In spite of quickly becoming an international phenomenon, Nicole Polizzi would probably not feel welcome in France. Not because of the unfair yet persistent perception that the French are less than hospitable to tourists, but because the French Academy of Medicine recently announced it’s recommending a nationwide ban on tanning beds. And Polizzi, best known by her nickname, Snooki, needs her tanning bed. Snooki, of last year’s surprise television smash/cultural lightning rod Jersey Shore, is an ultra-petite, trash-talking, artificially caramelized girl of summer—the ideal centerfold for a girlie magazine produced by and for the Lollipop Guild. She ignited a phenomenon as part of the Jersey cast and without question has the highest profile of the bunch, thanks in part to a horrific incident in one episode, when she found herself on the receiving end of a male gym teacher’s haymaker. Snooki has made a nice career of misbehaving and perpetuating guido stereotypes—she now commands a reported $10,000 appearance fee. She was even hired to do red-carpet interviews at this year’s Grammy Awards. “Do you have guidos in France?” she asked Phoenix, a rock band from Versailles. She had to explain the term, and when she told the band that “guidas” were girls like her, guitarist Laurent Brancowitz responded, “Ah, we have guidas. We call them cagoles.” Cagole loosely translates to “slut.”
Despite how uniquely American her appeal seems to be, France is probably the only place where Snooki wouldn’t feel right at home; production companies have flirted with the idea of creating versions of Jersey with Americans of Israeli, Iranian, and Korean heritage. Such oddball concepts are often floated and never come to fruition, but Jersey’s international reach is inevitable—this spring MTV premiered the American version in more than 30 countries, including the Netherlands, Portugal, and Japan. In Mexico and Colombia it debuted as the No. 1 show among 18- to 24-year-olds. At home Snooki and her born-to-be-wild housemates sparked a debate about how Italian-Americans are portrayed (to say nothing of the conversation about basic decency), but now that they’ve gone abroad, there’s a larger question to be asked. What do shows like Jersey Shore say to other countries about what it means to be an American? It’s one thing to have Snooki as a guilty pleasure, but how is she doing as an ambassador?
TV and movies have long been our electronic face around the world—in the 1980s the Romanian government allowed state TV to broadcast Dallas, in the hope that all that backstabbing and greed would boost communism’s image among the comrades. Just think how persuasive the anti-American PR campaign would have been if J.R. hadn’t been fictional. Now, of course, the biggest names on TV are real—yesterday’s Baywatch is today’s Jersey Shore. The drama, like the cleavage, may be pumped up a bit for the camera, but the tears and the trysts and the fights and the hangovers aren’t scripted, and the emotions don’t depend on the acting ability of David Hasselhoff. The show’s cultural messages convey a kind of authority we don’t see much anymore in our image-saturated world. Admittedly, the Jersey Shore life of drunken repose won’t completely change anyone’s perceptions of Americans—the president and his foreign policy are what sway folks in one direction or another (we hope). On the other hand, it was only a few years ago that an Army brigadier general called a meeting with the producers of 24 to complain that Jack Bauer’s taste for torture was hindering American peacekeeping efforts overseas, so it’s reasonable to assume that Jersey may be cementing the opinion of Yankees as loutish layabouts who inspire envy, rage, or some combination thereof. “The thing about exporting this stuff and showing it out of context,” says Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson, “is that there are a lot of people from other countries who—everything they know about the United States is what they’ve seen on TV. Just like the only thing I know about the mating habits of marsupials I learned on TV.”
There’s a huge market for such lessons—this year there are some 320 reality shows on the air worldwide, compared with four in 2000. The world’s curriculum for learning about other countries is assembled at trade shows such as MIPTV, an annual confab that takes place in Cannes, where production companies buy and sell television formats. Reality shows can go for as much as $150,000 per episode; dramas can fetch $350,000. No content is too culturally specific, no bedfellow too strange. This year MTV Russia picked up ABC Family’s teen-pregnancy drama The Secret Life of the American Teenager, while China’s CCTV forged its second deal to adapt a Mexican telenovela on the heels of the success of the Chinese Ugly Betty. Of the reality shows up for sale, 45 percent were American. Some countries are more immune to the American siren call than others. India, with its own thriving movie industry, imports relatively few foreign TV shows. Eastern Europe and China, with their burgeoning middle classes, can’t get enough of our on-air wares. When Viacom, MTV’s parent company, reported its first-quarter earnings in April, revenues from global ad sales had risen three times the rate of domestic sales.
Jersey Shore isn’t yet a cash cow, but the calf is growing fast—fast enough that the cast members just banded together to demand a pay raise. Their hot-tub makeout parties will now earn them a reported $30,000 per episode. The first Jersey copycat is also in the works: K-Town, which will be set in Los Angeles’s Koreatown but clearly has its sights on Asian markets around the world. Say what you will about the Jersey Shore aesthetic, it has clearly raised the reality-TV game to an art form. Yes, we said art, by which we mean the definition posited by critic (and Frenchman) Théophile Gautier: “Art is beauty, the perpetual invention of detail, the choice of words, the exquisite care of execution.” By the time Jersey debuted last year, its format, in which party-hearty youngsters move into a lavish house and wait for the drama to ensue, was as well worn as the saddle on a mechanical bull. Its genius, its artistry, was in its execution. “What this show does differently is take a similar group of people cut from the same cloth, and with the same end goal, and put them together,” says Doron Ofir, the casting director who chose the housemates.
It sounds simple enough, but the ideas are antithetical to what had been done in reality television before. Don’t choose the housemates based on their racial, sexual, and cultural heterogeneity; choose them based on how alike they are, rendering the romances and rivalries that much more intense. Don’t challenge stereotypes; reinforce them. Don’t put the house in a random bustling city or bar-riddled college town; put it in a more subtle pleasure den like Seaside Heights, N.J. Ofir mounted a viral-marketing campaign to find the housemates and sent his employees into bars and clubs to find interesting people who were, in his words, “unapologetic about who they are.” (Snooki was discovered in a bar.) When they convened, the results were explosive. The show’s executive producer, SallyAnn Salsano, said she knew early in production that they had something special when the cameramen starting asking for updates on the action before their shifts started—not as part of a professional routine but just because they couldn’t wait to see what happened next.
What happened next, though, was somewhat predictable. Snooki and her castmates (The Situation, J-Woww, Pauly D, Sammi/Sweetheart, and the three who apparently didn’t get the memo about choosing nicknames) out-outraged the reality stars who came before them with more self-absorption, public drunkenness, bar brawls, and ill-advised hookups than your average guilty pleasure. Three Italian-American groups demanded that MTV pull Jersey Shore. You can’t really blame them. We all know it’s not PC to laugh at and look down on someone who is disadvantaged or somehow different. But it’s human nature, and the crude cast of the show gives viewers license to indulge in a little class pornography. “People don’t watch these shows to engage with them in a genuine way. They watch so they can look down on those people who make these unfortunate choices,” says Thompson. “I call it ‘Masterpiece Stupidity.’...” Salsano bristles at this view. “I think it’s offensive to suggest that we owe anyone an apology for putting these kids on television,” she says. “People responded to this show because they can relate to someone like Snooki, who comes into a situation with new people and wonders if they’re going to like her. These are just good kids with good hearts who want to come to the shore and have fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
In Italy, Jersey has surprisingly been received warmly, though with the same derisive posture some of its American fans have. There was bad buzz initially—real Italians were defensive, given the noise coming from Italian-Americans. But once it premiered, they saw its characters as overtanned, oversexed stereotypes not of them, but of what becomes of Italians when they move abroad. The show has gained a cult following among the 25-to-40 demographic of Italians who find the representation of their American “cousins” one of the funniest programs on television. When Jersey Shore went on location in Venice, the cast was hounded by young Italians who shouted catchphrases from the program in broken English, and hundreds of locals auditioned for parts as extras. Rumors are already swirling that the show will be filmed in Florence and Palermo next season.
A thornier discussion is how shows like Jersey are seen in less-hospitable environs, such as the Middle East. After 9/11, cable news was full of shocking footage of exuberant Palestinians cheering the attack. It remains an indelible image for some, an especially disturbing indication that America the Prom Queen wasn’t universally adored. Now that Americans are aware of the potential consequences of having a bad reputation abroad, it’s not unreasonable to wonder which of our indelible images—see: “Snooki, punch”—are giving all of us a black eye. Akbar Ahmed, chairman of the Islamic-studies department at American University, says American media have a powerful effect on perceptions of the country in the Islamic world, but that the reactions, predictably, split along generational lines. Young people everywhere want to be capricious and outrageous, and no one does the two better than America’s youth. “I don’t think traditional people in any culture, Muslim or any other, would approve of something like Girls Gone Wild,” says Ahmed. “But at the same time the idea of freedom, the idea of democracy and being able to do what you want to do, is something that would be espoused by many young people.”
An Iranian-American version of Jersey Shore would be interesting in its portrayal of the differences between cultures, perhaps, but also a bit like fat-free tiramisu—not nearly decadent enough to live up to the brand. MTV has already produced something similar, a special called True Life: Resist the Power, Saudi Arabia, which followed the exploits of young people in Jidda, a city considered relatively liberal for the region. The film was codirected by Heidi Ewing, who makes a special point of clarifying that she’s a documentarian, not a reality-TV producer. She was intrigued by the idea of finding the differences and commonalities between American and Middle Eastern youth: “Whereas kids here might be pressured by drugs or premarital sex, the concerns there are: Will I be able to go to the mall? Will I be able to pursue an education? Will I be pressured to marry at a young age?” Characters included a heavy-metal band and a young woman who wanted to start her own business, selling more colorful versions of the standard modesty cloaks women are required to wear.
The result was markedly different from the finger-wagging Snooki has encountered here. Conservative politicians went to court in an attempt to have the kids who participated in the show brought up on charges of having disrespected Islam and “openly declaring sin.” The case was never picked up by a judge, but that it was filed to begin with demonstrates how differently people in other countries react to this type of documentation. Ewing found the reaction telling. “I think countries are much happier to consume trashy American media than they are to watch films produced honestly about themselves by others,” she says. “You can watch all kinds of crazy things in Saudi Arabia, and they’re consuming all kinds of immoral foreign offerings, but the moment someone focuses on their own society, things get more uncomfortable. I think the world is used to Jersey Shore and The Hills. They laugh about it and say, ‘Wow, the U.S. has a lot of problems.’...”
In a strange way, that’s actually encouraging, because that’s precisely what many Americans thought when they watched the show. There’s something sad about how The Situation refers to his chief priorities by the abbreviation “GTL,” which stands for “gym, tan, laundry.” It shows that a lifestyle framed as fun and carefree is really just an endless, quotidian cycle of maintenance tasks. As much as Jersey Shore has the potential to highlight Western culture’s excesses and moral failings, it has just as much potential to show how much hard work a life of leisure is, and how much freedom must ultimately be forfeited in the interest of doing whatever makes you happy.
This very conversation—about how American media, our biggest export, shapes international perceptions of us—is in itself a meeting of the minds with the world. In this age of global media, where successful television formats are inevitably remade in other countries and viral videos of all manners and languages are bandied about, we are reminded that while we still have real cultural differences, we have at least one thing in common. We look at the extreme images and portrayals that crowd out those with beauty, subtlety, and nuance, and think, “I sure hope they don’t think we’re all that way.”
With Barbie Nadeau