The Hills, Jersey Shore, and the Aesthetics of Class
Amanda Ann Klein / East Carolina University
Most docusoaps maintain a consistent “realist” aesthetic: long takes and mobile cameras in order to maintain a realistic temporality and spatiality; direct sound (which often leads to a “flawed” soundtrack that must be subtitled for viewer comprehension); and “talking head” style interviews or confessionals which stand in for the voice over narrator. These techniques appeal to a viewer’s ideas, primarily gathered from exposure to the filmic documentary, about what “authenticity” looks like. Because reality TV viewers have been trained to ignore style in favor of content, it is significant that MTV’s most popular docusoaps, Jersey Shore (2009- ) and The Hills (2006-2010),123 do not aim for stylistic transparency. Instead, each program’s unique aesthetic choices places them in quotation marks, with The Hills representing “Hollywood fantasy” and Jersey Shore connoting “grindhouse sleaze.” This column argues that the aesthetics of each show condition the viewer’s reception, inviting them to see each program’s performance of class and ethnicity as being tied to specific notions of taste and cultural capital.
The aesthetics of The Hills relies on a premeditated combination of cinematography and mise en scène, along with non-diegetic music and editing, to create drama and emotion where none would otherwise exist (Levine).4 The show’s producer, Adam DiVello, instructed his crew that each shot should “look like a postcard” (Kaufman) and the program’s cinematographer, Hisham Abed, has claimed that The Hills’ aesthetic is an attempt to “emulate the look of film on television” (qtd. in Gay 44).5 By mimicking the aesthetics of primetime serialized dramas and mainstream Hollywood releases, The Hills associates its subjects less with the “authentic” world of reality TV and more with the world of fantasy. One way to achieve this look is through the use of a 16:9 aspect ratio. In the cinema widescreen is employed to depict larger than life spectacles. In The Hills it is used to capture the spectacle of Southern California wealth and privilege: private beach houses, palm-tree lined streets, and racks of designer clothing hanging in exclusive Los Angeles boutiques. Further linking the world of The Hills with fantasy is the fact that all footage is color corrected and digitally modified in post-production. Colorist Paul Roman claims that he would digitally “paint” the faces of the girls and then “defocus” the background, so that subjects stood out even more prominently against their settings, making the girls the most important thing in the frame (Kaufman).6 This aesthetic nicely compliments the insular world of The Hills, which documents the lives of young women who believe that their love lives and work squabbles are the most important thing in the frame (i.e., the world).
The Hills is also filmed with telephoto lenses, which allows the show’s cinematographers to maintain a distance from their subjects. According to Abed: “this is a 180 in terms of the visual approach with a lot of reality shows…We use longer lenses and stay away as far as possible, within limits, to give the subjects an emotional distance from the camera and make them more free to speak” (qtd. in Kaufman). Despite Abed’s claims to the contrary, I believe that the distance created by the telephoto lens ensures that The Hills cast is less “free” to speak, or rather, less free to reveal themselves to the camera. Because the cameras maintain their distance, they do not violate their subjects’ personal space or capture these women unawares; every shot is set up ahead of time, giving the girls time to get their hair styled and their lips glossed. This polished, “cinematic” style mirrors the program’s function as a “projective drama,”7 offering its viewers an escapist, consumerist fantasy of a world in which twentysomethings are financially independent and professionally successful, despite their obvious lack of marketable skills. In this insular fantasy world, all signifiers of racial, ethnic, class or geographical difference have been erased, allowing the cast to exist in a consequence-free environment.
By contrast, Jersey Shore’s appeal is based on making visible the ethnicity, class, and geographical location of its subjects, all of whom suffer real world consequences (such as jailtime) for their actions. If the cast of The Hills invites emulation, the Jersey Shore cast invites derision: they get drunk, fall over, vomit, urinate on the street, and unintentionally expose their genitals to the camera (something we would never see from the cast of The Hills, despite the fact that they also drink heavily). Jersey Shore’s aesthetics therefore put the viewer “in her place,” reminding her that the show (and its subjects) are “trash.” Such images are too profane for the glamorous, “invisible” aesthetics of the mainstream Hollywood feature. Instead, the show’s aesthetics mimics those of the grindhouse exploitation film and recall a viewing experience that is illicit, low brow, and abject.
For example, a typical episode opens with establishing shots of the Jersey shore, as well as the castmates’ house, filmed with hand held cameras that go in and out of focus. These shots are frequently interrupted with jump cuts, as if pieces of the footage have been lost or damaged after years of hard use. The show’s visual and aural devices also create the impression that we are watching a film through an old, rickety projector: we see scratches and imperfections on the surface of the image and at times, the entire frame will appear to jump, accompanied by a clicking sound. The retro feel is bolstered by the decidedly working class décor of the Jersey Shore house with its 70s style wood paneling and shag carpets.
Further adding to the feeling of watching a grindhouse film is the show’s use of leaders, a length of film inserted at the beginning or end of a film, usually containing technical information for the projectionist. In Jersey Shore “faux leaders” are used to provide information to the audience about the episode to follow. For example, the Season 2 episode, “The Letter,” opens with blurry establishing shots of Miami, followed by a leader with the words, “The Plan.” This leader prepares the viewer for an episode revolving around the roommates’ decision to write Sammi an anonymous note detailing her boyfriend’s indiscretions. Jersey Shore is not so complex that it requires sub-headings to guide viewers through its intricate plots. Instead, the use of these faux leaders is another way to implicitly connect the experience of watching Jersey Shore with a previous generation’s experience of watching grindhouse films in the theater. The series’ deliberately retro look recalls the aesthetics employed by Quentin Tarantino’s homage to the ’70s exploitation films of his youth, Death Proof (2007). As with Death Proof, Jersey Shore’s visually degraded images are not the result of the material conditions of moviegoing. Rather, this aesthetic is created digitally; it is an affect for a viewing audience far too young to have ever watched an exploitation film in a grindhouse theater. Instead, as with The Hills, Jersey Shore’s aesthetics serves to frame the viewing experience; its scratchy, faux-authenticity ghettoizes its cast as well as its viewers, reminding them that their desires to watch the cast of the Jersey Shore perform their “guido-ness” are prurient and low brow.
Both The Hills and Jersey Shore are self conscious texts signaling that the reality TV images we are watching are not completely “real.” Nevertheless, the coded viewing positions created by each program frame the viewer’s reception of each text. These aesthetic choices create a meta-commentary on each show’s cast: upper class, white Americans are treated like stars and given the classic Hollywood treatment, while working class, ethnic Americans are associated with the shady underbelly of American moviegoing practices.
1. Widescreen allows us to indulge in the mise en scène of The Hills
2. The Hills cast member Kristin Cavallari is always the most important element in the frame
3. Jersey Shore mimics the look of celluloid getting stuck in a projector
4. Faux leaders in Jersey Shore
5. Jersey Shore cast members like Deana are often “caught” vomiting, belching or urinating on camera.
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- Jersey Shore, which is MTV’s highest rated show of all time, recently pulled in more viewers in the 12-to-34-year-old demographic than American Idol, the former ratings juggernaut (James). In 2008, The Hills was MTV’s and basic cable’s highest rated program (Gorman). [↩]
- Gorman, Bill. “The Hills Tops Cable TV Time-Shifting with 35.5% Increase.” TV by the Numbers 28 May 2008. Web. 30 May 2008. [↩]
- James, Meg. “Riding the Jersey wave, MTV wraps quarter with poufy high ratings.” LA Times Blogs. 29 Mar 2011. Web. 2 Apr 2011. [↩]
- Levine, Elana. “The New Soaps? Laguna Beach, The Hills, and the Gendered Politics of Reality ‘Drama’.” FlowTV 4.10 (2006). Web. 23 May 2008. [↩]
- Gay, Jason. “Are They for Real?: Why MTV’s ‘The Hills’ is the Show you Love to Hate—or Hate to Love.” Rolling Stone 15 May 2008: 40-42, 44, 46, 48. Print. [↩]
- Kaufman, Debra. “Heading for The Hills.” Film & Video 2 Aug 2008. Web. 2 Apr 2011. [↩]
- Kleinhans, Chuck. “Webisodic Mock Vlogs: HoShows as Commercial Entertainment New Media.” Jump Cut 50 (2008). Web. 15 Jul. 2008 [↩]