How MTV’s “Jersey Shore” fetishized the Guido, a subversive ethnic stereotype that America disdained

In the same year “Teen Mom” premiered, MTV embarked on another “more real” reality show tentatively titled “Bridge and Tunnel.” Camille Dodero (2011), who profiled the never-aired series for the Village Voice, called “Bridge and Tunnel” “the anti-‘Hills,’ a blue-collar rebuttal to the grossly loaded California clan that begat plastic-surgery monster Heidi Montag.” While “The Hills” and “The City” presented the easy success of wealthy, white Americans living in Los Angeles and New York City, respectively, “Bridge and Tunnel” was created to focus on working-class kids striving toward a better life in the ethnically circumscribed neighborhoods of Staten Island, New York. In other words, the series wanted the class status of the cast emphasized. During the preproduction process, MTV suggested putting “Bridge and Tunnel’s” cast into a house, “Real World”–style (i.e., providing cast members with a hot tub and a steady stream of alcohol), and renaming the series “Staten Island” (thus keeping in the MTV tradition of naming reality identity shows after the location in which they are set). But the independent production company behind “Bridge and Tunnel,” Ish Entertainment, refused, arguing that its show was about “kids with stories, not kids whose only stories [a] re the show.” Ish Entertainment felt strongly that taking cast members out of context, that is, out of their neighborhood, would jeopardize the authenticity of their stories. 

As with so many of MTV’s reality identity series, including “The Real World” and “Teen Mom,” there is a tension between control and authenticity, stereotypes and nuanced portrayals. Soon after this dispute, “Bridge and Tunnel” was permanently shelved, and, in its place, MTV aired a new reality series featuring cast members, Italian Americans in their 20s, remarkably similar to those of “Bridge and Tunnel.” Only, instead of filming these young Italian Americans in their own neighborhoods and homes (as Ish Entertainment Entertainment wanted to do with “Bridge and Tunnel”), MTV placed its cast members in a beach house along the New Jersey shoreline. But perhaps the biggest difference between “Bridge and Tunnel” and the series that would come to be known as “Jersey Shore” was the latter’s foregrounding and fetishization of a derogatory term for a certain type of Italian American: the Guido. Indeed, the very first promotional trailer for “Jersey Shore” promised to showcase the lifestyles of the “hottest, tannest, craziest Guidos,” that is, Italian American youth who enjoy grooming, showing off, and partying. 

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The Guido label provides coherence and a solid ethnic character to a set of otherwise unmarked stylistic choices, including the acquisition of expensive clothing, footwear, jewelry, and cars. Embedded in this chosen identity is a predilection for display that goes beyond conspicuous consumption. Dancing and mingling at nightclubs, which forms the crux of Guido subculture depicted on “Jersey Shore,” is about visibility and performance, seeing and being seen. A Washington Post article on Guidos highlights the to-be-looked-at-ness of this identity: “The guido ethos is showy, it bumps shoulders and yells. It is a hey-baby culture, in which the men are macho and the women wear spandex. When cruising in cars — a popular pastime — guidos like loud dance music and loud-looking girls. When they walk, they thrust their shoulders back and take over sidewalks.” Guidos are “unruly” because they identify as Italian American, flaunt the “wrong” image of Italian Americans, and then demand that this transgressive image be witnessed and admired. In dressing to be noticed, not to assimilate, Guidos reject the white, Protestant work ethic. Their focus on consumption over the acquisition of cultural capital subverts the classic immigrant trajectory in American society. Concerns within the Italian American community over Guido identities are therefore rooted in its ties to youth culture and in its perceived lack of cultural capital. 

The Guido subculture’s lack of cultural capital is most evident in the perceived opposition between “hip” Manhattan clubgoers and those who live in New Jersey, Staten Island, or New York’s outer boroughs: the much-maligned “bridge and tunnel” (B & T) crowd. The animosity for the B & T crowd, that irrelevant “monstrous urban limbo” of Bronx-Brooklyn-Queens, extends beyond the city native’s typical distaste for tourists, and instead it highlights both a class- and ethnicity-based bias. For example, in March 2011, street artists Jeff Greenspan and Hunter Fine began setting B & T traps (including hair gel, cheap cologne, and self-tanning spray) outside of hip New York City clubs like Mason & Dixon. These art installations, while intended to be whimsical and humorous, nevertheless relegate a working-class, Italian American identity to an outsider status. Guidos are something to trap and quarantine in order to preserve the hipness of the nearby club. Although Italian Americans are an entrenched part of New York City’s multiethnic identities, the Guido is subjected to culturally sanctioned xenophobia.

Whereas on “The Hills” and “Teen Mom” the women are defined by their job aspirations or their poor decisions, the cast members of “Jersey Shore” are defined, first and foremost, by their Guido identities. Adopting the Guido identity has provided “Jersey Shore’s” cast members with fame, money, and lucrative business opportunities. Several “Jersey Shore” personalities have published books, started clothing lines, and agreed to endorse products that range from weight-loss supplements and bronzer to muscle-enhancing vodka. Interestingly, their financial success and fame are built on a Guido identity, despite the fact that it is nevertheless associated with unrefined tastes. For example, in 2010, one of Chanel’s competitors sent “Jersey Shore” star Snooki a free Chanel handbag in the mail. The competitors sent the expensive bag to Snooki in the hopes that it would discourage her from donning one of their products in public. Observer columnist Simon Doonan (2010) calls this “preemptive product placement,” or “unbranding”: “As much as one might adore Miss Snickerdoodle, her ability to is questionable. The bottom line? Nobody in fashion wants to co-brand with Snooki.” As discussed in Chapter 3, not all reality tv celebrity functions in the same way. While Lauren Conrad was able to convert her MTV fame into a clothing line at Kohl’s department stores (among many other commercial deals), Farrah Abraham’s brand of MTV fame, pornography, got her kicked out of Lisa Vanderpump’s party. By performing in a pornographic film, Farrah squandered the opportunity to rehabilitate her At-Risk image. Farrah’s violations of taste are clear, but what did The Situation and Snooki do to earn their toxic celebrity identities? The answer, of course, is their status as Guidos. To wit, in 2011 the Abercrombie & Fitch clothing line reportedly offered to pay another “Jersey Shore” star, The Situation, to stop wearing their clothing, stating, “We understand that the show is for entertainment purposes, but believe this association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand, and may be distressing to many of our fans.” Guidos, at least according to Abercrombie & Fitch, are not aspirational. As much as The Situation, Snooki, and the rest of the “Jersey Shore” cast embrace being Guidos and celebrate their ancestry, this identity is always-already coded as something nonaspirational. Brands that depend on cultural capital for their existence, like Abercrombie & Fitch or Lisa Vanderpump, must dissociate themselves from these tainted identities. This is just one of the ways in which gender, class, and racial norms structure the way MTV reality stars are marketed and treated. 

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Co-creators of “The Real World” Jonathan Murray and Mary- Ellis Bunim initially structured the landmark reality series as “liberal utopias free of racism” as a way to bring together different ethnicities and cultures with the hopes that they would learn from each other over the course of a season. By contrast, a series like “Jersey Shore” aims to simply isolate a single homogeneous identity and amplify it, creating another page for MTV’s identity workbook. It is also important to note that “Jersey Shore” isolates this ethnic identity, not to honor it but to mock it. “Jersey Shore” therefore sits somewhere in the middle of the shame/aspiration spectrum occupied previously by the contrast between “Teen Mom’s” cast and “The Hills'” cast. “Jersey Shore’s cast of Guidos has not violated or transgressed any moral codes (like the women of “Teen Mom”).

If anything, the Guidos of Jersey Shore “live up” to the stereotypes circulating about Italian American identities, and, consequently, they do not need to perform their absolution onscreen, like Amber or Farrah, in order to profit from their celebrity identities, “low class” though they may be. However, as working-class bodies codified as “nonwhite,” the cast of “Jersey Shore” is still subject to shaming and ridicule, as evidenced by Abercrombie & Fitch’s desire to distance its brand from the casts’ adoration of the clothing and Chanel tricking Snooki into carrying a competitor’s handbag.

The more the cast members inflate their ethnic identity, making it clear and unambiguous to viewers, the more successful they are on “Jersey Shore” as well as in ancillary markets (but only when selling products that emphasize partying or grooming for a party). As discussed in the introduction to this book, identity confession is a necessary prerequisite for these MTV reality series to make sense. From their first moments of screen time, the “Jersey Shore” cast embraces being a Guido, whether by explicitly using the term or by engaging in the behaviors the series implicitly aligns with Guidoness, such as grooming, tanning, exercising, or eating Italian food. Catchphrases and codified behaviors help MTV cast members to self-brand and make the messy signifiers of real-life ethnicity more legible onscreen. Perhaps the most salient signifier of the Guido subculture is the daily grooming ritual, known as “Gym. Tan. Laundry,” or “GTL.” In Season 1, Episode 6, The Situation explains the ritual: “If I didn’t do my GTL or take care of myself, I don’t know what I’d look like. If you don’t go to the gym, you don’t look good. If you don’t tan, you’re pale. If you don’t do laundry, you ain’t got no clothes.”

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The Situation’s description of his ritual is paired with a montage of his GTL routine: lifting weights at the gym, getting into a tanning bed at the salon, and picking up freshly laundered clothes from the laundromat. The amount of time, energy, and money required to perform these tasks is considerable, and the fact that they need to be performed before any socializing can take place highlights the price The Situation and his roommates pay to look “fresh to death.” The Situation is familiar with the conventions of reality television and understands that extreme personalities and catchphrases play well with audiences, yet his insistence on GTL as a ritual, by its very utterance on camera, has become a compulsory ritual for The Situation (and eventually for his roommates). By proclaiming GTL as his daily ritual on TV, The Situation has placed himself in a situation (no pun intended) where he must abide by these (self-imposed) grooming habits to maintain his Guido identity. 

GTL is a salient example of how the series creates and codifies, rather than simply reports or documents, identity. This becomes clear in Season 4 of “Jersey Shore,” when MTV sent the cast to live in Italy for just over a month. The ostensible reason behind the European trip was to give the cast members a chance to experience their homeland, the country of their Italian ancestors. In reality, the trip provides various opportunities for MTV’s production crew to point out how different the cast members are from their country of origin and their ancestors. The cast members spend much of their time in Italy attempting to replicate their lifestyles from America, and thus the Season 5 premiere focuses on the cast’s joy over returning to the United States. What did the “Jersey Shore” men miss most about America while in Italy? Their GTL ritual. When they are away in Italy, the men are unable to partake in this ritual with the frequency and quality to which they are accustomed in the States, forcing The Situation to declare an emergency: “We’re losing weight and we’re getting pale!” After a tanning session, a good workout, and a fresh cut from the barber shop, cast member Ronnie Ortiz-Magaro explains, “I feel like I’m in heaven because I get to GTL again.” Although the crew was only gone for 40 days, and Italy boasts some of the world’s most beautiful beaches (perfect for tanning pale American skin), the crew cannot be truly “fresh to death” unless they are in America. While their identities as Guidos are tied to a presumed Italian ancestry, it is, ironically, only America that can shore up the borders of their Guido identities. 

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“Jersey Shore” provided MTV audiences with an opportunity to laugh at onscreen identities rather than long for their wealth and way of life (as in “The Hills”). The strategy worked; “Jersey Shore” became MTV’s highest-rated series in both cable and broadcast television in the summer of 2010. The series was extremely profitable for MTV, running for six seasons and leading to (less successful) spin-offs like “Snooki & J Woww,” “The Pauly D Project,” and “The Show with Vinny.” By 2012, “Jersey Shore” stood as MTV’s highest-rated show of all time, pulling in more viewers in the coveted 12- to 34-four-year-old demographic than “American Idol,” the former ratings juggernaut. Recall that when MTV first thought about offering its post-Recession audience less aspirational and more realistic youth identities, it turned to the Italian American youth of Staten Island depicted in “Bridge and Tunnel.” But the never-aired series’ interest in class struggles and “kids with stories” was replaced by “Jersey Shore,” a show about “kids whose kids whose only stories [a]re the show.” The former would have offered context and nuance for the ethnic identities onscreen, whereas the latter trafficked in broad ethnic stereotypes.

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