MAMMA’S DIARY – DIARIO DI MAMMA
Thanks to MTV’s Jersey Shore: Family Vacation, the world does not know the true value of Italian America.
Mine are the peasant people, who came to the United States in search of a better life. They broke their backs – literally – to become truly American. They laid pavement and built bridges, literally and metaphorically. Some of them picked crops or drove busses. Others cut hair or sewed clothes. Many of them still landscape lawns or construct some of the country’s nicest homes and buildings. A great number of them Americanized nonna’s recipes and served up their home cooking with love. They earned degrees and learned English. They didn’t even let their children speak Italian.
A few of them captured the hearts of Americans with their talents. Think Frank Sinatra and Jon Bon Jovi. In sport, there was Joe Di Maggio, Vince Lombardi, Mario Andretti, and Rocky Marciano to name a few. But it is the leaders in business and government, who really stand out for their contributions. Nancy Pelosi was the first woman speaker of the house. Fiorello Laguardia was the 99th mayor of New York City and a legend among Italian immigrants, who often turned to him for help. Mario Cuomo was the governor of New York, who captivated the public with the story of his immigrant family. His children carry on his legacy with son Andrew also serving as governor of New York. Amadeo Giannini launched what became Bank of America, which is now the largest bank in the United States.
How Jersey Shore: Family Values Undoes Everything Good
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when The Sopranos aired on HBO, I quarreled with Italian American organizations. They protested the airing of the show. Some tried to keep the Italian American actors from the show from participating in various events. But The Sopranos, I argued, was art. It was fiction. While the show was realistic and shared the ugly underbelly of Italian America, it was not real. James Gandolfini was an accomplished actor, who had great achievements and talent worth recognizing. So, I did not go along with the protest. In fact, I was a fan of the show.
The problem with Jersey Shore is it is billed as reality. Now, I don’t doubt that some of the antics are planned out and either fabricated or exaggerated to make the show more dramatic. But people really believe this is an accurate depiction of Italian America. I don’t begrudge the cast members, who are obviously laughing all the way to the bank. Frankly, they have usurped the term, “guido,” which was once considered a pejorative term. What did they have to do to afford lovely homes and inordinate amounts of plastic surgery (some of them look like different people)? Well, they simply had to act as hedonists on the constant hunt for a tan and a piece of a–.
Sending the Wrong Messages
This debauchery and disrespect was bad enough when these guys were in their twenties in the first incarnation of the show. But now that they are nearing 40 with spouses and kids, the show is difficult to watch. Who wants their mom to pass out drunk in the middle of the street? Or their mom to have someone else’s privates rubbed on her face for the world to see? What if your dad cheated on your pregnant mom on television? It’s actually tragic. I was hoping the new version of the show would have the cast members knowing better and turning into my guilty pleasure. Instead, it made me sick for their kids, who will eventually see this if they haven’t already.
Now, there are moments of truth about Italian America embedded into the show. A few of the authentically Italian American people have had moments to which I can relate. In many episodes, the cast breaks bread in the fashion my people do on Sundays. There’s pasta sauce and people cleaning their plate with bread. Of this I know.
Incidentally, Vinny is the reason I wanted my son to be Enzo and not Vincenzo, which would have made him Vinny from Jersey. Nevertheless, Vinny from Jersey Shore is the genuine article. His family clearly is stuck in its Italian roots. The proof is in his mother, who lives down the street, does his laundry, and worries that his butt is getting too skinny. These are my people. I enjoy them and their family dinners, of which we get a glimpse.
In fact, the entire premise that the cast members have grown to be chosen family is typical of Italians in southern Italy and Italian Americans. That is heartwarming. Their protection of one another in the midst of fame is applaudable. Recently, Ronnie had a well-publicized argument with the mother of his newborn daughter. When the hosts of ABC’s The View asked his fellow cast members what happened, Pauly D respectfully announced they all support one another and would not stick their nose in his business. Pauly’s desire to keep Ronnie from cheating and Snooki and the girls from fighting showed some signs of maturity, too.
Mostly the Worst of the Worst
Also, revelations about Jenny’s miscarriage move me. I too experienced a miscarriage, and I think women are too silent about them. Then, when it happens to you, it’s like a sucker punch to the stomach because no one ever tells you this is how pregnancy can end. It puts you into a darkness that is hard to overcome. I feel for her. While I can appreciate those moments of humanity, I find it hard to juxtaposition them with casual sex, foul language, and a whole lot of superficiality.
What are we saying about Italian America in this depiction? What does it say about our morals and what we think of ourselves if we allow this to be how we’re seen? We have elevated the cast members and given them opportunities of which others can only dream. Take a look at the homes in which they live. Remember, they were all sent to Italy for a long vacation. Now, they were given the chance to vacation in Miami in a luxurious home replete with pool and furniture I could sell to send my kid to one semester of college. For what did they get this? For being irresponsible screw ups on TV.
If we’re financing this with our fandom, what does that say about us? It’s hard to look in the mirror and accept this. A real Italian mamma would shut off the TV. Then, she would give those cast members a hug and tell them that they should look within for redemption and ask God for forgiveness. If they truly loved themselves, they wouldn’t act like this. Then, she’d serve them some lasagna or a few meatballs and send them back to their families. Before they left, she would warn them that she’d kick their skinny a– if they keep up the bad behavior. She’d be watching. Oh, she’d be watching.
Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press, 2012). She also has written the Our Paesani column for ItaliansRus.com since 2003. You can follow the Italian Mamma on Facebook or Twitter @ItalianMamma10.