After attending a baby shower at Lenny’s Clam Bar two Sundays ago I set out to find what the citizens of my beloved hometown, Howard Beach, thought of the hoopla and drama. Is “Jersey Shore” a bad representation of Italian-Americans and should we be offended?
Most people I tried to talk to wouldn’t comment when I asked them about Jersey Shore. Generally, people here are weary of the media because press coverage in the past has colored the entire neighborhood as racist. So they don’t trust outsiders to understand them. But, uh, what the hell? I’m grew up on 85th Street! Rollerbladed up and down these streets in my teens, hung out at Smitty’s as soon as I got a fake ID and still come back for Sunday dinner. However, the Frye boots and the short hair cut gave me away as an escapee. Damn it! I should have worn my Uggs! You see, although I am technically an “insider” to Howard Beach by birth, I chose to not follow the pack in dress, lifestyle and vocation. So now I am outsider. But, does that by default make me less Italian?
The only person who agreed to be interviewed said in a huff: “That show is offensive to Italian Americans…and please, those people are not even real Italians.”
Pause. Thinking. Enlightenment.
They are not representing Italians – at all! In fact, MTV’s description on their website does not include the word “Italian” as a descriptor. Jersey Shore has nothing to do with Italians but everything to do with guido culture!
Origins of guido-hood
Two years ago I went on a discover-your-roots trip to Italy. I was a little worried that I would be overwhelmed by the machismo that I abhorred in Howard Beach growing up. What I found: there was no reason to worry! The only person I saw who resembled the hair-gel laden prototypes from NY was an angry passenger on a flight to Sicily whom everyone rolled their eyes at and tried to ignore. But, isn’t this the homeland? Isn’t it supposed to be crawling with evidence of the origins of Italia-NY-style? Apparently something has gone drastically wrong in America in the way Italian culture has been translated.
I read a cultural critic who said something that makes sense of this issue: the 1st generation of Italians tried to forget what the 2nd and 3rd generations try to reclaim. One day I observed this in comparing the mannerisms of three generations animatedly talking (or arguing?) Italian Americans in front of me. My grandfather moved his hands with a steady powerful grace. My father put a little more omph into gesturing. While my brother was a site to be mimicked on Saturday Night Live.
How did Italian-American culture devolve from lively hand gestures to fist pumping and crotch grabbing? My dad swears that “The Godfather” is to blame. To quote: “Before that movie 18th Avenue [Bensonhurst, Brooklyn] was Italian, then it became grease-ball.” Bingo! It stopped being Italian and it started to become something else. Guido, greaseball – whatever term you use it – the rise of mafia obsession marks the beginning of a new culture. Without many other non-mafia Italian media icons the second and third generation Italians were left clutching a plate of meatballs, watching The Trilogy on repeat and desperately searching for shards of identity.
After terms like “WOP” and “garlic eater” went out of style to mock Italians we were (and are) encouraged to assimilate into mainstream white America. However, most of us we grew up with a culture that makes us different. When I went to college I didn’t quite fit in because I was always having to explain why I refused to say “mani-cotti” rather than “mani-got”. My brother’s take: “Well, I’m not white.” I disagree but his comment reflects a feeling amongst Italians that we need to differentiate ourselves: if we don’t do something drastic we will simply fit into the masses. “The Godfather” and the like provide examples of strong people who created a community to power in asserting their identity. A logical role model.
Claiming your unique identity is not unfamiliar amongst American culture. A typical high school lunchroom is testament to the differentiation: punks in one corner, stoners in another…. Where I went to high school Italians were just another subset. My friend Ari said it best: “Being a guido is just like when I wore platform pumas and three pairs of ripped pantyhose to raves.” And just like the early punk culture is similar, yet signficantly different than what we see in Hot Topic, so to has guido culture started out as Sonny-imitators and turned into gold chain wearing shades of red, white and green.
One fact about Howard Beach that most fail to realize is that there is a large percentage of the population that is NOT Italian. And there is also a portion that does not ascribe to guido cultural norms. But, a lot do. And a lot of non-Italians do as well. That is because being a guido is a social group, like being a cheerleader. The trends and tastes (and rah-rah-eyyoohhs) are contagious. When you enter Howard Beach the guido cultural imperative is like a haze that infests that tiny neighborhood. And when I walk in obviously not ascribing to those norms people see me as an outsider, but that doesn’t make me less Italian, just not a guido. So, when UNICO and the like get all up in arms about how Italian’s look when poor Snookie gets punched in the face they are making a moot point – Jersey Shore does not represent Italians, but they tell you a hell of a lot about guidos.