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An Introduction to the G-Word

December 25, 2009

It seemed like I heard about MTV’s Jersey Shore and the controversy surrounding it at the same time. Logically, there ought to have been a timelag between MTV’s announcement of the show and the organized opposition to it — but they appear to have been birthed at the same moment, like freakishly conjoined twins. One of my most fundamental theories about the show is that it could not survive, let alone thrive, without this controversy and has been deliberately cultivating it all along. Not only did the original advertisements feature the term “guido,” but the show in its casting phase was actually called “The Guidos.” MTV executives are not stupid, and it could not have come as much of a surprise when Italian-American groups began to protest the show well before it aired — but, of course, articles like this were free publicity.

Joseph Del Raso, the president of The National Italian-American Foundation, said in a press statement that his organization’s problem with the show is that it “attempts to make a direct connection between ‘guido culture’ and Italian-American identity.” “Guido,” he says, “is widely viewed as a pejorative term and reinforces negative stereotypes.” And he’s got a case; the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word to mean “a person regarded as socially unsophisticated, especially one whose attire and behaviour are viewed as typically lower-class suburban,” and goes on to say that, specifically, the word is often applied to “an Italian-American man.” But Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino offers quite a different definition of the term in the first episode of Jersey Shore — he says he’s proud to be a guido, because a guido is “a good looking, smooth, well-dressed Italian.” Moments later, Sammi “Sweetheart” Giancola defines “guidette,” the female counterpart, as follows: “somebody who knows how to club it up, takes really good care of themselves, has pretty hair, cakes on makeup, has tan skin, wears the hottest heels, pretty much you know how to own it and rock it.”

So what’s going on here? How did these competing definitions of the term come to exist, and whose definition should we honor? Philosopher Judith Butler might say that what we are looking at is a classic case of the reappropriation of an injurious word, the same phenomenon behind the adoption of the N-word by the black community and the adoption of “the Q-word” (as long as we’re being coy) by the gay community. In her book The Psychic Life of Power, she describes how this can happen:

“Called by an injurious name, I come into social being, and because I have a certain inevitable attachment to my existence, because a certain narcissism takes hold of any term that confers existence, I am led to embrace the terms that injure me because they constitute me socially. The self-colonizing trajectory of certain forms of identity politics are symptomatic of this paradoxical embrace of the injurious term. As a further paradox, then, only by occupying — being occupied by — that injurious term can I resist and oppose it, recasting the power that constitutes me as the power I oppose.”

The process, in other words, works like this: you are called a name, and that name identifies you as part of a social group. The name is meant to be an insult, but it also solidifies your identity as a member of that group. Despite the injurious intent of the name, then, it ends up having potentially positive consequences for you. When Butler says that the names you are called “constitute [you] socially,” what she means is that they literally cause you to exist as far as society is concerned; without terms like “guido,” the Italian-American identity wouldn’t exist because it wouldn’t be recognized as substantially different from any other kind of American lifestyle. What you can do, then, is “embrace” and “occupy” the injurious term in order to de-claw it. If Vinny Guadagnino can yell “I’m proud to be a fucking guido!” on national television, who can ever hurt him with that word?

Ultimately, the castmembers want to claim that “guido” describes a lifestyle, not an ethnicity, and in particular a lifestyle that they value highly. This does seem to be borne out by Sammi’s definition of a “guidette,” which could just as easily apply to Jenni “JWOW” Farley (presumably Irish?) as herself. So rock on, ladies and gentlemen of the shore house, with your politically progressive transcending of ethnic categories.

Note: This is far from the last word on the potential racism of The Jersey Shore; I just figured your attention spans were pretty limited, America. Tune in next time for a consideration of the recent allegations that The Jersey Shore may actually be a hate crime.

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3 comments

  1. My question is: do people within the “guido” subculture have terms for other Italian-Americans living differently? Are they perceived as ‘failed guidos’ who just don’t know how “to own it and rock it”? I seem to remember that Tony on The Sopranos has a word for Italian-Americans who were trying to ‘pass’ but I don’t remember it now.


  2. I totally know what they mean with owning a hurtful word. I call myself “honky” all the time. It dulls the pain.


  3. While the cast members can certainly reclaim a collective identity through reappropriation of an “injurious name”, my question is precisely how injurious is the name/identity they lay claim to? The legacy of American anti-Italian and anti-Catholic prejudice is nothing to sneeze at, of course, but now that Italian-Americans are considered white the impact of the G-word is somewhat mitigated – especially in comparison to the N-word and Q-word, which despite being ‘reclaimed’ are still incredibly hurtful when used by bigots. Perhaps using the g-word is more of an attempt to lay claim to a marginalized identity out of a fetishistic urge; rather than being a source of pride, acting out the ‘guido’ lifestyle is a way of self-consciously othering oneself in order to get the percieved benefits of ethnicity (ability to flout mainstream norms, group identity) without experiencing the negatives (economic and social marginalization).



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