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Jersey Shore: Reality or Drama?
by Susan Rienzo
Thursday, January 21, 2010

For those who have been living under a rock the past couple of months, "Jersey Shore" is a reality show on MTV featuring eight young people (four guys, four girls) sharing a house at...well...the Jersey shore.  And tonight that show is having its much anticipated season finale.

The show has generated a lot of attention in a short amount of time and if you've ever seen it, you can understand why.  While I don't normally watch a lot of MTV (I used to, back in the day when it actually had something to do with music. But that's a topic for a whole other column), I watched this.  Because any Jersey girl worth her sea salt has been all kinds of wrapped up in the Jersey shore (the beach, not the show) for a good chunk of her existence.  So I had to check out what all the fuss was about.

And once I did, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say about it here, and how I wanted to say it.  It's like walking a minefield, but I felt it was my duty to my transplant readers who may not have grown up in New Jersey to try to explain what the Jersey shore-both the show and the place-is all about.

Here's a synopsis.  The show features a specific type of shore-dweller. I won't say it's a stereotype, because certainly these people do exist. 

First: the guys.  They're guidos.  There, I said it.  If you grew up Italian in New Jersey, you say that word freely, but get upset when others use it.  Kind of similar to another word in another culture.  And in case you lived under the aforementioned rock (Vickie and my other Midwestern friends, yes this means you), a guido is a guy of Italian descent who is really really into his looks. Really. As Mike, a/k/a "The Situation", on the show explains, it all about G-T-L, or gym, tanning, and laundry. These guys live to work out, wear jewelry, do their hair and make sure their clothes are perfect.  (When I was hanging out at the Jersey Shore as a young one, everyone did their tanning at the beach. Now they go to salons, but the rest has pretty much held true.)   A guido also has a somewhat mixed-up attitude towards "the ladies". 

And those "ladies" are also very much into their looks, though not quite as much as the guys are.  (No one could be as into their looks as these guys are.) They have long hair, long nails, and skimpy clothes.  They're cute but not gorgeous. And they could never be models because, being Italian, they're way too short.  Some people call them guidettes. Some call them something I won't repeat here. We used to call them "Boardwalk Bimbos".

Which brings us to the subject of the Boardwalk. If you did not grow up near the Jersey shore, I'm not sure you can really understand the Boardwalk. Oh sure, Atlantic City's Boardwalk got some fame through the game Monopoly, and Bruce Springsteen's songs certainly helped bring Asbury Park's Boardwalk into focus. But I wonder how many people are really seeing the Boardwalk for the first time on MTV?  Because I know the California beaches sure don't have anything like it. They have a beachwalk, which is just a sidewalk alongside the beach.

The Jersey shore Boardwalk is much more than a bunch of boards on which to walk, which happen to be next to a beach. It is a panoply of rides, arcades, carnival games, shops, junk food sellers and bars.  It is a culture unto itself.  Many a parent spent a small fortune paying for rides, games and food there.  All kids at the Jersey shore beg to go to the Boardwalk every night, and all parents must put a limit on those visits if they ever hope to be able to afford to send their kids to college. The fun don't come cheap in New Jersey.

I've been through just about every stage at the Jersey shore. I spent part of each summer of my life there until I moved to Arizona, experiencing it as a kid, a teenager, a young adult, and a parent. And if I still lived in the Garden State, I probably would have retired "down the shore".  I've stayed with family and friends who owned homes, and those who rented homes. I've been in houses filled with twenty near strangers who came together just so they could afford the rent, slept on their sandy sheets, and been kept up half the night by their very vocal arguments.  I've been there in the winter when it's a quiet peaceful ghost town filled only with natives happy to be rid of the "bennies", which is what they call those who invade it in the summer.  I went to Asbury Park for my eighth grade graduation trip, went to Seaside Heights the day after my senior prom, and watched the sun rise on my 21st birthday there.  As a young wife, I spent getaway weekends with my husband on Long Beach Island and quaint Cape May.  My daughters had their first tastes of ice cream on the Boardwalk.

Like many kids, I got an early peek into the mysterious, dark and loud interior of a bar while passing the "Chatterbox" on the Seaside Heights Boardwalk. Hearing the music coming out of there and seeing the people lingering outside hinted at a world far removed from childhood pastimes, yet one which we all aspired to conquer someday.

And that's what the "Jersey Shore" (the show) is all about. Many of those kids grew up hearing about the legend of the Jersey shore, and now are finally old enough to see it for themselves.  And that legend's about much more than 130 miles of coastline. It's about a mystique that can't quite be put into words. You have to see it and experience it to really "get it". 

As for the young people on the show, they may be guidos and guidettes and therefore not the most accurate representation of New Jersey.  We don't all tawk like that.  (Just look at Kelly Ripa).  And after all, most of them really are bennies from New York, not even New Jersey, except for Sammi "The Sweetheart" (who also happens to be my favorite).  But they're feisty and they all have one thing in common. They have that gigantic self-confidence that only Jersey-ites and New Yorkers seem to possess.  That quality that says, "You think you're better than me? Okay, prove it!"  It's a cocky attitude that some find irritating, and others find endearing.  I must admit I'm in the latter group.

So is "Jersey Shore" TV entertainment or reality?  I'd say it's real. It's not the whole story of course. Not by a long shot.  The Jersey shore (the place) is like a big mosaic made up of lots of pieces. It's a whole life, full of ages and stages. But "Jersey Shore" (the show) effectively captures a slice of that life.

And if I ever doubted it after being away so long, my doubts were allayed when we went into a Boardwalk tee-shirt shop during our visit in October. It was a shop not unlike the one where the house-dwellers on the show work.  Most of the sayings on the shirts were too crude and rude to be printed here, but Boardwalk Bimbos and Guidos do buy them and wear them.  And they're hilarious.  About the only example I can repeat was on a onesie for babies and said, "I look like the milkman".  Get the picture?

Yeah, it's not as elegant as Newport, not as chic as the Hamptons, and not as perfect weather-wise as California.  But it's just as expensive and by being so it's saying to those other places, "You think you're better than me? Okay, prove it!"

And THAT'S the Jersey Shore in a clamshell, baby.


Originally published on


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