Guidos and Guidettes
The series Jersey Shore on the MTV network is supposed to be a light-hearted reality program about young people trying to have an enjoyable summer vacation at the Jersey Shore. The emphasis on the “Guido” and “Guidette” sub-culture, however, has led to much controversy within the Italian American communities. The purpose of this analysis is to look into the many definitions of the term “Guido”, to determine whether it is used in a primarily derogatory manner, and finally what makes this show so popular, especially if the Jersey Shore show conveys anti-Italian sentiment. The show hides the prejudice behind the facade of entertainment. This analysis has an emphasis on the ideological critique of the show, and how mainstream America still has underlying racial tensions against Italian Americans. The study also investigates the use of reality television genre analysis and cultural re-appropriation as a means to understand Jersey Shore’ s pop culture significance and context within American society in the winter of 2010.
“Guido” is a slur for an Italian American subculture that was placed upon those of lower and middle class Italian Americans who did not assimilate into conventional American culture. Using the term “Guido, Italian-American ethnicity is symbolically represented as the style of a local youth category. Ethnicity serves as a device of style linkage--a way of being Italian becomes referenced to an ensemble of youth culture signifiers. To this extent, ethnicity also draws boundaries intended to include some and exclude others” (Tricarico, 2007 p.7). However, the use of the term remains controversial and in opposition to two very vastly different definitions and whether it is used to hold Italian Americans in a place of inferiority or it suggests Italian American pride within the youth culture. “Guido has become a new ethnic insult for Italian Americans, surpassing the historical epithets of guinea, dago and wop” says Professor Donald Tricarico, a sociology professor at CUNY/Queensborough who wrote “Identity Politics of Guido” (Tricarico, 2007, p. 8). Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, one of the stars of Jersey Shore, responds “some people think its a derogatory term. But it’s not --- it’s basically [a term] to describe Italians who like to look good and be the center of attention, and there’s nothing wrong with that”. (ABC News). Nicole’s costar Pauly D agrees stating “Guido is representing family, represents friend, tannin’, gel, and everything. I have an [expletive] tanning bed in my house. That’s how serious I am about being a Guido”. (Jersey Shore 2009). Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino describes a Guido as “a smooth well dressed Italian. Girls love Guidos “(Jersey Shore 2009). Vinny, Nicole’s other roommate, says “Most people might consider being a Guido like you’re stupid but I went to school and graduated college. But that doesn’t shy away from that I like to have fun at night and go partying and fist pumping like the best of them. Hey I’m proud to be a [expletive] Guido.”
The use of the term Guido amongst the housemates is evidence of re-appropriation and recontextualization. Re-appropriation “is the cultural process by which a group reclaims—re-appropriates—terms or artifacts that were previously used in a way disparaging of that group. For example, since the early 1970s, much terminology referring to homosexuality—such as gay, queer and (to a lesser extent) faggot—has been re-appropriated” (Wikipedia). When groups, for example, Italian American’s use the term “Guido” it no longer becomes a disparaging term that has been assigned to them but evidence that Italian American’s are taking the opportunity to create their own positive Guido identity.
Maybe these stars of the show don’t believe that the term Guido is derogatory or slander; however, many members of the Italian American community have voiced their opinions on how these young people reflect poorly on the community as a whole. The protesters believe that the Guido stereotype misappropriates most Italian Americans “Jersey Shore is a show in which Italian-Americans are stereotyped (clearly at the urging of its producer) into degrading and debasing themselves -- and, by extension, all Italian-Americans -- and furthering the popular TV notion that Italian-Americans are gel-haired, thuggish, ignoramuses with fake tans, no manners, no diction, no taste, no education, no sexual discretion, no hairdressers (for sure), no real knowledge of Italian culture and no ambition beyond expanding steroid-and silicone-enhanced bodies into sizes best suited for floating over Macy's on Thanksgiving.” said Linda Stasi, an Italian-American New York Post writer (NYPost.com). The images set forth reinforce the negative stereotype of the Guido culture within much of the Italian American communities and the “white and mainstream” masses as well. .
Jersey Shore, is “reality television” in the subcategory of “keyhole programming”.
“Keyhole television signifies those ‘hidden camera’ or ‘personal camera’ type shows that catch famous or ‘ordinary’ people in embarrassing or otherwise ludicrous situations”. (Orlik 1994). Jersey shore would be considered “key hole” television because as an audience we view the characters do embarrassing or crude things. For instance, in the pilot episode of Jersey Shore, “Snooki” drinks too much and begins flirting unsuccessfully with all of the men in the house. As voyeurs and an audience we watch as she embarrasses herself and gets rejected by the men of the house on countless occasions. The whole show can be used as an example of keyhole television, because the characters consistently show themselves as self-centered, vain, ignorant, and stupid.
What makes the show entertaining is that all of the cast members are blissfully unaware of how ridiculous and out of touch they sound. America is having a laugh at the cast members expense, while these people believe they are showing their glamourous lifestyle. While mainstream Americans value humility, natural beauty, and peaceful existence; the cast members of Jersey shore have inflated egos, inflated bodies, and seem to always want to get into physical confrontations. The American public finds this funny and entertaining. However, beyond the facade of humor is something far more disturbing, the cultural breakdown of the Italian family and the replacement of for Italian pride with a niche for consumerism and “fist pumping”. These blissfully ignorant young people use a derogatory term to describe themselves and their peers. The cast members are also affirming and promoting more cultural boundaries between the “us” and “them” of mainstream American culture.
Since Italian American’s immigrated to the United States in the late 19th century, the community was left out of the “us” in mainstream America. While many Italian Americans came as laborers, their drinking habits and Catholic heritage were frowned upon and white Anglo-Saxon Protestants excluded Italians from their communities. The attempts at prohibition in the early part of the century, was essentially an attempt to squash that cultural foe from the new immigrant labor classes, particularly the Italians and the Irish. The subculture of Italian American communities emerged and Italian American’s developed their own traditions and identity. Unfortunately, due to the presence of the Mafia and organized crime associated with the people of that culture, Italian Americans have been vilified and affiliated with violence. The subcultures of gangsters, greasers, disco, and now “Guido” have been the different male stereotypes that were used to identify Italian American’s throughout the decades of the 20th and now 21st century.
Within the first few minutes, the show begins with a depiction of the cast mates Jersey shore house and the wooden beach cottage in Seaside Heights is where the Jersey Shore cast mates reside. The Jersey Shore house is decorated in order to enhance the traditional stereotypes of modern Italian culture. The garage door is painted with the Italian flag, and then a map of New Jersey. Inside the rustic wood corridors is yet another map of New Jersey displayed prominently on the wall next to another Italian flag. Also is a framed poster of “Scarface” and New Jersey license plate with vanity plates reading “Nu Joisy”. Upon viewing the room, the audience is unable to disassociate the cast mates from not only Italian culture and New Jersey but also the violence and Mafia associations with those groups and the colloquialisms of the lower classes of New Jersey. My interpretations that the house is blatantly offensive is not alone. After writing down notes about my experiences from watching the episode, I read other interpretations about what the show promotes. “MTV has festooned the bordello-like house set with the Italian flags and red, white, and green maps of New Jersey, while every other cutaway shot is of Italian signs and symbols. They are blatantly subliminally bashing Italian Americans with every technique possible... (The cast members) are an embarrassment to themselves, their heritage and their families” UNICO National President Andre DiMino (UPI.com)
“Italian-American youth subculture has incorporated sites of consumption such as tanning salons, gyms, pool halls, and beauty parlors where ‘Guidettes get manicures, pedicures, and have their eyebrows waxed’... There are commercial advertisements for products that cultivate ‘the look’ of a ‘hottie’ like tanning, and whitening strips for teeth, and weigh control” (Tricarico, 2007, p.13) The show not only exposes the vanity of the main characters but also depicts them partying, drinking excessively and then having violent interactions with members of the New Jersey seaside community. “Like ghetto youth, Guidos were portrayed as a ‘menace to society’ with the implication that they could not be comprehended as ‘white’ notwithstanding a racial attack” (Tricarico, 2007, p.12). Italian Americans are marginalized and not consider “one of the caucasians”, the portrayal of them as ‘menaces to society’ continues to propagate the idea that Italians are inherently dangerous and cannot be trusted. Tricarico suggests that “Guido is defined by an aggressive masculinity that marks the historical relationship to the ‘defended’ Italian-American neighborhood... The street-based youth subcultures invest heavily in social capital to counter ubiquitous threats.” (Tricarico, 2007, p. 14)
Members of the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) a “ nonprofit, nonpartisan educational foundation that promotes Italian American culture and heritage and is committed to promoting a positive image of Italian Americans” (NIAF letter), wrote a letter to MTV asking them to remove the program from their lineup. Robert Allegrini, Chairman of the Image Enhancement Committee of NIAF wrote in a letter to the CEO of Viacom, MTV’s parent company, “Witnessing the promotional video alone was enough to create a high amount of concern specifically highlighting the language and examples of what we are fearful may depict Italian Americans in an unflattering light that reinforces incorrect and negative stereotypes of an entire ethnic group (NIAF Letter). He goes on to say goes on to say that “While some Italian Americans may adhere to the guido culture, the attempt to directly interconnect Guido and Italian American is not only inaccurate but alarming. A show such as this one is a giant leap backwards for our society and damages the image and sensibilities of Italian Americans.” (NIAF letter)
Upon reviewing the controversy, MTV has dismissed any kind of blame or wrong doing on their part about depicting these young people in such a negative light. In fact, as controversy grew, the show became more popular. The show continues to grow in popularity. The premiere had just under 1.4 million viewers but Episode 4 just had over 2.5 million viewers. (Associated Press). So is “white” America having fun watching another subgroup for comedic enjoyment? I believe so. The characters and cast members of Jersey Shore are not depicted in any sort of positive or glamorous way. But rather as one dimensional objects, they make fun of them as they would a clown in a circus. The show is an example of how America’s cultural elite feels the need to belittle people of ignorance and make an example of them to serve as a warning to others who stray outside the line. Which leads me to my thesis: the “reality” television show, Jersey Shore, only serves to be a comedic source of entertainment because of an underlying reality that America still has a prejudice against the Italian American populations in the North Eastern sections of United States. The “humor” in the show is found by these Italian Americans enforcing traditional stereotypes of the working class population, and is stemmed by the ever-present xenophobia that has been imbedded within American culture.
The pilot episode can be used as an example of the audience watching the cast-mates embarrass themselves on national television. The show begins with Pauly D, as he describes him and his culture in vulgar language. Pauly D, then goes onto explain how he spends 25 minutes on his coif everyday and then the producers then cut to him filling his car and suitcases with exorbitant amounts of hairspray. The first thing Pauly utters on the show is “I was born and raised a Guido.” (Jersey Shore 2009) Therefore, does being a “Guido” mean that you are a vapid and shallow man? It should be noted that his entire monologue is framed under an Italian insignia. Next, the show depicts Nicole, “Snooki” who wears long fake pink fingernails, hair extensions, and is tanned to look like a piece of burnt toast. Next they depict Mike, otherwise known as “the Situation” , who has named himself “the Situation” because of his washboard abs. Enough said. The camera then shows Sammi, “Sweetheart” who seems nice enough until she explains what she believes is a “Guidette” her subculture, the way she defines herself, “A Guidette is somebody who knows how to club it up, takes really good care of themselves, has pretty hair, cakes on makeup, and has tan skin, has the hottest heals, and pretty much know how to rock it.” (Jersey Shore 2009). Please note- that Sammi is not defining “Guidette” with sarcasm or introspectively but with pride. The last notable cast member monologue is Vinny who describes himself as a “I’m a generational Italian. Guys with blow out and the fake tans, wear lip gloss and makeup,those aren’t Guidos; they’re f****ing [derogatory term for homosexual males]”. Charming, right?
What interests me about the show Jersey Shore is that it has become such a phenomena on American television. Despite the stupidity of their cast, lack of plot, and conventionality of its format Jersey Shore continues to have exceptional viewership despite being on a cable network. In fact, Jersey Shore has created somewhat of a pop culture phenomena. Jersey Shore continues to be one of Itunes’ top downloaded television shows, the cast continues to grace the covers of magazines, appear on late night and daytime television and they command upwards of 5,000 dollars to make appearances at bars and clubs throughout the country. In 1992, the famed professional journalist Carl Bernstein wrote “We are in the process of creating, in sum, what deserves to be called the idiot culture. Not an idiot subculture, which every society has bubbling beneath the surface and which can provide harmless fun; but the culture itself. For the first time in our history the weird and the stupid and the coarse are becoming our cultural norm, even our cultural ideal” (Bernstein,1992, p. 2).
In conclusion, the Italian American organizations have good reason to demand the termination of Jersey Shore from the airwaves. MTV is taking advantage of American xenophobia to other subcultures. The channel also chooses a subgroup of Italian Americans who are a very small percentage of the entire population. The subgroup of Guidos, is associated with a lack of education, superficiality, consumerism, and violence and MTV takes no effort in editing the footage to show any kind of disparity with the stereotypical “guido”. The cast members of the show --while enjoying their newfound fame, have no perception that they perpetuating a negative feeling towards Italian Americans that the many generations before them have worked very hard to try and eliminate. Not only do these cast members reflect poorly on their own ethnic group, but they also reflect ageism and that American 20 somethings are only about the material comforts, selfish, lazy and obsessed with sex. Lastly, these cast members reflect poorly on themselves. The cast members show they have little knowledge about their culture, drink themselves into obliteration, disrespect for relationships, and their affinity for promiscuity with strangers. Jersey Shore ended January 21st of 2010 and I’m sure many people hope that there is and will never be a sequel.
*Please Note, this was written in January 2010 before Jersey Shore was renewed for six more seasons. In August 2012, MTV announced Jersey Shore had been cancelled and that the final season, season six (currently airing), would end this winter.
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