Sunday, August 8, 2010

Will the Real Italian-Americans Please Stand Up?

What Francis Ford Coppola’s epic movie, “The Godfather,” did in inviting the movie going public to an experience of Italian-American culture is now being attempted by MTV’s reality series, “Jersey Shore,” now in its second season. The reality series that was first filmed in August 2009 in Seaside, New Jersey, debuted on December of the same year to mixed reviews. Chronicling the lives of eight young adults who worked at a boardwalk souvenir store in exchange for room and board, the show thrives on the dramatization of offensive Italian-American stereotypes and the use of the term guido and guidette, a pejorative slang term that refers to working class Italian-Americans.

What the series has done is obliterate images of hard working Italian-Americans arriving at Ellis Island with leathery, sun burned faces with a new breed of obnoxious, bacchanal young adults, whose existence is defined by excessive gym visits, frequent tanning, poor diction, uncouth behavior, gel spiked hair, slutty outfits, alcohol abuse, and promiscuous behavior.

When Mario Puzo walked into the office of Robert Evans, who was then head of production for Paramount Pictures in the spring of 1968, he came bearing a few pages of written script that would later become The Godfather, the piece de resistance of his career. Puzo’s book based entirely on research was about organized crime within a prominent Italian-American family and introduced the word Mafia into American lexicon, sparking a war between Paramount Pictures and the dark stratums of the Mob.

So offensive was the word Mafia that the head of one of the largest mob families in New York at the time, Joseph Colombo Sr. began an organization, The Italian American Civil Rights League that set out to charge the F.B.I with persecution and violation of civil rights.

Puzo’s book was going to tell about the fabled Italian underworld, outing a string of actual mob families that profited from racketeering and illicit gambling operations.

Attempting to halt Puzo and Paramount, Colombo and his cohorts then embarked on a war of sorts fraught with threats that were of the same ilk as the sight of a prize horse’s head wrapped in silk bed sheets.

The response to threats from Colombo would lead to a meeting that cornered the movie producers into erasing any mention the word mafia (which by the way only appeared once) from the movie script and Paramount subsequently garnering the support of Colombo and the greater Italian-American community.

While Coppola’s movie may be criticized for being about as offensive as Jersey Shore, depicting Italian-Americans as savage, cold-blooded brutes, The Godfather can be treated as social commentary that is reflective of American life, playing on themes of sex, greed, love for family, and capitalism. What’s more, it’s a reflection of great writing and skillful minds. Jersey Shore however is different. The cast members are left to use their imagination to humor the audience. But what starts off as comedy quickly turns into a farce on Italian-Americans. It can be argued that the series is reflective of contemporary American youngsters, but the series is not an equal opportunity undertaking. The main stars are Italian-Americans. No jokes are made on other sub-cultures, the show promises after all to show us guidos at their best.

Surely, MTV is no PBS nor has ever claimed to be the instructor on what is and isn’t acceptable in race relations or normal human behavior (not with shows like Jackass or Parental Control), still the subtle lessons on the show cannot be ignored. Mention the word Italian-American and the first images that come to mind aren’t of cheese or Don Corleone. Rather, Snooki and her bird’s nest hairdo are proximate.

Incidentally, the second season of Jersey Shore makes it grand debut on the same day as Arizona’s racist law, which is a poorly disguised witch hunt aimed at Latinos. Just like Arizona wants all of America to believe that SB 1070 will be as normal as having an order of fries with your super-sized burger, MTV wants you to believe that singling out a racial group for a gag is. But since hordes of people do not indulge in watching clips of fascist parades with nostalgia, I doubt that Jersey Shore will ever be remembered for anything close to brilliance in the future. The only memories of Jersey Shore will be crummy impressions of Snooki hidden in Facebook photo archives, under the album: Halloween.