MTV’s Jersey Shore is the latest reality show to score ratings and controversy. If you haven’t had the pleasure, Jersey Shore follows eight young people spending their summer on New Jersey’s beaches. (In May, the show will follow the crew in South Beach, Florida). The men are self-proclaimed “Guidos.” Depending upon your point of view, the term is either pejorative, referring to low-class young Italian-American men who work on their tans and hair and little else, or a compliment, designating certain young men as attractive and hot.
When the cast of Jersey Shore appeared on The View, Whoopie Goldberg and Joy Behar, two of the program’s hosts, could not conceal their confusion. Behar, perhaps incredulous that such a show could be scoring ratings and that real celebrities now wanted to hang out with Snookie and were imitating her beehive hairdo, advised the young people to have a backup plan. Whoopie asked whether any other ethnic group—besides Italian-Americans—would tolerate being portrayed in such a manner. The cast members shrugged. Probably not, they admitted.
While organizations claiming to represent Italian-Americans have registered protests against the show (one group, UNICO, the national Italian-American service organization, has threatened a lawsuit) many Americans of Italian heritage are ambivalent. They see little of themselves in the Guidos and Snookies of this world, so it’s easy to dismiss them as characters that could belong to any ethnic group. Just as it’s become impossible to describe the typical American, it’s becoming more and more difficult to describe the typical Italian-American. Is it Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, star chef Giada De Laurentiis, Los Angeles Dodgers Manager Joe Torre, or CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo?
Italian-Americans simultaneously embrace and distant themselves from portrayals that crop up in the media, whether real or fictional. The Godfather trilogy is a good example of this two-sided attitude. Francis Ford Coppola produced three of the best films ever made about Italian-Americans involved in the mafia, and Italian-Americans, recognizing artistic genius when they see it, continue to be big fans of the films. And there’s no dismissing that most Italian-Americans related to the family scenes in the movies—the foods, the relatives from the Old Country, the Catholic ceremonies. Take away the crime and the violence and the Corleones seem like your typical Italian-American family making it in America.
The Sopranos enjoyed a similar love-hate relationship with Italian-Americans. Like The Godfather, The Sopranos was well done—sharp writing, great acting, finely-drawn characters. Tony Soprano had problems most fathers, Italian-American or otherwise, could understand—an out-of-control son, disloyal employees, and getting a daughter into an Ivy League college. Italian-Americans could embrace the artistic value of the Sopranos, relate to Tony’s problems, and reject anything having to do with organized crime.
What about Jersey Shore? The artistic merit of the program is dubious, to be sure. (Although judging by reality show standards, the program is probably better than some, not as good as others). Young people who see themselves as Guidos and Guidettes, will embrace the portrayals. After all, imitation is still the best form of flattery. Other Italian-Americans (read: anyone outside of New Jersey) are liable to view Snookie and crew as aliens from another planet. Fun to watch, scary even. But not worth getting excited about.