As Madison Moore mentioned in this space last week, MTV’s hit show Jersey Shore has many viewers—namely, Italian-American rights groups and New Jersey residents—up-in-arms over the antics of the show’s eight (now seven) cast members. Amid demands from UNICO and NJ Senator Joseph Vitale to ax Jersey Shore as well as an official announcement from Seaside Heights that it did not “solicit, promote or participate in the filming” of the show, several MTV employees have apparently received death threats from irate viewers.
As an Italian-American and a New Jersey resident for most of my life, I’m not offended by this show so I find the public outcry over it a bit amusing. Making a fuss about the latest fabulously bad reality show on cable is the absolute last thing the long-troubled NJ government needs to be doing, and the fact that nearly 71,000 people chose to join the Facebook group “MTV's Jersey Shore is a disgrace to the Jersey Shore and its Inhabitants" is pretty funny.
First, none of the cast members are actually from New Jersey except Sammi “Sweetheart” Giancola. Besides that, I have enough confidence in Americans viewing Jersey Shore from the other 49 states to believe that they will not come to the conclusion that all 8,698,900 or so NJ residents look and behave like the creatures on this show. Assuming that all residents of the Garden State were embodied by the likes of Snooki and “The Situation” would be the same as assuming that everyone from California is as shallow and narcissistic as the cast of The Hills or the Real Housewives of Orange County. By this point, the American living room has been so inundated with reality TV throughout the ‘00s that even the most uneducated consumer realizes that only the extraordinary, shocking or grotesque get a reality TV show.
That said, while the show’s characters are dumb, arrogant, orange and gelled, there’s no denying the fact that people bearing likeness to Jersey Shore cast members in appearance and mental capacity do indeed prowl around NYC’s outskirts from the GSP to the BQE to the LIE. As Italian-American S.E. Cupp of the NY Daily News points out, the show shines a “spotlight on a small but real subset of the culture. One that we should recoil from—and raise our kids to be nothing like.”
Her opinion, which I agree with, is that Italian rights groups should not bash the show, but instead be grateful that the show makes a mockery of a misguided subculture and its obtuse values. As the season progresses and these characters get into more drunken fights and share more of their “thoughts” with viewers, it becomes all the more obvious that the cast members are examples of how not to behave, look or think.
But then there is the issue with the G-word and the cast members’ proud use of it. What rights groups like UNICO may not realize is that these days, politically correct or not, the G-word is much more of a reference to a ridiculous lifestyle or a persona—an individual that chooses to look and behave a certain way—than it is a derogatory term for Italian-Americans synonymous with say, “wop.” To answer questions posed in Caryn Brooks’ Time article: “Is the G Word a generational pejorative? Do younger Americans of Italian descent have a different relationship to the G word?” The answer is yes.
In fact, you really don’t have to be Italian at all to be a guido. Over at www.getoffourisland.com, a humorous site dedicated to raising awareness of a perceived burgeoning population of guidos specifically on Long Island, the authors identify a long list of “guido” prerequisites, none of which are an Italian heritage. Indeed, there are plenty of men out there from various ethnic backgrounds with fake tans, bad attitudes, shirts that are too tight, ostentatious tattoos, diamond body adornments, souped-up cars with tinted windows, and enough gel in their blowout to “give it the texture of a bag of nails.” Likewise, there are plenty of women with dangerously large hoop earrings, offensively minimal clothing, disproportionately large breast implants, poofed hair, tramp stamps and limited intellect from all corners of the gene pool as well. Pauly D’s now-infamous statement regarding the G-word—"I got a fucking tanning bed in my place. That’s how serious I am about being a guido”—just goes to show how little “guido” has to do with being Italian and how much it has to do with a choice in lifestyle.
So, if I was out with my friends and someone came back from the bathroom after a prolonged period of time and said, “Sorry for the delay, I was stuck in line behind some guidette,” everyone knows they do not mean, “Sorry for the delay, I was stuck in line behind a poor, disadvantaged Italian girl whom I feel should either assimilate or go back to Italy.” They mean it as, “Sorry for the delay, I was stuck on line behind some really loud, shit-faced, voluntarily orange girl who stepped on my foot with her stiletto, hit me with her $4000 Luis Vuitton tote bag, made me high from her hairspray fumes, showed me the scars from her boob job and gnawed on her last piece of watermelon Bubble Yum.”
While getoffourisland.com is tongue-in-cheek and probably meant more to entertain than incite, the authors list two guido prerequisites which are particularly interesting: a desire to associate oneself in some way with the mafia and an affinity for gangster rap music. What’s interesting about this is that gangster rappers of today idolize the original Italian gangsters of the 20s and 30s by referring to them constantly in their music and revering their criminal lifestyle and the material wealth they gained through violence and selling drugs and/or stolen property. Interestingly, though pathetically, while today’s black gangster rappers idolize the Italians of yesteryear, the “guidos” of today pay homage to gangster rappers by blasting their music out of the windows of souped-up BMWs, having the same confrontational attitude and mimicking their ostentatious taste in jewelry and tattoos.
Although the America of today is far more complicated place than the original gangsters lived in, the same value system and the core components of “being a gangster” endure: get rich quick, have a haughty attitude, sell drugs, buy a ton of ostentatious and unnecessary shit, sleep with a multitude of brainless women, carry weapons and use violent or deadly force against all who oppose you. And so through the generations, these subcultures of the Italian community and the black community have sustained each other in perpetuating a value system and an archetype which may feel empowering for a fleeting moment, while in reality the only time-proven way to gain real wealth and respect in this country has always been through hard work, disciplined spending, investing, creativity, patience and nepotism.
It is unfortunate that these two modern-day subcultural archetypes—the orange, gelled hair Italian gangster and the black, blinged out, gold-toothed gangster—currently promulgate the media and reinforce stereotypes about Italian-American and African-American culture as whole. But, as Moore mentioned, he is able to watch shows like Flavor of Love and Katt Williams’ Pimpadelic and be entertained because he knows these ridiculous personas are not a true representation of him or his heritage. Jersey Shore is just the latest manifestation of the reality TV machine’s ability to exploit, shock and entertain us by giving us a glimpse at the lives of out of the ordinary people. This show and others like it remind us that it’s not one’s ethnic background or the state they came from that begs to be mocked, it’s their ignorance. And ignorance and entertainment can come from any locality and in any color.