I understand the “Relax, it’s just a TV show” argument put forth by people who are loving MTV’s trashy reality show Jersey Shore. I see how watching this group of obnoxious goofballs can be fascinating and entertaining. But please, let’s not kid ourselves. It absolutely is offensive, and as an Italian-American myself, I feel like I need to call bullcrap on some of the arguments saying otherwise.
I reached my breaking point yesterday morning while watching a Today Show segment in which NBC News correspondent Jeff Rossen read from what he said was a casting notice for Jersey Shore, claiming that it specifically called for “loud, proud Italians,” and “guidos and guidettes” to participate in the new show. When asked about the cast notice and creation of the show, MTV said in a statement to EW: “MTV picked it up, and worked with the third-party production company to further develop (including supplemental casting) the creative in the tradition of MTV’s authentic reality series True Life, which had successful Jersey Shore episodes – ‘True Life: Staten Island,’ ‘True Life: I Have A Summer Share,’ and ‘True Life: I’m A Jersey Shore Girl.’”
So it may very well have been a third-party producer, and not an MTV employee, who actually wrote that casting notice. But in either case, it isn’t as if this show just stumbled upon a subculture of cocky, promiscuous airheads from the Jersey Shore that happen to be Italian-American. Producers specifically set out from the beginning to build a series around “loud, proud” “guidos” (MTV points out that several cast members are only half-Italian and one is not Italian at all), and only two of the eight people cast on Jersey Shore are even from the state of New Jersey, let alone the Shore. (The guy who calls himself Pauly D said in the premiere episode that he’d never even been to Jersey before the show.)
Reality television has a long history of exploiting idiots for viewers’ entertainment, and in many ways this is just more of the same. As my colleague Tanner Stransky pointed out in his positive take on the premiere, “These seemingly silly ‘guidos and guidettes’ (their words, not mine) aren’t being forced to do anything — MTV just brought its cameras and let them do their thing.” And I agree there is little sympathy to be had for them. But even in the world of lowest-common-denominator reality programming, it is rare, if ever, that a show has so blatantly and unapologetically focused its cameras on a specific ethnic group like Jersey Shore does. Shows like Growing Up Gotti and The Real Housewives of New Jersey, for example, exploited stereotypes that happen to be Italian. The difference with Jersey Shore is the stereotype IS that they’re Italian. These people aren’t just buffoonish fame whores, but buffoonish fame-whore Italians. MTV has said they didn’t mean to “stereotype, discriminate or offend” anyone, and I don’t mean to imply that they created a show (or bought a show created by someone else) with that as their intention. However, I do find it odd that they didn’t realize this concept of rounding up “loud, proud” Italian “guidos” and holing them up for a summer of debauchery at a Jersey Shore house draped with Italian flags could perhaps be seen as offensive to people of Italian descent.
As for the word “guido,” MTV programming president Tony DiSanto told THR he realizes some people consider it a “derogatory term,” but that since the kids on the show “refer to themselves that way, we let that exist as is.” Listen, just because these people self-identify as “guidos” doesn’t mean that the word isn’t offensive to the millions of Italian-Americans who can’t stomach watching them demean themselves and their heritage in the name of reality celebrity. (That point is not completely lost on MTV, which has responded to protests by pulling the word “guido” from voiceovers and descriptions for the show.) “Guido” is a slur. The Jersey Shore cast member who refers to himself as The Situation (pictured) may declare that the word has evolved into something inoffensive, but let me state for the record that this guy by no means speaks for all Italian-Americans. And I’d be willing to bet that the person who wrote up that casting call looking for “guidos” wouldn’t be so confident in the word’s innocuousness to walk up to a random Italian-American on the street and say, “Hey, guido! What’s happening?”
The fact that the offensiveness isn’t immediately apparent to everyone is probably because Italian-American discrimination in the U.S. doesn’t have the same violent, abhorrent history as discrimination against some other groups. And honestly, that’s valid. The portrayal of negative Italian stereotypes and use of an Italian slur isn’t as destructive as, say, the use of the “N” word for a black person or the “F” word for a gay man. I’m not saying the show should get yanked (though I do think advertisers should consider their association to it), and I’m as appalled as anyone by these reports that MTV is receiving threats because of it. But also valid is the fact that as an Italian-American, I find this show and its delusional meatheads and bimbos offensive and embarrassing. That may not be cause for national outrage, but it is worth noting that not everyone is on board with Jersey Shore’s particular brand of ridiculous fun.