(And other musings on the history, controversy, irony, stereotypes, cultural associations, and cultural complexity that the show and its cast have brought to light)
MTV’s Jersey Shore: Family Vacation airs its seventh episode on Thursday, and the reunion season has managed to reinsert the likes of Deena, JWoww, Pauly D, Ronnie, Snooki, The Situation, and Vinny back into certain corners of pop culture. (Sammi Sweetheart isn’t even there and yet she’s kinda back, too.)
Technically a new series – and already renewed for a second season – episodes have drawn between 1.44 and 2.55 million viewers, making it the highest-rated original cable show among 18-to-49 year-olds on all but two of the Thursday nights it’s aired. The only telecasts that topped it were the NFL Draft on April 26 and the NBA Playoffs on May 3.
While strong, those numbers are a far cry from Jersey Shore’s original six-season run, which spanned 71 episodes over three years and peaked at 8 million-plus viewers per episode. At its apex, it was the second-most watched Thursday-night show on cable or network television for 18-to-49 year-olds, behind only American Idol on Fox.
The fact that Jersey Shore still commands attention and dominates its night on cable – nearly a decade after its premiere – is a testament to how much of a pop culture juggernaut it was. The show that gave us GTL, T-shirt time, and "the note" successfully brought contemporary guido culture to the mainstream. Its popularity surged despite controversy – or perhaps because of it – and in spite of another interesting and telling cultural fact, the significance of which extends far beyond Thursday nights on MTV.
Jersey Shore’s cast members are self-proclaimed “guidos” and “guidettes,” and MTV originally ran promos declaring that they’d brought together the “hottest, tannest, craziest guidos” for the show. The program’s negative portrayal of Italian-Americans ignited criticism from several Italian-American organizations, and MTV’s use of the pejorative “guido” in promos prompted Domino’s Pizza to withdraw as an advertiser. (Ten more national advertisers followed suit. MTV removed the word from promos and descriptions but let it run free in the show.)
Every American ethnic group has its stereotypes. But with Jersey Shore, we have a show built around people who actively associate their idiocy, however mindlessly entertaining, with the negative stereotypes of one particular group. The cast flies the proverbial flag – or paints it on their chests – and advances, explains, and justifies their antics as “Italian-American.” Worse yet, if you actually lift up the genealogical hood, you find that the Jersey Shore cast is barely over half Italian-American:
Only three of Jersey Shore’s eight original cast members claim full Italian ancestry – Paul DelVecchio ("Pauly D"), Mike Sorrentino ("The Situation"), and Vinny Guadagnino. Three others, Angelina Pivarnick, Ronnie Ortiz-Magro, and Sammi Giancola ("Sammi Sweetheart"), are half Italian-American. (Angelina is Polish on her father’s side, Ronnie is Puerto Rican on his mother’s side, and Sammi is Greek on her mother’s side.) Jenny Farley ("JWoww") and Nicole Polizzi ("Snooki") do not have any Italian blood at all.
What we end up with is the bastardization of a culture by a group of people who, to a sizable extent, merely chose to represent it. And there’s an interesting irony to that. For generations, many Italian-Americans (and members of other immigrant groups) felt compelled, thought it an advantage, or otherwise elected to Americanize their names and whitewash their Italian ancestry, which American society viewed as somewhere between "too ethnic" and "criminal." (Sound familiar?) Some were stars. Others might have been your parents or grandparents.
In 1963, Anna Maria Louisa Italiano from the Bronx won the Academy Award for Best Actress for The Miracle Worker. America knew her as Anne Bancroft. Dean Martin was born Dino Paul Crocetti in Steubenville, Ohio. Tony Bennett is Anthony Dominick Benedetto from Queens. In 1972, six out of 13 Italian-American congressmen “had either English or Americanized family names.” Whoever signed up my mother’s Italian-immigrant father for school in the Bronx took the liberty of making a similar first- and last-name switch for him. And still harboring this old-school mindset in the 1990s, my father’s father once politely told me to consider changing my own name if I wanted to pursue certain public professions.
As recently as 1983, The New York Times Magazine ran a long piece on “Italian-Americans Coming into Their Own,” highlighting that “Americans of Italian descent… [had] attained a kind of critical mass in terms of affluence, education, aspiration and self-acceptance.” The article opens in the offices of three-term New York Governor Mario Cuomo and offers a fascinating glimpse into how the Italian-American journey was felt and perceived at the time. It closes with the story of William D'Antonio visiting his daughter Laura at college. Laura comments that she's "the only 100% Italian in [her] dorm... but [she knows] at least a dozen people who wish they were Italian." William muses that 40 years earlier, "[he] would not have been able to admit that [he] was Italian, much less imagine any dozen people who wished they were.''
Progress had come. And so far gone are the days of Italian-Americans changing their names that today's performers and politicians not only keep them, some voluntarily adopt them for art or appeal. When New York City hosted the 60th Annual Grammy Awards in 2018, headline acts included Alessia Cara, Italian-Canadian; Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, three-quarters Italian and better known as Lady Gaga; Donald Glover, who raps under the stage name Childish Gambino; and Logic, whose mixtape titles bear the names of Sinatra and Tarantino. Even the host city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, opted into an Italian name – he was Warren Wilhelm until 1983 and Warren de Blasio-Wilhelm until 2001. We’re a long way from Anne Bancroft, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, and my grandparents’ generation.
But the Jersey Shore phenomenon still underscores a major cultural paradox. Many Italian-Americans don’t carry the hyperbolic physical or behavioral hallmarks that American society perceives to mean “Italian-American.” So when Italian-Americans are successful, that success is not closely associated with their ethnic or family background. If you walked into a room and chatted with Geraldine Ferraro (the first female vice-presidential candidate of a major U.S. political party), Samuel Alito (the 110th Justice of the Supreme Court), or Anthony Fauci (pioneering HIV/AIDS researcher and Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984), would you walk out thinking they were all Italian-American? Unless you saw their names or discussed the topic of family origin, you might believe none of them was.
[It’s scary to wonder how many more people know who Snooki is than Geraldine Ferraro.]
Conversely, if you walked into a room and chatted with a bunch of Jersey Shore-style personalities, you’d likely walk out thinking of them as uniformly Italian-American – even though the Jersey Shore cast, the wannabe guidos at your New York-area high school, and the lines outside of Neptunes in the Hamptons (R.I.P.) and D’Jais in Belmar might be about half, if even that. Everyone else is opting in, flying the flag, painting it on their chest – either halfway or all the way.
[If you’re tempted to comment that those people and places are “more Italian-American than I think,” you’re only proving my point.]
And yet that image gets projected out into the world, so much so that respectable media organizations feel comfortable running Anthony Scaramucci headlines like “Donald Trump has gone full Sopranos with his latest hire,” “Reince Priebus sleeps with the fishes,” and “A Scaramucci-watchers guide to Italian-American speech” – to little criticism, I might add, even though we live in a Twitterverse where every perceived ethnic slight is harshly and immediately punished. Stephen Colbert played the mafia card, too. As Joan Vennochi wrote in a similarly titled but very thoughtful Boston Globe story, “when it comes to making fun of other ethnic groups, politically correct limits usually apply. No such restrictions govern parodies about Italian-Americans. The tribe itself is torn by ambivalence over its portrayal.”
It took Italian-Americans a generation to learn the language and a couple more to “make it” in America. But in the end, we are fortunate to have earned – and eventually been permitted to earn – our slice of the American Dream, even with the early poverty and violence, the National Origins Act and No Italians Need Apply, and today’s still-too-common guido stereotypes and mafia portrayals along the way.
My goal here is to offer perspective and gratitude, not complaints. After all, a little Jersey Shore bullshit is more nuisance for Italian-Americans than actual threat, which is what many other groups still face. Our threat days are over. So now it's time for that perspective and gratitude to extend beyond our own dinner tables – to support other groups who harbor the same multi-generational American hope, to those who were never given their fair shake in this country, and to those who pursue the Dream today.
 For added context, Jersey Shore: Family Vacation has drawn 2.2 to 3.3 times the total viewers per episode as FX's critically acclaimed Atlanta and 1.3 to 1.5 times the total viewers per episode as Bravo's popular Southern Charm. All three air on Thursday nights.
 Deena Cortese replaced Angelina after season two and is Italian-American on both sides of her family. JWoww is Irish- and Spanish-American. Snooki is Chilean-American but was adopted and raised by an Italian-American family. In a 2010 interview with Fox News, JWoww pointed out that she and Snooki are not Italian-American and that they're "not trying to be Italians." For what it's worth, it feels a little weird to analyze people’s ethnic backgrounds like this, but if the Jersey Shore cast wants to represent Italian-American culture – or at the very least if they're going to be universally associated with it – it's only proper for the rest of us to check the facts.
 The real hard work and sacrifice came in the generations before me. I am forever grateful for that.
Data was compiled and analyzed by ELDORADO. All charts and graphics herein were created by ELDORADO.