Meatball Problems: Jersey Shore and Italian-Americanness


A few years ago, MTV premiered a crass, exploitative show portraying “real” people picked to live in a house and have their lives taped, destined to make buckets of money for the network and for the show’s putative stars. Jersey Shore premiered in December 2009, and the controversy that resulted hasn’t stopped the momentum of this monster, now in its fifth season somehow. Italian-American groups registered their displeasure with the show almost immediately, complaining about the show’s overuse of the term “guido” and sleazy reliance on Italian-American stereotypes. It is an ugly, artless show that has captured a lot more attention than many of the other ugly, artless shows out there. Why?

The show rarely purports to be about Italian-Americans. It purports to be about these kids, some of whom are of Italian descent (and some of whom aren’t) who embrace a peculiar particular lifestyle. The lifestyle is about spending the summer at the beach at the Jersey Shore, drinking shots, going to loud Euro-y dance clubs, foregoing the beach itself to hit up a tanning salon, teasing hair, seeking “love” with other club-going, shot-drinking, tanned muscular young people. (There’s some other stuff, too, involving yucky drunken sex, men mistreating women, everybody being vulgar about their sexuality, a chronic lack of bottom sheets, public urination, anger management issues, and knowing catchphrase creation. It’s a mess and everybody involved has a lot more money than any of us ever will.)

The Italian-American thing is interesting, because it was fore-grounded as a controversy at the show’s debut, but it is not a big part of the “plot” of the show. With one main exception.

Each Sunday, the characters pause from being monstrous to one another to gather for a family dinner. It wasn’t until reading Hasia Diner’s book that I realized that this is what makes Jersey Shore momentarily human. The cast is not all Italian-American, but they all are identifying themselves with Italian-Americanness, and molding their collective and individual identities around food.  And they eat as Diner’s Italian-American immigrants ate: macaroni and sauce, olive oil and cheese, Italian sausage. Cast members’ mothers are venerated as outstanding cooks (while current girlfriends and love interests – who do not cook, as usually the boys do Sunday’s cooking – are treated as disposable.)

I hear echoes of DJ Pauly D, Vinny, The Situation and Ron when I read, on p. 82 “In discussing marital prospects, most informants indicated that they preferred Italian girls, because, ‘They know just what we eat, the way of the house, and so on. I’m used to eating Italian food; that’s the main reason.’”

In the show’s fourth season, the cast were magically whisked away to Florence, Italy, where they showed no curiosity about anything, and seemed surprised that the motherland was so unfamiliar. The best part was when they kept noticing the Vatican everywhere in Florence. Or when Deena whined, “God, everything’s in another language!” On the other hand, this quote from JWoww is actually kind of a propros and winning:

When I’m 80 years old, and I’m making pizza in my kitchen, and I’m teaching my kids how to make pizza, and they ask me, ‘Oh where did you learn to make pizza,’ I’ll be like, ‘Bitch I made it in Florence, that’s where I made pizza, so shut your mouth and enjoy my pizza.’

What does this say about place and authenticity?

For research purposes, I add this link to the Irish version of JS, Tallifornia, perhaps not safe for work. I’m sorry and enjoy.

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. Ugh. The Vatican/Duomo. Particularly disturbing is their relation to “authentic” foods in Italy, especially at the grocery store. That and their incessant desire to replicate grilling in Italy. And JWoww and her authentic pizza making skills (did she even actually make a pizza? Do they ever actually work? Or just hide in trash cans and accost people on the street with a bullhorn?) How similar to a slice of New York pizza was it I wonder. So, place and authenticity, another good discussion point I think.
    That and their construction of “Italian” or rather “guido” identity, which lacks food minus the whole Sunday dinner thing. Other than Vinny I’m unsure as to how they’ve constructed family dinner as some meaningful thing they should do every Sunday. Did MTV put them up to it?
    If you’re looking for yet another way to procrastinate and want to ponder the implications of Jersey Shore’s popularity the Vulture’s recaps are usually amusing:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: