Coming to a Beach Near You! Examinations of Ethnic and State Identity in Jersey Shore
Jon Kraszewski / Seton Hall University


The Cast of Jersey Shore

Before the economy tanked, before unemployment soared, before all the homes got foreclosed, before Madoff got busted, reality TV told us to spend money. Buy expensive real estate. Remodel homes. Become entrepreneurs. Flip houses. These were the mottos of some of the most popular reality series. Life was good. Flipping Out’s Jeff Lewis, The Apprentice’s Donald Trump, and Flip This House’s the Montelongos became icons of wealth and models for economic success during a deceptive boom period for the American economy. Now that the economy has tanked, reality TV producers are adjusting their strategies to bring in audiences, and some series are offering cautionary tales. Flipping Out has quickly transformed itself from a series about Jeff’s Lewis’s ability to make millions to his quest just to make ends meet now that he can no longer flip houses.

In this climate, along comes Jersey Shore, a series about eight self-identified guidos and guidettes in their 20s who spend their summer in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, and manage to hook up and/or punch someone’s face in almost every night. Cultural critics tell me that the series has no resonance with our current economic climate. Some, such as New York Post’s Linda Stasi, insist that I should hate this series for its offensive portrayal of Italian Americans.1 Others, such as Entertainment Weekly’s Tim Stack, argue that that I should embrace Jersey Shore because it is “silly television . . . and by that measure, Shore is phenomenal.”2

Popular discourse surrounding Jersey Shore fixates on the cartoonish version of Italian American identity on the series; currently critics seem stuck on whether or not we should take pleasure in this cartoon. If you haven’t seen the series, it is, admittedly, silly. Check out the original trailer for the series.


Apparently Italian American identity can be reduced to blowouts, poufs, tans, and ripped bodies that look like Rambo’s. I don’t disagree with Linda Stasi and Tim Stack (Snooki and The Situation make me laugh and roll my eyes at the same time). I just think issues of culture are more complex in the series.


Making Sense of Snookie is a Pickle

The cartoonish nature of Italian American identity on Jersey Shore becomes more troublesome and cautionary when we consider the interplay between place—the fact that the series is shot in New Jersey—and ethnicity. What does it mean to shoot such a ridiculous series in the state of New Jersey? New Jersey consistently ranks as one of America’s wealthiest states, often coming in at number one. For a long time it has had the highest property taxes in the country, although New York might take the title away from New Jersey soon. If you aren’t familiar with the real estate market in the state, tiny bulldoze specials in northern Jersey start at well over $300,000 and have yearly property taxes between $7,000 and $17,000. If you are looking to live lifestyles with middle-class markers (newer four-bedroom home in good repair, garage, nothing spectacular), you better be ready to shell out $500,000 to $1,000,000 and have a small fortune saved for your property taxes. Because of the high cost of living, crowded roads, and large commuter population in the state, auto insurance often costs three times as much in New Jersey as it does in other places. Given this, New Jersey, much like New York and Massachusetts, is losing population each year. While these areas have always had high costs of living, many who live or have lived in the areas speculate that the regions are becoming available only to the extremely wealthy. (This is a popular thought where I live in eastern Pennsylvania, which is filled with people who have left Jersey for economic reasons.) While many “middle class” neighborhoods in Jersey actually were affordable to the middle class before the 2000s, property taxes are moving out residents who bought before the housing market soared in the previous decade. We need to consider this when evaluating the way ethnic identity functions in Jersey Shore.

Sports studies has done a nice job examining the state of racial and ethnic identities in gentrified spaces, and that field might offer us a lead in thinking through Jersey Shore. Daniel Rosensweig examines the way the planners of Jacobs Field in Cleveland leveled a poor African American neighborhood in the city to create a gentrified space for well-off whites to come to the inner city; experience sanitized, cartoon portraits of black culture; and have little to no interaction with actual African Americans. Rosensweig looks at how sanitized memorials to African American athletes replace actual African American culture and residents in the area, and he investigates how park security prohibits poor black residents of the city from entering this space.3

Could we not say something similar about the way Italian American identity functions in a state such as New Jersey, which is driving more and more long-established residents away? As states such as New Jersey become less affordable to the middle and lower classes, they are seeing populations in areas with long-rooted ethnic cultures uplifted and relocated to other states. I think we will see more ethnic traditions and a genuine appreciation of their meanings lost in years to come in these areas. What will take their place?

Perhaps the cartoonish notion of ethnic identity that we see on Jersey Shore will. The cast is merely a bunch of Italian American stereotypes ripped from an understanding of historical ethnicities. With his Rambo-like physique, The Situation might be, to quote a line from The Incredible Shrinking Man, “The Man of the Future.” Because the current economy is moving populations in the Northeast to regions, any preservation of culture could unfortunately be on the level of a cartoon.


Might There Be a Situation in All of Jersey’s Area Codes?

Jersey Shore is more accurately a fantastic tale about the state of ethnic identity in gentrified spaces of the Northeast than it is an offensive portrait of Italian Americans or a delightful show of mindless entertainment. Jeffrey Sconce notes that reality TV is a fantastic genre, one that questions the very basis of reality and interrogates important social issues.4 In Jersey Shore, we see Italian Americans and New Jersey, but something seems to be off. While I am sympathetic to those who wish to stop these arguably hurtful images of Italian Americans on the series, I hope that critics will eventually broaden their perspectives and see Jersey Shore as a cautionary tale about ethnic identity in an increasingly gentrified Northeast. Rather than simply shut down the images of Jersey Shore, wouldn’t it be better actually to watch Jersey Shore, fearing it could be a dystopian vision of ethnicity in the future if current economic trends continue. Wouldn’t it be better for us to fight the socioeconomic conditions that could reduce ethnic identity to a series of cartoons, devoid of any cultural heritage, in gentrified spaces?

If not, then the cast of Jersey Shore could be the men and women of the future. If no one really cares to fight this larger socioeconomic problem, perhaps we should learn to do our hair like DJ Pauly D.


Image Credits:
1. The Cast of Jersey Shore
2. Snookie
3.The Situation

Please feel free to comment.

  1. Linda Stasi, “Italian Exec Behind Jersey Shore,” New York Post, 8 December 2009. []
  2. We Love It—So What??: In Defense of MTV’s Jersey Shore,” Entertainment Weekly, 15 January 2010, 16 []
  3. Daniel Rosensweig, Retro Ball Parks: Instant History, Baseball, and the New American City, (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005), 113-141. []
  4. Jeffrey Sconce, “See You in Hell, Johnny Bravo!” in Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, Eds. Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette (New York: New York University Press, 2004), 432-459. []


  • Really interesting reading — and one that has definitely not been proffered via mainstream critiques of the show. I’ve been struck by how many of those completely unfamiliar with Italian-American culture (read: my students in rural Washington state) read the ‘guido/guidette’ behavior as normative…and how supportive those actually familiar with Northwest culture (those who have formally or currently live in Boston, Providence, Long Island, etc. et. al.) vocally support the ‘reality’ of the show. I’ve heard “That’s what they’re really like, you dont’ understand!” from several corners. Your warning — that ethnicity will become a ‘superman’ caricature of itself, complete with synthetically juiced and fetishized bodies — is a crucial one.

  • Very insightful; thank you this. What seems to be “off” about the series is the very possibility that these young adults–about whom we learn very little, visits from their families notwithstanding–can luxuriate in Seaside Heights after gentrification, if only for one summer. Presumably, they come from middle and working-class backgrounds and households. Presumably, they aren’t the children of those could afford $300,000 homes, although who knows? Imagine that those who have been truly dislocated by the Northeastern gentry could magically return to the neighborhoods from whence they came. Imagine that they could somehow re-inhabit those neighborhoods that have since been been radically transformed by the culture and resources of the wealthy. In the context of these gentrified spaces, would the dislocated look like caricatures, undesirables? Would they seen dangerous, licentious, silly? In an anti-gentrification fantasy, what would be the means through which these dislocated subjects finally take back their cities?

  • Annie,

    I, too, am floored when people claim the show offers access to the real life of certain Italian Americans. It’s so weird how so many people are quick to tell me that reality TV isn’t real (what an epiphany), but then people think that Jersey Shore is part of the cinema verite tradition. I think this tendency points to American culture’s proud flaunting of its prejudices toward working class whites.


  • Habiba,

    Great question! Interestingly the folks on Jersey Shore have a lot of the same characteristics that you talk about. They are dangerous, licentious, and silly, but the show presents them as such because they belong in Jersey, a state the show equates with feisty and volatile Italian Americans. On the show, Jersey= Guido and Guidetteville. I think you’re right to say that these folks have cultural markers of the working class but that the show never interrogates that. Hence, the cast becomes characters of the working class in areas no longer affordable to them.

    One of the best anti-gentrification stories I’ve come across is (don’t laugh) Rocky Balboa. Rocky is so attached to poor, ungentrified spaces in Philly. I love the tour he takes of his first date with Adrian. To borrow a phrase from New Orleans history, Rocky lives in a city that care forgot.

    The film often places him in gentrified areas of the city. It’s quite a complex film that filters recent changes in urban space through a variety of film genres (boxing, horror, etc.). The final fight brings Rocky together with a boxer who comes from the gentrified areas of Philly. I wrote a conference paper about the film. Perhaps I should expand it into an article. But I do think Rocky Balboa examines in complex ways how the poor and working class can (literally) fight against gentrification.


  • Please do expand your treatment of _Rocky Balboa_ into an article, Jon.

  • I think this is a great article to relate the very popular show to the current financial situation as well as the ethnic identities portrayed. Because of this new phenomenon, the Jersey Shore is probably the most popular area in the US right now. And the “characters” really are portrayed like cartoons. Every person on the show has different character traits amplified to separate themselves from the others. The names also help with adding to their personas: “The Situation” instead of Mike and “Snookie” instead of Nicole. Who doesn’t want to watch a show with these clever names? What I find interesting is the recent news that some of the “characters” aren’t Italian at all (Snookie and J-wow) how does that play into the Italian- American identities when they are pretending to be Italian to fit in with the rest of the shore-mates.

  • Alexa,

    Thanks for the kind words. Yeah, the fact that J-Woww admitted that she and Snooki weren’t Italian raises very interesting issues about ethnicity in gentrified spaces. It reminds me of some kind of blackface routine where you parody a subject in order to inhabit a certain space.

  • Jon,

    I wanted to commend you on your insight into the issues at hand here. To be honest, I had previously looked at Jersey Shore as just another injection into the stale money making genre of Reality Television. While the show may still be that (as you point out) there is also the harsh reality which these characters are facing that is not being truly addressed by the show, yet is being indicated by the caricatures presented to us on the screen. I’d say that your article has inspired me to be more educated about the shows I watch, before making knee jerk judgments about the people who appear on the programs.

  • What I always find fascinating is the reaction that “Jersey Shore” incites in people. It, along with the Health Care debate in this country, is a show that people love or hate. And I’ve always wondered why this is, and for the most part, the anger is usually determined by the ethnic background of the person being asked. Although I find your argument that the show could be more than a just mindless a mindless tale but rather an examination of “the state of ethnic identity in gentrified spaces of the Northeast,” I can’t help but to wonder that the outrage surrounding the show has more to do with ethnic visibility than identity in America. I have to ask why a show such as Jersey Shore will provoke intellectual dialouge and discourse where a show like Flavor of Love or the Real Housewives of (Insert Here) doesn’t garner any media attention. Though I don’t know the answer, it makes me believe that the real problem isn’t just the gentrification of the Northeast but the gentrification of television. Where any representation of any sort of a minority or subgroup is somehow responsible to representing an entire population. And that obviously in problematic in so many more ways than one. But when a show such as Jersey Shore is no longer just a “reality show” about twenty somethings having fun, but a depiction of an ethnic identity, something must then be said about the state of television and it’s own gentrification of ethnicity for public consumption.

  • It is a interesting article that inspire me lots about the ehicity in gerctrified space and the recent financial situation of American. In china, there are also a number of rediculous phenomenon like this.

  • It’s the first time I hear about this TV show by reading this article. If I just read this article alone without looking at the comments of other classmates, I would have a good view about the show. I might take all the information and opinions from the author that the show does a good job of representing the ethnicity and cultural norms of Italian American. However, after weeing the trailers, doing some research about the show, I don’t see much positive aspects on the show. And somehow, it doesn’t seem real although it’s a reality TV show. All I can tell from the show is the violent and sexual lifestyle of a group of young people. I doesn’t represent a lot about ethnicity to me.

  • I think this article brings up very different arguments on the Jersey Shore that have never crossed my mind. He mentions that the “Jersey Shore is more accurately a fantastic tale about the state of ethnic identity in gentrified spaces of the Northeast than it is an offensive portrait of Italian Americans or a delightful show of mindless entertainment.” The author goes into great detail explaining the economic time period in which the Jersey Shore was being shoot, and how it affected the show.
    When the economy dropped people lost their jobs and could not afford their homes. New Jersey is a state that is difficult to live in partially because it’s the wealthiest state in America and it has the highest property taxes in the country.

    This forced lower and middle class people out of their home, because they couldn’t afford to pay the taxes on their homes, ultimately leading to the gentrification of their neighborhoods. The problem with this situation is that deep-rooted Italians that had a very rich culture in New Jersey were forced to leave and the only thing left is the idea of an Italian or stereotypes of Italian. Therefore you get Jersey Shore a stigma of how Italians in New Jersey act and carry themselves, which is an exaggeration of the truth. The author doesn’t not believe it is the shows fault for these images because they are done light heartedly but the author does want to prevent the effect it has on people around the world thinking this is how all Italians are. I agree with him in this aspect because you don’t want people to get the wrong ethnic identity of a nationality through a popular television show.

  • I agree with your point that reality television doesn’t have to be reduced to mindless entertainment. At best, it can be a significant social tool that teaches viewers how to interact more effectively since so much reality TV’s content is argument-based, and at worst it is a cultural indicator of this particular moment in media history. Between its styling and content, Jersey Shore may be about the modern day Italian-American New Jersey (and the surrounding area) millenials, but it’s much more revealing about the citizens of this country.
    Amanda Anne Klein’s article which is also on this site, “The Hills, Jersey Shore, and the Aesthetics of Class” discusses how MTV’s two wildly popular reality shows reflect white, upper middle-class life and “ethnic,” working-class life. Jersey Shore is edited to convey a “ghettoized” and “old-timey” cinematic feel with the inclusion of stock film and a grainy filter over shots of the beach. The actions of the Jersey Shore cast are reflective of this as well. The girls of The Hills focused on their long-term career goals and “making it” while Sammy “Sweetheart” and “The Situation” have more of a “here and now” mentality regarding what club they’ll be visiting that night or making it to work on time despite having a hangover.
    For MTV, Jersey Shore may have functioned as a dichotomy to The Hills which celebrated whiteness and middle-class life. For society though, Jersey Shore functioned as a stylized praise for ethnic loyalty and working-class pride for a niche of individuals. It wasn’t just mindless entertainment, but a revealing program that says a lot about the state of media and the country.

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