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Academics to ‘interrogate’ the meaning of ‘Jersey Shore’

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 21, 2011

They're known more for drunken shenanigans than intellectual prowess but the stars of the hit reality TV series "Jersey Shore" are attracting some academic interest from a University of Chicago researcher planning a conference on the larger meaning ofSnooki, JWoww and the Situation.

David Showalter said this fall's "Conference on Jersey Short Studies" will be the first gathering of its kind to "interrogate the landmark MTV reality television show 'Jersey Shore.' "

"I hope that the conference will not only spark conversation about 'Jersey Shore,' but will inspire people to be more thoughtful and discerning media consumers in their daily lives," the fourth-year student said.

Mr. Showalter said he was inspired by an April Fool's message proposing a fake academic conference. Intrigued, the University of Chicago scholar of criminal law (and "Jersey Shore" devotee) went far beyond the prank and planned his own real - and serious - event. Set for Oct. 28, the conference has, so far, scheduled three guest speakers (none of whom are cast members) and garnered the attention of 700-plus "attending" clicks on its Facebook event page.

"Jersey Shore" made its debut on MTV in 2009 and chronicles the often-sordid behavior of a group of mostly Italian-American 20-somethings who share a house during the summer along New Jersey's Atlantic Coast. The show's success made instant celebrities of its young stars and MTV quickly churned out more seasons set in sometimes different locations - Miami Beach and Italy - while always retaining its "shore" roots.

Although the series is heavily edited and uses soundtracking to accent scenes, Mr. Showalter believes the heart of the program shines through the sham elements to merit analysis.

" 'Jersey Shore' is a remarkably rich cultural text and artifact, and the conference will take advantage of the resources it offers," he said.

Not everyone, however, shares Mr. Showalter's glowing opinion.

The National Italian American Foundation, which recognizes the show as promoting a negative stereotype of Italian Americans, has a different view of Jersey Shore's place in pop culture.

"The program continually attempts to connect 'Guido' culture with Italian-American Identity," said national Executive Director John Marino. "We believe this is not a 'reality' show."

Unaware of the planned conference, NIAF expressed concerns that the show was skewing the truth of a rich Italian heritage that is worth more than the "drinking, gyrating, brawling - with intermittent, carnal baptisms in their roiling hot tub" featured weekly. Mr. Marino believes that all art is worthy of dialogue, but hopes young viewers would not have to be influenced by episodes such as an early one where the 4-foot-9 Snooki is hit at a bar.

"Let the characters/producers/writers consider the day when they have children," Mr. Marion said. "Is this what they want their kids to see: mommy getting punched in the face?"

Violence and fame may be exactly the kind of conversation sparked by the University of Chicago's conference. Mr. Showalter noted that reality shows help shape "who we are and who we think ourselves to be," and that it's important to examine their implications.

Both parties agree on bourgeois fascination with low-brow culture.

"Works like 'Jersey Shore' - that is, works that portray what many would consider bad behavior - have always been popular, whether in theater, television, film, literature, or any other artistic genre," Mr. Showalter said. "People have long enjoyed watching others do vulgar, embarrassing and ill-considered things."

"It's like a car wreck," Mr. Marino said. "Everyone stops to look at the carnage."

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