Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Were You Always a Guido?

What started as a second rate reality show has quickly become a phenomenon. The Jersey Shore, places eight housemates, four men and four women ranging in ages from 21 to 29, together for a summer at the shore. The male cast members are Mike aka “The Situation” known for his cocky attitude and his ripped abs, DJ Paulie D, the king of the blow out, Vinny a self professed mama’s boy and rabid fist pumper, and Ronnie, muscle bound lover and fighter. The females are led by Nicole aka “Snooki” whose only goal in life is to find a guido, marry him and have babies, J-Wow a female predator with enormous breast implants, Sammie Sweetheart, romantic interest for Ronnie, and a short stint by the tough talking Angelina.

Outcries from Italian American groups, protesting the derogatory stereotypical depiction of Italian Americans, have only helped to thrust the MTV cast further into the spotlight. The Guidos and the Guidettes, as they prefer to be called, have achieved notoriety on a worldwide level and have become the cultural equivalent of professional wrestling and roller derby. While few will admit that they watch, many actually do.

The guido archetype is nothing new. Maria Laurino describes a similar group from her past in her book of essays; Were You Always an Italian?

“In high school, the Italian-American boys were known as the “Ginzo Gang”; they were greasers with beat-up cars that first chugged then soared, thanks to their work at the local gas station (Palumbo’s), owned by the father of one of them. Olive-skinned and muscular, they were sexy in their crudeness; and their faint gasoline scent and oiled-down hair defined the image of Italian-Americans in our school. The young women who hung out with them had little separate identity other than that as the girlfriends of the Ginzos.”

John Travolta brought this stereotype into the mainstream with his portrayal of Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back, Kotter. It is no coincidence that his last name resembles the word barbarian. We laughed at ourselves a little easier in those days as we watched Vinnie swagger into our living rooms for each of seventy eight episodes that aired between 1975 and 1979. Travolta took on the nightclub scene via Tony Manero, in the smash movie hit, Saturday Night Live, which put disco on the map for many. During this era, Travolta won hearts with his portrayal of Danny Zucco in Grease, as another none too bright pretty boy with tight pants and a slick hairdo.

The guido lifestyle is portrayed as an obsession with physical appearance. The guidos and guidettes spend their days tanning, pumping themselves up with weights, and applying hair products, specifically hair gel. By night they cruise the night clubs and “hook up” with random partners. Their personas are swarthy, exaggerated caricatures of macho bravado, and I am not just talking about the men.

The origin of the word Guido is the Italian equivalent of the name Guy. It is also closely related to the verb guidare, which translates as, to lead or to guide. The term guido, as used in the US, has a negative connotation and has often been used as an ethnic slur. So why does this group of young people choose to embrace this label and adopt this archetype as a lifestyle? The answer is simple. Why do young people in general like to dress and act in overtly rebellious ways? Because they do, that is all. Each generation searches for new territory to exploit and explore so they can believe, even if for a little while, that they are different. Rebels without a cause they may be, but no one can say they aren’t at least rebels.

The protests by the Italian American groups are not without merit, even if they do smack somewhat of another look down the proverbial nose at the mezzogiorno. The age old battle between Northern and Southern Italians wages on. At some point each group must embrace the other as part of “Italianness.” As a fifty something woman of Italian descent, firmly planted in the heartland, far from the Jersey Shore, I think we do protest too much. We must look at this for what it is, entertainment. Reality shows are based upon the extreme rather than the norm and I do believe that most people are intelligent enough to understand this. As Italian Americans we are not by default guidos, guidettes, mobsters or mamma boys, but fearing to acknowledge the existence of these characters, only serves to highlight our insecurities.

Laurino goes on to reflect upon her own feelings about the Ginzos;

“The Ginzos were my rearview mirror, a reflection of the near past that I wished to move beyond.”

Rumor has it that due to the unprecedented popularity of the show, season two is in the works. Across the nation, Jersey Shore parties are popping up. The cast of the show has been on every talk show and red carpet and it members have become overnight celebs. What can we do? Not much but laugh, roll our eyes, and take some pleasure in the fact that Snooki and Sarah Palin once sported similar hairstyles.



pattiz said...

I find these people so far way from "my world" I can't help but watch the insanity of their lives. It's hard not to watch...kind of like driving by a train wreck without looking. You just have to look out of sheer curiosity and be thankful you weren't part of it!! :)

Turning 50 said...

Like most "reality" TV there is a certain amount of theatrics involved for shock value to get precisely this reaction. Certain negative behaviour has been emphasized and dramatized to boost ratings. It is important for people to take this show for what it is and not to assume that the characters represent the typical Italian American.