By: Kathy Iandoli
Is it safe now? Can we emerge from the stock cans of marinara sauce and bottles of olive oil in our New Jersey homes? Since December 2009, it felt as though there was nothing we could do, as Italians from New Jersey wouldn’t somehow end up with a reference to “GTL” or “grenades” from that point on. MTV’s Jersey Shore changed the face of reality television, similar to the way MTV did with The Real World when it debuted in 1992 – only this time, the experience brought a whole slew of racial and geographical stereotypes with it. Now, it’s over.
Before Reality TV became the accidental face of regular TV, it was this Truman Show-esque portrayal of the lives of the everyman and everywoman. Of course there were minor modifications – you know, that whole financial thing. That was the gateway drug, though, to this fantasy life resting on a foundation of arguable reality. It allowed that Midwest housewife to dream about the possibility of living in a cushy apartment in a metropolitan area with six other strangers in their 20′s, where a typical day consisted of alcohol poisoning and sexual debauchery.
It also gave that secret wanderlust, a hope of hopping in a Winnebago with some other fit 20-somethings and climb rock walls and act like Tarzan. For those without cable, it was the idea that if they could just get on that desert island, they too would be a member of the Tribal Council. Or if marriage didn’t come fast enough, there would be a basket of roses ready to hand out to a line full of hopefuls.
It’s a weird misleading world, reality TV, but when it trickles down to an everyday understanding of anthropology, that’s when things get dangerous.
Jersey Shore took place in Seaside, New Jersey for most of its three-year stint, with the exception of that brief time in Italy (we’ll get into that later). For the Garden State resident over the past 20 years, Seaside and Wildwood are the getaways between Memorial Day and Labor Day, where partying is the priority and most inhibitions are left at the door.
Gone are the days, though, where Seaside’s good clean fun consisted of walking the Boardwalk to eat zeppolis and winning a half stuffed pink panda bear by throwing a beanbag at metal milk bottles. Now, there is nightclub domination, where tanning on the beaches with hospital waste by day only provides a no-need-for-bronzer glow by night at the club. It’s grown, it’s not sexy, and it’s far from categorically Italian. People don’t live in Seaside; they show up there.
Jersey Shore made Seaside this hedonism for Italians from NJ. The truth of the matter though, is that the cast isn’t entirely from New Jersey; nor are they all Italian. However, subliminal imagery like random placement of Italian flags, coupled with the girls’ hankerings for “guidos” had everyone believing “Oh this is what Italians do!” Not all Italians.
While The Sopranos depicted one hot pocket of Italian culture (the mob), Jersey Shore took an attribute of youthful reckless culture and called it “Italian from New Jersey”. To add fuel to the fire, the cast spent a season in Italy, leading viewers to believe they were all going back to their “motherland” to wreak the same level of havoc they did in Seaside. Any legit Italian who caught one of the Italy episodes can attest to the fact that the Italians looked at the JS cast with scorn, not acceptance.
If you are Italian, this show was a Tyler Perry film in your eyes, plain and simple.
From there, the Style Network’s Jerseylicious was born, pushing the stereotypical boundaries even further by suggesting that all Italians from New Jersey could do was tease hair and slather on makeup. It’s a vicious cycle that even throws gender into the fire and can warp perceptions for anyone unfamiliar with Italian people in real life.
Sure, shows like Love & Hip-Hop, Basketball Wives, and Bad Girls Club have other classifications of people feeling exploited, but for Italian people, we’ve gone from the mafia to the tanning bed in the eyes of television. There is no middle ground to which we can reside if we choose neither lifestyle.
For those who have never met an Italian person in real life, here’s a little message for you: we don’t all look alike. We all don’t believe in communal living marked with diverse sexual exploits, hair gel abundance, or liquor sponsorships. We all don’t singe our olive complexions with UV lamps and spray chemicals to attain an orange glow. We eat meatballs, we don’t call our women that. That is not our reality, no matter what reality TV has taught you.
And further, there is a lot wrong with New Jersey (starting with our present governor), but not all of our state looks like a wasteland with rusty rollercoasters and melted frozen margaritas in hurricane tumblers on a dampened boardwalk. But alas, as previously mentioned, Jersey Shore has been cancelled. At least we can dance La Tarantella to that.