The past few weeks of MTv’s reality television show, Jersey Shore, have provided strong examples of the ways co-occurring violence can emerge in young people's intimate relationships and have differing effects based on the respective individuals' sex. For those unfamiliar with the show, you may read a sociological perspective here.
Among the show's cast of characters are Ronnie (a muscular and physically imposing individual) and Sammi – a romantically involved couple. The couple has incessant conflicts tied to jealousy and lack of trust (Ronnie, apparently, cheated on Sammi in a past season). The show typifies many reality shows in that contentious relationships between the characters are further problematized through participants' youth, a lack of structure, and easy access to alcohol.
Jersey Shore's episodes offer little in the way of substance. Characters are given employment, consume alcohol excessively, party at nightclubs, and among a few other activities, pursue mostly transient sexual relationships. Still, due to the show's immense popularity, it merits some scholarly analysis, especially when sexuality mixes with violence to a degree of regularity.
In episode 18 of season 2, titled "Drunk Punch Love," Sammi verbally accosts Ronnie (pictured above) after he re-forges his friendship with another female cast-member, Jenni (a.k.a., "Jwoww," also Sammi’s enemy). Upon admitting friendship with Jenni, Sammi punches Ronnie directly on his chin as he sits on a bench, completely unprepared. Sammi storms off while Ronnie responds by sitting relatively unfazed, mildly feeling his jaw.
This episode of dating violence illustrates the problem with an emergence of teen dating violence studies that Jody Miller and Norman White critique in their important article, "Gender and Adolescent Relationship Violence: A Contextual Examination." Miller and White point out that a good portion of quantitative studies on adolescent dating violence suggests boys and girls are equally as likely to be perpetrators of dating violence (e.g., hitting a dating partner). These studies, however, are misleading because they completely de-contextualize what appear to be equal levels of violence between boys and girls (or young men and women).
Although girls may hit their male intimate partners as often as males hit their female partners, this does not mean the precursors to violence or ramifications of violence are equal. As seen in Jersey Shore, Sammi's physical violence is preceded by Ronnie's unfaithful history; she has immense trust issues specifically because he cheated on her. And though this does not excuse physical violence on Sammi's part, it helps provide a context to her actions.
Secondly, we see very vividly that Sammi's physical violence directed towards Ronnie has almost zero physical impact. Her strike directly upon his chin, with Ronnie completely unprepared, still leaves Ronnie unharmed (at least physically; he later breaks down emotionally). And in fact, teen dating violence studies have found that male adolescents frequently laugh off being hit by their girlfriends. The same cannot be said nearly as often when males hit females.
Thus, when dating violence studies find equal rates of physical violence between heterosexual adolescent couples and report those findings without proper context, they are missing critical information tied to gender imbalances between males and females. This episode of Jersey Shore effectively illustrates how irresponsible it is to report that males and females hitting one another at equal rates is actually equal.
The Jersey Shore dating violence drama continues in episode 19, "Should We Just Break Up?" In this episode, the couple continues intensely arguing to the point that the other three male cast-members – Michael, Paul, and Vinny (a.k.a., "MVP") – intervene.
Ronnie, who is far larger and more muscular than any of the other males, never strikes Sammi (pictured above). Still, he is extremely physical when expressing his anger and has been in at least one fight with another male (non-cast-member) in a past episode. As the "MVP" trio intervenes, both Ronnie and Sammi magnify their verbal aggression and physical bravado, though neither partner strikes the other. Eventually, the male trio successfully gets Ronnie to leave, thereby creating a reprieve to the dating violence.
Unfortunately, the lure used to help Ronnie leave is taking him to a nightclub, where he may consume more alcohol. And unsurprisingly, Sammi and her female cast-mates decide to go to the same nightclub where she openly flirts and dances seductively with male patrons. Seeing Sammi's actions as a sign of public disrespect, Ronnie is infuriated, goes back to the house and tears apart her belongings in a fit of rage. The Jersey Shore cast-members watch on at this point without intervening.
This sequence of events again illustrates young people's unfamiliarity with how to address obvious forms of dating violence. Weisz and Black, in their study titled "Peer Intervention in Dating Violence: Beliefs of African American Middle School Adolescents," found that high percentages of African American middle school students would not intervene in a peer-couple's relationship even if they knew violence was taking place. Students (male and female) reported they would not intervene because (among other reasons) it was none of their business, intervening could hurt them, and their intervention may cause more unforeseen problems.
Again, the way the scenarios played out on Jersey Shore effectively demonstrated how young people do not know how to cope as bystanders with peer dating violence. Truth be told, the "MVP" trio did a good job of initially stopping the dating violence. However, both the male and female bystanders/cast-members probably did the worst thing in having Sammi and Ronnie go out and consume more alcohol in the same location. Watching Sammi dance seductively with other males, Ronnie felt his masculinity was publicly violated, leading him to engage in violent property damage.
As an outside observer, it is impossible to say how much of Jersey Shore is constructed by the production team. This notwithstanding, recent episodes showcase how dating violence emanates among young people. We can see dating violence contextualized along imbalanced gender lines, as well as how bystanders of dating violence struggle to cope with the social problem largely because they don't know how to intervene in a healthy manner.
Not that we can expect more from MTv, but it would be nice if the company at least complimented these Jersey Shore episodes with supplementary videos on how to prevent teen dating violence. They must have the resources that could speak to greater social responsibility. I mean really, does MTv want young viewers thinking that true love is supposed to be violent?