The working-class weirdness of Geordie Shore
Above: Jersey Shore. Right: Geordie Shore.
The men and women of Jersey Shore touched down in Florence last week to begin the show’s fourth season. But while the Guidos and Guidettes may have single-handedly stimulated the Italian taxicab industry with the volume of their luggage, Europe doesn’t actually need to import hard-partying 20-somethings eager to make fools of themselves on TV. When it comes to wreaking havoc while on holiday, Jersey Shore now competes with its own U.K. spin-off, Geordie Shore, which returns to screens on August 23. But where the Jersey Shore cast is full of professional fame-seekers who just happen to have found their launching pad on MTV, its younger British sibling is more working-class, making for entertainment that’s somehow realer-seeming—but not necessarily more compelling.
England’s always had a fine-grained taxonomy of working-class sub-cultures. Geordies—a term for people from the Tyneside region of Northeast England—may not have always existed in their current form, but the regional nickname stretches at least all the way back to the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, and certainly was in current usage by 1793. The stereotype Geordie Shore exploits is, as MSN TV Editor Lorna Cooper puts it in an email, that “all Geordies are thick, drink brown ale, say ‘why-aye-man’, have women that look like brick houses.” Of course, this has driven Geordies who aren’t on TV crazy. Part of the problem, Cooper says, is that the show and its audience have conflated a regional stereotype with a class one: While “Geordie” refers to the many residents of a geographic area, the Geordie Shore stars are all working class people who engage in all sorts of hard-partying anti-social behavior. They’re considered chavs.
“Ordinary working class people abhor both the moniker and the association,” Cooper says. “For us, chavs are akin to a level of underclass we look down on; the type of people that go on The Jeremy Kyle Show (think a British equivalent of Maury) for DNA testing to discover who’s the father.”
Compared to these deep-rooted attitudes, the Guido stereotype of Italians is a new phenomenon indeed, hailing from the 1970s at the earliest. Once a slur for all Italians, it’s now an ethnically specific variation on a term like “chav,” helped along in that definition by the Jersey Shore cast members who have embraced it and added their own lists of activities and characteristics to it. But when it came to commercializing working-class stereotypes, America beat the mother country to the jump. Jersey Shore had aired three seasons and revitalized MTV’s ratings in the States before Geordie Shore premiered this May in the U.K., where it had a similar effect on the network’s viewership.
The two shows have comparable amounts of bad behavior and the corresponding horrified reaction to it: When one of the Geordie Shore cast members flashed her breasts in the first episode, it sparked outrage. And the job the Geordies are assigned—pulling customers into a party bus in Chippendales-style outfits for the lads and Vegas cocktail gear for the ladies—makes Jersey Shore’s Seaside t-shirt shop look positively demure. But where Jersey Shore can be alternately absurd and uncomfortable, whether the focus is the intense conversations the characters have on the duck phone or the borderline-abusive relationship between Ronnie and Sammi, Geordie Shore can feel almost reflective.
There’s the usual complement of people cheating on absent boyfriends and regretting it, and the number of couples having sex in the same room in the first episode is certainly-eye opening, but Geordie Shore is shot through with moments of ambivalence about the events on screen. When one character declares her Geordie Shore experience to be part of her “Year of the Slut,” another says in the confessional, “Your mom is watching. Would you really say that on television?” While the casts’ relationship analysis usually stays at the level of statements like “He breaks her heart and her vagina, and she’s left with nothing,” on one occasion, a cast member turned to Middle East politics to figure out a fighting couple, noting that “They’re like Israel and Palestine. On paper, they’re very similar.” This self-awareness is morally reassuring (though not to the Newcastle MP who said the show was “bordering on pornographic” and vowed investigations into reality TV producers and alcohol abuse).
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The Geordie Shore crew doesn’t seem to have figured out how to live as cartoon characters as easily as their American predecessors. A Brit’s Veet addiction may be mildly amusing, but it’s nothing to the panic of a Guidette in Italy with only eight cans of bronzer to last her through Grand Tour, or the delights of Pauly D’s blowout. The Geordie Shore cast also has more traditional working-class occupations, whether they answer phones in call centers or lay tile, while the Jersey Shore cast members who worked at all were club promoters or DJs or fitness-center managers. In a sense, they’d been in professional training for their star turn, ready to define Guido-ness for an eager nation. The precise elements of Geordie culture, though, remain something of a mystery after one season.
So it’s maybe wise that MTV decided to up the momentum and send the Geordie Shore cast to the Spanish party town of Magaluf for a follow-up to the first season. Whether that trip will compare to the pleasures of seeing Snooki balance unsteadily on the box she needs to stand on to be tall enough for her passport photo, or Vinny practicing saying “No grenades, please,” in Italian remains to be seen. Behaving badly on vacation isn’t enough to make for deeply compelling television—you need a theory of fist-pumping or hot-tub flashing to turn your holiday into another person’s post-modern performance art.