They put up with The Godfather, Goodfellas, and decades of gangster movies. They endured The Sopranos. But one thing Italian-Americans will not stomach is a reality TV programme which appears to suggest that their community consists entirely of Mafia members, bimbos and buffoons.
Or so MTV discovered after launching its latest docu-drama, Jersey Shore. The show is on only its third episode, but after being accused of advancing ugly stereotypes by a string of race-relations groups it has been boycotted by two advertisers and reawakened a rumbling debate over the alleged excesses of "fly-on-the-wall" TV.
The programme follows eight twentysomething New Yorkers whose lives revolve principally (in the words of one cast-member) around "being Italian, representing family, friends, tanning, and hair-gel". They were filmed spending this summer's holiday season on New Jersey's "shore" region, a portion of the East coast that is roughly equivalent to Blackpool.
Its stars, whose home is painted in the colours of the Italian flag, have devoted early episodes almost entirely to excessive drinking, fighting, and sexual promiscuity. Critics noted that the men count abdominal muscles among their proudest possessions, while the women endlessly discuss sex, make-up and breast implants.
Crying racism, America's three largest Italian-American organisations – Unico National, the Order Sons of Italy in America, and the National Italian American Foundation – have called for the show to be pulled. "You wouldn't believe how much anger there is about this," said Unico's president Andre DiMino. "There's a major problem with the way Italian-Americans are presented in the media. But, normally, the negative stereotypes exist in fiction. Here, they're presented as reality."
Following the withdrawal of the advertisers Domino's Pizza and America Family Insurance, MTV has agreed to drop the word "Guido", a derogatory term similar to "wop", from Jersey Shore's publicity material, but is resisting calls to drop the show. "Our intention was never to stereotype, discriminate or offend," said the channel's Brad Schwartz. "This is not a scripted comedy show. This is a documentary."
The commentariat isn't so sure. Linda Stasi of The New York Post was among those to condemn the show's "hateful" portrayal of Italian-Americans as "gel-haired, thuggish ignoramuses with fake tans, no manners, no diction, no taste, no education... no real knowledge of Italian culture and no ambition beyond expanding [their] steroid and silicone-enhanced bodies". Would the programme have been broadcast, she asked: "if the group were African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Jewish people?"
Perhaps inevitably, the controversy was a boon to ratings, helping Jersey Shore to 1.4 million viewers.
The furore comes at a time when reality programme-makers are facing scrutiny. "It follows a long line of freak shows," said Sharon Waxman, editor-in-chief of TheWrap.com, a website which recently revealed that 11 former reality stars had committed suicide. "We are witnessing the Jerry Springer-isation of American culture."Reuse content