The Search for Meaning on the “Jersey Shore”

Snooki and her pals must be a symbol of something – but what exactly?

If Rene Descartes were a young man today, growing up in France with “Jersey Shore” on the tube, it would understandable if he came to this existential conclusion: “I tan, therefore I am.”

That might sound silly, but no more so than the growing search for deeper meaning in “Jersey Shore,” the unlikely – and frequently offensive – pop-culture phenomenon that begins its second season on MTV Thursday.

We’re as guilty as anyone in thinking too much about a “reality” show whose characters’ collective goal is to do as little thinking as possible.

The New York Times published a 2,000-word profile Sunday of Snooki, the program’s literal breakout figure – at least in terms of cleavage and weird, orange-like glow.

Newsweek, noting that “Jersey Shore” appears in more than 30 countries (including France), declared Snooki and her pals, “America’s New Icons.” It wasn’t exactly a compliment.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie used his national platform Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” to tell the country not to fault his state for “Jersey Shore,” doing what Garden State pols with problems have long done: blame New York.

Even Snooki, in her own way, seems to grasp the show’s outsized place in the cultural zeitgeist.

“There will always be a ‘Jersey Shore,’” she reportedly told Rolling Stone. “It will be in the dictionary.” (Snooki, as we learned from The Times article, has read two books – “Twilight” and “Dear John.” She apparently hasn’t made it the dictionary yet.)

Wherever the show winds up in the annals of pop culture history – or even after this heavily hyped season – it’s clear there’s something about these real-life characters (or, more likely, the reaction to them) that feeds the impulse to overanalyze. 

Perhaps some feel a need to rationalize watching what is, at best, young people acting foolishly and, at worst, a perpetuation of a stereotype and the propagation of a slur.

Are the “Jersey Shore” kids (and they’re not really kids, which is part of the problem) a symbol of a longing for a simpler life? (Hey, who doesn’t love nonstop drinking, dancing, weightlifting and tanning?)

Are they a symbol of everything that’s wrong with this country? (Not really…) 

Are they a symbol of everything that’s wrong with reality-show-driven TV? (Quite possibly…)
Descartes, if he were still kicking (or fist-pumping), might be bummed out to learn that French medical authorities recently called for a ban on tanning beds. So we’ll offer some final words of wisdom from an old-school muscle head – Popeye – whose philosophy we can hear coming out of Snooki’s puffy lips: “I am what I am.” 

Some of us might not like the show, but its likely the appeal to many is that the cast members unabashedly are what they are – no questions asked.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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