When he gave his youngest daughter permission to go to Brighton, England, Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Bennet declared that Lydia would never be happy "until she has exposed herself in some public place or other, and we can never expect her to do it with so little expense or inconvenience to her family as under the present circumstances." But he could have just as easily been talking about the members of Jersey Shore, the MTV reality show about a summer share house that, with its first season just ended, seems on the verge of becoming a mass cultural phenomenon.
The adventures of a group of self-dubbed guidos and guidettes spending the summer selling t-shirts, cooking surf’n’turf, and attempting to get laid has captivated audiences and pop culture elites alike. Its cast members are partying with Diddy and signing autographs at car dealerships. This week, they made entertainment headlines by collectively bargaining for a raise for a second season, an attempt to make themselves as much a part of our cultural landscape as the omnipresent girls from The Hills and The City—themselves products of another Oceanside reality program, Laguna Beach. New York’s Vulture blog catalogued the cast’s malapropisms. The New Yorker’s Nancy Franklin placed the show in the context of two decades of reality television, and Slate’s Jonah Weiner situated it in the annals of Staten Island cinema. But Jersey Shore’s stars are part of a much longer artistic tradition: humiliation and bad decisions at the beach.
What Seaside Heights, NJ is to Jersey Shore, the British resort towns of Bath and Brighton were to 18th and 19th century literature and drama. It is Brighton where Lydia Bennet chases Mr. Wickham, the dashing and dastardly regimental officer who is the clear ancestor of The Situation, Jersey Shore’s abs-ridden assistant gym manager and wannabe player (who at least has the modern advantage of not having to marry to improve his station in life). Wickham was no novice at seaside seduction, having made a play for Pride and Prejudice hero Mr. Darcy’s sister in the Kentish beachfront town of Ramsgate.
And Bath is the setting for Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s immortal comic play The Rivals, first performed in 1775. Whether the sea air is responsible for Mrs. Malaprop’s linguistic manglings is open to dispute, but there’s no question that the social whirl in the resort drives everyone else to hilariously desperate straits. Whether they’re disguising themselves as poor soldiers to give the girls they want to marry properly romantic affairs, or tricking elderly gentlemen into fits of passion, sea-bathing seems less like a cure than a cause of strained nerves.
On the other side of the Atlantic, American beaches have been the sites less of marriage than of emasculation. A young man’s decision to transform himself into the “hero of the beach” after a bully kicks him with a faceful of sand is one of the primal narratives of Charles Atlas’s bodybuilding advertisements. For Archie Andrews, the relatable hero of the long-running comic book series, the beach is a fraught spot, full of girls who are risky distractions from his main squeezes, Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge, and of chances for his rival, Reggie Mantle, to make inroads with them. Buffy the Vampire Slayer planted the seeds of discord between the titular demon huntress and her hunky human boyfriend in beach sand during a game of catch when he guesses she’s holding back her strength so as not to embarrass him.
Jersey Shore falls squarely into this maelstrom of muscles and matrimony. Despite vowing to “never fall in love at the Jersey Shore,” two of the castmembers form what Austen might have called an attachment, updated with on-camera foreplay. Snooki, the show’s diminutive breakout star, spends the night on the beach with a man who turns out to be spying on one of her housemates at the behest of a jealous boyfriend. The Situation’s sculpted stomach proves less seductive than he might have hoped. For all its purported raunchiness, Jersey Shore has a surprising sweetness in common with its predecessors: it’s a show where promoters with breast implants get upset when their housemates can’t say grace seriously, where a girl can drink herself sick and still cry because she’s homesick for her mother.
It’s easy to lament the decline of beachside relations from courting to smushing, from formal social calls to club-induced thong flashing. But in at least one respect, Jersey Shore represents definite progress from the oceanside imbroglios of the past. Snooki may continue to embarrass audiences—and herself—if she gets the dating show she says she wants and that networks seem to want to give her. But at least she didn’t end her summer vacation married to Mr. Wickham.