A journal of television and new media

The Hills, Jersey Shore, and the Aesthetics of Class
Amanda Ann Klein / East Carolina University

Cast of MTV's The Hills

Cast of MTV’s The Hills

Most docusoaps maintain a consistent “realist” aesthetic: long takes and mobile cameras in order to maintain a realistic temporality and spatiality; direct sound (which often leads to a “flawed” soundtrack that must be subtitled for viewer comprehension); and “talking head” style interviews or confessionals which stand in for the voice over narrator. These techniques appeal to a viewer’s ideas, primarily gathered from exposure to the filmic documentary, about what “authenticity” looks like. Because reality TV viewers have been trained to ignore style in favor of content, it is significant that MTV’s most popular docusoaps, Jersey Shore (2009- ) and The Hills (2006-2010),123 do not aim for stylistic transparency. Instead, each program’s unique aesthetic choices places them in quotation marks, with The Hills representing “Hollywood fantasy” and Jersey Shore connoting “grindhouse sleaze.” This column argues that the aesthetics of each show condition the viewer’s reception, inviting them to see each program’s performance of class and ethnicity as being tied to specific notions of taste and cultural capital.

Widescreen of the Hills

Image 1. Widescreen allows us to indulge in the mise en scène of The Hills

The aesthetics of The Hills relies on a premeditated combination of cinematography and mise en scène, along with non-diegetic music and editing, to create drama and emotion where none would otherwise exist (Levine).4 The show’s producer, Adam DiVello, instructed his crew that each shot should “look like a postcard” (Kaufman) and the program’s cinematographer, Hisham Abed, has claimed that The Hills’ aesthetic is an attempt to “emulate the look of film on television” (qtd. in Gay 44).5 By mimicking the aesthetics of primetime serialized dramas and mainstream Hollywood releases, The Hills associates its subjects less with the “authentic” world of reality TV and more with the world of fantasy. One way to achieve this look is through the use of a 16:9 aspect ratio. In the cinema widescreen is employed to depict larger than life spectacles. In The Hills it is used to capture the spectacle of Southern California wealth and privilege: private beach houses, palm-tree lined streets, and racks of designer clothing hanging in exclusive Los Angeles boutiques. Further linking the world of The Hills with fantasy is the fact that all footage is color corrected and digitally modified in post-production. Colorist Paul Roman claims that he would digitally “paint” the faces of the girls and then “defocus” the background, so that subjects stood out even more prominently against their settings, making the girls the most important thing in the frame (Kaufman).6 This aesthetic nicely compliments the insular world of The Hills, which documents the lives of young women who believe that their love lives and work squabbles are the most important thing in the frame (i.e., the world).

Kristin Cavallari

Image 2. The Hills cast member Kristin Cavallari is always the most important element in the frame

The Hills is also filmed with telephoto lenses, which allows the show’s cinematographers to maintain a distance from their subjects. According to Abed: “this is a 180 in terms of the visual approach with a lot of reality shows…We use longer lenses and stay away as far as possible, within limits, to give the subjects an emotional distance from the camera and make them more free to speak” (qtd. in Kaufman). Despite Abed’s claims to the contrary, I believe that the distance created by the telephoto lens ensures that The Hills cast is less “free” to speak, or rather, less free to reveal themselves to the camera. Because the cameras maintain their distance, they do not violate their subjects’ personal space or capture these women unawares; every shot is set up ahead of time, giving the girls time to get their hair styled and their lips glossed. This polished, “cinematic” style mirrors the program’s function as a “projective drama,”7 offering its viewers an escapist, consumerist fantasy of a world in which twentysomethings are financially independent and professionally successful, despite their obvious lack of marketable skills. In this insular fantasy world, all signifiers of racial, ethnic, class or geographical difference have been erased, allowing the cast to exist in a consequence-free environment.

By contrast, Jersey Shore’s appeal is based on making visible the ethnicity, class, and geographical location of its subjects, all of whom suffer real world consequences (such as jailtime) for their actions. If the cast of The Hills invites emulation, the Jersey Shore cast invites derision: they get drunk, fall over, vomit, urinate on the street, and unintentionally expose their genitals to the camera (something we would never see from the cast of The Hills, despite the fact that they also drink heavily). Jersey Shore’s aesthetics therefore put the viewer “in her place,” reminding her that the show (and its subjects) are “trash.” Such images are too profane for the glamorous, “invisible” aesthetics of the mainstream Hollywood feature. Instead, the show’s aesthetics mimics those of the grindhouse exploitation film and recall a viewing experience that is illicit, low brow, and abject.

Jersey Shore

Image 3. Jersey Shore mimics the look of celluloid getting stuck in a projector

For example, a typical episode opens with establishing shots of the Jersey shore, as well as the castmates’ house, filmed with hand held cameras that go in and out of focus. These shots are frequently interrupted with jump cuts, as if pieces of the footage have been lost or damaged after years of hard use. The show’s visual and aural devices also create the impression that we are watching a film through an old, rickety projector: we see scratches and imperfections on the surface of the image and at times, the entire frame will appear to jump, accompanied by a clicking sound. The retro feel is bolstered by the decidedly working class décor of the Jersey Shore house with its 70s style wood paneling and shag carpets.

Faux leaders in Jersey Shore

Faux leaders in Jersey Shore

Further adding to the feeling of watching a grindhouse film is the show’s use of leaders, a length of film inserted at the beginning or end of a film, usually containing technical information for the projectionist. In Jersey Shore “faux leaders” are used to provide information to the audience about the episode to follow. For example, the Season 2 episode, “The Letter,” opens with blurry establishing shots of Miami, followed by a leader with the words, “The Plan.” This leader prepares the viewer for an episode revolving around the roommates’ decision to write Sammi an anonymous note detailing her boyfriend’s indiscretions. Jersey Shore is not so complex that it requires sub-headings to guide viewers through its intricate plots. Instead, the use of these faux leaders is another way to implicitly connect the experience of watching Jersey Shore with a previous generation’s experience of watching grindhouse films in the theater. The series’ deliberately retro look recalls the aesthetics employed by Quentin Tarantino’s homage to the ’70s exploitation films of his youth, Death Proof (2007). As with Death Proof, Jersey Shore’s visually degraded images are not the result of the material conditions of moviegoing. Rather, this aesthetic is created digitally; it is an affect for a viewing audience far too young to have ever watched an exploitation film in a grindhouse theater. Instead, as with The Hills, Jersey Shore’s aesthetics serves to frame the viewing experience; its scratchy, faux-authenticity ghettoizes its cast as well as its viewers, reminding them that their desires to watch the cast of the Jersey Shore perform their “guido-ness” are prurient and low brow.

Jersey Shore cast members

Image 5. Jersey Shore cast members like Deana are often “caught” vomiting, belching or urinating on camera.

Both The Hills and Jersey Shore are self conscious texts signaling that the reality TV images we are watching are not completely “real.” Nevertheless, the coded viewing positions created by each program frame the viewer’s reception of each text. These aesthetic choices create a meta-commentary on each show’s cast: upper class, white Americans are treated like stars and given the classic Hollywood treatment, while working class, ethnic Americans are associated with the shady underbelly of American moviegoing practices.

Image Credits:

1. Widescreen allows us to indulge in the mise en scène of The Hills
2. The Hills cast member Kristin Cavallari is always the most important element in the frame
3. Jersey Shore mimics the look of celluloid getting stuck in a projector
4. Faux leaders in Jersey Shore
5. Jersey Shore cast members like Deana are often “caught” vomiting, belching or urinating on camera.

Please feel free to comment.

NOTES

  1. Jersey Shore, which is MTV’s highest rated show of all time, recently pulled in more viewers in the 12-to-34-year-old demographic than American Idol, the former ratings juggernaut (James). In 2008, The Hills was MTV’s and basic cable’s highest rated program (Gorman). []
  2. Gorman, Bill. “The Hills Tops Cable TV Time-Shifting with 35.5% Increase.” TV by the Numbers 28 May 2008. Web. 30 May 2008. []
  3. James, Meg. “Riding the Jersey wave, MTV wraps quarter with poufy high ratings.” LA Times Blogs. 29 Mar 2011. Web. 2 Apr 2011. []
  4. Levine, Elana. “The New Soaps? Laguna Beach, The Hills, and the Gendered Politics of Reality ‘Drama’.” FlowTV 4.10 (2006). Web. 23 May 2008. []
  5. Gay, Jason. “Are They for Real?: Why MTV’s ‘The Hills’ is the Show you Love to Hate—or Hate to Love.” Rolling Stone 15 May 2008: 40-42, 44, 46, 48. Print. []
  6. Kaufman, Debra. “Heading for The Hills.” Film & Video 2 Aug 2008. Web. 2 Apr 2011. []
  7. Kleinhans, Chuck. “Webisodic Mock Vlogs: HoShows as Commercial Entertainment New Media.” Jump Cut 50 (2008). Web. 15 Jul. 2008 []

Comments

  • Gabriel Blanco said:

    I completely agree with the author’s assertion that the aesthetic choices of both The Hills and Jersey Shore do speak to the class differences within each show and how these choices definitely affect the viewer’s perception of the show. However, I am curious to go beyond just this statement. I am curious how the author would account for the extreme difference in viewership between the shows. Jersey Shore has been a magnanimous success for MTV with some of their highest ratings in the history of the network whereas The Hills, while popular, never gained a viewership quite so large as it’s low brow cousin Jersey Shore. Is this because, as the author notes, the Jersey Shore’s low brow, critical viewing of “trash” is more entertaining or because we can relate to people that aren’t as wealthy as the upper class cast of The Hills? Or is there another reason? I would argue that the Jersey Shore has become such a successful show because of the economic times in which we currently reside. A society in such economic turmoil will always turn to what is more entertaining, more lighthearted and more relatable. While I am not saying we are all “trash” like the cast of the Jersey Shore, I am saying that we are -not- all rich yuppy girls from Beverly Hills. The huge ratings difference in these shows is a perfect elucidation of how socioeconomic fluctuations can affect viewership of two different reality shows on the same network.

  • Katherine Steinbach said:

    Well examined!

    As someone who has obsessively watched both these shows with helpless fascination, I feel that the aesthetics hold the real draw to both programs. Both The Hills and Jersey Shore, while both “reality” shows, appeal to audience’s needs for extreme narrative and stylization. The meta-commentary allows for a cooler, more distant viewing practice, which works to ease the stigma we all feel towards watching earnest melodrama. Both shows allow the focus to be split, and the aesthetics take over from the content in some ways. The Hills, a really beautifully shot program, tends to distract it’s viewers with settings and products. The fashion on the show, for instance, provided a layer of appreciation for some women that was completely separate from the drama of the narrative. The show became an equivalent to window shopping.

    For Jersey Shore, the stylization of exploitation allows audiences to feel that they are “observing” rather than identifying with the characters. I appreciated the parallel you drew between the look of the degraded images and the degraded subject matter. Part of the engineered pleasure of the show is knowing that you are so very different from these people. It is a frequent habit of mine to watch while shaking my head and chuckling. The aesthetics of both shows help to overcome the need to illicitly watch the shows, as the need to truly care and empathize with the characters is tempered with extreme stylization.

  • Ian Ward said:

    What’s really interesting about the difference between these shows is that in some ways they both perfectly represent the opposite ends of the reality television spectrum. Much of reality television is made up of aspirational shows where the audience wants to do or be what they see or screen and shows that rely on schadenfraude as its main appeal. The shooting style of the hills very much reinforces the glamorous life of the people on screen and does so because that is what the show is supposed to do. Most of its viewers either are girls like Kristen Cavalari or very much want to be. They see her beautiful (expensive) clothing, and her beautiful (expensive) surroundings, and they want her beautiful (expensive) life. The aspirational show is a very appealing one to advertisers because it makes people more susceptible to lusting after things that will make them better (like the people they are watching between the commercial breaks).

    Jersey Shore is a smash hit for all of the reasons Jerry Springer was popular before it. It features a crew of misfits whose existence is so absurd and cartoonish, but we can’t help but laugh at them. The show embraces its grunge – right down the exploitation of its cast members bathroom activities and sex lives. The show mainly focuses on sex, booze, and parties (with the occasional sprinkle of violence thrown in) to emphasis how different and low-rent these self-named “guidos” of Jersey Shore are. Jersey Shore is one of the few shows on television in which a female main character can be assaulted by a man in a bar and its audience would cheer they way the cheer when a linebacker lays a big hit on a running back on Sundays. Most “fans” of Jersey Shore tune in every week to watch the train wreck. I’ve asked acquaintances why they watch Jeresy Shore and I get answers back like, “I don’t know those guys are a waste a space.” People didn’t “like” Tony Soprano, but he was a at least interesting. Anybody who called him a waste of space ended up wacked before becoming a popular topic for him to discuss with his therapist. Jersey Shore is wildly popular for the same reason that Rebecca Black’s Friday has 119 million views on youtube at the time of this posting. We love to hate these guys and gals.
    As was mentioned earlier, these two shows have been succeeding at very different rates and the downturn in the economy seems to have fueled the success of schadenfraude based reality programming while increasing the resentment for aspirational (rich white people) reality programing. The aesthetics of the two shows certainly reinforce the themes of the show and embrace their two main purposes, but one must wonder what life a schadenfraude- based show can have. After a while won’t we stop loving to hate these guys and just stop caring altogether? Here’s hoping.

  • Amanda said:

    Thanks for the great comments, Gabriel, Katherine and Ian.

    @Gabriel That is a great question, something I hope to tackle when I have more than 1300 words in which to get my point across! But yes, the ratings for JERSEY SHORE are much higher than the ratings for THE HILLS ever were. Of course, when THE HILLS was in its prime, it was the highest rated show in its time slot for 12-34 year olds across both cable and broadcast networks. So it was a HUGE success for MTV (JERSEY SHORE is therefore an even more spectacular hit). I do think the changing economic climate had something to do with this change in viewership: viewers likely found the fantasy world of THE HILLS, where everyone is gainfully employed and able to shop without checking their bank accounts first, to be off-putting. However, I also think that JERSEY SHORE just works much better as a docusoap than THE HILLS ever did. As Ian points out above, many people enjoy JERSEY SHORE because of the schadenfreude it creates: it’s fun to laugh at a man in his late 20s who spends 45 minutes doing his hair. And I think that docusoaps work best when we can feel somewhat superior to the subjects on screen.

  • Courtney Thomas said:

    Well done! I have watched way too many episodes of both series and what from what I understand, Jersey Shore follows a more traditional sitcom family structure while The Hills has a more melodramatic structure rooted in hour long drama series. There are certainly clashing personalities that make for drama in Jersey Shore, but at the thread of the continuing narrative is that they are a family with like moral and traditional Italian values. This structure allows for humor and silly antics – in sitcoms it’s shown in jokes and physical humor whereas in Jersey Shore it’s shown in pranks and silly drunken behavior. The family sitcom often uses a 3 camera format and is less glamorous than a show like Dynasty or Beverly Hills 90210. The Hills, on the other hand, thrives on the tension within the group and the characters often feel isolated in their love and friendships. For the most part, the characters date within their group which upsets the balance of the group and makes the viewer come back next week to see if the conflict will be resolved. This is similar to an Aaron Spelling drama which follows a more cinematic structure and promotes a certain affluent regional lifestyle. Perhaps Jersey Shore gets better ratings because besides the drunkeness and tom foolery, it feels like a reality people would want. If given the choice, would you want to be part of a family or part of an elite crowd?

  • Ritvik Mayank said:

    Amanda Ann Klein writes about cinematography as indicators of social class and mores via two of MTV’s most recent hit and star makers, The Hills and Jersey Shore. What’s particularly perceptive in Klein’s take is how neither show conforms to the standard documentary, or television documentary aesthetic, which is natural, diegetic sound, talking-head framing, and possible subtitles. The Hills, with its upper-class denizens is instead filmed in 16:9 letterbox format and is presented with significant pre and post editing and colorizing. As is stated by the producers of the show, the aesthetics are to look like a feature film broadcast on television as the “reality” of the privileged. While the crew of The Hills claims to take extreme long shots for the sake of accuracy, seeing them in the wild as they were, Klein makes a very good argument that instead the distance allows for the girls, the primary protagonists, to stay aesthetically pure and under control.

    The staged-aspect of The Hills as a contemporary aristocracy is starkly different than what Klein calls the “grind house” nature of Jersey Shore, which is filmed, warts and all, through the escapes of what are far lower class, and stereotypically “ethnic” (though not all are Italian) denizens. The digital leaders, and overall 1970s aesthetic frame the world of the Jersey Shore roommates and also as rough and tumble as their antics. I think what Klein may miss is closeness is what perhaps leads to Jersey Shore’s considerable success even to the arena of American Presidential politics, because there is identification and humor made of the nearness. Grotesque as it is, Jersey Shore is identifiable to far more than a detached, glossy view of the rich and well-coiffed.

  • Adriana Y. said:

    What intrigued me most is Klein’s wonderful shot analysis of the Hills and Jersey Shore. Evidently, MTV uses documentary style shooting and editing in order to create the illusion of reality. The Real World is another show on MTV that uses this “realist aesthetic.” In addition, producers cast individuals who meet the standards for that particular show. For instance, Jersey Shore’s TV personalities are far more profane than the prim characters that appear on The Hills. In contrast, The Real World is a docusoap that brings together a diverse group of individuals (cast members) to present the conflicts that arise between members who differ in race, class, gender, and sexuality. Although all three shows are considered Reality TV, they are filmed differently: The Hills aims for a cinematic quality (telephoto lens and smooth camera movement), Jersey Shore maintains a grindhouse quality of filming (out of focus surveillance cameras, “like an old movie projector,” hand held camera movement), and The Real World provides an intimate quality of filming (high definition surveillance cameras, rapid closeups and cuts, jumpy hand-held camera movement). Out of the three shows, The Real World seems to be the most realistic; while it uses picturesque establishing shots like The Hills, it also uses jumpy handheld camera movement like Jersey Shore. Overall, Jersey Shore, The Hills, and The Real World use different styles of documentary to communicate different messages to the viewer.

  • Patrick S said:

    As an aspiring cinematographer I am pleased to see the more aesthetically pleasing work done with The Hills. Although I am not advocating the use of any reality T.V. show when trying to provide examples of high production methods, The Hills seem to have the upper hand when catering to the visual eye. But that is also the kind of audience they are trying to pull in. The big difference between the ratings is due to the different life styles each possess, there is only so many people you can attract by showing the high life. The cinematic production techniques only adds to the division of rich and poor. The more populated middle class can relate easier to the raw and gritty hand held cameras more then the lavish cinematic beauty shots of The Hills.

  • Bryan D. said:

    These are phenomenal observations that have never crossed my mind. As I began reading this, the first thing that came to mind was the race/ethnicity issue that is discussed in the end. If anything, by comparing these two shows, I can see that we have not gotten too far from conveying the white Americans as being the wealthy and successful and the most-coveted of individuals. But that’s nothing new. What surprises me though is the depiction of more ethnic individuals has gotten worse – as seen in The Jersey Shore. Not only are they seen as less desired, but all out trashy. When shall we depict more ethnic people in more positive light (the Kardashians are not that much better).

  • Joseph Escobar said:

    This article does a great job in analyzing the aesthetics of class within The Hills and The Jersey Shore. I have watched both of these shows and have never made such observations, therefore I thought the article was interesting. The Hills is a show that is all about “wealth and privilege” and focuses on the glamor of living in Southern California with the “private beach houses, palm-tree lined streets, and racks of designer clothing hanging in exclusive Los Angeles boutiques.” What I thought was interesting was that all the actors and actesses enjoying life in the show are white. In contrast, The Jersey Shore’s ethnic actors and actresses are seen as constantly getting drunk, falling over, vomiting, urinating on the sheet and unintentionally exposing private parts on the camera, as the author states. Although both of these shows are forms or reality television, the ethnicity, class and racial signifiers are very different.

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  • Sabrina Chammas said:

    Amanda Klein breaks down the visual and aesthetic differences of two very different reality shows. On one hand “The Hills” portrays the lives of upper class teenagers using production and post production techniques that visually support the characters’ glamorous lives. On the other hand the “Jersey Shore” uses a low quality style of filming and editing to frame the show and the characters as lower class.
    I think it would be interesting to imagine a world where these two filming styles were reversed: what if “The Hills” was shot in the style of the “Jersey Shore” and vice versa? Would this have an impact on what the viewers thought of these show, or would it really not make a difference because content is stronger than form?
    My argument is that it would definitely make a difference: I think that if “The Hills” was shot in a lower quality, with bad sound, and we didn’t really get to see the character’s up close, the viewers who would be watching this show to fantasize about their world would quickly be turned off. The racks of designer clothes and big mansions and pretty girls would just look like banal every day things. And if the “Jersey Shore” was filmed in a pretty way… well maybe we would treasure all that trash. It is difficult to imagine, but if the street fights and throwing up were shot more cinematically, like action films and dramas, (for example: close up of the tears, intense classical music, slow motion etc…) teenagers could very possibly buy into that world as a glamorous and desirable way of life.