Compulsory Masculinity on The Jersey Shore

February 26, 2011
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In order to be cast on the Jersey Shore, both the men and women are expected to conform to the conservative gender roles implied by the controversial label, “guido”: men must be tanned, muscular, sexually voracious, and quick to throw a punch, while women must outfit themselves in signifiers of hyperfeminity like long hair, high heels, and heavy eye make up. Since adherence to these traditional gender roles is central to the identities of the Jersey Shore cast, it is not surprising that the men are dedicated to objectifying and humiliating women. In two different episodes, Mike (aka, “The Situation”) and Pauly D publicly shamed their housemates for their inability to maintain the invisibility of their menstruation. The men also sort the women they meet into one of two categories: as “DTF” (attractive women who are “down to fuck”) or as “grenades” (unattractive women who may or may not be DTF). The Jersey Shore men refer to intercourse as “choking” or “smushing,” terms that posit sexual activity as an act of violence or at the very least, uncomfortable touching. What is fascinating to me, however, is that while the men of the series make the oppression of women a daily activity, they also adopt many of the behaviors and chores that feminists have historically attributed to the oppression of women: they burden themselves with unrealistic beauty standards and are resigned to their own domestic servitude.

For example, almost every Jersey Shore episode features a scene in which the roommates sit down to an elaborate Sunday night dinner—plates of pasta and sauce, sausage and peppers, garlic bread, etc. This traditional Italian-American meal, usually prepared by the matriarch of the house, is a time to put aside arguments and reconnect with “family” before the start of the workweek. It is significant, however, that the shopping, cooking, and very often the cleaning for this ritual meal is orchestrated by the men of the house. This stands in contrast to the casts’ personal experiences with domestic chores. When, for example, Vinny’s mother visits the house in season one, Pauly D compares her to his own mother, an “old school Italian,” because she cleans the Jersey Shore house after fixing the roommates an extravagant lunch. And Snooki claims that Vinny’s mother reminds her of her grandmother: “That’s like a true Italian woman. You want to please everyone else at the table. And then when everyone’s done eating, you clean up and then you eat by yourself.” However, lacking compliant women to perform these domestic labors, the Jersey Shore men must men cook and clean for themselves.

The men also violate traditional gender expectations in their obsessive grooming habits. Mike codifies his daily toilette with formal titles, like “Gym, Tan, Laundry” and discusses his grooming habits as an imperative, not as a personal choice: “If you don’t go to the gym, you don’t look good. If you don’t tan, you’re pale. If you don’t do laundry, you ain’t got no clothes.” Mike also makes weekly trips to the barbershop for haircuts and eyebrow waxing. Likewise, when preparing for a night on the town, the men don something Mike has termed “the shirt before the shirt,” a preshirt that is worn until moments before heading out the door. Although Mike’s clever reframing of his obsessive compulsive grooming habits as de riguer behavior for any self-respecting guido provides yet another way to cash in on his reality stardom, it also deflects attention away from behaviors that would otherwise be deemed “too feminine.”
The women of Jersey Shore are not burdened with a similar beauty regimen; often, when the men head to the gym, they go shopping or get drunk. And Snooki has been known to go to work wearing the same outfit and make up that she wore the previous evening. While we do see the women in the house prepare for a night at the club with hairspray and push up bras, MTV’s cameras do not devote nearly as much screen time to this process. Instead, Jersey Shore highlights the labor that goes into the production of male beauty within the guido subculture.

Can we read the Jersey Shore men’s singular drive to humiliate, bed, and then dispose of an endless string of women as simply another symptom of the complex gender roles they must inhabit in order to be cast members on the Jersey Shore? If Mike didn’t GTL or smush, would he still be a guido? And if the roommates didn’t eat a traditional Italian meal every Sunday could they still lay claim to their status as authentic Italian Americans? Jersey Shore highlights the conditions under which certain gender roles are performed within ethnic subcultures, specifically, how the presence of reality TV’s cameras enforces a compulsory masculinity on the aspiring Jersey Shore “guido.”


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6 Responses to “ Compulsory Masculinity on The Jersey Shore

  1. Melissa on February 26, 2011 at 7:27 PM

    I’ve actually never seen the show, but your article piqued my curiosity (I may have to watch now!). Why do you think the women on the show get a “pass” on certain gender roles (fresh clothing and Sunday dinners, for example) and the men “pick up the slack?” Wanting to be seen as a guido helps explain why the men would engage in beauty regimens, but I’m baffled by the Sunday dinner. Thanks Amanda for an interesting analysis!

    • amanda on March 3, 2011 at 9:57 AM

      Hi Melissa
      Thanks for reading. And that’s a great question re: the women of the show. With the exception of Sammi, who spent the majority of her days in the house gazing at her reflection in the mirror, the women are less invested in their physical appearances than the men (or at least, that’s how the show depicts them). J Woww definitely hits the gym, but we don’t see her there as much as we see The Situation. My guess is that this plays into the stereotype of the “gorilla juicehead” and so MTV’s cameras are more invested in showing the men working out. As for the cooking and cleaning, I too am baffled. The women seem perfectly content to wallow in their own filth and eat take out, but this is not the case for the men. For whatever reason, they seem more tied to tradition than the women.

  2. Jon Kraszewski on March 2, 2011 at 2:06 PM


    Very nice post. I’m shocked that someone else could quote Mike’s “If you don’t do laundry, you ain’t got no clothes” line. I thought I was the only person who memorized that. It’s a profound insight.

    I think your points raise an interesting issue about reality TV: do enforced stereotypes become stand-ins for scripts? In the midst of fast-paced productions, stereotyping people seems to give producers a ready-made script. On Jersey Shore, guido + Karma=episode.

    Your critique of gender roles on the show is right on.


    • amanda on March 3, 2011 at 10:07 AM

      Hi Jon
      I don’t just study GTL, I live it. After all, if you don’t tan, you’re pale. This is the truth.

      I absolutely agree that relying on stereotypes offers reality show producers the quickest and easiest way to create “characters” and “drama” on the show. But I also think that this is about audience. The Situation was not cast for JERSEY SHORE because producers thought “This guy is going to really challenge the way people view Italian American men who tan and fist pump.” The Situation was cast because he fulfills the audiences’ expectations about what a “guido” is supposed to be. Boy, does he ever!

  3. Jennifer Clark on March 3, 2011 at 11:01 PM

    Your post is particularly timely, considering the Rolling Stone interview with Snooki, in which she discusses the production context of the show. (In case you haven’t read it, she discusses the stress and exhaustion she feels in the house/set and the misrepresentation of her drinking and chalks it up to the production and post-production manipulations of living conditions and editing). Given this, I wonder if the female talent experiences this labor differently from the male talent, which would then result in a onscreen versions of bodies, hygeine, alcohol consumption, emotions, etc.?

    • amanda on March 4, 2011 at 9:44 AM

      Thanks so much for bringing the ROLLING STONE profile to my attention!