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Posted by on Dec 9, 2009 in Society | 26 comments

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?

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Copyright 2009 The Moderate Voice
  • Silhouette

    Ah we once again revisit the subject of monkey-see, monkey-do..

    MTV is correct in saying this is a “reality” show, but what they don’t advertise is that they are actively molding the “reality” that those poor dumb people consider “real”. The human mind is such a spongy thing. It readily absorbs the pictures in front of it and models itself after what it sees day in and day out. Repetition, reinforcement, these are what mold our “reality”. The brain is kinda dumb in little ones when discerning the difference between two-dimensional images on a flatscreen and what is going on in three dimensions in front of them. Combine the TV viewing with treats [rewards] while watching and you’re pretty much going to have “reality” any way MTV wants it to be.

    Naturally it’s in MTVs financial interest to go on reinforcing that “reality” as “real” by airing “reality shows” reflecting that which it has aimed to sculpt its viewers into. It helps with advertising predictability to have set values within a target consumer group instead of free-thinking. [how unwieldy that would be to pitch an angle to as effectively].

    So welcome to our Brave New World where MTV bought Nickelodeon and not long after that it became “real” for little 9 year old girls to wear short mini skirts, tube tobs in little mini rave parties. Pre-rave if you like. Next thing you know they’ll be petitioning General Mills to put ecstacy in Super Sugar Crisp cereal…

    TV is powerful stuff. Block MTV and Nickelodeon until they get the message. We can fight back.

    • PWT

      They don’t call them ‘Super Sugar Crisp’ anymore, they took the sugar out of the name but not the cereal. Although, I think that adding the X into the cereal would expand their consumer base.

  • NitrogenNick

    “Reality” shows are crafted and manipulated by their “producers” (often writers without the credit) in such a way that they are just as scripted as a traditional show. The idiots who are starring in this show are guilty of the same thing that the actors who portray offensive scripted parts are: selling out for fame and a quick buck. Your distinction as to what Italian-Americans are, or should be, offended by is a false one.

  • Almoderate

    “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.”

    Speaking as an Italian American myself, I think you hit the nail on the head, there. But let’s not forget in that moment of “clarity” that many Africans are just as offended by the use of the “N” word by rappers as they are by anyone else using it.

    I’m not any less offended by the feeding of a stereotype by other Italian Americans as I would be were it anyone else. As a Southerner, I’m not less offended by my fellow Southerners feeding into the redneck stereotype as I would be had it been someone from Wisconsin. The truth is that while this may be regional behavior, not all of us are that way. In fact, a vast majority of us aren’t. And yet every time I mention that I’m from Alabama, folks assume that I’m uneducated and racist because the minority is quite vocal. Any time folks discover my Italian heritage, people assume that I grew up like the Sopranos. It’s quite tiresome.

    And I can guarantee you that African Americans are offended by the behavior of rappers who display a type of personality that furthers their own stereotypes. I believe Obama was pretty darn spot on with his use of the term… “jack**s.”

    Of course, I’m not suggesting any kind of censorship, here. People are free to talk and act however they want, and MTV (or any other broadcaster) makes their living off of sensationalism. But I think it’s an unreasonable expectation to say that we shouldn’t NOT like it. And it’s similarly unreasonable to expect that folks not voice their opinions on it if they don’t like it. After all, if we don’t, it’s of course going to be taken as a silent confirmation that we have no problem with it. Of course we can turn it off if we don’t like it, but that doesn’t exactly help the situation at hand. Other people will still watch it and believe it. I’ll just have to be offended, cringe, and hope that those of us who can act like adults will eventually cancel out the influence of those who don’t.

  • A couple of points:

    First, in the spirit of what NitrogenNick is saying, everything the original post said about scripted tv and offensive stereotypes is definitely just as true about this show. If I wanted to seek out and promote the worst stereotypes of any racial group, I’m sure I would have no problem finding people whose real lives mimicked that stereotype and who were more than willing to amp it up for a camera. Black gang-bangers, lazy drunk Mexicans, overbearing Jewish mothers, deep South hillbillies — you name it, I’m sure given an open casting call I could find it. That does not mean there’s anything typical about the over-the-top behavior of this particular group, and it doesn’t mean that the producers are just randomly stumbling upon this slice of life.

    Second: about the Guido v the “n” word. I would agree with what you’re saying about the similarity, minus one thing: white people didn’t steal Italians out of Italy and bring them to the US to be houseboys and mammies and field workers. We do not have a history of forbidding Italians from going to school or being literate or from marrying each other or from, you know, living of their own volition. White people weren’t necessarily nice or welcoming to Italians (or the Irish, etc), but there’s a lot of history wrapped up in the ‘n’ word to which that “Guido” can’t really compare.

  • DdW

    “So if their manner of speech, their personal grooming styles and recreational pastimes are offensive…” I just would use that “off” or “Change channel” switch on the remote

  • italianaware

    I think you need to do your homework before you write…You wrote, “So, if Italian Americans are offended by this show, what they are really offended by is the behavior of other Italian Americans.”
    What Italian Americans are offended by is that MTV called the Italian cast “Guidos” in all of their promos for the show. Is the cast’s behavior deplorable and embarrassing? Yes. Is that the issue? No. MTV would never run promos for a show that features an African American cast saying, “Looking at the crazy n-words we found. Come watch them.” That’s the problem. MTV had no right as network with social responsibility to label an all Italian cast as Guidos. It is an ethnic slur. MTV should be held accountable and should at the very least, issue an apology. And please, spare us all the ” The Italians on the show are using the word, so it’s ok for MTV to call them that word,” argument. African Americans have a habit of calling themselves n-words on MTV’s reality shows. You don’t see an acceptance of that word in the mainstream media happening any time soon, do you?

  • Dr J

    Are the young men featured in the show being offensive in their behavior?

    What you find funny is funny, what you find beautiful is beautiful, and what you find offensive is offensive.

    Stereotypes rankle not because they’re false but because they’re true. They weren’t assigned randomly from fortune cookies, they were generalized from direct observation. Italy really does have guys named Guido, and from what I saw when I was there, they do put more energy into their appearance than Americans. If you’re an Italian American trying to shake this identity, I can understand why you’d be nonplussed by a show like this.

    But my advice is to lighten up. You’re probably taking the stereotype more seriously than anyone else does.

    • Ah, c’mon Dr. J. I can think of many reasons why stereotypes “rankle” that are more likely than “but it’s true! [Pick an ethnicity] really *are* [pick an offensive stereotype]!” I know you can too. (Hint: think of things like discrimination, monolithic thinking, the relationship between expectations and performance; the list could go on…)

      • Dr J

        Roro, are you saying stereotypes aren’t true, or they often are but it’s someone else’s fault?

        • Neither, in particular, Dr J. Some racial stereotypes are obviously untrue. Others have a historical or cultural basis in truth, but are assumed to apply widely and to a large degree, when they really only occur to a small degree or among small portions of the population. Certainly the greater culture is complicit in perpetuating stereotypes, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. In almost all cases, racial (or gender or sexual orientation etc) stereotypes are harmful.

          You used the word “rankle”, so why is it that a racial stereotype might be irritating or harmful, both to those within the racial group and to society as a whole? I’m fairly certain it’s not just because they are “true”. Is a negative stereotype only harmful to those in the group who actually display that negative stereotype to a greater or lesser degree? That’s where things like discrimination and expectations tending to be realized come in. My point: “but it’s true!” is such a drastic oversimplification of any issue involving stereotypes, and it’s an attitude that ultimately causes a great deal of harm, both individually and collectively.

          • Dr J

            Stereotypes are harmful.

            I just can’t get worked up about them. What I think is more harmful is the idea that other people should make them go away on your behalf, and that making them do so is a better use of your time than simply proving yourself on your own merits.

            Yes, people are going to form mistaken impressions of you based on stereotypes, what you’re wearing, and the mood they happened to be in that day. You could moan about how unfair that is and you’re being held back by some dumb show on MTV. Or you could just get on with establishing your own identity in their eyes. You’re better off doing the latter.

          • Dr J — From your response, the only thing I can assume is that you’re a white, straight, cisgendered, able bodied male who has the privilege of never having been held back by your race or gender or sexual orientation or disability. If you think that the only component to equal opportunities and a true meritocracy is individual acheivement, I think you’re missing huge portions of the bigger picture. Yes, individuals should strive to achieve all they can despite negative stereotypes, but trying to level the playing field is a noble goal, encompassing a great deal more than “moaning about how unfair it is”.

          • Dr J

            Roro, you’re welcome to assume anything about me you like, and I will not accuse you of trampling my civil rights.

            Of course individual merit and effort aren’t the only things that affect outcomes, they’re just nearly the only ones that matter. They have a stronger effect than anything else and are things that you can actually change.

            If trying to level the playing field means decrying stereotypes as social evils and baying at MTV, I disagree that’s noble. Encouraging people to carry chips on their shoulders ultimately holds them back.

          • “Of course individual merit and effort aren’t the only things that affect outcomes, they’re just nearly the only ones that matter.”

            The actual application of this logic to any situation, though, belies its falseness. Take, for example, the fact that Mexican kids do much worse in school than white kids. If “individual merit and effort” are the only things that matter, I guess you’re saying that Mexican people are just dumber and lazier? Not to mention the fact that a lot of harmful stereotypes aren’t actually connected with merit and effort at all. For example: black women are stereotyped as loud and stupid, and therefore many people tune them out. If you are a black woman who also happens to be loud (a quality that isn’t inherently negative, but is often seen as such), the stereotype goes to color others’ opinions of what she might have to say, her perspective, her ability to be good at her job, etc. This stereotype cannot be overcome by “merit” or “effort”; it’s something that will absolutely hold her back. It’s not something she should have to change.

          • Dr J

            I guess you’re saying that Mexican people are just dumber and lazier?

            I don’t know one way or the other, but if the average Asian kid works harder in school than the average Mexican kid, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. Again, it sounds like you’re not prepared to claim that’s not the case, you’re just looking for someone to blame it on.

            This stereotype cannot be overcome by “merit” or “effort”; it’s something that will absolutely hold her back.

            At what? If she’s a singer, being loud won’t hold her back at all. If she’s a librarian, of course she should have to change it.

          • Wow, Dr J. I guess it serves me right for trying to have a conversation about race with someone who doesn’t think racism matters. Never mind!

          • Dr J

            Roro, you’re conjuring vague, scary-sounding demons of stereotyping and, now, racism. I’m challenging you to turn on the lights of specificity. Either the specific Mexican kid is blowing off his homework, or he’s not. Either the black woman’s loudness causes a specific problem, or it doesn’t. These aren’t scary scenes of victimization, they’re just everyday events.

          • Sorry, Dr J, some days I just don’t have the time or patience to go through Racism 101 with people who don’t even think it matters. Maybe some other day.

          • Dr J

            I hope you won’t find it racist of me to say there’s no hope of a meaningful discussion about whether racism in the abstract matters in the abstract. The terms are just too vague to talk about.

            So when you feel like going through racism 101 with me, pack some specifics, and I’ll be happy to have a discussion about it.

  • DLS

    It’s just another “reality” (“, worst contrived examples of”) show. Just more vulgar cheap stuff, about vulgar, cheap people, aimed at vulgar, cheap people and everyone else willing to indulge the Vulgar, Cheap Person within [tm]. Other than that, it’s just a stereotype other than (Southern) Californians (OK, and a few oddballs in Marin and the City, too) who are decadent as well as self-absorbed.

    (All that’s missing is if they make Palin put-downs like their peers.)

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