joanna weiss

Warren and the deep waters of ethnic identity

Last weekend I watched a TV event that was probably inevitable: a SyFy movie called “Jersey Shore Shark Attack.”

It was immensely satisfying: a spoof of both “Jersey Shore” and “Jaws,” cheerfully low-budget, with computer-generated sharks and obviously plastic dorsal fins and the occasional severed limb, squirting blood. The “Jersey Shore” cast was loosely re-created (“Nooki,” “The Complication”), and a former member of NSync — not Justin Timberlake — was killed by a leaping shark before he could sing a note.

But most impressive was the conceptual twist: the transformation of the “Jersey Shore” players, with their biceps and wet T-shirts and strong Italian identity, from stereotypes to folk heroes. In the movie, the enemies were not just sharks but WASPs. The snobs at the yacht club down the street were pushing a construction project — drilling pylons for a resort that would attract “a better class of people” — that created underwater vibrations that attracted the sharks in the first place.


So the Jersey folks were on a mission to save the town, and their gritty ethnic culture became a sign of their nobility. It’s no accident that the dastardly fish were “white-finned killer albino sharks.” And I doubt it’s giving too much plot away to say things ended with a rousing chant of “Guido! Guido! Guido!”

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This turns out to be a way to understand the endurance of “Jersey Shore” itself: It’s a prime example of our nation’s obsession with, and celebration of, ethnic character. It even holds lessons for a particular political situation. Elizabeth Warren, meet the gang from Seaside Heights.

The lingering issue with Warren — is she Cherokee or not? — isn’t just a technical one, because questions about her ethnicity are also questions about her authenticity. The controversy has endured, not just because Warren botched some news cycles with implausible denials, but because her explanation for listing herself as “Native American” in a legal directory doesn’t match with her public image as a middle-class warrior, an academic elite, an ethnic blank state. Warren’s declaration seems put-on, not deeply felt — as if she were a white-bread preppie trying to fake her way through the bars in Wildwood.

Americans take this kind of thing seriously. For all of our national push for assimilation, we have an even stronger tradition of celebrating ethnic ties. Sometimes, that means putting kids into Irish step-dancing troupes, or embracing the telenovela, or making comedy out of the details of a big fat Greek wedding. People from the outside still appreciate the joke; digging into ethnic specificity is, in practice, a way to be universal.

Cultural identity plays out a little differently in politics. For some politicians, it is a defining factor. People wouldn’t be talking as much about Marco Rubio if he weren’t so proudly Cuban. (And on the flip side, you could see, in George W. Bush’s feverish efforts to be Texan, an effort to shed the image of his own East Coast WASP background.) Other politicians consciously downplay their roots, the better to relate to everybody else.


Warren isn’t really doing either, and that’s her problem. The fact that she didn’t wear Cherokee on her sleeve seems to cut both ways. If she cared enough about this part of her heritage to want to “find some more people like me,” as she put it, why did most people first learn about it from a gotcha story in the Boston Herald?

In that sense, Warren’s best ammunition isn’t a slam-dunk genealogical record, but her contributions to a cookbook called “Pow Wow Chow,” edited by her cousin, published in 1984, and gleefully unearthed by the Herald last month. Warren contributed recipes for herbed tomatoes, barbecued beans, and savory crab omelets.

Those dishes will do nothing to earn her tribal recognition. But as “Jersey Shore” proves, ethnic pride — even the cheesiest kind — has a power of its own. If Warren has more artifacts of Cherokee identity, now’s the time to bring them forth. If sharks are in the water, you might as well give them something to chew on.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.