Class v. Ethnicity On ‘Jersey Shore’ And Its British Spinoff

Today in the Atlantic, because I have absolutely nothing left to say about Jersey Shore itself, I watched a bunch of the first spinoff of the show, the UK’s Geordie Shore, and wrote about what happens to the show’s formula when the cast is brought together along class lines instead of along fake ethnic ones:

England’s always had a fine-grained taxonomy of working-class sub-cultures. Geordies—a term for people from the Tyneside region of Northeast England—may not have always existed in their current form, but the regional nickname stretches at least all the way back to the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, and certainly was in current usage by 1793. The stereotype Geordie Shore exploits is, as MSN TV Editor Lorna Cooper puts it in an email, that “all Geordies are thick, drink brown ale, say ‘why-aye-man’, have women that look like brick houses.” Of course, this has driven Geordies who aren’t on TV crazy. Part of the problem, Cooper says, is that the show and its audience have conflated a regional stereotype with a class one: While “Geordie” refers to the many residents of a geographic area, the Geordie Shore stars are all working class people who engage in all sorts of hard-partying anti-social behavior. They’re considered chavs.

“Ordinary working class people abhor both the moniker and the association,” Cooper says. “For us, chavs are akin to a level of underclass we look down on; the type of people that go on The Jeremy Kyle Show (think a British equivalent of Maury) for DNA testing to discover who’s the father.”

The Geordie Shore crew doesn’t seem to have figured out how to live as cartoon characters as easily as their American predecessors. A Brit’s Veet addiction may be mildly amusing, but it’s nothing to the panic of a Guidette in Italy with only eight cans of bronzer to last her through Grand Tour, or the delights of Pauly D’s blowout. The Geordie Shore cast also has more traditional working-class occupations, whether they answer phones in call centers or lay tile, while the Jersey Shore cast members who worked at all were club promoters or DJs or fitness-center managers. In a sense, they’d been in professional training for their star turn, ready to define Guido-ness for an eager nation. The precise elements of Geordie culture, though, remain something of a mystery after one season.

I don’t write that much about Jersey Shore both because the problems with it are so glaringly obvious and so baked into the formula of the show that it’s not worth much critique, and because for all of that, it is wildly, wildly entertaining. The show is kind of this wonderfully, awfully pure test of the belief that folks ought to be able to do whatever they want for money, and of the absolute imperviousness of these people to shame. I don’t think Snooki is going to be famous in 10 years, but I also think she’s going to be essentially OK. And I think part of that is Jersey Shore‘s basis in faux-ethnic identity rather than class. The show’s a piece of postmodern performance art that doesn’t really reflect back on anyone. The outrage about it seems largely feigned. It won’t be totally humiliating to have been on it 10 years later because of the self-aware quality of the whole enterprise. But folks in the U.K. seem genuinely upset about the Geordies.