“The Italian, whatever, national, whatever their organization is, they don’t understand that ‘guidos’ and ‘guidettes’ are good-looking people that, you know, like to make a scene and be center of attention and just take care of themselves. They are old-fashioned.
They don’t know that; they think it’s offensive, because maybe in their time it was offensive, but now it’s kind of a compliment. So they don’t understand that and that is what we are trying to say. They are way overreacting to the show. We’re 22 to 29 just having fun at the shore. They are just taking it way out of proportion.”
-“Snooki” on The Wendy Williams Show
Back in November I watching an episode of The City when MTV aired an ad for its latest “reality” series, Jersey Shore. The trailer promised to show me the “hottest, tannest, craziest guidos!” As if to make good on that promise, a young man with gelled hair (DJ Pauly D) confesses to the camera “I takes me about 25 minutes to do my hair” while another (Mike, aka, “The Situation”) explains, quite objectively, that he is “ripped up like Rambo.” But when another gentleman (Vinny) appears on-screen, amid a montage of fist pumping ecstasies, it was then that I paused what I watching, went to the DVR recording menu, and selected a season pass for Jersey Shore.
Despite its early low numbers (the premiere averaged just 1.375 million viewers), Jersey Shore‘s ratings have risen steadily since its December 3rd premiere. Bloggers and entertainment reporters speculate that this ratings increase has to do with the various controversies surrounding the program, including 1) the outrage and even violent threats against MTV coming from some Italian American groups over what they say is a stereotypical and offensive portrayal of their community (some companies have already pulled their ads from the program) and 2) the airing (and later the omission) of a scene in which one of the female cast members, Nicole, aka “Snooki,” is sucker punched by a male stranger. While both complaints are worth getting riled up over (i.e., it’s wrong to stereotype people and it’s wrong to exploit violence against women), neither actually applies to Jersey Shore. Here’s why:
1. The Stereotypes
The biggest controversy surrounding Jersey Shore is over its allegedly stereotypical portrayal of Italian American youth. I use the word “allegedly” here because I’m not convinced that the show’s “guidos” are stereotypical Italian Americans. There are currently 16 million Italian Americans living in this country. When I think “Italian American” I do not automatically think of “The Situation.”
Yes, I have met Italian Americans with gelled hair, waxed chests and glossed lips (particularly during my short-lived clubbing days). And yes, these people are frequently given the label “guido.” And yes, in my experience with the term, guido is used in a pejorative manner. People designated as guidos are associated not simply with tanning and muscles (two ostensibly positive traits, depending on your preferences) but also with bad taste, few inhibitions, and low intelligence. Jersey Shore‘s editors seem to support these negative stereotypes by including the following line from 22-year-old Staten Island native, Angelina, who complained about having to work in a T-shirt shop on the boardwalk “I feel like this is beneath me. I’m a bartender. I do great things.” And in the premiere episode Vinny pointed out that “Most people might consider being a guido like you’re stupid but I went to school, graduated college…”
Despite Vinny’s admission that guidos are believed to be stupid, everyone in the house embraces the term, referring to themselves as guidos and guidettes, and expressing a clear preference for dating guidos/guidettes. As Sammi “Sweetheart” explains, “If you’re not a guido then you can get the fuck out of my face!” Lines like these do complicate the idea that these individuals are being portrayed in a negative light. After all, no one is forcing DJ Pauly D into the tanning booth or demanding that Jenni “J-WOWW” wear studded hot pants and fishnet stockings out to the club. These kids are making these choices. And loving every minute of it.
Now I can hear your objections already: “MTV is responsible for this portrayal of Italian Americans because they selected only those cast members who fit the guido stereotypes.” This is true. Except that people like The Situation, J-WOWW and Angelina are less indicative of the guido stereotypes than they are of youth stereotypes in general. Indeed, as Huffington Post columnist Simon Maxwell Apter wrote in a recent piece, “Their persistent claims of ethnic pride notwithstanding, the only ‘ethnic group’ that the Jersey Shore septet really represents is Jersey Shore cast members. Though the cast clearly relishes their shared ethnic background, they use their Italian heritage not as an identity, but instead as a license to develop an orangeish skin tone, use a lot of hair gel, and spend hours lifting weights.”
I agree. In fact, if the cast members of Jersey Shore didn’t have thick Long Island, Staten Island and New Jersey accents, MTV could have easily named the show The Real World: New Jersey. If you have watched any season of MTV’s The Real World since at least 2002 (the year of the infamous Las Vegas season), then you know that MTV generally populates its casts with individuals who:
are incredibly narcissistic
have an inflated sense of self-worth
are not particularly bright or well-informed about current events
prefer to spend every night drinking to excess
enjoy wearing tight, revealing clothing (both sexes)
are extremely horny
abuse self tanners
work out obsessively
get into fist fights whenever possible
Need I go on? What we are seeing on Jersey Shore are not MTV’s exploitation of so-called guidos, but rather, MTV’s exploitation of American youth, something MTV has been doing for years. So if there is going to be outrage over this program, it should be coming from twentysomethings across the county, not just UNICO, the national Italian-American service organization, or the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau.
2. The Punch
Early teasers for Jersey Shore contained footage of Snooki, the diminutive but loud-mouthed house mate, being punched in the face by a large, male stranger at a bar. Teasers are used to lure viewers into watching a program by featuring the season’s most sensational imagery, so it makes sense that MTV would include this footage. However, when the episode, “Fade to Black,” finally aired on December 18th, MTV decided to pull the footage of the punch, replacing it instead with a black screen. MTV issued a statement about this decision:
“What happened to Snooki was a crime and obviously extremely disturbing. After hearing from our viewers, further consulting with experts on the issue of violence, and seeing how the video footage has been taken out of context not to show the severity of this act or resulting consequences, MTV has decided not to air Snooki being physically punched in the face.”
Given that MTV had aired the 5 second clip multiple times in the weeks leading up to the episode, this decision seems strange. Or rather, it makes perfect sense. Realizing that the key to Jersey Shore‘s ratings is controversy, MTV cleverly channeled the outrage over the “punch heard round the shore” into even more free publicity for the program.
Like the exploiteers of old (Kroger Babb, David Friedman, etc.) MTV understands how to work its target audience. Sensationalizing and then censoring the punch footage is a rhetorical strategy rooted in classical ballyhoo. Eric Schaefer defines ballyhoo as “that noisy, vulgar spiel that drew audiences to circuses and sideshows …a hyperbolic excess of words and images that sparked the imagination” (103). Ballyhoo promises its audiences something — an image, an experience, or reaction (“This movie will nauseate you!”) — that it does not necessarily fulfill. Similarly, MTV promised us a punch, but did not deliver. Therefore, they pulled in viewers and still got to look like the good guy. Sort of.
Keep in mind that MTV has aired many sucker punches in the past. In particular, I’m thinking about a sucker punch that took place during a season of The Real World: Austin. In the premiere episode the Austin cast mates go out to a bar and Danny Jamieson is punched in the face. The sucker punch crushed Danny’s eye socket, resulting in blurred vision and requiring surgery. Despite Danny’s rather serious injuries, MTV had no qualms about airing this footage repeatedly — in ads promoting the series and then in recaps throughout the course of the season.
It seems a bit sexist to me that there was outrage over MTV’s (almost) airing of Snooki’s punch but not over Danny’s punch. Now, I understand that Snooki is a small woman and Danny is a strapping young man. But both were sucker punched, meaning both were completely defenseless when they were hit. And Danny sustained far more serious injuries — those who watched the Austin season may recall that Danny’s face was disfigured throughout the duration of the season. If there is any outrage here, it should be over MTV’s exploitation of violence. It is wrong to sucker punch anyone, whether they are male or female, big or small. Furthermore, Snooki and Danny were assaulted precisely because they were on MTV reality programs (for some reason the presence of the MTV camera crew throws bar patrons into an uncontrollable rage) and MTV then reaped the rewards of that unmotivated violence by exploiting it in ads. This is the true outrage of this situation.
Just in case my comments might be misread, let me make this clear: domestic violence against women is a serious issue. But Snooki’s punch is not an example of domestic violence nor is it an issue of violence against women. Snooki’s punch, like Danny’s, boils down, not to gender, but to the exploitative, circus-like climate created and nurtured by MTV and its film crews. By omitting the footage of Snooki’s punch MTV wants to look like the hero, but they are a primary culprit (along with the two douchebags who did the punching, of course. Big, big douchebags).
Therefore my friends, if you are watching and enjoying Jersey Shore, don’t feel like you are implicitly supporting ethnic stereotyping or violence against women. Instead you are supporting the stereotyping of youth culture and the violence that results when these youth are given too much alcohol, self tanner, body glitter and a barrage of cameras. Oh wait. That’s not good either, is it?