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Tramps Like Us: Confronting Jersey Stereotypes and Beyond

Alright, I’ll admit it: I was born and raised in New Jersey.

I never thought about where I was from until I left, for college in what we all call “the city.” At NYU, I quickly encountered tons of Beckys from Ohio, Connecticut, upstate, you name it, who certainly had a specific idea of what it meant to be from New Jersey. It’s gross, it’s poor, it’s trash. It’s the “armpit of America” and the “dumpster” of New York. I just as quickly developed shame around the question, where did you grow up? Part of my growing class consciousness was a plunge into theory previously kept far away. I looked around and realized there was more to this upstairs-downstairs dynamic than I first thought; even if my parents could afford to buy me the things these kids had, I still would be on a lower rung because of where I grew up.

I’m not here to write you one of those listicles on the top 10 reasons why New Jersey isn’t as bad as you think. We have larger, more important issues to solve in our capitalism-ravaged world. But, in a way, the general loathing projected toward my home state is evidence of these issues: populism, industrialism, loss of community and identity beyond the culture war, lack of education, and resistance to adequate mental health care. All these reasons and more could be why you think you dislike people from New Jersey. Do you think we would be famous for table-flipping and binge drinking on the boardwalk if we all had the money to go to therapy or if boot-strap capitalism hadn’t brainwashed us? I’ve called this meeting to break the news to you: those are also the same reasons why people from all over the world don’t like Americans. We’re all trashy and annoying and stupid. That’s the American way. New Jersey is just extra loud about it.

One of the primary channels through which the Jersey reputation has developed is pop culture and in my lifetime there have been some heavy hitters. All of this media supposes we Jersey folk are just as bad as you assume we are, maybe even worse. And then it asks the question: don’t you love us more because of that? Don’t you like how you can sit on your perch and know you’re better than trashy New Jersey?

By the 1999 premiere of The Sopranos, the antihero was nothing new to storytelling; however, this was arguably the first time there was one welcomed into millions of American homes. Fascinatingly, pop culture also let reality television through the door around the same time. And the majority of these reality stars from MTV and VH1 to E! and Bravo are people we viewers love to hate. A decade later, Real Housewives of New Jersey and Jersey Shore fist-pumped into our living rooms within months of each other. Individually and collectively, these programs served to establish different aspects of the Jersey identity, all through the Italian-American and working class-turned-nouveau riche lenses. While these elements are not monolithic cultural markers of all New Jerseyans, they do seem to be the ones people cling to most for entertainment purposes as well as reasons to dislike us. But here, New Jerseyans were given the chance to represent themselves, rather than living in the shadow of New York. Thanks to these newfound platforms, people all across the globe know about state staples like Taylor Ham and gabagool, the shore, Parkway exits, guidos, and more.

Still, this wasn’t enough for many Garden State residents. People wanted to be more than badly behaved goombas, crying out “Most of the Jersey Shore cast isn’t even from New Jersey!!” True, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find guidos and guidettes across the state. These are the same Italian-Americans who protested The Sopranos and probably would disavow my use of so-called slurs like goomba and guido (as well as wop, paisan, Guinea, etc.) as though they’re at all close to the N-word. As a Gawker article from 2011 points out, “Jerseyites have such a bizarrely inflated ego and defensiveness about their state that it's hard to actually praise it. It's reflexive. You almost need to say something bad about it, just to satisfy these fools' persecution complexes.” Methinks these New Jerseyans would save themselves a lot of stress over the stereotypes if we just stopped caring and embraced the nuance of being a little trashy. Haven’t they heard? It’s cool to be a guido now.

As trends from the late 90s to mid-2000s are once again dominating the zeitgeist, you can find hordes of young people online and IRL joining in on Jersey culture. Yes, I saw you wannabe blue-collar assholes walking around Soho wearing white tank tops and gold chains with your Adidas track pants. The guido fad is perhaps the most unexpected thing resurrected with the larger Indie Sleaze revival. What was once a slur for Italians in America evolved into an aesthetic with many lives since the Ellis Island Days; now even the rich kids want to appear working class.

Expressions of wealth are a trend in themselves; in a class-conscious world, if you flaunt what you have it must mean you don’t have much. Privately accruing is acceptable but wearing heaps of gold and diamonds is not. This is why class distinctions like “Eurotrash,” “nouveau riche,” “white trash,” etc. exist. So rich people with things like “taste” distinguish themselves from people with none whatsoever (based on their standards) by wearing the plainest but most expensive cashmere cardigan possible. On the other hand, we’ve had a revelation that it’s kinda bogus to be a snob, hence Bernie Bros’ appropriation of working-class staples like gold chains and undershirts. Yet, cosplaying as Italian American (aka the least white white culture a WASP can adopt without being called out) only offers a safe mask for yuppies to wear at grubby dive bars while still dipping into daddy’s trust fund. The guido and guidette culture made world-famous by the Jersey Shore is not so different from the sloppy club girl look popularized by Paris Hilton just a couple of years before. It’s less about the Ed Hardy, trucker hats, and UGGs than who’s wearing them and why. See, these kinds of over-the-top, working-class momentos ascend the class ladder by way of irony.

As my dad likes to say, any attention is good attention. Or as Lance Strate asserts in his essay on NJ as “Sopranoland,” “it is better to have a negative identity than no identity at all.” Better to be on the radar, making a cultural impact than to be boring like Connecticut (sorry but I’m jealous that they get Gilmore Girls). The thing is, Jersey can be disgusting. We are the dumpster of America. But was that by choice? Dating back to colonial times, Ben Franklin joked that “New Jersey is like a barrel tapped at both ends” and some loser named Jonathan Belcher called it “the best country for middling fortunes.” Is this destiny or a self-fulfilling prophecy? Interestingly enough, the same scathing NYT article from 2002 (peak Sopranos era) points out that New Jersey took the place Brooklyn once had as the butt of jokes. Now Brooklyn is one of the coolest places to live. Will Jersey be next?

The Garden State occupies a liminal space between the accusation of coastal elitism with its proximity to two metropolitan areas and a forgotten place succumbing to Trumpism. Similar to the idea that a global superpower can’t exist without exploiting other countries, less ravaged states can’t exist without a state like Jersey, at least in the current iteration of our world. It’s the country’s fourth most diverse state with a tremendous output in manufacturing and pharmaceutical research and honestly, a nice place to have grown up. But the tides have been turning for a while. By marking places in the United States as trashy rather than understanding them as a square in the fabric of our country, we attempt to disengage from the responsibilities of solving our collective problems on a national scale. While Jersey is safe as the butt of the joke, very real scapegoats exist within the state and beyond: immigrants, queer and trans people, women, and people of color. We’ve seen before what happens when a nation is in disarray; we turn on each other, especially the working class. The white working class would rather identify as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” than ally themselves with more unprivileged groups. It seems that in the last decade or so many Jerseyans, especially those of white European descent, got tired of being laughed at so they pointed the finger at more vulnerable targets. Hence the rise of conservatism across the state. Does it make their bigotry right? Of course not, but it does give us insight as to how being so offended by subjective, class-fueled labels like “trashy” creates a movement in which people are determined to prove their worth.

In possibly the most Jersey statement of all, it really doesn’t matter what you think about us. As I’ve learned, shame is a self-inflicted state of mind. No one can make New Jerseyans feel inferior if we didn’t let them, if people didn’t whine that we’re not as bad as they say. Maybe we are trashy; what’s so wrong with that? The sooner we embrace this descriptor, the sooner we free ourselves from identity politics hell.


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writer + pop culture Historian  

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