Monday, January 31, 2011

Why Thoreau Would Love Snookie

...this year there are some 320 reality shows on the air worldwide, compared with four in 2000.

Season 3 of "Jersey Shore" is underway, and God forgive me, I never miss an episode.

For the pop-culture challenged... "Jersey Shore" is a reality show on MTV, in which 8 East Coast Italian-Americans (self-described "Guidos" and "Guidettes") live together in a beach house. It's been wildly successful domestically and abroad. See Newsweek's article America's New Icons, source of the photo and all italicized quotes.

Jersey Shore debuted last year... party-hearty youngsters move into a lavish house and wait for the drama to ensue... Snooki and her castmates ... out-outraged the reality stars who came before them with more self-absorption, public drunkenness, bar brawls, and ill-advised hookups than your average guilty pleasure. Three Italian-American groups demanded that MTV pull Jersey Shore. ...the crude cast of the show gives viewers license to indulge in a little class pornography.

[Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson says,] “People... watch so they can look down on those people who make these unfortunate choices... I call it ‘Masterpiece Stupidity.’” [Executive Producer SallyAnn] Salsano bristles at this view. “These are just good kids with good hearts who want to come to the shore and have fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

It's true that the housemates engage in plenty of objectionable behavior. The public drunkenness, lying, fighting, and irresponsibility. The way they disrespect and objectify members of the opposite sex, in their quest for daily hook-ups. And yet I don't feel I'm indulging in class pornography, or looking down on these people. In spite of what my brain tells me, there's something I find likable about the characters. What's that about?

I think the answer lies in the housemates' simplicity . (Illustrated, for example, by how the guys abbreviate their daily obligations as GTL: gym, tan, laundry.) It's satisfying to look into this complex, chaotic world, and find something simple enough to understand.

Why does almost everyone love animals? Because if you're nice to a puppy -- feed and pet it every day etc -- it will be nice back at you. The pattern, symmetry, cause/effect is clear and pleasing. Even when the puppy is yapping, we don't get angry with it. We figure it's just responding to something frightening, and that if we offer the puppy some affection, it will respond to that stimulus also.

Likewise with babies. People don't get mad at babies when they cry, because it's easy enough to see that their moods and actions are just reflecting what's around them. Rather than consider the baby's behavior evil, we accept it as a response to their situation.

Even as adults, whatever we do is ultimately the natural functioning of cause and effect. But when our minds become sufficiently complex, it's no longer possible to perceive the connection between our [mis]behavior and our environment. We no longer understand the whole chain of effects, so we assign inherent evil to the individual.

It's not that Snookie and the gang act in ways that are "good" by any moral standard. It's that their lives and motivations are so wonderfully simple. This allows us to view their antics as we would those of children, rather than of demons.