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Fist Pumping at the Jersey Shore

April 10, 2010

What reality television blog would be complete without the show that has ignited such love and hatred since it started last year?

I watched it only intermittently. Maybe because I’m not Italian, don’t want to mock Italians and rarely to never engage in any aspect of  a GTL. But still, the show was a huge hit. Why? It’s not as though watching people cavort in hot tubs, binge drink and make dubious decisions is groundbreaking on in a television show. In fact it’s a hackneyed concept. But it’s now being spawned into a full-blown franchise, as the gang reunites for a second summer in Miami Beach, and spin-offs are now proliferating the web. Persian Version, Wicked Summah, another with Russians, Asians and even one with senior citizens

Part of it, I suspect, is rooted in the same “car crash” theory I think applies to Pretty Wild. But part of it taps into the segmented nature of society and identity. The show has been established as a modern-day representation of young Italian Americans. The cast members are primarily of Italian descent (the exceptions are Snooki, who was adopted by Italian parents but is in fact Chilean, JWOWW is actually Spanish and Italian, Ronnie is half Puerto Rican), the house is decked out in Italian flags, and red, white and green, mothers come visit, with a family army in tow, to bake ziti and clean.The show is set in New Jersey, strongly associated as having a thriving Italian population. They also fit the stereotype that abounds about young Italian-Americans today– muscled, tanned, coiffed party people. These are also people however who clean, they fit laundry into their daily schedule (GTL!), they love their mothers and their families. The aspects that people find unsavoury– the partying, the hot tub harems, the punching and being punched– have nothing to do with being Italian, but more to do with being young and stupid. Let’s face it, that distinction knows no cultural bounds.

People identify with them. Either because they are Italian, or they fit into the conception of what we think is Italian. There are plenty of people who aren’t happy about that. The National Italian American Foundation, UNICO National and Order Sons of Italy all criticised the show, calling it inaccurate, offensive, and demanded it should be cancelled. UNICO even planned legal action against MTV, so offended were they by the portrayal. Linda Stasi an Italian-American New York Post columnist said that the Jersey Shore is a show  “…in which Italian-Americans are stereotyped (clearly at the urging of its producer) into degrading and debasing themselves—and, by extension, all Italian-Americans—and furthering the popular TV notion that Italian-Americans are gel-haired, thuggish, ignoramuses with fake tans, no manners, no diction, no taste, no education, no sexual discretion, no hairdressers (for sure), no real knowledge of Italian culture and no ambition beyond expanding steroid-and silicone-enhanced bodies into sizes best suited for floating over Macy’s on Thanksgiving.”

Maybe this is true. But, as Pauly D said “I don’t represent all Guidos, I only represent myself”. The way the cast members act may be a stereotype of the Italian subculture, but the critics should keep in mind that they still are Italian-Americans. While it may not be representative of all Italian-Americans, it doesn’t mean it’s not accurate. It’s hard to say this isn’t the way Italian-Americans act when these people are Italian-American. It also doesn’t mean it has to be offensive, or negative. These people don’t act in stupid ways because of their background. They are Italian-Americans who act in stupid ways. The critics don’t seem to note the distinction. The Situation, with surprising clarity (in my humble opinion) says that “it’s not necessarily a stereotype, it’s just how it is. In New York and New Jersey, it happens to be the style”. That may not be the image and culture that UNICO et al want presented to the world, but it doesn’t mean there is no legitimacy to this aspect of their culture. No, not all Italian-Americans are like that. But some of them are .

The Jersey Shore house

 

They also objected to the use of the offensive terms, Guido and Guidette. I have no doubt that these were negative insults used back in the day. But times change, and people re-appropriate terms to have new meaning, and claim them as their own. You had that being done with certain words in the African-American culture. Guido was used, not by MTV, but by the cast members themselves. It no longer has that negative connotation, but is a proud statement, a claim to identity and culture that is free of its ugly roots for the younger generation.

At home we have what I like to call the neo-wog movement. Much like guido, or wop here in America, at home Italians or Greeks were called wogs, in an insulting and derogatory fashion. In the past 15 years there has been a shift in this. These cultures have reclaimed the word, and used it to identify themselves. Saying I’m a wog denotes your culture, your identity and pride in where you’re from. You can’t insult them based on where they are from, because they know where they are from, and are proud of it. Actors have even made a career out of it, with tv shows, comedy tours and movies. There are stereotypes that fit into this group too, that are pretty analogous with those on the Jersey Shore. But it doesn’t lessen their cultural ties and pride. 

Italy is also a country that intrigues us all. We eat the food, we go to Rome, we want the magic and romance of what Italy represents. A whole movie genre is practically built on the culture– A Room with a View, Under the Tuscan Sun, the new Letters to Juliet. Not all these presented stereotypes are true, and pidgeon-hole the culture. But they are positive. We see Italy in a certain way, but it encourages our enduring fascination. This is what continues to keep the international Italian pride alive, while many other cultures fall by the wayside. 

I’m not saying that what comes out of these shows, either through Jersey Shore, or in the neo-wog movement at home, isn’t a limiting view of a culture. But it also can be an opportunity to analyse the interactions of subcultures. It will be interesting to see how the cast do down in South Beach, known for it’s Spanish culture. Beneath all of that fake tan and hair gel, Snooki and the Situation are leading figures in an ongoing sociocultural debate.

Living the dream on The Block

April 10, 2010

 

I read some very exciting news this week. Back in my homeland of Australia, there was a show that had a brief but glorious reign. It was called The Block. It followed four couples who each renovated an apartment in the same apartment block (hence the title. clever, yes). They completely redid them, taking them from gaping hole to gleaming beauty. At the end, these apartments were sold at auction. A reserve price was set, which I believe was $150,000 in the first season, and if the price was over that the couples got to keep it. The couple whose apartment sold for the most amount of money won, and got an additional $100,000.

The first season and second seasons of the show were successes, but a third season never came. But now, joy has arrived back in my life, as Channel 9, the Australian channel responsible for the show, has announced a new season for 2010.  

As Australians we have a strange obsession with real estate. The great Australian dream is to own your own home on a quarter acre block, and this only feeds into that. My mother sits and reads the real estate section of the paper every Sunday, and is conversant in average prices and market lingo. The Block isn’t the only show we have that deals with this. We follow real estate agents selling houses, families selling houses, people helping renovate houses so they can sell. It has spawned a whole genre. It fits into our ideal of how we want to live our lives. 

The Block from Season 1

 

The Block from Season 2

 

What’s more, the show is set in two Sydney beachside suburbs. The first season in Bondi, and the second in Manly. Living next to the beach! Why that’s the ideal place for the quarter acre block! The show combines so many cultural signifiers into weekly hourly viewing, it’s no wonder that it’s a success. 

How do I know that this is such a specific cultural phenomenon? The show was picked up by different countries, including here in the US. Here, people want a house. They like the beach. Yet The Complex: Malibu was a resounding flop. In my opinion this was partly due to the lofty location (who amongst us can really aspire to live in a $1.2million condo in Malibu?) and the game playing (couples in this show had to vote each other off). But also simply because this simple concept that was a hit at home, lacked the same resonance here. In America people dream of riches, but in Australia we dream of a sandy home.

I can’t wait for the show to restart, and to dream about the bbq’s I will one day hold in my own renovated beachside apartment (it could happen…). For the rest of you who are interested you can still apply, and help propogate the great Australian dream.

Say Yes to the Dress: every girls dream

April 7, 2010

I have a confession to make. I’ve never had any burning desire to get married. Probably I’m a betrayal to my gender, feminist ideals gone wrong. But I never really dreamed of the dress or the cake. I don’t have every (or any) detail planned. That being said, I understand the appeal of the fairytale. This is why TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress is so watchable. This is a show that isn’t about weddings, or love necessarily. But it’s about the single item that most embodies these things: the wedding dress. The one garment that is acceptable to spend more for one days wear, than you do for the rest of your wardrobe combined. 

This Pnina Tornia will make your love complete

I talked previously about reality shows selling us the idea of love, rather than love itself. This show cashes in on that same concept. We don’t see the couples relationship or what their marriage will be like. The snapshot we get is of the bride, shopping for a dress for the happiest day of her life in New York’s premier bridal salon: Kleinfelds. Realistically, not all of these brides will live happily ever after. We all know the oft cited statistic that the divorce rate is somewhere between 40 and 50%. But we don’t see that. In all the times of watching the show, I’ve only seen one bride come back because her wedding was cancelled. We see smiling, crying, fawning. We see the flush of love. Who knows why watching other women try on wedding dresses is so fascinating? It should be on par with watching grass grow. Part of it for me is also the indulgence of it. Watching women casually drop $10,000 on a dress is baffling to me. But seeing them swathed in tulle, crystals, satin, silk, fantasies and dreams it almost seems worth it. These women aren’t just buying a dress– they’re buying happiness. They are buying the physical representation of their love, and if it’s not met that spells disaster for the relationship.

Even better– it is a moment that is justifiably all about them. A whole day! And planning for that day takes months. That is months of attention! It’s a reality dream! The fiances are barely mentioned, they are beside the point. It’s not about the person you are in love with, but the way they make you feel, they princess that you become when you are with them. When girls think about getting married, I can guarantee they envision more detail about the dress than the man they’ll be wearing it for.

Yet the show still has a simplistic sweet sense of optimism. There is hope and stars in the eyes. These are real people, so this kind of love can be possible for all of us. Back in the day people read Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, dreaming of their happily ever after. Now they watch Say Yes to the Dress, dreaming of Kenneth Pool and Pnina Tornai, hoping this little slice of reality in Kleinfields will happen to them one day too.

Sarah Palin: Reality Queen

April 5, 2010

After my last post, here you all were thinking that reality television was just for the undeserving, non-working, fame-grubbing members of society. Depending on your politics, this post won’t necessarily be the one to change your mind. But the fact still remains that Sarah Palin, vice-presidential candidate and former governor traded in a political career for that of a high-flying reality tv star. Of course it is reality Sarah Palin style. We sadly don’t get to see a home-life expose– although who wouldn’t have tuned it to see Levi Johnson drop by for Thanksgiving dinner– but her two (that’s right, two, count em) reality shows help to carefully cultivate the Sarah Palin brand. 

First is the show that screened last week, Real American Stories. A place where Americans from all walks of life share their stories. Because Americans dream big, live big, and help each other up when they fall. This is a story of one nation united. Or so we’re led to believe. The show has Sarah Palin in the starring role as narrator. The show is a collection of interviews that were carried out by other people for other purposes (hence the LL Cool J scandal before the show aired) that are linked together with Palin’s voice over. She also contributes by chatting with some of the interviewees in front of the studio audience. The stories shared are inspirational. As the New York Daily News says, a viewer can’t help but connect with a mother who worries about what will happen to her son who has cerebral palsy after she’s gone. Other stories include a man who threw his helmet on a grenade in Iraq and died several days later, and a woman who saved a stranger from a burning wreck. As a production, the show is disconnected collection. That’s to be expected considering how it was put together. But the political savvy behind it is pretty clear. These values are American values, and American values are Sarah Palin’s values. Why bother trying to win over the media as a political candidate when you can just become the media?

The second show that will soon be gracing our screens is Sarah Palin’s Alaska, where she shows us Alaska’s “powerful beauty” as one of its “proudest daughter”. This is being brought to us courtesy of well-known documentary maker Mark Burnett, according to the Chief Operating Officer of TLC who is producing the show. That is Mark Burnett, creator of that well-known documentary Survivor. There has been much talk about what exactly this show will be showing, but it sounds as though it’s going to be Real American Stories presented with a wintery backdrop. With any luck, this one will also have Sarah Palin conducting the interviews herself. According to Burnett, this combines one of the most fascinating figures of our time with one of the most wonderous places on earth. When the show comes out, I will probably watch it. And I won’t be alone.

Palin already had a following, but is using these shows to increase her appeal and popularity. It will most likely work. The reality show has moved far beyond game playing, fame seeking and glimpses of life. This is the full-fledged emergence of a political tool. With Palin as a conservative Oprah, it only increases her cache if she decides to run for office again. Nobody will remember that she can see Russia from her backyard; just how amazing her Alaskan backyard is, and the inspirational people who fill it. This is not an evolution of the reality (I’m sorry, documentary) genre, but it’s certainly an evolution of how it’s utilized.

Pretty Wild: so fake it’s real.

April 1, 2010

Oh, where to  begin with the new venture from E!. The network is my normal go-to for all of my upper class reality cavorting needs. Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami, Kendra, The Girls Next Door– this is my genre. I don’t care if these people are fame seeking. I want to be them. Their problems of club appearances, publicity schedules, surprise pregnancies and famous boyfriends seem more appealing than mine, which run along the line of “hmmm, electricity is past due” and “when is my annual 25c an hour pay raise due”. This is why I don’t have a reality show.

Another reason I won’t manage to have a reality show is I am one of those rare people who avoid attention. I am perfectly happy to fly under the radar, I don’t even like people singing happy birthday to me (just ask the waiters I fled from on my last celebratory outing). Part of the (dubious) charm of the reality genre is the power it gives people to garner as much attention as possible. It makes attention-getting a career.

Nowhere is this more clear than in Pretty Wild. For those who don’t know, Pretty Wild is about three sisters, Tess Taylor and Alexis and Gabby Neiers, ages 20, 18 and 16 respectively. What do they do? I’m not sure I can tell you. They try to model. They party. They drink. That about sums it up. The big claim to fame is Alexis’s arrest for her (alleged) involvement in the bling ring, where over privileged teens broke into and looted celebrities houses. So we’re all clear, she says she is innocent. Yes, she is on that surveillance footage, but she was drunk, and was actually peeing in a bush outside Orlando Bloom’s house while her friends were robbing it. It doesn’t matter if this story is true or not, the level of class is about the same either way. Truthfully, I’d probably be more likely to cop to robbing the house than being incontinent and passed out on the sidewalk.

Their mother is former Playboy model Andrea Arlington. As a mother she doles out Adderall each morning like vitamins, encourages their stripper pole activities and home schools them according to philosophy of the Secret. I can only hope, seeing as Tess and Alexis are past high school age, that this is a supplement to additional education. For those who don’t know, the Secret is the philosophy of putting good thoughts out into the universe and having them realised. Or to quote the website: “The Secret reveals the most powerful law in the universe. The knowledge of this law has run like a golden thread through the lives and the teachings of all the prophets, seers, sages and saviors in the world’s history, and through the lives of all truly great men and women. All that they have ever accomplished or attained has been done in full accordance with this most powerful law”. The home schooling entails making vision boards of inspirational people. All of whom were cut out from fashion magazines.

I think this is the first time I’ve ever been actually repulsed by the people on a reality show. It is hard to describe their sense of entitlement, and the little they do to earn it without watching the show. They are wannabes in every sense of the concept. Normally I understand vaguely why people have their own show. The Kardashians had a well-known dad and step-dad, already had their own business, and were already society figures. Kendra was Hugh Hefners girlfriend. I understand why we’re meant to care about them. We’re meant to like them.

Conversely, I have no idea why these girls have a show. They aren’t rich by TV show standards– they just moved from Thousand Oaks to Hollywood Hills living in average suburban surroundings. They don’t do anything, or know anyone. The show began filming before the bling ring, so that doesn’t even justify it. The show is like a car wreck, terrible but hard to look away.

So, why, despite this rant, am I ultimately justifying this show? This is a weird circular post-modern justification of reality television. They are people pretending to be reality stars pretending to be people. They are so fake in their attempts to project a certain image that the truth is screamingly obvious. The thing is, the show isn’t even encouraging of them. We aren’t meant to like them. It is edited to mock them and their fame grubbing ways, but they’re so focused on being famous that they don’t even seem to realise it. Their crazed antics show that reality tv is worth something, or they wouldn’t be trying so hard. Chelsea Handler is an executive producer on the show. I love Chelsea. But she pretty openly hates the reality fame seeking (note her dubbing of Spencer and Heidi Pratt as “Herpes 1” and “Herpes 2”). She has either stooped to an all-time low, or is focusing on the mockery of a ridiculous group of people with very twisted ideas of the world (who in this day and age thinks having a fake ID torn up while doing a shot with Paris Hilton is something to be proud about?). I suspect, and hope, it’s the latter.

I highly encourage you to watch at least one episode of this show. Despite my hatred of it, I’m addicted. Reality tv becoming so fake it’s real? What a brilliant concept.

What Price for Beauty?

March 22, 2010

Last Sunday Jessica Simpson’s new show The Price of Beauty aired on VH1. It features Jessica and her two friends traveling around the world to learn about different cultural ideas of beauty. Considering most of us took anthropology, or womens studies, or sociology etc in college, the message of the show isn’t all that surprising.

Jessica however seems amazed to discover that skinny, blonde and tan isn’t the beauty norm everywhere (although this is the girl who wasn’t sure if buffalo wings came from actual buffalos). She as a host actually makes the show interesting. Ms Simpson has certainly had people beating down her self-esteem as of late. Magazines are constantly calling her fat, John Mayer just called her sexual napalm (although that could be construed as a positive) and when she dated Tony Romo she was labelled a jinx who negatively affected his football career. So despite the fact that she is blonde and beautiful, the public doesn’t always treat her that way. Her looks are under constant scrutiny and the results are rarely positive. This is a clear indication that our culture is messed up. But most of us, who don’t look like Jessica Simpson in those fat jeans even on a good day, are already aware of this. 

For her first journey, Jessica went to Thailand, where she learnt pale is beautiful, ate some bugs and went to a village where women’s necks are extended with rings. The thing that makes the show interesting is her genuineness and interest in what is happening. Her famed ditziness, in this instance, allows her to ask questions that may seem obvious, but the answers that come from it can be heart warming. 

I was pretty jaded going into this show. Honestly, watching it I can’t say I learnt anything new about different cultures images and the often warped way we view ourselves. There are enough feminist manifestos out there without me contributing one. But the moment where a former Thai singer showed Jessica the effects of her skin bleaching, leaving her with blotted, patchy skin, and explaining that she has since lost her job, and her husband left her, I felt profoundly moved. If I dare to admit, there were even some tears involved. It’s the human element rather than making it a cause that makes this show appeal to me. Often as women we get wrapped up in the cause, and what society tries to make us be, that we forget the people behind it.

I don’t know if this show sustains enough of that to continue. In it’s second week when Jessica travelled to France, ratings dropped sharply (down to 800,000) so that even Hoarders on A&E beat it out. But it’s a sweet, good-natured show. Even if the message is old, it doesn’t mean it is any less important and is one more people should be aware of. The difference that will be made is in all likelihood minimal, but awareness is a start.

16 and Pregnant: Lori and Adoption

March 22, 2010

 I have previously written about the show 16 and Pregnant, and what I think it shows about society in general. This show has allowed people to rail against teen pregnancy, citing a need for increases in birth control/sex education/abstinence and so on.

Perhaps this is true. I’m not here to get into the often contentious sex ed debate. For the most part, the girls in these television episodes choose to keep their babies. They often have supporting families, and often even support themselves with the help of their boyfriend. Occasionally a parent will suggest adoption, but it is not something that is taken into serious considering. In Season 1 there was one adoption, Catelynn and Tyler giving up their daughter Carly. For this couple, they knew all along that there child deserved a better life than what they could give them. They were also mature in the face of their situation, acting like more of a parent to their unborn child than their parents were acting towards them, still children themselves, making an impossible decision. However, even watching this, it reaffirmed adoption as the right choice. They were doing the right thing. More teenagers should do this. Now they can go back to living their lives. When Teen Mom started, I was surprised to find the couple back on the show. After all, they gave their baby up. The story is done, what else is there? To me, adoption was the end of the story. I didn’t realise that it could be a beginning. Although Catelynn and Tyler were adamant about their decision, they still had to struggle to come to terms with it. As the said, we are still parents, we’re just not raising our child. That was something profound to me. Catelynn, still having a hard time grieving the loss of her child (which may sound morbid, but I still find to be accurate), attended a retreat for birth mothers which helped her to accept her choice. The story went from adoption being an out, a way to solve a situation (no abortion involved), to a painful gift to another family, the ultimate sacrifice for your child. The realisation is that Catelynn and Tyler are parents, and are responsible caring parents, they gave their child what they could not. Adoption is touted as a painful but ideal situation, the pair get their happy ending when Tyler proposes in the Teen Mom finale.

The decision was more painful in this week’s 16 and Pregnant where we met Lori. She herself was adopted, and knows nothing about her birth mother. She comes from a Catholic family, the first who were shown to be openly and consistently displeased with her pregnancy. Her parents made clear that they did not want her to keep the child, if she decided to raise her baby she would be on her own. Lori’s mother did not allow her friends to throw her a baby shower, saying there is nothing to celebrate about a 16 year old getting pregnant (this was probably the portrayal so far that I think was closest to how my own mother would react). Lori wanted to keep her child. To her this was not just about keeping her baby, but the baby is the only genetic relative that she had. Feeling keenly that her mother gave her away, she doesn’t want to pass that on to her child. Lori hopes that her ex boyfriend Eric will help, as he offers for them to live and raise the baby together, but proves to keep changing his mind. Eventually Lori decides to give the baby up, but this doesn’t come from a heart felt consideration, but from being backed into a corner. Out of all the episodes I have watched, this broke my heart the most. Young girls may not be ideal to raise their babies, but being 16 is not an automatic preclusion from raising them. 

Adoption is far more prevalent in the United States than you might otherwise think, 14,000 babies are adopted domestically each year, 15% of the total adoption numbers. It is no longer primarily teenagers who give their babies up, but women in their 20s who have graduated from high school with other children. Adoption is still not understood completely, in the age of abortion and teen mothers, it seems to be an option that is rarely considered. 14,000 may seem like a lot of children, but it is insignificant compared to the 820,151 abortions that were performed in the US in 2005. Even then, focus is almost always on the adopting parents, blogs such as A Family is Born detail the journey to adopt a baby. The role of the mother is rarely highlighted. Women who feel pressured to give up their children, such as Lori, will struggle with greater feelings of unresolved guilt and grief. By the end of the episode Lori had come to terms with her decision, and arranged an open adoption with great involvement with the adoptive parents, such as choosing the babies name together. Yet research shows that in situations where this contact stops, birth mothers have the highest grief levels. The possibility of contact is what helps birth parents adjust, and in cases such as Lori’s, was the clincher that got her to agree to adoption, as one of her friends who had placed her child for adoption described it, “the best of both worlds”. Yet there is no legislation to help enforce post-adoption contact. The fear that they would one day lose contact with the daughter they gave up haunted Catelynn and Tyler constantly. These people are subject to the desires of the birth parents after making the ultimate sacrifice. In the instance of both of these teens they made the decision for their children, not for them. As both Catelynn and Lori said, if it was about them, they would have raised their children, but their babies deserved more. 

More so than the issue of teen pregnancy, 16 and Pregnant helps in opening eyes and facilitating discussion about adoption. The laws and regulations, and indeed the public mindset, lags behind where it should be at this point in our society. At a point where we can be progressive about ending pregnancies, and supporting teens who have babies, why not when people choose to put their children up for adoption? Here’s hoping MTV can help to begin the discussion.