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From left, Etter Milla, 85, Henry Garofano, 87, John Salomone, 87, and his wife, Janet Salomone, 72, attend their Italian-American club at the Knights of Columbus in Spokane. (Dan Pelle)
From left, Etter Milla, 85, Henry Garofano, 87, John Salomone, 87, and his wife, Janet Salomone, 72, attend their Italian-American club at the Knights of Columbus in Spokane. (Dan Pelle)

Italian-Americans say ‘Jersey Shore’ stereotypes are a chance to raise awareness

Krista Aghabeigi is of Italian and Iranian descent. When she was growing up, her parents explained that people sometimes use offensive terms to describe both Italians and Iranians.

“Guido,” she learned, is a term disrespectful to Italian-American family and friends.

Aghabeigi, a senior at Eastern Washington University, hadn’t heard the term much until she started watching “Jersey Shore,” the MTV reality show where “guido” is as ubiquitous as drinking, tanning and bed-hopping.

Nearly a dozen Italian-American groups have protested to MTV about the use of “guido” and the behavior of the show’s young Italian-Americans.

In the Inland Northwest, neither the controversy nor the word has gained significant traction.

But leaders of Italian-American groups throughout the country, including in Spokane, hope to use the controversy to raise awareness about ethnic stereotyping.

“We’re a well-situated ethnic group in the United States, and we’re very good contributors to the betterment of this country,” Joseph V. Del Raso, president of the National Italian Foundation, said in a recent interview.

“That’s all the more reason that we shouldn’t be silent about stereotyping aimed at us – or others.”

What’s a guido?

In a recent essay in Time magazine, writer Caryn Brooks explored the word’s history.

It likely washed in with the wave of Italian immigrants who came to America at the turn of the 20th century and was used as a putdown to those just off the boat.

The guido subculture developed in the middle 20th century, popularized in the 1970s hit “Saturday Night Fever.”

Men are generally good-looking but uneducated, proud of their gelled hair and muscle-bound bodies.

The women in that subculture – guidettes (a relatively new term) – savor their tans, their big hair, their large chests and their tough talk. On “Jersey Shore” the women proudly call themselves “bitches.”

In response to early protests, MTV took the word “guido” out of the voiceovers and promotions for the series, but the characters still use it.

It’s their behavior at the shore as much as the use of the “G” word that worries people.

Ginny Whitehouse, an associate professor of communication studies at Whitworth University with an expertise in intercultural communication, says ethnic stereotyping in entertainment can lead to a “sleeper effect” in reality.

She explains: “Let’s say I don’t know any Italian-Americans. I’m going to get my ideas from popular culture. I’m going to watch MTV and see the guidos and guidettes. I’m going to watch the ‘Sopranos. I’m going to throw a ‘Godfather’ party.

“If I don’t have any other contact with Italian-Americans, what else am I going to think about them? The sleeper effect is when all the images accumulate over time and that’s how you get your view of the world.”

She applauds Italian-American groups for taking on the lifestyle portrayed in “Jersey Shore.”

“They are saying, ‘It’s not healthy for you, and it’s not healthy for the people who are copying you. And 20 years from now, you will look back and say, ‘What was I thinking?’ ”

It’s not just Italian-American elders protesting. About 8,000 young people have signed onto the Facebook page titled “MTV’s ‘Jersey Shore’ is a Disgrace to Italians and Jersey.”

One typical comment: “The whole cast is trashy and disgusting looking. Real Italians have class.”

Spokane’s Italian-American elders

One recent Tuesday, John and Janet Salomone, Etter Milla and Henry Garofano gathered at the Knights of Columbus near Gonzaga University.

They meet once a month as proud members of the American-Italian Club 2172, part of the national Order Sons of Italy in America.

Older Italian-Americans clearly remember the slur words of their childhood, such as “wop” and “dago” – offensive words with origins in the Italian language. (Wop did not derive from “without papers,” as is commonly believed).

Garofano, 87, grew up in a family of 15 children back East, but settled in Spokane after World War II.

“From 15 years of age, I was in fights, because of the discrimination and being called wops,” he says. “I grew up that way, and every one of my brothers grew up that way, and my sisters grew up that way.

“In time, it got over. But it took a lot of years to wipe that out.”

In “Italians of the American Northwest,” Charley Vingo of Spokane collected dozens of first-person accounts of Italian families who found their way to our region, drawn by work on the railroad, in the sawmills and in Silver Valley mines.

Like Italian immigrants throughout the country, “they took those tough jobs and never complained,” says Janet Salomone, past president of Spokane’s American-Italian club and a vice president in the Order Sons of Italy Northwest lodge, which boasts nearly 1,500 members.

Milla, 85, was a child here in the 1930s.

“In Spokane, the Italians from a certain part of Italy would migrate and build a neighborhood,” he says.

“I grew up in Minnehaha. It was probably 99 percent Italian. Sometimes the non-Italians would call us wop, dago, spaghetti bender and ‘cat lickers,’ because we were Catholic.”

These Spokane Italian-Americans applaud efforts to quash “guido” because they clearly remember how they felt as children to hear “wop” and “dago” directed their way.

“It was all done in a degrading way,” Milla says. “That was the part that hurt.”

What’s next?

“Jersey Shore” was recently renewed for a second season. The guidos and guidettes in the show are now minor celebrities, and they got huge raises.

The popularity of the series escalated because of the controversy and because Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi got sucker-punched in the face in a bar fight.

Domino’s Pizza did cancel its advertising. And Italian-American leaders intend to use the second season as a continuing opportunity to raise awareness about more positive role models.

The National Italian American Foundation’s Del Raso, for instance, always points out that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito hails from New Jersey, as does rock star Bruce Springsteen.

“His mother’s Italian,” Del Raso says. “He’s vice chair of our board.”

Meanwhile, EWU’s Aghabeigi – aware of ethnic stereotyping from her family and now learning media literacy in her college studies – knows the difference between the reality of most Italian-American lives and the lives of those on “Jersey Shore.”

“Obviously I don’t take any of the cast seriously,” she says. “They embarrass themselves by fighting all the time, drinking heavily and talking about how they can get any person in bed with them.

“But if they didn’t do any of that, I would have nothing to watch on Thursday nights.”