Thursday, January 07, 2010
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 ways...is 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.
Posted by myblackfriendsays at 7:28 PM