Italian Americans and the G Word: Embrace or Reject?

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The cast of MTV's new show Jersey Shore

Correction appended: Dec. 14, 2009

Certain words cannot be said out loud without setting off a series of complicated psycho-cultural explosions: the N word among African-Americans, the F word among gays; the C word among Chinese-Americans. Italian-Americans have a similar relationship with a two-syllable word beginning with G that is actually a man's name. And their feelings burst out loud when MTV began promoting its new reality show Jersey Shore, which an off-camera announcer declared would feature the "hottest, tannest craziest Guidos" in New Jersey's beachside communities. Wait, did MTV really just say "Guido" on the air?

Most people on the east coast easily recognize the word as a slur against Italian-American men of a certain class and swagger — and there was MTV just letting it rip. As the ramp up to the show continued, Italian-American anti-defamation groups started their drumbeat and the commercial was tweaked ever so slightly: the word "Guido" was replaced with "roommates" — which is more generally the premised cast of the reality show. But that was not the last we heard of Guido, well, because it's all over the show. Indeed, in the first episode of Jersey Shore, the eight housemates wear the Guido and Guidette badge proudly.

One advertiser — Dominos — pulled out, sending MTV's programming president Tony DiSanto on the defensive. He told The Hollywood Reporter that "We actually did pull the word 'guidos' from voiceover and descriptions of the show. However, if [the roommates] refer to themselves that way, we let that exist as is." One of the roomies, Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino, doesn't see what the big deal is. A Guido, he says, is just "a good-looking Italian guy."

Many clamor to differ. Andre DiMino, president of UNICO, the national Italian-American service organization, objects to the term, whether it's self-described or not. He told the New Jersey Star-Ledger: "It's a derogatory comment. It's a pejorative word to depict an uncool Italian who tries to act cool." But is it a generational pejorative? Do younger Americans of Italian descent have a different relationship to the G word? According to Donald Tricarico, a sociology professor at City University of New York/Queensborough, "Guido is a slur, but Italian kids have embraced it just as black kids have embraced the N word. In the same way that radical gays call themselves queer."

Tricarico has been researching Guidos for over 20 years and has put out academic papers with titles such as "Youth Culture, Ethnic Choice, and the Identity Politics of Guido," "Guido: Fashioning An Italian-American Youth Style," and "Dressing Up Italian Americans For The Youth Spectacle: What Difference Does Guido Perform?"

There's no date stamp on when the term Guido came into play, but Tricarico theorizes that it very well may have originated as an insult from within the Italian-American community, confering inferior status on immigrants who are "just off the boat." It clearly references non-assimilation in its use of a name more at home in the old homeland. In fact, in different locales, the same slur isn't Guido: in Chicago the term is "Mario" and in Toronto it goes by "Gino." Guido is far less offensive, among Italian-Americans, than another G word, which is also used in the names of countries in equatorial west Africa.

Tricarico traces the mainstreaming of the term Guido to what he frames as a "moral panic" racing through the media in relation to a 1989 racial incident in the predominantly Italian neighborhood of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn. But he pinpoints the real birth of the Guido subculture to the 1970s. If the movement has any guiding icon, it's young John Travolta and his many incarnations: Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back, Kotter and Danny Zuko in Grease. Today, there are message boards for self-described Guidos and Guidettes to chatter ( "It's a way to be a part of popular culture for kids who aren't invited to the party," Tricarico says. "It is defiant. It's identity politics," he explains. "It's a cultural movement, but it's about consumption, not ethnicity."

"'Guido' has become the name of a lifestyle," says Fred Gardaphè, Distinguised Professor of Italian American Studies at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College. "Guido itself is not a derogatory name." He explains its origins from a stereotype: "It's a real handsome, uneducated kid who gets by on his charm and his looks and doesn't really have much going for him." But, says Gardaphè, the wave of negative response to Jersey Shore come from what he calls "irony deficiency" in the Italian-American community. These peacocking kids, he says, come from a long history of exaggerated characterizations in Italian culture.

"The major key to Italian-American culture is something called 'bella figura,'" says Gardaphè. "It basically means, to put on a show so people don't know the real you. If you're poor, you make them think you're rich. If you're rich, you make them think you're poor." For an immigrant people emerging from a history of foreign conquerors and a lack of a nation-state (till 1870), says Gardaphè, "It's all about protection."

But it could be the character-types who populate Jersey Shore who may be aggravating the offense many Italian-American take at the show's use of the G word. For example,a similar controversy arose over portrayals of Italian-Americans with The Sopranos. But while many were assuaged because they felt HBO's award-winning series was artful, they see Jersey Shore as just ugly. Says Gina Barreca, an English professor at the University of Connecticut who edited a collection of essays called A Sitdown with The Sopranos: Watching Italian American Culture on T.V.'s Most Talked About Series: "The Sopranos is like Shakespeare and Tony Soprano is King Lear. The trouble is, a show like Jersey Shore is just a room full of attendants: all Rosencrantz and Guildenstern without a leader." Barreca calls the Guido subculture a "crisis of masculinity" and "a celebration of ignorance."

Academics will write their books and have their say. But they aren't going to affect the way Mike Sorrentino feels. Says "The Situation": "If hating is your occupation, I probably got a full time job for you." And while many say that Jersey Shore is a horror show, for one cast member named Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, it may be the beginning of a fairytale. As she says in the first episode, "I wanna marry a guido. My ultimate dream is to move to Jersey, find a nice, juiced, tan guy and live my life."

Correction: The original version of this story said that American Family Insurance pulled its advertising from Jersey Shore. It did not. The company's business association with MTV was scheduled to end on Dec. 6, two days after the show premiered.