In December of 2009, MTV had done it again and released the first season of one of their most popular “reality television” shows, Jersey Shore. Following eight housemates claiming to be “true Italian-American guido and guiettes,” Jersey Shore aired for six seasons, from December 2009 to December 2012. Jersey Shore gathered record ratings from MTV, making it the television network’s most viewed series ever, as well as crediting the cast with introducing the most unique vocabulary and expressions into the popular American culture. Despite signs of success, the amount of criticism and controversy stemming from the television series created a lot of uproar. With feedback from the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) and numerous sponsors of MTV, the questions arise of how and why was this show so popular?
Throughout the six seasons, we were introduced to nine cast members: Paul DelVecchio (Pauly D), Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, Michael “The Situation” Sorrentino, Jennifer Farley (JWoww), Ronnie Ortiz-Magro, Samantha “Sammi Sweetheart” Giancola, Vinny Guadagnino, Angelina Pivarnick, and Deena Cortese. Spending their first season summer in the resort town of Seaside Heights, Jersey Shore in the Jersey Shore House, equipped with 35 cameras everywhere but the showers, the show introduced the lives of eight housemates. With all the cameras throughout the house contributing to the wild footage exposed, Jersey Shore was viewed as more of a documentary than reality show. 4.8 million viewers were recorded during the season one finale and 5.3 during the second season, making it the #1 television series for the 12-34 year old demographic. After season one, the cast moved to South Beach, Florida to film season two, then back to Seaside, and eventually transporting all the way to Florence, Italy for season four—continuing to show their nights filled with alcohol, dancing, hook ups and bar fights, and days consisting of going to the gym, fake tanning, and doing laundry.
The high viewer ratings may have been because Jersey Shore strayed away from the “rich-kid” reality shows like The Hills and Laguna Beach, and showed more of “train wreck TV,” as Media Life Magazine put it—far more raw and less staged, therefore deeming it a documentary. But it was because of this type of filming that led to the controversies and criticisms from advertisers and well-known foundations. Controversies arising from the NIAF, calling the show “a direct, deliberate and disgraceful attack on Italian Americans…” requested that MTV cancel the show before it was even aired. The infamous terms “guido/guidette,” used consistently, are slang terms for working-class Italian-Americans widely perceived as an insulting word similar to “spic” or “wop,” which also fueled the NIAF’s fire.
The National Italian American Foundation as well as UNICO National, asked MTV numerous times to cancel their show, claiming they could not keep up with all the phone calls and letters from outraged Italian-Americans. The federations criticized Jersey Shore as blatantly bashing the Italian-American culture with every approach possible: fake tans, no manners, no sexual discretion, no knowledge of real Italian culture, and no ambition educate themselves further—all while publicizing how “Italian” they think they are. They posed the question of ‘would any broadcaster ever create a show reflecting this type of outlook on African-American, Jewish, or Spanish cultures?’ Most likely not.
As a response to the Italian foundations, Jersey Shore’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, claimed that, “We represent ourselves… We're not saying we're a definition of Jersey, or a definition of New York, or a definition of Italians. I just happen to be Italian. I happen to have some spiky hair and a six-pack, and I am proud to have that. And if you don't like me, I don't care. I still got 5 million viewers Thursday nights at 10 p.m" (US Weekly). Mike and a few other of the cast members go on to justify their actions by comparing themselves to every other twenty-something out there: going out, getting drunk, swearing, and having fun. They only difference—every move of the Jersey Shore cast is being filmed. With that understood, it makes the fact a little clearer that they are just representing themselves and have no control of what is being televised. But MTV’s own president of programming, Tony DiSanto’s reaction to NIAF and UNICO seems to be twisted, "The cast takes pride in their ethnicity... In fact, it is a key driver of how they bond with each other and self-identify. They refer to themselves as 'guidos' in a positive manner." DiSanto also said, "We want to make breakout shows that will get people talking about us...It's pure entertainment, dramatic, engaging and comedic" (Stasi, NY Post). As an Italian-American himself, DiSanto encourages this type of show, and because his motives are purely for moneymaking and entertainment, he pushes negative portrayals of Italian stereotyping aside and ignores the greater issue.
As if the commotion of the Italian-Americans were not enough, another reaction from sponsors of MTV came into play. After the debut of the first episode, Domino’s Pizza, Dell, and American Family Insurance all pulled their commercials, stating the content of the show was not in keeping with what they are all about and do not want to condone ethnic bashing in any form. UNICO had begun criticizing other sponsors such as Papa John’s Pizza, for not pulling their ads and continuing to support the insulting program, as well as urging the foundation’s supporters to call all other sponsors and demand they pull their advertising as well.
Once these main companies dropped out, BeenVerified.com, a company that does criminal background checks, ran over to MTV to fill in the empty advertising slots. The rep for the company explained, “we many not be a hair gel product, but we feel the program reinforces our brand’s message perfectly” (TMZ). The coincidence there—that same night BeenVerified.com ads started airing was the same night of the episode where Snooki gets punched in the face by a guy at the bar. Seeing as this new company hurried to get their advertisements during Jersey Shore because they felt “it fits their brand messages perfectly,” also says something about the show: violence and criminal acts coming from people flaunting their Italian roots. No wonder NIAF and UNICO were furious.
With the rage from the Italian-American foundations and high-end sponsors withdrawing advertisements from MTV, Jersey Shore really did some damage during the time it was airing. Yes, it allowed MTV ratings to soar, but what did it do for the cast and how people view the types of people the cast members were claiming to be? Although Jersey Shore has stopped airing, references and images of skewed views of Italians still remain. I think the term “train wreck” as stated earlier, is a perfect way to describe all facets of the show—cast members and their appearances, the events that occur, and the overall messages.
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