Italian Americans outraged at reality TV 'slur'

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They put up with The Godfather, Goodfellas, and several decades of gangster movies. They endured the cult success of The Sopranos, albeit through gritted teeth. But tolerant as they have reluctantly tried to be of fictional portrayals, one thing Italian Americans definitely won't stomach is a reality TV programme which appears to suggest that their community consists entirely of Mafiosi, bimbos and buffoons.

That, at least, is what MTV has found after the launch of Jersey Shore. The show is only on its third episode, but race-relations groups are already accusing it of advancing ugly stereotypes. It has been boycotted by two of its major advertisers and re-awakened a rumbling public debate over the alleged excesses of "fly-on-the-wall" TV.

The programme follows eight 20-something 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 in a house on New Jersey's "shore" region.

Predictably, the social experiment didn't exactly portray its ethnic group in a positive light. Instead, its young stars have devoted early episodes almost entirely to excessive drinking, fighting, and sexual promiscuity. Critics sternly 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 of the Sons of Italy in America, and the National Italian-American Foundation – have called for the show to be cancelled. "You would not believe how much anger there is about this," said Unico's president, Andre Dimino. "Normally, the negative stereotypes exist in fiction. Here, they're being presented as reality."

After being ruthlessly lobbied, two of the show's major advertisers, Domino's Pizza and America Family Insurance, this week withdrew. MTV, for its part, agreed to drop the word "Guido," a derogatory term similar to "wop," from Jersey Shore's publicity material. But the channel is resisting calls to drop the programme altogether. "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, TV critic for 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 sexual discretion." Would the show have been broadcast, she asked, "if the group were African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Jewish people?"