MTV

Window Dressing: Spectacular Costuming in MTV’s THE CITY

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I was just getting back into the blogging habit after my end of the semester/holiday sabbatical when, wouldn’t you know it, I gave birth. Right now my days are consumed with feedings, diaper changes, multiple loads of laundry and assuring the 3-year-old that despite all evidence to the contrary, she is still the center of the universe. Blogging is currently not a possibility.

The new pet human

However, I did finish up an article in early January which has just been published at Flow TV , the online journal of television and media studies. So this makes me feel like I’m still blogging even though all I’m doing is wiping poop off of my pet human’s rear end, which is more delightful than it sounds, I assure you. So until I am able to resume a more regular blogging schedule (i.e., when the pet human agrees to sleep for than 1 to 2 hours at a stretch), all I have to offer you is this article on MTV’s The City, “Window Dressing: Spectacular Costuming in MTV’s The City. Please feel free to leave a comment in the comment section and get some dialogue going. Also, big shout out to Devan Goldstein, who came up with the title for this piece. Thanks Devan!

I should add that the current issue of FlowTV is filled with lots of interesting articles — while you’re there, check ’em out!

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“If Hatin’ is Your Occupation, I Got a Full Time Job for You”: MTV’s JERSEY SHORE

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FIST PUMP

“The Italian, whatever, national, whatever their organization is, they don’t understand that ‘guidos’ and ‘guidettes’ are good-looking people that, you know, like to make a scene and be center of attention and just take care of themselves. They are old-fashioned.

They don’t know that; they think it’s offensive, because maybe in their time it was offensive, but now it’s kind of a compliment. So they don’t understand that and that is what we are trying to say. They are way overreacting to the show. We’re 22 to 29 just having fun at the shore. They are just taking it way out of proportion.”

-“Snooki” on The Wendy Williams Show

Back in November I watching an episode of The City when MTV aired an ad for its latest “reality” series, Jersey Shore. The trailer promised to show me the “hottest, tannest, craziest guidos!” As if to make good on that promise, a young man with gelled hair (DJ Pauly D) confesses to the camera  “I takes me about 25 minutes to do my hair” while another (Mike, aka, “The Situation”) explains, quite objectively, that he is “ripped up like Rambo.” But when another gentleman (Vinny) appears on-screen, amid a montage of fist pumping ecstasies, it was then that I paused what I watching, went to the DVR recording menu, and selected a season pass for Jersey Shore.

Despite its early low numbers (the premiere averaged just 1.375 million viewers), Jersey Shore‘s ratings have risen steadily since its December 3rd premiere. Bloggers and entertainment reporters speculate that this ratings increase has to do with the various controversies surrounding the program, including 1) the outrage and even violent threats against MTV coming from some Italian American groups over what they say is a stereotypical and offensive portrayal of their community (some companies have already pulled their ads from the program) and 2) the airing (and later the omission) of a scene in which one of the female cast members, Nicole, aka “Snooki,” is sucker punched by a male stranger. While both complaints are worth getting riled up over (i.e., it’s wrong to stereotype people and it’s wrong to exploit violence against women), neither actually applies to Jersey Shore. Here’s why:

1. The Stereotypes

New Jersey residents protest the show

The biggest controversy surrounding Jersey Shore is over its allegedly stereotypical portrayal of Italian American youth. I use the word “allegedly” here because I’m not convinced that the show’s “guidos” are stereotypical Italian Americans. There are currently 16 million Italian Americans living in this country. When I think “Italian American” I do not automatically think of “The Situation.”

The Situation

Yes, I have met Italian Americans with gelled hair, waxed chests and glossed lips (particularly during my short-lived clubbing days). And yes, these people are frequently given the label “guido.” And yes,  in my experience with the term, guido is used in a pejorative manner. People designated as guidos are associated not simply with tanning and muscles (two ostensibly positive traits, depending on your preferences) but also with bad taste, few inhibitions, and low intelligence. Jersey Shore‘s editors seem to support these negative stereotypes by including the following line from 22-year-old Staten Island native, Angelina, who complained about having to work in a T-shirt shop on the boardwalk “I feel like this is beneath me. I’m a bartender. I do great things.” And in the premiere episode Vinny pointed out that “Most people might consider being a guido like you’re stupid but I went to school, graduated college…”

Angelina, the elitist bartender

Despite Vinny’s admission that guidos are believed to be stupid, everyone in the house embraces the term, referring to themselves as guidos and guidettes, and expressing a clear preference for dating guidos/guidettes. As Sammi “Sweetheart” explains, “If you’re not a guido then you can get the fuck out of my face!” Lines like these do complicate the idea that these individuals are being portrayed in a negative light. After all, no one is forcing DJ Pauly D into the tanning booth or demanding that Jenni “J-WOWW” wear studded hot pants and fishnet stockings out to the club. These kids are making these choices. And loving every minute of it.

J-NO!

Now I can hear your objections already: “MTV is responsible for this portrayal of Italian Americans because they selected only those cast members who fit the guido stereotypes.” This is true. Except that people like The Situation, J-WOWW and Angelina are less indicative of the guido stereotypes than they are of youth stereotypes in general. Indeed, as Huffington Post columnist Simon Maxwell Apter wrote in a recent piece, “Their persistent claims of ethnic pride notwithstanding, the only ‘ethnic group’ that the Jersey Shore septet really represents is Jersey Shore cast members. Though the cast clearly relishes their shared ethnic background, they use their Italian heritage not as an identity, but instead as a license to develop an orangeish skin tone, use a lot of hair gel, and spend hours lifting weights.”

Vinny demonstrates the "FIST PUMP"

I agree. In fact, if the cast members of Jersey Shore didn’t have thick Long Island, Staten Island and New Jersey accents, MTV could have easily named the show The Real World: New Jersey. If you have watched any season of MTV’s The Real World since at least 2002 (the year of the infamous Las Vegas season), then you know that MTV generally populates its casts with individuals who:

are incredibly narcissistic

have an inflated sense of self-worth

are not particularly bright or well-informed about current events

prefer to spend every night drinking to excess

enjoy wearing tight, revealing clothing (both sexes)

are extremely horny

abuse self tanners

work out obsessively

get into fist fights whenever possible

Need I go on? What we are seeing on Jersey Shore are not MTV’s exploitation of so-called guidos, but rather, MTV’s exploitation of American youth, something MTV has been doing for years. So if there is going to be outrage over this program, it should be coming from twentysomethings across the county, not just UNICO, the national Italian-American service organization, or the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau.

2. The Punch

Nicole, aka "Snooki," aka, "Snickers"

Early teasers for Jersey Shore contained footage of Snooki, the diminutive but loud-mouthed house mate, being punched in the face by a large, male stranger at a bar. Teasers are used to lure viewers into watching a program by featuring the season’s most sensational imagery, so it makes sense that MTV would include this footage. However, when the episode, “Fade to Black,” finally aired on December 18th,  MTV decided to pull the footage of the punch, replacing it instead with a black screen. MTV issued a statement about this decision:

“What happened to Snooki was a crime and obviously extremely disturbing. After hearing from our viewers, further consulting with experts on the issue of violence, and seeing how the video footage has been taken out of context not to show the severity of this act or resulting consequences, MTV has decided not to air Snooki being physically punched in the face.”

Given that MTV had aired the 5 second clip multiple times in the weeks leading up to the episode, this decision seems strange. Or rather, it makes perfect sense. Realizing that the key to Jersey Shore‘s ratings is controversy, MTV cleverly channeled the outrage over the “punch heard round the shore” into even more free publicity for the program.

The douchebag who hit Snooki

Like the exploiteers of old (Kroger Babb, David Friedman, etc.)  MTV understands how to work its target audience. Sensationalizing and then censoring the punch footage is a rhetorical strategy rooted in classical ballyhoo. Eric Schaefer defines ballyhoo as “that noisy, vulgar spiel that drew audiences to circuses and sideshows …a hyperbolic excess of words and images that sparked the imagination” (103). Ballyhoo promises its audiences something — an image, an experience, or reaction (“This movie will nauseate you!”) — that it does not necessarily fulfill. Similarly, MTV promised us a punch, but did not deliver. Therefore, they pulled in viewers and still got to look like the good guy. Sort of.

Keep in mind that MTV has aired many sucker punches in the past. In particular, I’m thinking about a sucker punch that took place during a season of The Real World: Austin. In the premiere episode the Austin cast mates go out to a bar and Danny Jamieson is punched in the face. The sucker punch crushed Danny’s eye socket, resulting in blurred vision and requiring surgery. Despite Danny’s rather serious injuries, MTV had no qualms about airing this footage repeatedly — in ads promoting the series and then in recaps throughout the course of the season.

The Real World: Austin cast

It seems a bit sexist to me that there was outrage over MTV’s (almost) airing of Snooki’s punch but not over Danny’s punch. Now, I understand that Snooki is a small woman and Danny is a strapping young man. But both were sucker punched, meaning both were completely defenseless when they were hit. And Danny sustained far more serious injuries — those who watched the Austin season may recall that Danny’s face was disfigured throughout the duration of the season. If there is any outrage here, it should be over MTV’s exploitation of violence. It is wrong to sucker punch anyone, whether they are male or female, big or small. Furthermore, Snooki and Danny were assaulted precisely because they were on MTV reality programs (for some reason the presence of the MTV camera crew throws bar patrons into an uncontrollable rage) and MTV then reaped the rewards of that unmotivated violence by exploiting it in ads. This is the true outrage of this situation.

Danny, post punch

Just in case my comments might be misread, let me make this clear: domestic violence against women is a serious issue. But Snooki’s punch is not an example of domestic violence nor is it an issue of violence against women. Snooki’s punch, like Danny’s, boils down, not to gender, but to the exploitative, circus-like climate created and nurtured by MTV and its film crews. By omitting the footage of Snooki’s punch MTV wants to look like the hero, but they are a primary culprit (along with the two douchebags who did the punching, of course. Big, big douchebags).

Therefore my friends, if you are watching and enjoying Jersey Shore, don’t feel like you are implicitly supporting ethnic stereotyping or violence against women. Instead you are supporting the stereotyping of youth culture and the violence that results when these youth are given too much alcohol, self tanner, body glitter and a barrage of cameras. Oh wait. That’s not good either, is it?

THE HILLS Premiere: Viva la Spectacle!

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“Media stars are spectacular representations of living human beings, distilling the essence of the spectacle’s banality into images of possible roles.”
-Guy DeBord, Society of the Spectacle

“I’m more famous than president Barack Obama. I’ll say that to President Obama’s face. My portrait is higher than his on the wall at Wolfgang Puck’s Cut restaurant. That’s such a statement. Spencer Pratt is above the President of the United States in fame. No matter what I say or do from here on out, I’ve imprinted myself on the culture. Ask somebody why I’m famous, they’ll say I’m annoying or have a big mouth, but there’s no tangible thing.”
-Spencer Pratt, interview in Spin Magazine Online

A panorama of douchebags.
A panorama of douchebags.

I am well out of MTV’s target demographic. I am not a consumer of the bands featured on the show (or its accompanying soundtrack), nor do I plan to party at Les Deux any time soon. I don’t want a career in fashion or public relations or whatever it is that Audrina Patridge does. And truly, I care very little about The Hills’ young, overprivileged, spray-tanned cast. I do however, read a lot of gossip magazines and I even read academic analyses of celebrity culture in my free time. In other words, I enjoy The Hills for the same reason that I enjoy films like Glen or Glenda? or The Room — I love how the text of the show constantly pushes me beyond the frame, to the extratextual. I can never see an episode of The Hills as a self-contained world. I am constantly thinking about the casts’ lives outside of the show — who they’re dating, how much they’re making and whether or not they still have that pesky eating disorder.

Stephanie, don't you know you're not supposed eat in Los Angeles?
Stephanie, don't you know you're not supposed eat in Los Angeles?

The young cast of The Hills is a regular feature in tabloid magazines like US Weekly, In Touch and OK!. They are also featured on celebrity gossip websites like PerezHilton.com and The Superficial. Fans who enjoy the “stars” of The Hills can also buy their clothing, listen to their music and read their novels.

Look away, friends, for it is too horrible to behold.
Look away, friends, for it is too horrible to behold.

This kind of “multiplatform” engagement with the text is an ideal way to target Generation Y (aka, MTV’s prime demographic), who enjoys consuming their entertainment through multiple venues. This type of engagement also leads to a peculiar viewing experience. As I have written elsewhere, The Hills’ “media savvy audience is likely aware of the characters’ offscreen lives and yet they continue to tune in (in record numbers) to see what transpires onscreen each week.” Viewers tune in to see these characters, rather than to see “what happens next.” For example, I did not need to watch last night’s Hills’ premiere, subtly entitled “It’s On Bitch,” to know that Audrina and Kristin would butt heads — I read all about their growing animosity in last week’s US Weekly. I also love knowing that the only reason Kristin Cavallari is back on reality TV is because her attempts at a film career tanked. No wonder she’s such a bitch. The Hills’ multiplatform structure almost demands that its viewers consider the extratextual. It is central to The Hills experience.

Does this lighting make me look human?
Does this lighting make me look human?

Of course, the most entertaining personalities on the show are Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt (aka, Speidi), a couple for whom the term “fameosexual” must have been invented. Unlike their co-stars on The Hills , Speidi is fascinating precisely because it is almost impossible to locate where their textual personas end and their extratextual lives begin. While castmates like Lauren Conrad and Lo Bosworth have been caught by the paparazzi’s lens sans make up or biting into a greasy hamburger, Speidi seems to have the preternatural ability to avoid being taken by surprise. Every single paparazzi image of the couple is staged, as if they were able to construct a special fantasy world around themselves — a life-size Barbie dreamhouse that includes shopping at Kitson and going to brunch.

Spencer and Heidi "relax." Spencer and Heidi "shop."

Spencer and Heidi exist in a constant state of performance before an ever-present camera. I imagine Heidi getting into bed at night — in full make up, hair freshly blown out — and turning on a video camera that is mounted to her ceiling. Indeed, their entire life appears in quotation marks: Spencer and Heidi go “golfing,” Spencer and Heidi “shop for toys,” Spencer and Heidi “breathe.” This couple, and the world of The Hills in general, seems to be the emodiment of Guy DeBord’s thesis in Society of the Spectacle (1967) (and I am sure that somewhere a graduate student has already written this paper). DeBord writes “Understood on its own terms, the spectacle proclaims the predominance of appearances and asserts that all human life, which is to say all social life, is mere appearance.” Perhaps its is for the best that DeBord did not live to see the rise of The Hills.

Speidi, in their natural habitat.
Speidi, in their natural habitat.

I do not say these things to spite Spencer and Heidi. In fact, if Speidi read this blog post, my guess is that they would agree with everything I’ve just written. In a recent interview, Pratt explained “Heidi and I got married on the show. You know as much about us as anyone. We tell people everything. No one is more honest than Spencer and Heidi.” The thing is, I believe Spencer. I believe that I know as much about his life as Heidi does. I believe that if we took their clothes off we would discover smooth, plastic, genital-free bodies with a “Made in Los Angeles” stamp. And for this I salute them. Long live the Spectacle!

A few other thoughts about The Hills premiere:
1. I love that Lo, once referenced in her onscreen title as “Lauren’s friend,” is now labeled as “Audrina’s friend.” Isn’t Lo important enough to just be “LO”? And more importantly, don’t Lo and Audrina hate each other?

2. Did anyone get a little creeped out when the recap segment at the beginning of the episode featured Kristin’s voice over narration, rather than Lauren’s? It felt dirty somehow, like I was cheating on Lauren.

3. Finally, although I have never been a fan of Kristin, I was definitely enjoying her in the premiere. Moments after her first cat fight with Audrina and Stephanie my husband turned to me and said “This girl’s way more fun than Lauren!”

So, what do you think? Can the show go on without Lauren? Or will Lauren show up at some point this season, mascara streaming down her cheeks, telling the audience that we betrayed her? And if we all keep watching this show, will the world collapse in on itself?