America's New Icons

By Alston, Joshua | Newsweek, August 2, 2010 | Go to article overview
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America's New Icons


Alston, Joshua, Newsweek


Byline: Joshua Alston

In spite of quickly becoming an international phenomenon, Nicole Polizzi would probably not feel welcome in France. Not because of the unfair yet persistent perception that the French are less than hospitable to tourists, but because the French Academy of Medicine recently announced it's recommending a nationwide ban on tanning beds. And Polizzi, best known by her nickname, Snooki, needs her tanning bed. Snooki, of last year's surprise television smash/cultural lightning rod Jersey Shore, is an ultra-petite, trash-talking, artificially caramelized girl of summer--the ideal centerfold for a girlie magazine produced by and for the Lollipop Guild. She ignited a phenomenon as part of the Jersey cast and without question has the highest profile of the bunch, thanks in part to a horrific incident in one episode, when she found herself on the receiving end of a male gym teacher's haymaker. Snooki has made a nice career of misbehaving and perpetuating guido stereotypes--she now commands a reported $10,000 appearance fee. She was even hired to do red-carpet interviews at this year's Grammy Awards. "Do you have guidos in France?" she asked Phoenix, a rock band from Versailles. She had to explain the term, and when she told the band that "guidas" were girls like her, guitarist Laurent Brancowitz responded, "Ah, we have guidas. We call them cagoles." Cagole loosely translates to "slut."

Despite how uniquely American her appeal seems to be, France is probably the only place where Snooki wouldn't feel right at home; production companies have flirted with the idea of creating versions of Jersey with Americans of Israeli, Iranian, and Korean heritage. Such oddball concepts are often floated and never come to fruition, but Jersey's international reach is inevitable--this spring MTV premiered the American version in more than 30 countries, including the Netherlands, Portugal, and Japan. In Mexico and Colombia it debuted as the No. 1 show among 18- to 24-year-olds. At home Snooki and her born-to-be-wild housemates sparked a debate about how Italian-Americans are portrayed (to say nothing of the conversation about basic decency), but now that they've gone abroad, there's a larger question to be asked. What do shows like Jersey Shore say to other countries about what it means to be an American? It's one thing to have Snooki as a guilty pleasure, but how is she doing as an ambassador?

TV and movies have long been our electronic face around the world--in the 1980s the Romanian government allowed state TV to broadcast Dallas, in the hope that all that backstabbing and greed would boost communism's image among the comrades. Just think how persuasive the anti-American PR campaign would have been if J.R. hadn't been fictional. Now, of course, the biggest names on TV are real--yesterday's Baywatch is today's Jersey Shore. The drama, like the cleavage, may be pumped up a bit for the camera, but the tears and the trysts and the fights and the hangovers aren't scripted, and the emotions don't depend on the acting ability of David Hasselhoff. The show's cultural messages convey a kind of authority we don't see much anymore in our image-saturated world. Admittedly, the Jersey Shore life of drunken repose won't completely change anyone's perceptions of Americans--the president and his foreign policy are what sway folks in one direction or another (we hope). On the other hand, it was only a few years ago that an Army brigadier general called a meeting with the producers of 24 to complain that Jack Bauer's taste for torture was hindering American peacekeeping efforts overseas, so it's reasonable to assume that Jersey may be cementing the opinion of Yankees as loutish layabouts who inspire envy, rage, or some combination thereof. "The thing about exporting this stuff and showing it out of context," says Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson, "is that there are a lot of people from other countries who--everything they know about the United States is what they've seen on TV.

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