Performing Gender and Ethnicity on the JERSEY SHORE
This summer I had the good fortune of being accepted to the “Gender Politics and Reality TV” conference hosted by University College Dublin. I knew it would be difficult to attend this conference–it coincided with the first week of classes at the university where I work–and I knew it would be expensive. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attend a small conference that was entirely focused on reality television. I am starting a new research project on MTV-produced reality shows and I thought this conference would help to kickstart my writing and research. So I planned well: I applied for and was awarded an international travel grant to help pay for the expensive trip, I enlisted two wonderful colleagues to teach my first week of classes for me, and I finished my paper and visual presentation a full week ahead of schedule. The night before I was set to fly to Dublin, I was finishing up my packing and it was only then that I thought to take a look at my passport. I had not flown out of the country since 2006 and I had no recollection of when the document was set to expire. It expired in 2008. Ooops.
I won’t describe the panic that followed this realization. I will just say that it took me about 2 hours of phone calls and internet research to conclusively determine that there was absolutely no way for me to get an updated passport in 24 hours (surprise!). I was going to have to cancel my trip to Dublin. I would like to offer a good explanation for why I purchased an international power adapter two weeks before my departure but only thought about my passport — the only way to legally leave my country — 24 hours before my departure. But I don’t have one. To a Type A personality like me, such an oversight is unthinkable. Like Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) in Memento (2000, Christopher Nolan), I have constructed a series of elaborate tricks to ensure that I remember to complete the many tasks required of a full-time working mother of two: alerts on my phone, copious notes in my planner, lists, lists and more lists. But this time, my system failed. Where was my Polaroid photograph? Where was the tattoo, written backwards across my chest, reading “GET PASSPORT RENEWED 4-6 WEEKS BEFORE DEPARTURE“?
There are many reasons why missing this trip was devastating to me: the expensive plane ticket, the embarrassment of contacting the conference organizer (a woman I greatly admire) and explaining what had happened, the loss of a much-needed vacation from my children (I love them, but sometimes Mama needs to get away), the chance to meet and talk shop with reality TV scholars in the context of a small, intimate conference, and the lost opportunity to present my work-in-progess to these experts and get their much-needed feedback. I can’t do much about the first four things, but I can, in fact, do something about the fifth. Although a friend attending the conference offered to read my paper for me and thus ensure that my mistake did not derail my panel (Thanks Jon!), I won’t be there for the conversation that follows. So I’ve decided to post my entire paper here on my blog (minus the clips, because I have yet to upgrade my blog so that I can upload my own clips). If you have an interest in subcultures, gender studies, or reality television, please read my paper below and offer me some feedback. While you do this I’ll be drinking a green beer and dreaming of Ireland…
Over the last few weeks an open letter to Randi Zuckerberg, the manager of marketing initiatives at Facebook, was circulated around various social media sites. The letter urges Zuckerbeg to “formally recognize the millions of people worldwide whose genders go beyond male or female by allowing other gender identities in Facebook’s profile fields.” The letter, which also serves as a petition, includes a series of testimonials from Facebook users who believe that the terms “male” and “female” do not accurately reflect their personal experience of gender, where gender is, to quote Robyn R. Warhol, “a process, a performance, an effect of cultural patterning that has always had some relationship to the subject’s ‘sex’ but never a predictable or fixed one” (4).
As I read through these testimonials, my mind drifted to MTV’s top-rated reality series, Jersey Shore, as I could imagine one its stars, Pauly D, submitting his own testimonial. If he did, it might go something like this:
“I am a heterosexual man who proudly spends 25 minutes styling my hair. I have earrings in both of my ears and have been known to wear lipgloss. I do not fit into Facebook’s limited gender categories.”
Okay, so Pauly D probably would not write a testimonial about his fluid understanding of gender, but he should. In this paper I argue that the guido identities celebrated in Jersey Shore reconfigure the way gender performs within the context of this Italian American subculture. When men like Pauly D adopt the styles, behaviors, and interests that U.S. culture has enforced as appropriate to women’s bodies, they, paradoxically, feel more like masculine men. In other words, Jersey Shore, for all its misogyny and ethnic stereotyping, actually highlights the performative nature of gender, and how it must be understood as a contingent and multiple process, rather than as a preexisting category (Warhol 5).
Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that the term “guido” has a troubled history; some factions of the Italian American population see the term as offensive and view Jersey Shore’s cast members as minstrel-show caricatures (Brooks). Other Italian-Americans have reclaimed and reappropriated the moniker as a source of ethnic pride. Still other groups acknowledge that the term exists and therefore seek to understand and unpack its meanings.
My use of the term is neither an endorsement nor a rejection of any of these points-of-view. Instead, I deploy the term “guido” as a way to reference the ethnic subculture that is showcased, celebrated, and derided on Jersey Shore and in the process I hope that I do not cause any offense.
The term guido refers to a specific subcultural identity signified by a series of distinctive clothing styles, music preferences, behavioral patterns, and choices in language and peer groups. This label provides coherence and a solid ethnic character to a set of stylistic choices — including a preference for big muscles, gelled hair and tanned skin — selected by this particular youth subculture. Sociologist Donald Tricarico argues that the term guido denotes a way of being Italian that is linked to an ensemble of youth culture signifiers. He writes: “To this extent, ethnicity also draws boundaries intended to include some and exclude others. It establishes parameters for stylized performances in the competition for scarce youth culture rewards” (“Youth Culture” 38). In addition to the usual rewards of peer acceptance and recognition as a member of the subculture, embracing the signifiers of the guido subculture provides the Jersey Shore’s cast members with fame, money, and lucrative business opportunities. And because MTV provides such powerful incentives for Jersey Shore cast members to perform their ethnicity on national television, MTV’s cameras artificially inflate the signifiers of the subculture. Thus, Jersey Shore becomes a unique opportunity to analyze the performative nature of gender within the framework of an ethnic subculture. In this context “performative” does not just refer to gender as a performance; I am also using the term as a way of understanding, to quote Warhol again, “the body not as the location where gender and affect are expressed, but rather as the medium through which they come into being” (10). In Jersey Shore, gender performs in a unique way in that behaviors typically coded as effeminate actually constitute—rather than negate—masculinity.
According to Dick Hebdige, every youth subculture represents “a different handling of the ‘raw material of social existence’” (80). While subcultures represent countercurrents within the larger hegemonic structures of society, they are nevertheless “magical solutions” to lived contradictions. In other words, although subcultures initially pose a “symbolic challenge to a symbolic order,” these subcultures are inevitably, almost instantaneously, recuperated into the very system they are supposedly challenging (Grossberg 29). According to Tricarico, the guido “neither embraces traditional Italian culture nor repudiates ethnicity in identifying with American culture. Rather it reconciles ethnic Italian ancestry with popular American culture by elaborating a youth style that is an interplay of ethnicity and youth cultural meanings” (“Guido” 42). Because Italian Americans have the ability to pass for a range of ethnic identities in America, including Jewish, Latino, or Greek, self-identified guidos use the signifiers of their subculture as a way to make their ethnic identity visible and unambiguous to those outside of the subculture. Thus, guidos are different from many other ethnic subcultures in that style is used to highlight and emphasize ethnic differences, rather than to escape from their presumed constraints (Thornton).
The guido subculture in its current form can be traced back to various Italian American street gangs from the 1950s and 1960s, such as the Golden Guineas, Fordham Baldies, Pigtown Boys, Italian Sand Street Angels, and the Corona Dukes, among others, who hailed from the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn (Tricarico “Youth Culture” 49). Many of these gangs were under the tutelage of the local Mafia, who organized youth into crews and put them to work. However, much like the 1970s African American, urban, youth gangs that sublimated some of the more violent aspects of their subculture into prosocial avenues such as rapping, break dancing, and graffiti art, over time the violent activities of Italian American youth gangs were translated into purely stylistic concerns (Tricarico “Guido” 48).
Then, in 1976, British rock journalist Nick Cohn published “Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night” in New York Magazine. The article follows a young Italian American named Vincent who spends his days working a “9 to 5 job” in a hardware store and his Saturday nights in the disco clubs of New York City. Cohn describes the regimented life of Vincent and his peers in the following way: “graduates, looks for a job, saves and plans. Endures. And once a week, on Saturday night, its one great moment of release, it explodes.”
The article, which was the inspiration for the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, serves as the origin myth for the modern guido subculture. The article and film showcased how working class Italian American youths escaped the tedium of their cramped apartments and restricted finances by participating in the glamorous, fantasy world of Manhatttan’s disco clubs.What is most fascinating about this elaborate origin myth is that 20 years later Nik Cohn admitted that, facing pressure to come up with a story about American discos–he made his story up. He based Vincent not on any actual Italian American but on a Mod he knew back in England (Sternbergh).
Indeed, like the Mods of 1960s England, American guidos generally hail from the working classes, and are preoccupied with fashion, music, dancing, and consumerism. Within the Mod subculture, it was acceptable, even mandatory, for men to be fastidious and vain about their clothing — usually expensive, well-tailored suits — and hair (Hebdige 54). In fact, these stereotypically “feminine” interests became “masculine” within the context of the Mod subculture. Similarly, the signifiers of the male guido—gelled hair, earrings, decorative, form-fitting T-shirts and jeans, and even lip gloss—are gendered as masculine, not feminine, within the confines of their subculture.
Pauly D’s elaborate hair regiment and Mike Sorrentino’s obsession with his abdominal muscles also accord with the Italian concept of “bella figura,” which refers to the practice of “peacocking” or “presenting the best possible appearance at all times and at any cost” (Wilkinson). Bella figura, a concept dating back to the 1400s, means making the best possible presentation of one’s self at all times in order to conceal whatever the individual may otherwise be lacking in looks, money, education, or experience. We can read the contemporary guido’s obsessions with grooming as the fulfillment of bella figura, and thus, as an inherently Italian practice. To spend 25 minutes on your hair is not feminine in Pauly D’s world; rather, it is a signifier of his Italian masculinity. The guido identity therefore allows Italian American males to engage in activities which would normally be coded as feminine, and therefore, off-limits.
Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino is a striking example of the bella figura legacy in the guido subculture. Several Jersey Shore episodes feature scenes in which the roommates must wait for Mike to complete his grooming before they can head out to the club. The editing of these scenes suggests that Mike spends far more time on his appearance than either his male or female roommates do. Mike has also built a reputation for codifying his daily toilette with formal titles, like “Gym, Tan, Laundry.” In addition to his GTL, Mike makes weekly trips to the barbershop for haircuts and eyebrow waxing, all in service of becoming “FTD” or “fresh to death.” The following Access Hollywood clip demonstrates the performative nature of gender within and outside of the guido subculture.
Click here to watch
For the viewing audience that is not a part of the guido subculture, this segment is played for laughs: the joke is that these two muscular, heterosexual men are enjoying “feminine” pleasures like facials and hand massages. These gender acts make them appear effeminate to those outside of their subculture. However, for Mike, Pauly D, and other members of their subculture, grooming is what makes them masculine. Judith Butler explains this more elegantly: “As performance which is performative, gender is an ‘act,’ broadly construed, which constructs the social fiction of its own psychological interiority” (399).
Vinny provides another useful example of gender performativity in Jersey Shore. In the series premiere, Vinny, who calls himself a “mama’s boy” and a “generational Italian,” immediately distances himself from the stylistic trappings of the guido subculture, explaining “The guys with the blow outs, the fake tans, that wear lip gloss and make up…those aren’t guidos, those are f**king retards!” Although he claims to prefer stereotypically masculine activities like playing pool and basketball over “GTL,” throughout Season 1 Vinny is coded as the least masculine male cast member in the house. While other male cast members regularly become embroiled in fistfights and bring home a new sexual conquest every night, Vinny distances himself from these stereotypically aggressive male behaviors. He is the resident “nice guy.”
This sensitive persona shifts markedly in Season 3, however, when Vinny is pressured by his male housemates to get both of his ears pierced with a pair of diamond studs. In the context of American culture, getting both ears pierced, especially with diamonds, is a style choice associated with women and femininity. However, the Jersey Shore cast equates this gender act with masculinity and treats the event itself as a male rite of passage. For example, when Vinny agrees to get his ears pierced, Pauly D exclaims “My boy’s becoming a man!” Later, in his confessional interview, Vinny explains that he endured the pain of the ear-piercing “like a G.” Thus, not only is double ear-piercing considered masculine within the guido subculture–withstanding the pain of this important ritual is equated with being a violent, cocksure gangster, the ultimate signifier of American masculinity. Once the piercing is complete, Pauly and Ronnie delight in the results like two proud parents. They even ask Vinny if he “feels different,” much as mothers ask their daughters if they “feel different” after getting their first menstrual period.
Vinny does not pierce his ears because he is a man; he becomes a man through the act of piecing his ears. In other words gender acts that are coded as feminine outside of the guido subculture actualize and activate Vinny’s sense of himself as a man within the subculture. The contradiction between the nature of these behaviors and the gender they perform highlights the contingent nature of gender itself. So how does Vinny act now that he has finally “become a man”? In addition to, in his own words, “walking with a gangster limp” and wearing his baseball cap at a “gangster lean,” his newly-pierced ears compel Vinny to go after women like a dog in heat. At the club that evening, the normally polite, somewhat shy reality TV star dismisses the women who approach him for not being attractive enough. Later, after his attempt at coitus with a woman from the club fails, Vinnie turns to Snooki, his roommate and occasional lover, for a quick tryst. When Snooki dismisses Vinny’s advances as offensive, the newly masculinized Vinny picks up his small conquest and attempts to drag her into his bedroom. Vinnie’s roommates marvel at his uncharacteristically aggressive behavior and tellingly attribute it to his new earrings. Here, subcultural style “empowers” Vinnie to indulge in the stereotypes of masculine behavior that he has previously avoided.
Earlier I mentioned that the male guido’s, obsession with grooming and style has come to stand in for the violence that this immigrant group once needed to deploy in order to survive. The male guido’s attention to his toilette, an affectation generally associated with effeminacy, stands in for the stereotypically masculine behaviors of fighting, killing, and defending one’s home turf that have been rendered superfluous in contemporary society. Thus, if being physically strong was once a prerequisite for membership in a street gang in order to defend oneself from outsider attacks, a muscular physique is now an end in itself; it is what makes Mike “feel like a real man.” But what creates femininity within this subculture? The answer to this question is more complicated. Certainly, the female guido style is codified: the women must wear their hair long (with the aid of highly flammable hair extensions), and usually dye it dark, in accord with their Italian heritage. Make up must be bright and noticeable, with an emphasis on the eyes, lips, and nails (Tricarico “Guido” 44).
And while it is clear that Snooki, J Woww, Deena and Sammi spend a lot of time on their appearances (after all, Snooki’s pouff doesn’t do itself), far more screen time is devoted to the women’s defiance of femininity. In almost every episode female cast members belch loudly, urinate outside, or vomit on camera, behaviors that are often associated with masculinity or at least with the un-feminine. Deena often falls due to extreme intoxication and on several occasions Snooki has inadvertently exposed her genitals to MTV’s cameras. In other words, the women of the Jersey Shore house are lusty, hungry, messy, and quite comfortable with their own bodily functions.
Perhaps the strongest rejection of traditional female gender roles occurs in the handling of the all-important Sunday night meal. Several Jersey Shore episodes feature a scene in which the roommates sit down to an elaborate Sunday night dinner. In most Italian homes, the matriarch does the shopping, cooking, and cleaning for this traditional, multi-course meal. When, for example, Vinny’s mother visits the house in season one, Pauly D compares her to his own mother, whom he describes as an “old school Italian,” because she cleans the Jersey Shore house after fixing the roommates an extravagant lunch. Despite these defined roles, passed on from one generation of Italian American women to the next, the women of Jersey Shore either ignore or reject these gender expectations. Several scenes in the series are devoted to the women’s refusal to shop, cook or even clean up after house meals. In season 2, Jenni and Snooki agree to cook the Sunday dinner, not out of a sense of responsibility or a desire to nurture, but so that they can watch the men do the dishes afterwards. The two women struggle to shop for and then prepare the elaborate dinner, though ultimately they do serve their roommates a good meal. In Season 4, the result is different: Deena and Sammi express their desires to be “real Italian ladies cooking dinner,” however, they lack the knowledge and skills necessary to complete this domestic task. Sammi cannot tell the difference between scallions and garlic while Deena can’t run an automatic dishwasher. In a previous season Snooki claimed that “a true Italian woman” is one who wants to “please everyone else at the table. And then when everyone’s done eating, you clean up and then you eat by yourself.” Yet, Deena and Sammi reject this paradigm when they decide to treat themselves to a meal prepared at a restaurant as their male roommates sit at home, hungry and waiting for their promised meal. The scene cuts back and forth between the women enjoying a nice lunch while the men debate whether or not they should just start cooking the meal themselves. When the women finally arrive home, they are distraught to see that the men are already well into meal preparations; their attempts at becoming “real Italian ladies cooking dinner” has failed.
Dick Hebdige writes that “…spectacular subcultures express forbidden contents (consciousness of class, consciousness of difference) in forbidden forms (transgressions of sartorial and behavioral codes, law breaking, etc.). They are profane articulations, and they are often and significantly defined as ‘unnatural.’” (92). Like the Mods, the guido subculture offers participants an opportunity to embrace their ethnic identities while simultaneously reconfiguring the traditional gender expectations embedded in those ethnic identities. The subculture allows men like Mike and Pauly D to feel masculine because they apply lipgloss, cook dinner, and obsess about their hair. And, although the Jersey Shore women embrace the stylistic requirements of their subculture, they reject the domestic and social roles placed upon them by their male castmates: they will not submit to unwanted sexual advances, cook, clean, or police their own bodies. Thus, Jersey Shore, for all its exploitative showcasing of substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, and ethnic slurs, offers a fluid view of gender roles within a community that is otherwise marked by a conservative view of gender.
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader. Ed. Amelia Jones. New York: Routledge, 2003. 392-401.
Brooks, Caryn. “Italian Americans and the G Word: Embrace or Reject?” Time 12 Dec. 2009.
Cohn, Nik. “Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night.” The New York Magazine. 17 June 1976.
Grossberg, Lawrence. “The Political Status of Youth and Youth Culture.” Adolescents and Their Music: If It’s Too Loud, You’re Too Old. Ed. Jonathon S. Epstein. New York: Garland Publishers, 1994. 25-46.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Metheun, 1979.
Sternbergh, Adam. “Inside the Disco Inferno.” The New York Magazine. 25 June 2008.
Thornton, Sarah. Club Cultures. Middleton: Wesleyan University Press, 1995.
Tricarico, Donald. “Guido: Fashioning an Italian-American Youth Style.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 19.1 (1991): 41-66.
Tricarico, Donald. “Youth Culture, Ethnic Choice, and the Identity Politics of Guido.” Voices in Italian Americana 18.1 (2007): 34-86.
Warhol, Robyn R. Having a Good Cry: Effeminate Feelings and Pop-Culture Forms. Colmbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003.
Wilkinson, Tracy. “Italy’s Beautiful Obsession.” LA Times. 4 Aug. 2003.
5 thoughts on “Performing Gender and Ethnicity on the JERSEY SHORE”
August 26, 2011 at 2:12 pm
Too bad you weren’t able to deliver this in person! This is an interesting take on the “flip” of gender in Jersey Shore. The Vinny transformation is really telling.
I wonder also about the increased emphasis in seasons 2 and 3 on grenades as a way of defining some sort of appropriate and more stereotypical femininity? I’ve only seen a few episodes of season one and clips on the internet (not a judgment, just saying that I’m not necessarily the most informed about this show and may be off in this observation), and it seems to me that in the first season there was a marked emphasis on the guys’ gym habits and grooming while the girls, as you say, are still groomed but their bodies were not expected to be hard and toned like the guys. In fact, the women are definitely more curvy than your average Hollywood starlet but still were considered attractive. But then the whole Grenade Free Zone etc that emerged in later seasons seemed to try and push the female bodies back to a more stereotypical place. Does this add to your argument about the unique sort of femininity performed by the women of JS vs. dominant norms?
August 26, 2011 at 3:27 pm
Thanks for reading and commenting!
For someone who claims to not watch a lot of JERSEY SHORE, your observations are absolutely correct (are you SURE you don’t watch a lot of JERSEY SHORE?). In the current season of the show, the women do seem to be more interested in policing their own bodies than in previous seasons. Snooki appears to have become a work out addict (she appears to have lost at least 30-40 pounds between seasons 3 and 4) and Jenni has lost a lot of weight and also appears to have gotten plastic surgery on her face (collagen in her lips and possibly a nose job?). However, in terms of behavior, Deena continues to fall with abandon and Jenni, Snooki and Sam had a long conversation about their breasts, what they look like and the benefits of breast implants.So while they seem more concerned with their looks (which seems directly related to their rising fame), they continue to be quite crass.
To be honest, I am not sure what to make of the women. For the men, the correlation between what they do and what it means for them seems very clear. For the women, it does not break down so neatly. What gives them license to reject domestic roles and to feel comfortable burping and urinating on camera? All while dressed in tiny miniskirts and absurdly high heels? I’m not sure. Hoping that some readers might offer some perspective on this!
August 26, 2011 at 3:32 pm
Ha! I watch a lot of THE SOUP, which loves to make fun of JS. There’s just not enough room on my DVR for all the reality TV!
March 30, 2014 at 1:25 pm
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June 21, 2014 at 2:58 pm
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