Imagine walking along a seaside boardwalk with your children, the smell of the ocean mixing with roasted clams, pizza and French Fries wafting through the air. Wayfaring causally past amusement stands, one of the barkers holding a gun invites your children to play a game of skill. He yells out the name of his boardwalk memory-maker:
“Shoot the n*****!”
“Shoot the kike!”
“Shoot the spic!”
“Shoot the chink!”
Of course, that couldn’t happen. While the stereotypes that created those vulgar epithets aren’t wiped out, they’ve become taboo words in popular culture, and we make a pariah of anyone caught using them or similar words. Think Mel Gibson and Jeremiah Wright.
But “Shoot the Guido” is real. It exists on the Seaside Heights, N.J. boardwalk. People are encouraged to fire a gun at a real man in a rubber suit designed to look like the pop-culture version of the bastardized Italian-American; the stereotype.
Just what is meant by the term "Guido"? It defines a lifestyle where steroid muscles are good, fake orange tans are better and fistfights, club dancing and casual sex with strangers is more important than jobs. Proper enunciation is a low priority.
The problem is that "Guido" is a quintessentialy Italian name, but most people in that lifestyle are not Italian, so our ethnicity gets the unfair stereotype.
No town in America would allow an amusement stand that encouraged people to shoot at another ethnicity, but Seaside Heights, N.J. has done it to Italians.
When the barker singled out my son and pestered him to play, I said, “No thanks, we’re Italian. We find it offensive.” The barker replied, “But I’m Italian!” I wondered why he didn’t understand that made it worse, not better.
He persisted by telling me, “Spanish guys have been taking over Italian style, so you can pretend you are shooting a Spanish guy.” Apparently in his mind, there was a bigot lurking in me somewhere. I just needed the proper orientation.
For years Italian-Americans have protested that there is a double standard in popular culture that allows stereotyping of Italians, where that same treatment of any other group would be frowned upon. Is any more proof of that double standard needed than the existence of “Shoot the Guido” for family entertainment?
While the movie “The Godfather” started it all, MTV’s show “Jersey Shore” has made the problem undeniable.
Before “The Godfather,” Hollywood movies about mobsters reflected the reality that every ethnicity had organized criminals. Dutch Shultz, Bugsy Segal and Meyer Lansky were Jews. Dion O’Bannion and Bugs Moran were Irish. Of the Midwest Crime wave including John Dillanger, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, “Baby Face” Nelson, “Ma” Barker, Bonnie & Clyde and “Machine Gun” Kelly, none were Italian. Yet because “The Godfather” was so acclaimed, more than 400 feature films have been made since, where the mobsters are just Italian, despite the historical inaccuracy.
And if an Italian is portrayed in movies, television or commercials and he isn’t a criminal, he’s a dolt and clown. Think of the character Joey Tribbiani from “Friends.” Guido never goes to college (in Hollywood, at least).
The Italians who play these parts – DeNiro, Pacino, etc., are the modern day Stepin Fetchit. The black actor Lincoln Perry who played Fetchit didn’t have many options, but James Gandolfini did, so he shouldn’t have. The popularity of “The Sopranos” doesn’t justify its creation or airing. Stepin Fetchit was very popular in its day, but would anyone seriously argue that its popularity justified the damage it did in creating the “shufflin’ negro” stereotype in the American psyche?
Would HBO remake “Stepin Fetchit” today? They wouldn’t risk the public opprobrium from the insult to black people. But they won multiple Emmy awards for the same insult to Italians with “The Sopranos.” Double standard.
The Italians who embrace the stereotype justify it by claiming, “I knew guys like Soprano back in the old neighborhood.” No, you didn’t. You’re lying. You knew no one so disgustingly immoral. You knew no one who killed weekly, let alone killed his best friend, cousin and nephew as did the fake character Soprano.
Submission by Italian sell-outs to the stereotype is why our American identifier has gone from real people like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo to fictional people like Corleone.
MTV’s show “Jersey Shore” is less Stepin Fetchit and more Al Jolson’s black-face. Jolson wasn’t black but pretending to be. Half the actors on “Jersey Shore” are not Italian, only pretending to be. Reality show? Certainly not. Just actors playing a bigoted stereotype. Did you ever wonder why the show never uses the cast member’s last names? Because half of them aren’t Italian, and MTV wanted to hide that. The actor Ronnie’s last name is Ortiz. The actor JWoww’s” last name is Farley. The actor Angelina’s last name is “Pivarnick” (what part of Italy is she from)? And if you think “Snooki” is Italian, you’ve been snookered. The bulbous little actress is Chilean.
Yet MTV had them pretending to be Italian by painting Italian colors on their garage and having the cast members discuss “Italian family values” (you know, in between all the casual sex and punching people). Note that the cast members involved in violence weren’t Italian. Some argue that “Guido” refers not to Italian ancestry, rather a lifestyle choice by people from many backgrounds. But “Guido” is a quintessentially Italian name. So when someone tans themselves orange and acts the fool, calling him “Guido” indicts Italians to the exclusion of the actual ethnicity of the clod who is acting that way. It that lifestyle is not about being Italian, then call it something else.
Stereotypes are hurtful. What is most important for ethnic groups, Italians included, is to assimilate into America – to be thought of as Americans first and our ethnicity second. That being true, then each ethnic group has to obliterate old stereotypes. Culturally you can master the language, clothing, education, business and politics, but a stereotype will be the last lock on the door to assimilation if you can’t pick it.
There will always be something that says “outsider” about a group with a widely accepted stereotype.
If you think this is a “sticks and stones” issue with the Italians protesting being thin- skinned, you’re wrong. The stereotype creates a genuine problem for people with Italian last names in courtrooms all over America.
Some police and prosecutors have been known to give Italian defendants a nickname in quote marks in the middle of their name. Even though the person doesn’t call himself that and none of his friends or family call him that, the nickname ends up in the indictment.
Why? If the jury sees a nickname in quotes, the assumption is the Italian is involved in organized crime and is automatically guilty. Fair trial?
I have an anecdote that I frequently like to share: Twenty years ago when I was in law school, three students were in the next booth from me in a campus restaurant. One said, “In criminal law we are studying a case where the defendants had these long Italian names. They were soooo guilty!” An Italian name = guilty. Where do you suppose that law student is today? A judge maybe? A prosecutor? A juror?
Hopefully Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino or the 3 other Jersey Shore cast members with Italian surnames (Paul DelVecchio, Sammi Giancola and Vincent Guadagnino) never find themselves in front of a jury where their last names make them soooo guilty.
Hopefully, they will realize that they are adding to that problem, and someone in their family may end up in front of such a jury one day and lose because of what MTV is doing to enforce the Italian stereotype.
I’d rather see them repent. There is still time for every actor on “Jersey Shore” to tell MTV, “I’m sorry I let you talk me into this. I’m sorry I embarrassed the Italian diaspora. I’m not doing it anymore.”
They’d be beloved in their own communities if they did, and their popularity would soar.
Tommy De Seno is an attorney and writer. For more, visit JustifiedRight.com.
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