Jersey Gets Bullied (Yet Again)

Cast of MTV's Jersey Shore

It's not easy being a next-door neighbor to New York City. How many cities—let alone states—can compete with the culture, glamour and sophistication of the Big Apple? Even the outer boroughs of America's largest metropolis pale in comparison to the bright star that is Manhattan. (Though my friends from Brooklyn would disagree.) To be bold enough to challenge Gotham's supremacy of chic is usually a dangerous proposition. Connecticut knows better than to try and instead polishes its image as a wealthy wallflower. New Jersey, on the other hand, is the noisy kid brother who just annoys the heck out of his cooler sibling.

All of which is not to say that New Jersey doesn't get its share of attention. It gets plenty...nearly all of it negative. Is there any other state in the Union that is more abused? Or, as its residents would say, misunderstood? From the inevitable question any Jerseyan faces when meeting someone for the first time: "Oh...you're from Joisey? What exit?" to the insistence by New Yorkers that the Garden State is actually one massive dump, there is no end to the jokes that people who call the eleventh most populous state must endure.

And the state is under attack yet again...this time, from MTV. With its new show Jersey Shore, the network whose fortunes were built on the backs of New Jersey entertainers such as Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi has declared war on a place that is sacred in the minds of people from Paramus to Princeton. The beach communities of the state's Atlantic coast have not been savaged this viciously since the Jersey Shore Shark Scare of 1916.

So what's the problem with MTV's reality show, which is set in the honky tonk community of Seaside Heights? Like The Real World, granddaddy of the reality genre, it takes nubile twentysomethings who'll do just about anything for a camera and tosses them into a mix that always includes a hot tub, lots of alcohol and most important, deft editing to create a "reality" that is far more entertaining than the truth.

This is not the first time that pop culture has attempted to depict a dumbed down summer scene at the Jersey Shore, a place that in actual fact is comprised of incredibly varied and mostly lovely towns. In 1992, Fox debuted a sitcom called Down the Shore that featured six characters looking for fun and love in the town of Belmar. Nothing conjured by that program's scriptwriters ever came close to equaling the debauchery that is the staple of Jersey Shore.

The show, which looks to be a runaway hit already, joins The Real Housewives of New Jersey on the list of evidence of the entertainment industry's character assassination on the state's already precarious image. What is most despicable about the show and its cast of tanned and oft-inebriated kids (who have names like Vinnie, Ronny, Pauly and Sammi) is that seven of the eight of them are from New York. Indeed, three of the show's stars are from Staten Island.

Curiously enough, the same muck being tossed around on the show was featured in the July 2008 newsletter of Ken Pringle, mayor of the town of Belmar. Speaking specifically of the Staten Islanders who invade his town each summer, Pringle wrote: "They're always tanned to the color of coconut shells and easily identified by their plumage: satin shirts and short skirts on the females; Armani Exchange T-shirts and artfully distressed jeans on the males." His tongue-in-cheek rant did not stop there, and got him into very hot water with residents of Staten Island, who begged to differ with his portrayal of New York's fifth borough and its large population of Italian-Americans. Boycotts were threatened, but after much hullabaloo, the situation was quieted when Pringle ate crow (and presumably a few cannolis) during a goodwill visit to Staten Island. Either way, the mayor's attempt at comedy planted a seed with someone at MTV, because now the whole world can sit back and laugh at New Jersey yet again, and Staten Island along with it.

New Jerseyans will grin and bear it. They'll console themselves with the knowledge that most people who criticize the state have never strayed from the confines of Newark airport or the New Jersey Turnpike. And considering the competition it's got from its glittery neighbor across the Hudson River, New Jersey ain't doin' so bad. As Oscar Wilde famously said, "There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."