On Being a Woman: Thoughts on the “Reality” of Jersey Shore by K. Reece

{K. Reece is a writer with a BA from Wellesley College and an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the assistant editor at Sarah Lawrence magazine.}

“GTL, Kate, GTL.”

I clear my throat and adjust my phone.

“Excuse me?” I ask. “What the hell does ‘GTL’ stand for?”

“Gym, tan, laundry,” he says. “That’s what Mike and Pauly D say. I’ve gotten into it. Jersey Shore, I mean. I even just friended them on Facebook.”

He laughs a little. I don’t.

“So let me get this straight. You go to the gym now, and you tan?”

“Yeah.” He laughs again.

“What’s the big deal, sister?”

What’s the big deal? The big deal is that Jersey Shore gets to take credit for teaching my 27-year-old brother to do laundry. The big deal is that I’ve been trying to drag him outside with me to run or go to the gym for years—when he put down his cigarettes long enough.

Something about the dudes from Jersey Shore appeals to my brother more than his kid sister’s opinions. Okay, not so hard to believe—I get it. And I know, I know; you’ve read dozens of articles bemoaning the inanity of Jersey Shore and its cult following that can be spotted rocking sequined tee shirts and orange skin.

I’ve also just made a case for them that’s even slightly positive. “So, your brother is hygienic, finally works out, and gets his vitamin D? Riiiight. That’s too bad.”

But my aunt owns a home on the actual Jersey shore, and an alarming scowl transforms her otherwise gentle and kind face whenever she talks about how the show has altered peoples’ impressions of the location of her beloved summer home, which she associates with precious family memories, a gorgeous beach, and time spent quietly recharging her soul.

To me, the experience of watching reality television is similar to kicking a soccer ball with all of your strength, and missing. All that energy doesn’t get to leave your body, and the momentum of your swinging leg has the potential to fling you horizontal, delivering you flat on your ass.

Journalist and professor Neal Gabler notes in his 2000 book Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality that an entertainment-driven culture is one where “the standard of value is whether or not someone can grab and hold the public’s attention.” Things that require concentrated thought and serious reflection, things that might provoke us to question our own reality—that we’re sitting on the couch watching a herd of fools parade around, pump their fists, and propagate idiocy—don’t seem to be given much consideration anymore.

The novelists, thinkers, and artists I most admire and respect are each deeply obsessed and propelled by questions such as: How should we live? Why are we here, and what must we be? What is to be done about prejudice, poverty, war, and the small yet persistent injustices we witness daily? If our television shows accurately reflect the substance of what occupies our imaginations, then our society is in general, uninterested in these questions—much less in seeking answers.

I grew up being stunned and horrified by the 1998 film “The Truman Show,” in which Jim Carrey plays an insurance salesman who discovers his entire life is actually a television show. But now, this idea is calmly accepted as not just normal, but a goal towards which to aspire. Reality TV stars get to be actors in the shallow and self-important drama of their lives. They perform their roles constantly, with loudness and attention being indicators of success, instead of being satisfied with the infinitely puzzling, painful, complex, and often wonderful experience of just being human.

Jersey Shore’s August premiere of its fourth season had a record-breaking 8.8 million viewers. Maybe some of those viewers laughed off the absurdity of it, and were able to place those thirty minutes in their proper context. But I know at least one person that matters to me who didn’t, who absorbed Mike and Pauly D’s lifestyle as ideal and worthy of emulation.

T.S. Eliot writes in “Burnt Norton,” the first of his Four Quartets, that human kind “cannot bear very much reality.” If the Jersey Shore is what we’re choosing to label reality these days, then I’m glad I can’t bear very much of it.