "creeping" on women. They’d call women "grenades" and send them home from the beach house when they didn’t want to have sex. All housemates used the R-word like it was going out of fashion. Transphobic slurs appear on several occasions, particularly in one episode which portrayed a woman as "dangerous" for not disclosing she was trans over a vodka soda on the dancefloor. Gay men were tokenised, lesbian women were fetishised; the list goes on.

But nonetheless, Jersey Shore's unprecedented success shouldn’t have been surprising. In fact, it's the extreme behaviour of its cast, the same behaviour which makes the show so difficult to watch today, that made it so riveting. This was car crash TV at its finest -- relatively unedited and uncontrolled, shown warts and all to horrified, entranced viewers. The series performed an intense masculinisation of the reality genre, foregoing accountability and pushing all limits to breaking point. Its position in the zeitgeist of the early 2010s is peculiar. Would Jersey Shore be so successful if it debuted to gen Z audiences today? Perhaps, perhaps not. On the one hand, the humour and the slurs jar to watch back, and the brutality of watching real people get into increasingly chaotic situations feels cruel in the light of today's focus on mental healthcare (or lack thereof) in reality TV shows like Love Island. Pitched as a documentary-style alternative to scripted reality formats, an MTV executive once described the cast of Jersey Shore by saying, “You could honestly say none of these people were traditionally beautiful”.

Revealing a higher standard for trash TV -- and probably a higher standard of emotional intelligence -- gen Z fans view the 10-year-old series very differently to how it was originally pitched. Today's audiences identify that the show’s former peaks, the stuff which made tabloid headlines and inspired memes years down the line, were in fact exploiting vulnerable people. “I don’t know if it’s a general change in mental health awareness or if people recognised reality TV was too brutal,” 17-year-old Aidan says. “I can’t imagine much of it making it to TV today. They’d all be removed from the house within a couple days, talking like they did.”

Gen Z mobilise to practice accountability without thinking. You only have to look at the social media campaign championing #BeKind after the death of Love Island host Caroline Flack earlier this year to see that. They expect reactive productions as the bare minimum, and scrutinise reality TV with respect for its participants rather than dismissal. Perhaps we have the extremity and bizarreness of Jersey Shore to thank for that.

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reality tv
Jersey Shore
10 year anniversary
it was a cultural reset