Thursday, January 07, 2010

You are excluded from chicken cutlet night.

Let's talk about Jersey Shore. In case you've been living under a rock, Jersey Shore is a Real World type reality show that follows around a group of twenty-something Italian-Americans as they get drunk, dance, hook up, fight and work at a t-shirt shop. Another thing they do is make me laugh hysterically, and use my instant replay button to hear one liners like "Chill out, Freckles Mcgee!" and, "She looked like Mike with a wig on."

After the first episode aired, there was a fair amount of controversy, with people picketing outside of MTV's offices and calling for the show to be pulled off the air. I think the gist of the argument being that it was a negative, stereotypical portrayal of Italian-Americans.

I know when I watched the premiere, one thing that I was really struck by was the repeated use of the word guido by the cast members. Now guido hasn't been elevated to the status of being replaced with "the g word" but I was under the impression that it was a slur, and not an acceptable way to describe an Italian or Italian-American person. After watching the rest of the episodes, I still feel that way--this is not a word that I would use. But, watching the show I began to equate it with the way that some black people use "the n-word"--as a term of endearment, and taking something that has a negative connotation and turning it into a positive one. So Italians can say it to each other if they want, but if you say it in the wrong context and you're not Italian--somebody might beat you. Seems pretty straightforward to me.

In addition to supposedly giving Italian-Americans a bad rap, people are upset that they are giving New Jersey a bad name. The thing that is interesting about this is that most (if not all) of the cast isn't even from New Jersey! One is from New York, another from Staten Island and one is all the way from Rhode Island. This is MTV, you know they searched far and wide and selected from hundreds (thousands?) of people to find a cast that they thought would be the most entertaining to watch.

But let's get back to this idea that these young people are a sterotypical portrayal of Italians.

What stereotypes are they reinforcing? These are the ones that I have observed.

--That Italian-Americans have distinct accents.
--That they like to eat pasta.
--That they're loud. (but compared to whom--that's right...less loud white people.)
--That they're family oriented.

I've never heard that Italians like to drink or fight, so while a lot of the cast does both of these things--I don't see them as being stereotypically Italian.

What stereotypes are they challenging?

--That Italians are in the Mafia.
--That there are rigid gender roles. The guys do most of cooking on the show, and I think one of the last words you would hear to describe any of the female cast members is "submissive."

So, in many ways this is a stereotypical portrayal of Italian young people. But the problem comes with the fact that these are real people, not actors. They're not playing a role, they're being (for the most part) themselves. So what does it mean when yourself is a walking stereotype?

That's when we as a culture have to say, "So these people behave in stereotypical that bad?"
"They like to eat ziti; does that mean they're deficient human beings?"
"Yes, they tan a lot, which puts them at increased risk for skin cancer--does that mean they shouldn't live next door to me?"
" Ed Hardy t-shirts aren't really my style, but does that mean we can't be friends?"

In this instance, I don't think the stereotype itself is the problem. The people in this cast seem to be very fun, caring, loyal, honest people--qualities that most people would look for in someone to associate with.

I think the problem is not with the behaviors that Snickers, Pauly D, and The Situation are or aren't reinforcing. It has to do with the fact that there are so few portrayals of Italian-Americans in the media, and they are often very one-dimensional. Like, MTV has a show coming out called The Buried Life where four white guys travel around the country and checking off things on their Bucket lists. Why didn't they get four Italian-Americans for that show? Why has there never been a character like the people on Jersey Shore on a season of the Real World? Why don't we so rarely see portrayals of people who are proud of their Italian heritage but don't have accents, or aren't particularly close to their families? People from the dominant group get to be represented as pretty much everything in the media (except poor) whereas people from marginalized groups are so often pigeonholed into these very limited representations.

I think there is a whole nother idea about who is or isn't "getting the joke" but I will have to save that for another post--it's lunchtime.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your comments.


  1. j galt3:21 PM

    what a train wreck.
    at least the women are not a size zero. They all have a little meat on the bones. Not too much silicone except for one. toight i will have some ziti, battle on the dance floor, and smush my broad. word to your mother.

  2. Two words: Fist. Pump.

    I have never in my life laughed so hard at an MTV show. I keep thinking that these people are just portraying caricatures of themselves, that it's scripted... Then something like Snookie getting cold-cocked in the face brings it back to reality.

  3. As a Puerto Rican, I would find great offense if MTV cast a group of Hispanics who reinforce everything that we intelligent Latinos have tried to obliterate over the years. On the same token, I grew up with nothing but Italians when I was a child and practically lived in a household of 6 Italian boys. I was greatly influenced by these guys and I saw them as my brothers, not realizing that their values (and accents) were very similar with my very own family. I think when you take a look at the show with a broad, intelligent scope as you have, you can find the points beyond the obvious offenses, but I wonder if we would take such a quiet response if I we ourselves were Italian. Fist pumping baby!! Great blog. Thanks for sharing your keen and acute view on the show.


    I think the show is playing on some stereotypes that you didn’t mention. And I want to disclose as I begin this that I have not seen NJ Shore.

    Did you see Saturday Night Live last night (1/9/2010)? They did their running skit on Governor Patterson again, which is playing on some stereotypes itself, and “he” in turn twice stuck it to New Jersey.

    A running joke in Manhattan is that New Jersey is the land of the lower class, unsophisticated, nerdish, style-barren, folk who take the train across the river to be the filler folk in the Manhattan scene. That idea has been a staple in the NY gay community for decades: they speak of “bridge and tunnel types”.

    Seems like the Shore has taken that joke and tied it to another NJ stereotype, the Italian community. There is an important sub cultural group in NJ that is Italian, so it is easy to make the association. It has been made elsewhere too: the Sopranos. So, the Italians in NJ Shore are portrayed as unsophisticated, etc. instead of Mafiosi. But no doubt it is this association of Italian with clownish NJ nerd that is offensive, not the representations of classical Italian culture.

    Like all jokes and humor about subordinated group identity and cultural difference, it is funny because we can all say, “Yeah that is so true.” But like you noted about the use of pejorative naming words, it is mostly OK when we perceive that the teller of the joke is on our side. When we feel some suspicion that they are taking some attitude of superiority, we are offended. And taking the privilege of assuming that we will be seen as “on their side”, when we are not members of the group, is in itself offensive. That is why it is “edgy”.

    I agree with you that the problem in all this is scarcity of presentation. Being ignored and invisible most of the time, and stereotyped in the rare instance of presence, leaves one feeling the butt of the joke instead of included in the fun.

    BTW, it might be interesting to check out other comedy on TV that stereotypes. My absolute favorite right now is Rick and Steve on Logo. Right behind is Modern Family on ABC. I LOL at both of them just because they are stereotypes writ huge. And, there certainly is no dearth of representation of LGBT on TV these days -- there is Logo, a channel! Besides, I have a pretty big ego. It is my first line of defense.

  5. Anonymous2:49 AM

    I'm so excited I found your blog!!!

    I know I have some prejudices. I also know I'm a decent, loving, open human being. The way I was raised by my folks was a lot different than the way the TV raised me, but they both had a lot of time to work on my developing brain.

    I can tell already your blog's going to crack open some (possibly sore) spots in my thoughts and keep my eyes peeled on my own behavior.

  6. I still have difficulty understanding or enjoying reality TV especially these “Real World” type shows. The shows are voyeuristic and I feel great discomfort in the rawness, real or dramatized, that is revealed. I guess I just don’t get it. But that is just baby boomer polly anna me. So I have only heard of Jersey Shore from my adult kids and have not used any time to watch it. Without seeing it, I do have trouble believing that confirming stereotypes, negative or positive, based on general observations of so-called truth or narrow fear fed myths, shown in fiction or pretend non-fiction could be a good thing. I agree with you that compartmentalizing marginalized people into their own show or into a token minority role on the white people show is an obvious problem, and a vehicle of confirming stereotypes in media. I am not in as much agreement that the stereotypes that are probably presented in Jersey Shore are harmless as they may seem. Stereotyping, no matter how seemingly inane, leads to prejudice, that leads to discrimination. While we all use stereotypes to filter all the info we receive, and I definitely still work on stopping myself when I laugh at someone else’s expense, I still have say that a show that stereotypes Jersey Italians as the “g word” is a problem and should be picketed.