Douchebags Gone Wild
MTV's Jersey Shore.
The New York Times sauced up page A1 of its Nov. 14 edition with "More Than Ever, You Can Say That Word on Television," an article greeted with such widespread ridicule as to achieve instant notoriety. "On many nights this fall," it began, "it has been possible [to] hear a character call someone else a 'douche,' " and it then discussed, in all seriousness, the surging popularity of that insult on broadcast TV. The all-seeing trade magazine Variety, the deft media critic David Letterman, the prolific doucheographers of Gawker—these and others chortled at the story and with good reason. Yet one truth has gone unstated: Supply meets demand. The term douche—or douchebag, if you prefer—is necessary to describe an ever-increasing number of persons appearing on network television and even more so on cable, where a majority of reality shows reward douchebaggy deeds. The hair gel on primped douchebag heads greases the wheels of the machine. To illustrate, I turn, not for the first time, to MTV.
Let's cue up "Weekend at Freddie's," the 19th episode of our fair City, wherein heroine Whitney makes her virgin voyage to the Hamptons at the invitation of Freddie. Whitney is kind of into him, which is the first bad sign, she having reliably awful taste in men. But then Whitney enjoys a bit of kissy-face with Harry, Freddie's brother, while dancing at Lily Pond, a nightclub in vogue among the young douche elite. After Freddie seeks to cockblock Harry—"Stop dancing with my girl!"—Harry promptly squeals to Whitney that Freddie has a girlfriend. The next day, with the whole gang assembled at the swimming pool under the high sunlight, Whit's friend Roxy makes her brazenness useful for once in spearheading an interrogation and show trial. Tanning in a chaise longue, she confronts Freddie with the damaging claim. He can only muster, "You guys are making me feel like a douche!" To which Roxy shrugs deliciously without moving her head from its angle to the sun, decreeing that Freddie's feelings comport with objective reality.
Where Freddie's behavior reflects a preppy sense of entitlement, many of the guys on MTV's Is She Really Going Out With Him?, hailing from the lower orders, have effectively adopted douchebaggage as a way of being. They represent not just a particular class of jerk but a self-selecting social class. In the view of the show's source material—the book Hot Chicks With Douchebags, itself adapted from a blog—this breed of douchebag often embraces muscle-culture vanity, fussy metrosexuality, and only the most punishing subgenres of house music. Privileging the lewd attentions of women only slightly above the awed admiration of men, he preens and poses incessantly. Photo evidence of such a douche often finds him grasping his chick, referred to as a "hott," with one hand while exposing his posable-action-figure stomach muscles by lifting his shirt with the other.
On Is She Really …?, lifestyle douchebags and closely related species deliberately misbehave on camera. They priss over their rat tails, overcook themselves in tanning beds, and, mostly, disrespect their girlfriends elaborately, for instance getting another girl's number while the main girl stands one yard away. Two layers of suspense lend each installment its dramatic tension: How awfully will he conduct himself? How much misconduct will she consent to endure? (In general, the hotts, being doucheaphiles, tend to be hot only in the trashiest sense, their poverty of taste extending to matters of costume, coiffure, and breast augmentation.) A jaunty narrator details and analyzes each instance of doucherie; his tone is much in keeping with the authorial voice of the Hot Chicks With Douchebags site. There, author Jay Louis, crude but cultured, uses scrotum as a term of abuse one moment only to drop an apposite Diane Arbus reference the next.
Some of the douchebags with the hot chicks could further be defined as guidos, which brings us to MTV's Jersey Shore. Here, eight Italian-Americans descend upon Seaside Heights, N.J., from Rhode, Long, and Staten Islands and other such locales for a sunny season's worth of binge drinking, casual sex, and open hostility. (As the Washington Post put it in an extremely delightful 2003 story, "Guidos belong to summer, and summer belongs to guidos.") What does it mean to self-identify as a guido (or, his female equivalent, a guidette)? One of the Jersey Shore stars, Pauly D, has a ready answer: "It's just a lifestyle, it's bein' Italian, it's representin', family, friends, tannin', gel, everything." Though there are great aesthetic similarities between the guido stereotype and the douche archetype, it would be an error to suggest that the two types are strictly synonymous in character, particularly within earshot of a guido-douchebag, who will give you a beat-down. The Italian-American interest groups rallying against the series oppose Jersey Shore's presentation of a guido minstrel show relying on the exploits of douches (and their female equivalents, douchesses).
Pauly D's housemates include Jenni, who encourages the nickname J. Wow, transliterated JWOWW; Mike, whose sobriquet derives from his abdominals ("My abs are so ripped up, we call it The Situation"); and an unfortunate little person calling herself Snooki. Early in the first episode, Snooki wasted little time in gearshifting "from stupid to, like, incoherent," as Vinny said. Sloshed, shrieking, and despondent that the male housemates repelled her groping advances, Snooki wobbled off to the roof deck alone. "You don't understand how I feel!" she bawled, either to herself or the hammock. "It's so not fair at all!" Shortly thereafter, she snooked into the hot tub with the guys while wearing her underwear, attire deemed incorrect by Angelina: "A thong bikini would have been a little bit more classier, if you're gonna wear anything at all, you know what I mean?"
Class and classiness are important issues on Jersey Shore, as everywhere. Behold the moment when the guys lure some hotts up to the roof. Once more unto the hot tub, dear guidos, once more. One of the doucherinas voiced displeasure at the loose ways of the hotts, whom she called "whore bags": "See, that's how we know we're classy girls, because we've been livin' in the house with these guys for two days, and we haven't even done anything." The men had a most classiest response to the indignation of the female cast members: "This is the Jersey Shore. What do you expect us to do?"
Yes, there are better uses for the Italian flag than to decorate the wood paneling of this freak-show beach house. MTV would serve itself well if it diversified its doucheological tours to include the boardwalks of other vacation places. How about a trip to Maine? We could call the show OOBand feature spray-tanned tools visiting from Quebec as they stroll down the Pier and swagger into wet-T-shirt contests. Which reminds me: How do you say douchebag in French?
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.