Yes, this article is about Snooki, a.k.a. Nicole Polizzi, the consummate party-girl-turned-mom who, earlier this summer, renounced her wild ways on the covers of numerous magazines and on the reality show that brought her fame, Jersey Shore. Snooki’s metamorphosis has been abrupt and total, and tells us something important, I think, about how broad swaths of America conceive of sex, family, and the many controversial issues surrounding them.
For those benighted RD readers not familiar with this particular bit of pop-culture jetsam, Snooki—now all of 24 years old—has been for several years the diminutive star of MTV’s most successful reality show ever, which focused on the misadventures of a half-dozen young, libidinous, and suntanned roommates summering at the Jersey Shore. With their absurd fashion, preposterous partying, and hilarious unsophistication the cast was held up to ridicule—at first. Snooki and her pals were caricatures of slightly-racist clichés: goombas and Guidos, big-haired-chicks and their douchebag consorts. But as the years went by, the adoration became less and less ironic. Kids started to ape their out-of-fashion fashion, and we came to know these people as (gasp) people.
Over the course of five seasons, however, Snooki, the Situation, and the rest of the gang (with some minor cast changes along the way) have remained superficial, materialistic, and hedonistic. Their ignorance, particularly as they wandered overseas for season four, has been stunning—and distinctly American. Paraphrasing a forgotten track by the 1990s trip-hop band Whale, these kids are young, dumb, and full of… sexual energy. And they revel in it.
So when Snooki became pregnant a year ago, the tabloid response was predictable: manufactured outrage. Snooki—a mom?! America waited for the next Britney Spears/Michael Jackson parenting disaster with the usual combination of contempt and voyeurism.
Well, the baby was born three weeks ago and, so far at least, Snooki has taken a different tack. I’ve turned over a new leaf, she says. My partying days are behind me. I’m a new woman.
Concomitant with this reinvention, she’s ditched the spray-on tan and layers of makeup, going for a more ‘natural’ and ‘mature’ look. “I’m a legit old lady,” she said, referring to raising baby Lorenzo with his father, Jionni LaValle. She’s moved from the Jersey Shore to the Jersey suburbs without batting an eye.
Truthfully, it’s too early to make any judgments. Snooki may yet melt down, shave her head, dangle her baby off a balcony, whatever, but the way this transformation has been enacted is nonetheless remarkable. In so quickly casting off the mores of her immediate past, Snooki is the latest in a long line of irresponsible youths turned responsible adults, bringing to mind the young Henry V (a.k.a. “Prince Harry”) in Shakespeare’s cycle, who, when he is called to rule, immediately puts childish things away—even going so far as to hang one of his former compatriots when he is caught thieving. (One wonders if today’s Prince Harry will likewise renounce his wild youth, which he is currently still enjoying to the fullest.)
America loves this narrative. It’s a combination of some of our favorite myths: coming of age, for one; redemption, for another. Think of George W. Bush, whose errant ways were all forgiven once he was born again. Liberals couldn’t understand how Christian conservatives could embrace a former cokehead and draft-dodger, forgetting that the narrative of sin and redemption is precisely the Christian ur-text. Conservatives didn’t embrace Bush despite his sordid past, but because of it.
Likewise, I think, with the strange respect now shown former President Clinton, by some of the same conservatives who used to vilify him. When Clinton was caught with his pants down, conservatives tried to destroy him, all the while claiming that if he would just confess his sin and beg forgiveness that all indeed might be forgiven. It was Clinton’s “lawyerly evasions,” in the late William Safire’s words, that were the problem.
Now, it seems, all is indeed forgiven. Clinton has written his memoir, apologized for his misdeeds, and the fact that he has strayed in the past makes him more appealing, not less, to religious people who consider themselves fallen and in need of forgiveness. Clinton’s coming of age comes much later than Snooki’s, but it’s never too late to be saved.
Just Like You
From the perspective of September 2012, then, how do we understand the last five years of Snooki’s hedonistic self-indulgence? All of a sudden, what she stands for is not drinking and partying per se, but drinking and partying in a particular time and place. Snooki’s behavior may be morally reprehensible, but it’s not exactly wrong, as long as at an appropriate time—such as motherhood—it is set aside in favor of eternal verities of family, community and, implicitly, God.
As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Snooki’s story is a feminine, and possibly even feminist, one. Men have “sown their wild oats” for millennia before being asked to settle down and raise a family, but women have rarely had the privilege. Of course, it remains to be seen if America accepts the new, reformed Snooki, but if it does, it could be seen as a weird, small step forward for equality.
Ultimately, though, the Snooki narrative is deeply problematic. The conservative war on women, what’s left of the Right’s war on gays—these movements are essentially conflicts with liberated sexuality, with the notion that to be sexually free is not only for 19- to 24-year-olds but for all of us, regardless of age and social position.
The mainstream gay movement has succeeded because it has assimilated itself into this dominant narrative: gay people are not (just?) the drag queens at pride parades, but moms and dads who want the same things as everyone else. In every media training I’ve received as an LGBT activist—and there have been several—this has been the message: we are just like you and we want what you want, which is to marry, raise children, and put childish things away.
But if mainstream gays have won (for now), women and more radical queers have lost. Women demanding access to abortion and contraception are not Snookies on temporary holiday; they are requesting the categorical right to determine their own sexual lives. And gender-nonconforming queer people are likewise not asking to be “just like you” but demanding the right to be themselves, to be different from you and me, and for us to respect that difference.
These are not demands that the Henry V/Snooki narrative can accommodate. On the contrary, Snooki’s hedonism now seems deliberately temporary in nature, as if she knew all along that this was just a phase. Possibly she did; possibly she understood that, throughout all the binge drinking and one-night stands, that this was just her enjoying her youth, and that one day, it would be set aside in favor of more conventional and conservative values. But even if she didn’t know this, she can now say—with the wisdom of a 24-year-old—that she was just a dumb kid, that having a child has changed her, that now she understands what she couldn’t have known back then.
In the past, I’ve often observed how conservatives treat gays like we’re hedonists, failing to understand that love and commitment come in a variety of configurations. But Snooki’s story makes me think that I’ve got it slightly wrong. Maybe hedonism isn’t the problem; it’s actually just fine, in its proper context. The problem, for conservatives, comes when we question the context itself and reject narratives like Snooki’s—or when we insist that they are only one among many. Some party girls grow up to be moms, and others grow up to be, well, whoever they want to be. That, not temporary sexual libertinism, is the real threat to the world of conservative religion.
If this is true, then Snooki’s reinvention is simply the latest in a long line of Christian redemption narratives, at once validating temporary aberration and marginalizing those who don’t see themselves in need of being saved.