Tuesday, August 10, 2010

In Defense of Snooki

I had a point about Snooki that sat parbaked in my cerebral freezer since the first season of The Jersey Shore aired and, now that she's back in boozy action and people are talking about her again, I think it’s time to defrost this here batch of brain croissants.

It's a fact that I started watching The Jersey Shore with the same kind of prurient interest that's always beckoned me to cultural superiority porn with a come-hither finger. I used to run home from high school to catch the troubled teen episodes of Sally Jesse and I positively ate up the slutty ninth graders with their bedazzled thongs and drinking problems and conviction that blow jobs are a legitimate form of currency. The payoff came in quotable sound bites of the "you don't know me!" variety and how smug I got to feel about being an honors student on a college-bound trajectory.

You can do this same thing with The Jersey Shore. There are plenty of things one can hold up as repugnant (or laughable, or enraging). Every situation begins and ends with liquor from a red cup. Every disagreement ends with a punch to the jaw. But I'm being completely serious when I say that the redeeming thing about The Jersey Shore is Snooki, who is a televised example of womanhood doing a decent thing or two for which she might not be getting her due.

Let me just say, though, that there are two points I am not making: 1. Snooki is a role model, and 2. Snooki is herself a feminist. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Snooki, yes, but should your daughter be less than five feet tall, round, relentlessly mocked for her appearance, imitated on SNL by a fat dude and unfailingly inclined to make left-of-field sartorial decisions, there is something to be gleaned from how little Snooki gives a fuck what anyone thinks.

I think my point was more salient during the first season, before Snooki was a brand. This new season is too self-aware to be taken without a whole margarita rimful of salt. However, there were some Snooki moments during the first season when she wasn’t playing a character where I was drawn in. The moment where she admitted to having struggled with an eating disorder was a turning point in the way I thought about her. Maybe you have to be someone who’s had problems with her weight to have this make a dent in the drinking and the fist-fighting and the pouf-sporting, but I think it’s worth it to recognize that Snooki is someone who’s accepted herself at a weight higher than her disordered ideal to such a degree that she can eat on camera, dance on camera, wear tight dresses and bathing suits on camera, strike out while trying to date on camera, and weather weight-related insults on camera. And laugh at herself.

The criticism of Snooki so often boils down to the way she looks. The criticism of The Situation comes down to him being a total shithead monster to girls. Somehow there’s a lot more bile in the Snooki criticism. My theory on this is that Snooki is a collection of easily-mocked physical characteristics—some chosen, some genetic—who carries herself as a hot girl, and this kinda gets people’s goats. Weird-looking girls, short girls, round girls, they can squeak by in the public eye relatively unscathed if they don’t walk around thinking they’re hot shit. Confronted with a tanned 4’9 tornado with big boobs and big hair and eccentric clothes who seems to think she’s a Victoria’s Secret model, you get descriptions like the following:

“That Snooki is not conventionally attractive — “A spray-painted Chihuahua,” Mike (The Situation) said when he first saw her — has a lot to do with why she is the breakout member of the cast. She is busty and short-waisted with small legs; sort of like a turnip turned on its tip. There is the weird tan, but the pièce de résistance of Snookiness is the half-doughnut-shaped pouf on top of her head….Snooki has a way of putting herself together that while in some ways is atrocious, is completely identifiable to her and consistent with her attention-seeking personality. She wears short, clingy dresses in a pattern or with some metallic trim, huge enameled or bejeweled hoop earrings and glittery high heels…Lots of 22-year-old women wear revealing clothes, but they may not have her body shape, and it’s a safe bet they’re not rocking a pouf.”

And that is from Cathy Horyn at the New York Times (full disclosure: for previous assholery, I am already inclined to say Horyn can eat approximately eight or nine bowls of poop). The rest of her Snooki profile is so dripping with condescension it’s hard to even read, but it all seems to stem from the fact that Horyn is the NYT fashion critic, Snooki does not endeavor to look like a runway model and doesn’t care, and Horyn reads this as stupidity.

And that’s what it comes down to for me: choosing to be something other than the ideal (whatever ideal) is a right, not a failing. And doing so in a big public way is kind of brave.

Believing that women have the right to choose what they do with their lives and their bodies and their presentation is one of those double-edged swords of equality. To extrapolate (way, way) up from the case of Snooki’s poof, think about the burqa for a second. Yes, it can be considered a historic symbol of female repression, but you also have to accept that some women choose it. You can look at Snooki and her tan and her cleavage and her underwearless backflips at the clurb and read it all as degradation, but you have to accept that a woman’s right to determine how she presents her body (and her sexuality) is chained to the right to do nothing more than have fun with it.

I know that I’m gonna get two billion responses saying Snooki is nothing but a moral vacuum/cultural death knell/oompa loompa, and I do get it. I do. She’s a famous person who did nothing but drink and fight and say a few funny things to earn that fame. There’s nothing admirable about any of that. All I can say is that something about the way her body is discussed jangled my own self-confidence nerves, and, as one funny-shaped person to another, the way she handles it makes me a little bit proud.
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