Italianness in Jersey Shore season 4: E3 (’Twinning’)

In lieu of anything relevant to the topic of Italianness in this episode to write about, here are some links on Guido-ism.

An overview of Time on the term (and the reaction of Italian-Americans), including mention of Donald Tricarico, a sociologist who studies Guidos. Two of his papers are available online, the first of which includes a quote on the topic of family that echoes what has been said about family in the previous episodes/seasons of Jersey Shore:

“A Guido’s family is very important to him, and the same goes for a Guidette. A Guido is always protective of his family members. They always respect and stick up for their mothers and grandmothers, who they call ma and nonna. They usually work for their father and plan to take over the family business if there is one. A Guido always watches over their sisters and never lets a guy go near them. Guidos usually live at home until they get married. [Silvio, 20, 2002]“

-Youth Culture, Ethnic Choice, and the Identity Politics of Guido
-Guido: Fashioning an Italian-American Youth Style

And: a short video made by Lou Rinaldi and Erick Kwiecien titled ‘Italian-American Identity Crisis’:

The makers interview relatives, NYC passers-by, and members of UNICO on the (not very clearly defined or demarcated) topics of Italian-Americanness, heritage, representation and stereotypes. Fear is expressed over stereotyping in the media (for instance, in Jersey Shore) possibly having an effect on the way Italian-Americans behave in real life, as well as heritage fading or somehow being lost. The idea that stereotypes could be said to be either ‘true’ or ‘untrue’ is put forth, and the distinction between Italian-Americans and American-Italians is made (while the term ‘we’ is still applied across both categories).


–Next episode: E4 - ‘Crime and Punishment’–

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Italianness in Jersey Shore season 4: E2 (’Like More Than a Friend’)

In this second episode of the fourth season, the main focus is put on the idea of the cast members being confused by Italy and Italian culture. This is done in a typical ‘Jersey Shore’ manner: by editing the comments and actions of the cast members to make it look like they think they’re saying something smart or true or that they know what’s really going on. The use of background music then creates a kind of slapstick effect: the viewers are in on the joke, while the ‘actors’ aren’t aware that their stupidity or ignorance creates a comical (you could almost say deadpan) effect. The main sequences where this construction is used can thus be seen as bits or skits.

The Italy as Disneyland bit
Throughout the episode, the house mates are presented as completely unaware of Florence’s cultural history. They all seem oblivious to the fact that the Vatican isn’t in Florence, and furthermore confuse Michelangelo with Da Vinci (arguably the two most famous Italians in history). In an ultimate example of delusion, they even comment on the similarity of Florence and Disneyland. While on their way to the supermarket, Vinny, Mike/The Situation, Pauly and Deena admire the Florence streets and squares. Deena patronizingly currs “Look at how cute these little places are!” Vinny then chimes in with “It looks like Beauty and the Beast or some shit. I feel like people are gonna start singing out their windows”.
(“Is this the Vatican?” “Yeah I think so. It’s so nice.”)
Instead of acknowledging the fact that Disney borrowed the scenery of European villages to construct a romantic, fairy-tale-like setting, the order is reversed and Florence becomes the copy, while Disneyland (quintessentially American, fake, and hyperreal) becomes the original. This image of the cast members as ignorant American tourists is reinforced by them messing up Italian phrases throughout the episode, as well as complaining about everything being in Italian in Florence. Altogether, this creates the impression that they have been exposed or even unmasked as true, common Americans.
(”Everything’s in another language. Like, what the hell is this? Nothing is in English.”)

The pizza-bit
The housemates are set to work in (where else?) a pizzeria (Pizzeria O’ Vesuvio) this season. Marco, the pizzeria owner, gives them a pizza-baking lesson, while they look bored and distracted, joke around, and seem altogether unable to comprehend what’s being explained to them (this again being emphasized by music). Sammi, looking vapid, makes the ambiguous comment of “It looks like a Domino’s version of Italy pizza” (subtitled so the viewers don’t miss it); Ronnie calls a pizza a ‘pizza pie’ (an exclusively American term); and there is more confusion about ingredients (pepperoni/peppers/salami). Snooki blames her inability to understand Marco’s explanation to the fact that ‘he doesn’t speak English, like, very well’, while later, she argues that she doesn’t know how to ‘cook’ pizza because she doesn’t speak Italian.

The scene becomes the equivalent of one in which either clowns or toddlers are taught about, for instance, quantum physics, if the clowns or toddlers were under the impression that they were all Einsteins. Only these are supposedly dumb Americans who think they are Italian being taught to make a pizza. (The notion that is implicitly put forward here is of course that Italians naturally know how to bake pizzas and Americans do not.)
(”I don’t speak Italian. How am I the fuck supposed to know how to cook a pizza?”)

The coffee bit
JWoww wants to make coffee with the pot she finds in the house, but is unable to find a coffee grinder. She looks around the kitchen and picks up a potato press, asking “What is this, a ravioli maker?” She looks puzzled at the thing and then continues to grind the coffee beans with it. “Probably a lot of work to make coffee,” Pauly comments from across the kitchen, to which JWoww sarcastically replies: “Yeah, we ain’t in fucking America any more.” We see an inserted clip of JWoww speaking to the camera, saying: “Making coffee is Italy is like making coffee in the 1600’s.” Back in the kitchen, Sammi, in a child-like manner says: “I never knew how to make coffee before. That’s the machine?” JWoww responds, dryly and in a low voice: “I guess. The directions are in Italian.”
The comical effect in this clip is two-layered. First of all, JWoww intentionally turns the whole coffee-making episode into a shtick, exaggerating how hard it is to make coffee in Italy and cracking jokes about it straight-faced. The second layer, created in the production phase, is then added by (once again) background music and timed editing of both the action and the dialogue. The girly tone with which Sammi utters the grammatically incorrect, overly child-like and puzzled ‘I nevva knew how ta make cawfee befowa’ draws attention to the awkward fact that a grown woman doesn’t know how to make a cup of coffee, and, furthermore, to the fact that neither of them recognizes (or seem to recognize) one of the most famous Italian designs of all time, the Bialetti percolator/Moka Express. So, in this sequence, we are partly laughing with, and partly laughing at the cast members.

The ‘real Italian ladies’ bit
Deena and Sammi decide to cook Sunday dinner: Deena suggests to Sammi: “Shall we have a glass of wine while we cook?”, to which Sammi replies: “Oh my god, yes. We’ll be like real Italian ladies cooking dinner.” We have seen before how the idea is constructed that a real Italian woman is a woman who cooks (and takes care of others). For Sammi apparently, the drinking of wine while cooking is an important part of this image. Immediately after this, we hear circus-like background music that accompany images of Sammi having trouble figuring out the difference between garlic and scallions, and between strawberries and raspberries. Confused, she asks Deena “Tell me these are strawberries. These are like weird strawberries, are they good like this?” And as if the message wasn’t clear enough already, the two girls are then shown to let the dishwasher overflow.
The music and visual material in this sequence works as a punchline to which the ‘real Italian ladies’ comment is the setup, meant to convey to the viewers the message: Real Italian ladies, you two? DREAM ON! Later on, an interaction between Deena and Mike takes place to the same effect: Deena throws the pasta in the pot with Mike standing next to her, cooking (which I guess makes him a real Italian lady?…).”You put the pasta in before it boils?” Mike asks incredulously. Then, with Deena looking the other way, all the boys laugh (seemingly unbeknownst to Deena) while Mike gives them a look of shock and amazement. Due to the way this scene is set up, and because it has been established (twice) before what being a real Italian woman means, an interesting division takes place: the guys are in on the joke along with the viewers, while the girls aren’t. The joke is twofold: first, that the girls are lousy cooks, and second, that they are are lousy (as) Italian women.

–Next episode: E3 - ‘Twinning’–

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Posted at 22:04 • 1 Comment

Italianness in Jersey Shore season 4: E1 (’Italy Gets Smushed’)

Vinny is the character that has explicitly referred to his Italian background the most in previous seasons, and also the one whose identity has been established as being ‘the most Italian’. This notion is reinforced by the fact that Vinny is the only one that speaks (some) Italian, and the emphasis that is put on his family as being ‘typically’ or ‘traditionally’ Italian throughout the series. This is also made explicit on different accounts. In episode 6 of season 1, for instance, Vinny’s family comes to the Jersey Shore house, and his mother cooks dinner for everyone. When mom does all of the work while the others (men and women) wait to be served, Snooki comments in an inserted clip that Vinny’s mom is a ‘real’ Italian woman (because she will not sit down to have dinner until everyone else has finished their meal).

In this first episode of the fourth season, Vinny himself explains his view on the Italianness of his family. Still in Staten Island before departure to Florence, Vinny invites Ronnie, Pauly and The Situation over for dinner at his family’s house. “My family, they are Italians, the right way,” he comments (accompanied by shots of his entire family sitting around a large table full of (Italian) food). He adds: “There’s nothing more authentic than my family.”
(”My family, they are Italians, the right way.” (Which begs the question: what is Italian the wrong way?))
Interestingly enough, he sees no need to explain what he means by ‘the right way’ and ‘authentic’. But the accompanying images help explain it for him. It is a large family; they come together to eat; they eat a lot; all of this is presented as evidence of a traditional family. But Vinny isn’t just saying he has a traditional family, he in fact is suggesting there is something inherently and authentically Italian about this scene. So to Vinny, it seems, the Italianness of his family doesn’t reside simply in the fact that his family members are Italians; family or family value itself represents (true) Italianness. The visual material then brings it home for the viewer: the atmosphere is loud and chaotic; (lewd) jokes are made; and, importantly, we see mostly men at the dinner table. We know from (gangster) movies and TV what these things signify, and so no one needs to explain to the viewer what all this means: these must be Italians.
(Handy tip for real life: the ears of the female sex have the propensity to bleed when dirty jokes enter them, so try covering them with something.)

Later on, the boys are on their way to Italy. We see a closeup shot of Vinny on the airplane, who, while looking out of the window, says: “This is the first time I have ever seen the motherland.” Upon exiting the plane, we even see him touching the (Italian) ground, while we hear his voice-over talking about breathing in Italian air for the first time.
(”This is the first time I have ever seen the motherland.”)
Vinny seems to experience the journey to Italy differently than his cast members do. Although we see some of the others trying to learn some Italian phrases (partly via Vinny, partly via the equally reliable source of online translating services), we aren’t shown any of them expressing their feelings about what going to Italy means to them, beyond the obvious enthusiasm about ‘doing sex’ and partying. Vinny, however, isn’t just happy to do sex and see where his family came from; he actually calls Italy the ‘motherland’ and sees experiencing the Italian air and soil (or asphalt) for the first time as something signifcant. We could say, then, that Vinny is shown to align his identity much more closely with that of his family than the others do. The trip is portrayed as a journey to his heritage, rather than just a vacation. The expectation is created that he will somehow find or come closer to himself in Italy.

One of the first things the guys do after arriving in Florence is (naturally) finding a gym appropriate for their GTL routine (gym-tan-laundry). They meet a gym employee/owner named Luigi. “Luigi is a cool old Italian guy, just like one of my uncles or something back home,” Vinny says, and then comments: “Luigi is like the Guido mister Miyagi.”
Here, Vinny seems to equate “Guido” with “Italian”. While it is obviously for comic purposes, it is still interesting that he would choose ‘Guido’, a term that is so specifically and exclusively used to describe certain Americans (or Italian-Americans), not Italians. Vinny also subtly mentions that Luigi seems to not spend much time in the gym himself (meaning: he has a regular rather than square physique), nor does Luigi have any other characteristics of a typical Guido (for instance: slicked-back hair, gold jewelry), so the sequence would suggest Vinny indeed sees ‘Guido’ and ‘Italian’ as interchangeable and thus alike terms.* The comparison he draws between Luigi and his uncles ‘or something’ back home supports this theory, meaning: he sees Americans with an Italian heritage and Italians living in Italy as basically the same group of people.
(Vinny discovers the bidet.)

–Next episode: E2 - ‘Like More Than a Friend’–

*Alternatively, since mister Miyagi was in fact mentor to an Italian-American kid, you could also argue that Vinny simply meant that Luigi is ‘a Guido’s mister Miyagi’ with this comment.

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Posted at 20:17 • 3 Comments

Italianness in Jersey Shore season 4: Introduction

Since Jersey Shore began airing on MTV, there has been much criticism of how the show portrays Italian Americans, by UNICO, the National Italian American Foundation, and other Italian-American groups and foundations. The show has been accused of reinforcing stereotypes of Italian Americans, most notably that of the ‘Guido’: a derogatory term for working-class Italian Americans. The cast members of Jersey Shore, however, actually use the term Guido in a reappropriated positive/celebratory sense, meaning a tan, muscular Italian-American man with ‘fresh’ clothing and slicked-back hair (or, in the case of the ‘Guidette’, a tan girl/woman, often wearing her hair in a ‘Snooki-poof’).
From the start, Jersey Shore, both in terms of the show itself (music and background images, for instance) and the way it was promoted, was clearly positioned within an Italian-American context. The cast members themselves also often refer to their Italianness when speaking about their identity, family/background and appearance. This in spite of the fact that, as critics have noted, the cast members were all born in the U.S., have never been to Italy, and don’t (with the exception of Vinny) speak Italian. Furthermore, although several cast members have mixed ethnicities (and Snooki, having been adopted into an Italian-American family, in fact isn’t even of Italian, but Latin-American descent), their identity is established (be it by the producers of the show or by the cast members themselves) as specifically (and exclusively) Italian/Italian-American, rather than, for instance, Italian-Irish-Spanish-American (JWoww), Puerto Rican-Italian-American (Ronnie), or, simply, American.

Since, in the previous seasons, Italian identity has been such an explicit part of the show, it will be interesting to see how this construction of the cast members’ identity as being ‘Italian’ holds up when faced with actual/other Italians in Florence, and certain Italian customs and cultural practices that might not match this (possibly) specifically East Coast/American version of Italianness. Will the notion of the Jersey Shorers’ Italianness be altered or called into question, both explicitly by the cast members and by the way the producers construct the show? Will they become Americans in Italy rather than Italians/Italian-Americans in America, as in the three previous seasons?

(Ronnie is big, like the Colosseum.)

I will try to answer some these questions by looking at how Italianness is constructed throughout (parts of) the episodes of the fourth season.

So stay tuned!

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Posted at 20:05 • 1 Comment