New MTV series “Jersey Shore” promotes a stereotypical image of the young, shore-loving New Jerseyan: a superficial, sex-crazed party-goer who loves hair gel and gym memberships. Though the characters are caricatures of a Jersey Shore-going minority (as someone who has visited the Jersey Shore every summer for 24 years, I would know), television viewers must believe, to some extent, that such people do indeed live in New Jersey.
A basic Twitter search shows mixed reactions. Francisco Dao, @theman, of Los Angeles, CA, writes: “That Jersey Shore show makes me WANT to vacation there this Summer”. Writes Jay Pichardo, @jaypics80, “Thank you MTV’s ‘jersey shore’ for validating the point that Jersey sucks and I should NEVER move back.”
Reality television series about Americans tied to a certain region, state, or city are definitely a current trend in entertainment. Shows like “Real Housewives of [Insert Location Here]” promise compelling characters tied to and influenced by the places where they live.
Remember MTV’s Real World franchise? Strangers are forced to interact with one another and their new homes, a city where they will live and work for several months. Think Mardi Gras madness on “The Real World New Orleans” or promotions department gigs at a Seattle alternative rock station on “The Real World Seattle”.
All over the country, young people are proclaiming their love for their home states. No matter how accurately or poorly the national media portrays their current or former homes, these passionate promoters are determined to communicate their personal experiences with living in and loving one of the fifty states.
Jennifer Simpler Foushee is a 26-year-old marketing coordinator who grew up in Greenville, South Carolina. Though she and her husband have lived in Georgia for more than four years, Simpler Foushee is still quick to display her love for “The Palmetto State”. Her family, friends, and husband grew up in South Carolina, and she is sure that none of maternal ancestors have lived anywhere but the “upstate“, a region in the northwestern part of the state.
“National media gravitate toward casting a stereotype – uneducated, unkempt, overweight, low-income, overzealous/angry/hot-tempered, colloquial (both in speech and mannerisms), etc. – when they interview South Carolinians,” says Simpler Foushee. “On the other hand, if a news story occurs in a neighborhood whose residents exhibit these characteristics (which it often does) or a governor degrades his office, then these are simply accurate representations.”
Simpler Foushee cites a state-wide scandal as an example. When Boeing, the aerospace and defense corporation, decided to open a new production line in South Carolina rather than in Washington state, where the company was founded, some critics were not sure that South Carolina’s workforce could handle the responsibility of building planes. Washington State College professor T.M. Sell described workers in South Carolina as “the functional equivalent of Walmart greeters”.
“Though Sell later claimed that his statement was taken out of context, it seems to me to indicate just one thing – in any context: South Carolinians are incapable (physically and mentally) of accomplishing anything beyond a simple greeting. His loaded statement suggests that we South Carolinians are, in a word, stupid,” says Simpler Foushee. “Hearing a statement like that from an educator, someone who is supposed to teach others about considering new perspectives, makes it that much worse.”
Writes Clare Chesher for The Guardian, “…as an English expat living in Alaska I am tired of reading about my current home as a desperate, frozen wasteland peopled only by rednecks with moose-kill in their pick-up trucks and ice in their beards…This kind of conflict between image and reality is a significant aspect of Alaskan life: Alaska is staggeringly beautiful, but terribly isolated; forward-looking yet insular; American but somehow not.”
Alaska is an easy target – obviously not attached to the continental United States, “The Last Frontier” has a unique climate, a different landscape, and doesn’t generally attract much media attention. Images of Sarah Palin, published in the December 2007 issue of Vogue, provided a visual aid to further perpetuate stereotypes. Continental Americans no longer had to imagine what they could see on the glossy pages of a high-profile magazine. In these pictures, Palin stands by the family’s seaplane and wears a heavy coat as she walks across pristine snow.
During the 2008 presidential race, Palin’s Alaska dominated all other portrayals of the state. Americans could not see beyond guns, hunting, PTA meetings, and seaplanes. In an effort to simplify the depiction of a multi-faceted place, the media smacked a stereotype onto it. However, within every state is a diverse population entitled to experiencing the state and then expressing that experience in unique ways.
Writes Chesher of Alaska, “We do get moose in the garden. But we have restaurants, a symphony orchestra, and the kind of back country that people who ski Chamonix can only dream of. This is a complicated place…”.
A state’s history is sometimes the most complicated thing of all, and residents often wrestle with the decisions, both good and bad, made by people who came before them. Besides the mountains, lakes, rivers, and beaches, Simpler Foushee thinks one of the best things about South Carolina, which she sometimes refers to as the “Promised Land”, is its history.
“We celebrate and grapple with our history, and that’s another reason why we’re so proud to be South Carolinians. We know we come out of a rich but troubled tradition, and we’re fascinated with it, with moving past it and with building an ever-stronger future. Because of our traumatic and complex history, unfortunately, some would suggest that South Carolinians are ignorant, uneducated, racist, or some combination of the three,” says Simpler Foushee. “I’m sure some of our pride is couched in defensiveness and the determination to prove that South Carolina is not backwards but charming, graceful, beautiful, hospitable, cooperative, and community-oriented.”
Learning about a state’s history can help young people connect to something besides the scenery; they can write themselves into a tradition and gain a better understanding of their roots.
Says Dawn Montgomery, a 25-year-old model, journalist, and full-time student born and raised in Southern Mississippi, “My love for my home state didn’t bloom until I actually took a class on my state’s history. Learning about the racial events as well as major historic events truly moved me. This prompted me to understand my political beliefs and to truly embrace where I come from. Despite all the negativity behind the state’s name, and the blood, sweat, and tears that lie within its soil, I truly believe in my state and that it will progressively become better.”
The commitment to educate citizens of the other 49 states has to come from within a state that believes in its own relevance. In addition, educators in each state need to inform the young people so that they can better share that information with others. In November, the Lawrence Journal-World reported a story about a professor at the University of Kansas who encouraged his students to record oral histories of the state’s many religions.
“The idea, says KU professor Tim Miller, who is running the class, is to create an extensive database that documents where religion in Kansas has been and where we are going,” writes Sarah Henning. “To do that, Miller says, the students working on the project must cull together what they can before the information dies out.”
When a state loses the ability to report its news, then the country suffers from a lack of potentially-important information. In September, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the sixth largest public library in the nation, was in danger of closing. Though the library remains open, due to “…legislation that was needed for the City of Philadelphia to avoid the “Doomsday” Plan C budget scenario…“, news about this potential closure was scarce.
If the library had closed, the closure would have been the first of its kind. Though the city has been “crying wolf” about the closure of its public libraries for at least a year, a Google search yields little national news coverage. ABC News and the Los Angeles Times covered the story on their blogs. Is the closing of a major public library not newsworthy?
One Philadelphia resident noted, “The current joke is that, since The Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News is (mostly) bankrupt and has laid off a lot of staff, the reporters couldn’t catch wind of the story because they are understaffed and overworked.”
If no one is being paid to represent and stand up for underrepresented regions, states, and cities, then impassioned young people should share their enthusiasm during their own travels and even online correspondence.
Though many with great love for their home states move away for school, relationships, and career opportunities, some do serve as ambassadors wherever they go. Given the reality of our increasingly globalized economy and the fact that local and regional newspapers are dying on a daily basis, young Americans must work even harder to preserve a local identity.
Writes Montgomery, “As I tread down my career path, I understand that my decisions and lifestyle are being monitored – not just by my family, but by young women and men who want to get out of Mississippi to do something with their lives and bring it back to the state, in order to inspire future leaders. I believe in my state, and I am proud to say that I am from Dixie, that I went to high school in the area of the ‘Free State of Jones’, and that I am a proud Mississippian.”
“My passion for South Carolina – as well as others’ passion for their own states – will foster the rest of the nation’s opportunities to learn about other parts of the country that they do not know very well,” says Simpler Foushee, “The more we all share the places we are coming from (both literally and figuratively), the more we will begin to really see and develop a better understanding of and appreciation for one another. I just wish the media would make a more concerted effort to seek out a more diverse pool of representatives.”
For more state-specific love, watch our exclusive video below: