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Social Studies

Ethnic Pride and Prejudice

By Vincent Williams | Posted 12/23/2009

I'm not a big reality TV person, but I have to say, the drama around Jersey Shore has been provocative enough to make me check out a few episodes of MTV's newest entry into the genre. Taking place on, well, the Jersey Shore, the show follows the misadventures of eight twentysomething self-proclaimed "guidos and guidettes" as they, well, I'm not really sure what the point of the whole exercise is, but I'm an old man and rarely understand what's going on with these kids and, hey, get off my lawn! As reality television goes, it's really no more obnoxious than the bulk of MTV's programming, like The Hills. In other words, pretty damn obnoxious, but then that seems to be the point of any of these shows. What has fascinated me, however, is not the show itself but the protests that have sprung up around the show's depiction of Italian-Americans. Jersey Shore demonstrates just how precarious and arbitrary race remains in America and how easily a group can still become caricatured.

UNICO National (Unity Neighborliness Integrity Charity and Opportunity), the Italian-American advocacy group, has been particularly vocal in its outrage toward the show. The organization argues that Jersey Shore perpetuates Italian stereotypes, particularly taking exception to the continual use of the derogatory term "guido." Again, the young people on Jersey Shore are no different than the people on the various Real World type MTV shows, but according to UNICO, by attempting to differentiate and identifying as Italian-American, the cast is no longer just a group of individuals. They are now representatives.

And I'm not mad at UNICO being fiercely vigilant about Italian depictions either. I completely understand how you can work hard and send your children to school and contribute to the community and the last thing you need is the mainstream culture finding some chuckleheads to mock and bring your group down. I'm not Italian . . . but I have a little experience with this kind of thing.

What I don't have experience in, however, is how it must feel to get over here, work hard, get your mainstream "White People Membership" card, and then realize that, yeah, that can get yoked away at a moment's notice. Part of the mythology of America, that whole Ellis Island thing, is that you can come over here on a boat, look up and see the Statue of Liberty, change your last name to Smith or Jones (or Williams) and your ethnicity is a thing of the past. But then someone assumes you know how to outdrink other people or you're good with money, or you're part of the Mafia. Regardless of how much you've managed to assimilate into the broader society, there's always a way to reduce you to a stereotype. And sometimes, it happens in completely ridiculous ways.

Again, not a big non-scripted TV guy, but since my daughter is obsessed with it, the one thing I watch religiously is Cake Boss. The show follows the goings on at a family-owned bakery in Hoboken, N.J. Buddy Valastro and his sisters run Carlo's Bakery, which serves a variety of pastries and baked goods, but specializes in designer cakes. It's actually a pretty remarkable look at the inner workings of a bakery and the process and thought that goes into making high-end cakes (it's got my daughter running around talking about fondant and dirty icing).

Here's the ludicrous thing: the Valastros are an Italian-American family and the show frames their ethnicity in a way that makes me raise my eyebrows. I mean, just the title of the show, Cake Boss, sounds a little too much like Mob Boss. And it doesn't stop there. I always chuckle when something goes wrong, and Buddy gets angry, and the show starts playing really dramatic music and the show cuts to commercial with the implied cliffhanger, like maybe Buddy's going to whack Frankie because he used regular chocolate instead of modeling chocolate. Well, he's probably not, but you can never tell with these people. Hell, the big advertising push proudly uses the pull quote "Baking Meets The Sopranos." Now, if I remember correctly, The Sopranos was a postmodern series that utilized the existential crisis of a philandering, sociopathic, middle-aged Mafioso as metaphor and critique of the plight of the modern man. Cake Boss is about, well, a bakery. But both have Italians so, hey, must have something in common, right?

It's a shame because, unlike Jersey Shore, Cake Boss doesn't need any--pardon the pun--Italian dressing to spice up the proceedings and separate it from other shows. As far as I know, no one has spoken up about the use of stereotype in the marketing of Cake Boss, I'd guess because, regardless of the unnecessary use of mob imagery, the show is a positive and appealing depiction of a family business. And for people like me that want the same thing without the stereotyping? Well, fugetaboutit!

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