Plagiarism, Patchwriting and the Race and Gender Hierarchy of Online Idea Theft

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Several months ago I published a 2-part guide to the academic job market right here on my blog (for free!!!!!!!!!!), as a way to help other academics explain this bizarre, yearly ritual to family and friends. Indeed, several readers told me that the posts really *did* help them talk to their loved ones about the academic job market (talking about it is the first step!). Yes, I’m working miracles here, folks.  And then, this happened:
“A few months ago, as I was sitting down to my morning coffee, several friends – all from very different circles of my life – sent me a link to an article, accompanied by some variation of the question: “Didn’t you already write this?” The article in question had just been published on a popular online publication, one that I read and link to regularly, and has close to 8 million readers.
Usually, when I read something online that’s similar to something I’ve already published on my tiny WordPress blog, I chalk it up to the great intellectual zeitgeist. Because great minds do, usually, think alike, especially when those minds are reading and writing and posting and sharing and tweeting in the same small, specialized online space. I am certain that most of the time, the author in question is not aware of me or my scholarship. It’s a world wide web out there, after all. Why would someone with a successful, paid writing career need to steal content from me, a rinky-dink blogger who gives her writing away for free?

But in this case, the writer in question was familiar with my work. She travels in the same small, specialized online space that I do. She partakes of the same zeitgeist. In fact, she had started following my blog just a few days after I posted the essay that she would later mimic in conceit, tone and even overall structure.

Ethically speaking, idea theft is just as egregious as plagiarism, especially when those ideas are stolen from free sites and appropriated by those who actually make a profit from their online labor.
When pressed on this point, the writer told me that she does read my blog. She even had it listed on her own blog’s (now-defunct) blogroll. But she denied reading my two most recent posts, the posts I accused her of copying. Therefore she refused to link to or cite my blog in her original piece, a piece that generated millions of page views, social media shares, praise and, of course, money, for both her and the publication for which she is a columnist.

So if a writer publishes a piece (and profits from a piece) that is substantially similar to a previously published piece, one which the writer had most certainly heard of, if not read, is this copyright infringement? Has this writer actually done something wrong?”

Well, Christian Exoo and I decided to try to find out. To read our article “Plagiarism, Patchwriting and the Race and Gender Hierarchy of Online Idea Theft” at TruthOut, click HERE.



BRAVE: A Mother and her Daughter Weigh In

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Movies and television shows for and about women usually find themselves subject to more scrutiny than other pop culture products. Last summer the critical and commercial success of Bridesmaids (2011, Paul Feig) had reviewers declaring that yes, women are funny, as if no women had ever been funny on film before. Oh Mae West, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, Catherine O’Hara, Whoopi Goldberg, Roseanne Barr (etc.) it’s like you never even existed. And more recently, Lena Dunham’s new HBO series Girls was criticized both for not being funny enough (even though the show was never billed as a sitcom) and because Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, is too fat and frumpy to be a credible (i.e., beautiful) leading woman. Place a woman before the camera and eventually, she will be labeled as either not measuring up or as measuring “over.” She will be almost perfect, but not quite. She will be:

too fat

Lena Dunham

also too fat

Gabourey Sidibe

also too fat

Jessica Simpson

too skinny

Keira Knightley

also too skinny

Thandie Newton

once too skinny…

Mischa Barton

but now too fat

Still Mischa Barton

too twee

Zooey Deschanel

too old

Joan Rivers

too young

3-year-old Paisley Dickey, profiled on TODDLERS & TIARAS, imitates an actual hooker

too trashy

Kim Kardashian’s ass

too stuck up

Gwyneth Paltrow

too sexy

Sofia Vergara

too black

The Real Housewives of Atlanta

too ambitious

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

too simple

Rebecca Black

too complex

Fiona Apple, with octopus

Didn’t complain enough about being physically assaulted by her boyfriend

Rihanna and Chris Brown

Complained too much about being physically assaulted by her husband

Robin Givens

Is this getting tiresome yet? Good. I find it tiresome too. It’s difficult to locate a female celebrity/film character/TV character who hasn’t been characterized as being too something in some way. There are many reasons for this — the 24 hour news cycle, gender inequality, the tendency to judge women based on their appearances, and the hyppersexualization of women in the media. Most germane to this blog post, however, is the fact that there just are not many films and TV shows created by women and/or addressing the lives of women. For example, with so few TV shows written by and focused on women, it should not be surprising that the new female-focused television programs that premiered in the 2011-2012 season (Girls, 2 Broke Girls, and The New Girl) were subject to so much backlash (in which, I will admit, I also participated). We have so many hopes and expectations for women-centered texts that when they finally do appear, we want them to be everything and to represent everyone. They should also be funny. But realistic. And also provide great role models. But realistic role models. Aw hell, here we go again…

So it should not be surprising that Brave, the first Pixar film to ever feature a female protagonist and the first to be co-directed and co-written by a woman (until she was fired and replaced by a man) has been the subject of high expectations and mixed reviews. As Slate‘s Dana Stevens writes “In order to satisfy expectations at this point, Brave would have to not only revolutionize the depiction of girls and women onscreen, but make its audience laugh as hard as we did in Toy Story and cry as hard as we did in Up. Oh, and could it also reinvent computer animation and rake in three times its budget on opening weekend?” Amen.

Eat your heart out, Katniss!

Below is a summary of Brave‘s strengths and weaknesses, for those keeping score:

The Positive


Pixar films are gorgeous. Enough said.

* The female characters, Princess Merida and Queen Elinor, are complex and realistic:

Slate‘s Dana Stevens writes: “Elinor is never an evil-queen villain, but nor is she an idealized self-sacrificing mother. Rather, she’s a particular, individual person, devoted but flawed”

*Brave isn’t a movie about women trying to prove that they are as good as men, it’s a movie about one woman asserting her right to choose her path:

New York Magazine‘s David Edelstein writes: “In addition to being fast, funny, and unpretentious, Brave is a happy antidote to all the recent films in which women triumph by besting men at their own macho games, as if the history of male dominance is one of patriarchs suppressing females’ essential warlike nature. Merida wants nothing more than to control her own fate, her rage provoked by the refusal of her mother—for whom duty and subservience are paramount—to see the world through her eyes.”

*There is no love interest for Merida. I repeat: THERE IS NO LOVE INTEREST FOR MERIDA!

The Village Voice’s Melissa Anderson writes: “Where fellow bow-and-arrow expert Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and the titular princess of Snow White and the Huntsman are each one point in love triangles, Merida, resolutely asexual, is nonetheless entangled in the most complicated, all-consuming love- and hate-filled dyad of all: that between a teenage daughter and her mother.”

*Yes, Brave is the rare Disney film in which a mother is both alive and not an evil cannibal:

Time‘s Richard Corliss writes “Disney princesses have a rough time with the women who run their lives. The female authority figure is usually a stepmother — in Disney animated features, the inevitable phrase would be “wicked stepmother” —  who offers Snow White a poisoned apple, forces scullery work on Cinderella and, in Tangled, locks Rapunzel in a high tower for her entire childhood and most of her adolescence. The millions of actual stepmoms, among all the postnuclear families in the world, must think of these portrayals as libel. They should bring a class-action suit against the Walt Disney Company and picket its Burbank headquarters.

Enough with the talky-talky, when are you going to KICK SOME ASS?

The Negative 

*Brave isn’t as good as Toy Story or other Pixar films:

Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan says: “Shown on its own, without any logo attached, “Brave” simply doesn’t feel as much like the Pixar movies we’ve come to expect.”

Chicago Tribune‘s Micael Phillips writes: “At this point in Pixar’s history, the studio contends with nearly impossible expectations itself. This is what happens when you turn out some bona fide masterworks. “Brave” isn’t that; it’s simply a bona fide eyeful.”

Boston Globe‘s Ty Burr writes: “Uh-oh: “Brave” is the first Pixar movie that doesn’t feel like a Pixar movie.”

*Too much teen angst, not enough action:

Boston Globe‘s Ty Burr writes: “The first half-hour bumps along with humor and a striking lack of direction.”

Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan says: “Making things worse is that the spell’s results initially make Merida even more self-centered, more insistent on being blameless and in the right, than she’s been before. This is one young person who’s allowed to be too bratty for too long to make anyone happy.”

*We’ve seen these characters and plots before:

A.V. Club’s Tasha Robinson writes: “These kinds of lapses don’t seriously harm the movie, but they do enhance the feeling that it’s skating along a series of broad stereotypes—martinet mom, browbeaten but resistant dad, rebellious teenager, bratty kids—without finding the depth in them that, say, The Incredibles did.”

Slant Magazine’s Richard Larson says: “But ultimately the film offers nothing more than a caricature of a well-worn conceit (a princess doesn’t fit into her shiny box, so she just breaks all the rules and does what she wants), neatly repackaged for another generation of young moviegoers who haven’t met Princess Jasmine from Aladdin and don’t realize that they’re eating yesterday’s leftovers.”


I agree with the above praise and the criticism of Brave. But, I can’t help thinking that the criticism is a little too … critical. If you take Brave for what it is (a film about the complicated relationship between a teenage girl and her mother) rather than what it’s trailers and merchandise make it out to be (a film about a Scottish princess who can KICK! ASS!), then the movie is quite satisfying, even moving.
Here is where I cried
For example, about halfway through the film we get a flashback to Merida’s childhood: she is frightened by a thunderstorm and leaps into her mother’s arms. As Merida snuggles into her embrace her mother assures her that she will always be there for her. This flashback so strongly contrasts with the damaged relationship between the two women in the present story that, I will admit, I cried a little bit. As someone who frequently fought with my own mother over my life choices and who now, with a daughter of my own, understands why mothers often act like tyrants, Brave resonated with me. It’s like My So Called Life  with bears and kilts. Angela Chase would have killed for some of the sweet plaid outfits being worn in this film.
Angela Chase (Claire Danes) wearing a kilt.
But, more important than what I took away from this film is what my 6-year-old daughter thought of it. After all, as another entry in the canon of Disney princess movies, isn’t Brave really for her? I wanted to understand why she enjoyed the movie and if she understood some of its more nuanced points about compulsory heterosexuality and gender roles, or at least as much as a 6-year-old can understand about those things. So I asked my daughter, who is a Disney princess expert (she has watched and memorized most of the canon), if I could talk to her about the film and then share her thoughts on my blog. She agreed even though I don’t think she quite understands what a blog is. What she does understand is that having mommy videotape her is fun!
My daughter’s former favorite princesses, just chillin.
Below is a transcript of our conversation (and yes there are SPOILERS below. Proceed with caution):
So we went to see Brave yesterday. Did you like it?
Why did you like it?
Because it was like, kind of spooky and scary and there was, like, this really brave princess and that’s why now she’s my favorite princess.
What made Merida “brave”? What did she do?
She actually, ummm, defeated that ummm, Mor’du I think his name is?
The bear?
Yeah, the bad bear.
And that was a brave thing to do?
Uh huh. Because he, like, ruled for a long, long time and he was, like, the most strongest person…
Bear. He used to be a person.
Can you tell me the story of the movie? What happened in the movie?
Well there was this princess named Merida and she loved archery so one day her mom said she had to get married and she didn’t want to…
Why didn’t Merida want to get married?
Because she wanted to be free and play archery.
So if Merida got married she couldn’t do archery anymore?
Well she wanted to do archery.
[note: the 6 year old has evaded my question about compulsory heterosexuality]
So then she asked this witch to do something, to change her fate, so she could still not marry. But then her mother actually turned into a bear instead.
So Merida thought she was getting a spell to change her fate but the spell turned her mother into a bear?
Yeah. Just like Mor’du.
So why did you like this movie so much better than the other princess movies? Why is Merida your favorite princess?
Because she’s much braver.
So was Ariel [from The Little Mermaid] not brave?
[she shakes her head]
What about Cinderella? Was she brave?
[she shakes her head]
What about Belle [from Beauty and the Beast]?
[getting excited] She was brave but not as brave as Merida! Cause Merida defeated Mor’du.
And that’s why she’s your favorite? Because she’s so brave?
Yeah that’s how brave she was.
My daughter pauses to consider her answers.
Can you tell me why Merida’s mother wanted her to get married?
So she could be a princess.
And Merida didn’t like that?
What was Merida’s mommy like?
She was a queen and, umm ,she wanted her to do everything that she wanted her to do.
Do I ever do that to you? Make you do things that I think you should do that you don’t want to do?
Nope. [pause] Sometimes.
Like what?
Clean up my toys. Ummm, put me to bed…Oh wait, I don’t want to go to bed! Tell me I can’t watch TV…when I want to.
Do you think I would make you get married?
No. You don’t make me get married unless I want to.
Do girls have to get married?
No. [pause] Well they have to get married at some point.
[fidgets for a long time] Umm, they just do.
Who told you that?
Ummm, one of the kids at Creative Arts [her after school program].
Do you think that’s true?
Not really.
Making fish faces into the camera.
What happens if you don’t get married?
Ummm. You don’t have anybody to help take care of your kids.
What if you just don’t have any kids?
Oh yeah, you can’t have kids if you don’t have a husband!
Sure you can!
No you can’t. You need the … other chromosome.
Oh, I see what you’re saying. But is it okay not to have any babies?
Only if you get that, that thing [she is referring to a vasectomy].
My daughter is confounded by heteronormativity
[Here the conversation devolves a bit as my daughter has a hard time conceptualizing how anyone might be able to have babies out of wedlock, etc., so I change the subject.]
Tell me what Merida’s daddy was like.
Well he was the one who started her with the bow and arrow. At the beginning he had the bow and arrow and then he gave her her own.
Is it okay for girls to shoot a bow and arrow?
Yes, Silver [her friend] has one.
So it’s not a boy thing?
It’s a boy-girl thing. Nothing is a boy thing or a girl thing! A girl can like Spiderman, a boy can like dollhouses.
 [Here I get very excited]
Do you think Brave is a movie for boys and girls?
Yes. Jude [her 2-year-old brother] went! Brian [our friend] went!
Well thanks for talking to me about the movie. Do you want to tell me what your favorite part was?
When she got her mommy back.
Awww. I was sad. I was worried she wasn’t going to get her mommy back.
Me too.
Do you think the movie was saying that you should always listen to your mommy? Or what?
I think it was saying: be brave.

So what should we take away from this conversation, other than the fact that my 6-year-old knows what a vasectomy is? First,  it is significant that she likes Merida better than her previous favorite princesses (Belle, Aurora, and Tiana) because Merida is “brave.” Clearly my daughter has been conditioned to understand the film through its ubiquitous marketing campaign (“Merida is BRAVE!”). But still, I think it is significant that a 6-year-old moviegoer recognizes the value of a young woman defeating a large, scary bear. It is important that a 6-year-old girl understands the value of a woman who is brave. Second, it is significant that my daughter does not view Merida’s bravery as a male character trait being co-opted by a female character, like it’s unnatural. The film is so female-centered (yes, we have the slapstick moments with the four clans, but that is comic relief, not the film’s heart) that female bravery makes sense. Of course Merida stood up to that scary bear — who else was going to save her mother?

So while much of the critique of this film focuses on its bait-and-switch tactics — trailers and posters promise a film about a brave young girl fighting battles but delivers a mother-daughter melodrama, the film promises Pixar but delivers a Lifetime-style tearjerker — I don’t see it as a bait-and-switch. Rebelling against your parents’ repressive visions of your future and being willing to sacrifice your life in order to rectify your mistakes is brave behavior indeed. So while Brave is not a perfect film and Merida is not a perfect character, both are good enough. And I think we can all agree that good enough is sometimes good enough.

So did you take your children to see Brave? Did they like it? Why or why not?

Performing Gender and Ethnicity on the JERSEY SHORE

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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.

Ummmm, so this is pretty offensive, isn't it?

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.

Hebdige's foundational book on the subject of subcultures

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).

Italian American Gangs, circa 1950 (?)

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).

Cover for the 1976 story

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.

"Don't touch the hair!"

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.

1977 versus 2011

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.”

Proud papas, Ronnie and Pauly, look on as Vinny gets his ears pierced

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’s new earrings make him act more sexually aggressive

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.

Make up and nails must be dramatic
Hair must be long and/or big

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).

Jenni admits that she enjoys public urination
The women often get overly intoxicated
Snooki is known to unintentionally expose her genitals to MTV's cameras
Denna vomits

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.

Works Cited

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.