Saturday, July 31, 2010

It's about "the g word!"

Why are some people offended by TV show Jersey Shore?
By Finlo Rohrer BBC News, Washington/July 30, 2010
The cast of Jersey Shore have all become minor celebrities

The MTV reality show Jersey Shore is the latest in a parade of media stereotyping of Italian-Americans, but as the second season is broadcast in the US why is this particular ethnic group a target?

For those who have not seen it, the "reality" show Jersey Shore paints a very particular picture.

The first series saw eight loud young people descend on a house near a beach in the US state of New Jersey to indulge their hedonism. They drank, they shouted, they sat in a hot tub, much as in any other reality show.

Litany of stereotypes
Violent: New Jersey crime familyThe Sopranos, gangster epic The Godfather and numerous others
Vain: John Travolta as the preening Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever
Stupid: JoeyTribbiani on the sitcom Friends
Vain and stupid:
Jersey Shore

But for Italian-American activists the show represented an attack on their culture.

It was all about the "g-word."

From the off, the characters repeatedly referred to themselves as "guidos" or loving "guidos" or living a "guido" lifestyle.

"For me using 'guido' is like using the n-word," says New Jersey state Senator Joe Vitale, refering to the derogatory term for African-American.

Andre DiMino, president of Italian-American group Unico National, agrees. "It would be close to using the n-word. It is an insulting term. When I was younger that was a term where you would fight for your honour."

It's not a term that's well-known in the UK, but for many Italian-Americans the term can suddenly transport them back to the era of discrimination.

These people are not representative of the Italian-American community "It indicates an uneducated, boorish, stupid, low-class Italian-American," says Mr DiMino.

Of course, to the young people on the show, the term means something slightly different, something linked to being a fun-loving, well-groomed, sun-tanned gym-frequenter.

This nuance didn't make the Italian-American activists happy. Their anger is likely to be reflected in the tone of the second series, which started in the US on Thursday.

If the word "guido" is absent from the series, that would mark a major victory for the campaigners, whose actions prompted a dozen firms to pull their adverts from the first season.

They'll also want to see fewer Italian flags punctuating the drunken antics and loudness, which in this series will take place largely in Miami.

Nor are these "It is basically a mindless culture - how good their tan is, how good their hair gel is, how big their muscles are. That isn't fair as a representation of Italian-Americans," says Joseph del Raso, president of the National Italian-American Foundation.

What annoys the activists is that MTV has commissioned a show that seems to have been tailored to be as brash and crass as possible, and it's branded as Italian-American. Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, the diminutive, uber-tanned star of the first series is already one of the most famous Italian-Americans.

And whichever direction the new show goes in - and British fans will be able to start watching the second series on 5 September - it's part of a wider pattern of stereotyping that annoys Italian-Americans.

THE JERSEY SHORE ISSUES
Continue reading the main story Use of word "guido"
Frequent display of Italian flag
Drunken behaviour
Obsession with gym, tanning and laundry
Macho behaviour

"There is this tremendous sensitivity to other groups," says Mr DiMino. "You don't see that sensitivity when it comes to Italian-Americans, the only group it is OK to bash in the media."

There have been countless fictional portrayals of organised crime over the years, from The Godfather to New Jersey's own, The Sopranos, which have built up a particular picture.
These people are not representative of the Italian-American community
Nor are these
"For decades, the connection was always made - if you were an Italian-American, you were in the Mafia or a mobster," says Mr DiMino.

The Sopranos won awards, was broadcast around the world and did address the issue of stereotyping, but the activists think it still may have influenced the thinking of simpler souls.

"People started to really identify life in the Soprano family with life in a typical Italian American family," says Mr Del Raso.

But some think there is a big difference between quality drama like The Sopranos or an Oscar-winning film like The Godfather and something like Jersey Shore, says Mr Vitale.

"They don't seek to offend, don't work in a manner that is intentionally offensive."

And for all that no-one really thinks that a significant proportion of Italian-Americans are criminals, the constant sniping irritates and reminds people of unhappier times past.

"When I bought my first home the guy wanted to know if I got the money legally," says Mr DiMino.

Once upon a time the Jersey shore was a sedate family resort

Just having a name with a vowel at the end can be enough to cause some difficulty.

"If you had an Italian-American moving into the mid-west to compete for a job, people see your name and think you are just like the rest of them," says Mr Del Raso.

A running theme among the activists seems to be that because Italian-Americans do not face serious discrimination in contemporary society, it's seen as fine to stereotype them.

"You just can't take liberties with certain groups," says Mr Del Raso. "There are other groups that are viewed as groups that don't need protection.

"We mainstreamed very well into American society. We have enjoyed a lot of success. We are not a group that people will feel sorry for. We don't want to look like we are hypersensitive and cry-babies."

Historian Vincenza Scarpaci, author of The Journey of the Italians in America, says that despite the early Americans love of Italian culture, art and architecture, there was still a hostile reaction to the Italian immigrants who started arriving in large numbers at the beginning of the 20th Century.

"Because we have not been marginalised like some of the other European groups people don't get as upset when someone is stereotyping Italians.

"In general Italians are not looked upon negatively but when it comes to stereotyping very few people are going to stand up on the principle that what is an injury to one is an injury to all."

And that leads to the jokes.

Ms Scarpaci winces when she recalls the friend who came up to her and said: "I tell all my friends I know Vinnie Scarpaci and they better not mess with me."

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