The Guidofication of America

jerseyshore.jpgSome of you may be familiar with MTV, a television project which, a couple of decades ago, was famous for occasionally showing a music video. Well, it seems that they’re back in the news and have quite a few people upset with them. The focus of all the outrage is their new series, Jersey Shore, yet another in a series of “reality” shows depicting the lives of young people getting up to whatever it is that young people are doing these days. But in this case we are treated to a group of seemingly self-absorbed young Italian-American men who refer to themselves as “Guidos” and some of the young women in their lives as “Guidettes.” (For full disclosure, I have not watched the entire episode. I’ve only seen the first ten minutes before it became intolerable and a few more excerpted clips which are available online. Make of that what you will.)

The Guidos are shown pursuing some of their favorite pastimes, which include lying in tanning beds every day and spending more time doing their hair each morning than I do in six months. This has raised the hackles of various Italian American groups, brought condemnation from the Jersey Shore Convention and Tourism Board as well as a loss of advertising from Dominos Pizza.

Now, I suppose I can understand some of these reactions, but there’s another layer to this story which both the producers and the protesters seem to be avoiding. I should first point out that I’m not one of those people with a knee-jerk negative reaction to all reality television programming. I still watch Survivor and even Big Brother sometimes. Just because I don’t care for this show or the other “real housewives” type fare doesn’t mean I begrudge it to anyone else.

But here’s my question. When a cartoon is aired or some fictional sitcom with professional actors, and they depict some group of people in a negative light, that’s one thing. It’s intentional on the part of the writers and the network executives who greenlighted the project and the troublesome characterizations are either intentional or crafted through incompetence. If you want to protest a show like that, feel free. But this is, as the descriptor implies, a reality show. These aren’t fictional characters. These are actual people.

So, if Italian Americans are offended by this show, what they are really offended by is the behavior of other Italian Americans. This is apparently a depiction of their actual lives and daily routines. So if their manner of speech, their personal grooming styles and recreational pastimes are offensive, what you’re really saying is that these young people are offensive to their own heritage. I’m not sure what to do with that conclusion.

One of the other big sticking points seems to be the boys’ use of the term “Guido.” Growing up in a small town with a very heavy Italan population, I was of course familiar with it. It was used both as a pejorative and as an internal signal of recognition. The same went for “Wop.” (Which, in case you’d never heard of it, was originally a shortened slang for “With Out Papers” referring to those immigrants not yet legally in the system.) When asked, it seems the boys have adopted the slang as a way of “taking the word back” from those who would speak ill of Italians. This doesn’t seem that dissimilar from when African Americans use the “N” word in conversation or in music lyrics, but still it seems to offend the Italian American community.

(Another interesting side note for you to consider: Being a white guy for the most part, I dare not type out the actual “n” word here, but we all seem to be very comfortable slinging around the term “guido” as long as we’re talking about other people using it. I’m just saying, here…)

Anyway, what do you think? Is MTV being offensive by broadcasting this? Are the young men featured in the show being offensive in their behavior, even if they are Italian Americans themselves? If that’s honestly how they choose to live their life, can they really be anti-Italian Italian Americans? Or is this finally a subject where we can get away with saying, “Hold on. Maybe you’re all getting just a tad too sensitive and overly dramatic?