Friday, July 30, 2010

Land of Valtrex and Steroids: The Reign of the Booboisie

Coming from an Italian-American upbringing, I suppose you could say that I do not fit the archetype of what is depicted of my community in Hollywood or on MTV.  No one in my family has ever been arrested since arriving in this country, not even for a minor offense like disturbing the peace.  There are no mobsters, murderers, thieves, swindlers, or smugglers.  Yes, there were a few boxers, but none of them were thugs or ruffians.  And yes, I do come from an urban, working-class family, but I did not supplement my income as an enforcer for a local hood.

In my life, I have obtained multiple degrees, all of which I worked myself through school for, studied endless hours, applying the same work ethic instilled in me by four generations of steel workers.  Admittedly, I also retain a natural tan and a love for cooking (most stereotypes are based on generalizations that can be circumstantially and partially true).  

The aforementioned notwithstanding, if I counted the number of times one of my students over the past few years told me that I looked like one of the characters from The Sopranos, simply because I look Italian (with my hair, facial features, and clothing preference), I would quickly run out of toes and fingers.  I actually had a student once ask me if it was normal for folk from my background to just beat people up who crossed us in any way.  I had to bite my tongue in explaining to this youngster that I do not as a standard policy 'beat people up,' and have yet to kill anyone.  I remind myself that these attitudes are not an accident, the expression of which has become more frequent over time. They are sadly the product of a collective consciousness of what the purveyors think about an entire group of people--an attitude developed from decades of propagandization by the lever holders of our popular culture.

I know I should not care about some of these things.  I am told it is a joke and to get over it, but you can at least say that there is a mafia in this country and historically it was (until recent times) dominated by Italian-Americans--after all, Al Capone was not Scottish.  However, I never grew up with any male in my neighborhood who waxed himself, took steroids, and wore lip balm--never mind young men who took pride in denigrating themselves before millions of others while shucking in front of a camera, in bars, and through fist fights with other brain-toasted, self-described 'guidos.'  If Al Jolson were alive today, this is what the modern minstrel show would look like:

Maybe this sounds outdated to someone in his/her teens, although I am not that old (the median age in this country), but if I ever dared to act or look like the loser in the above picture during my childhood, exulting in this self-hatred by calling myself a guido/wop/dago (since all of those words really mean the same thing), I could expect to be corrected immediately by my family and peers for purposely caving in to the very worst language and stereotypes that the larger society has of us.   Yes, there was the gangster culture when I was a teen, but it never occurred to me to want to live the poor man's version of it, which is what the ethnic stereotypes of Italians on American t.v. revel in showing.

Something changed in the culture, which was not there in my youth.  My Italian-American colleagues from the east coast have conceded to me that this caricature has existed, but that it is isolated to a small group.  If so, then why is it that my students' perception of people from my background include this?


Here's The Situation: Cast of 'Jersey Shore' rings opening bell on New York Stock Exchange

NEW YORK — "Gorilla juiceheads" fist-pumped on the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday morning as the cast of "Jersey Shore" kicked off trading in one of the more anticipated opening bell ceremonies in some time.

Traders on the increasingly quiet floor said it was one of the most crowded days in years as the deeply tanned cast of the MTV hit rang the bell and stayed to sign autographs amid a crush of onlookers and a flood of media.

"It was like a car crash here this morning; people couldn't help but stare," said Benedict Willis, director of floor operations at Sunrise Securities Corp. "It was very crowded, but most of the crowd were summer interns. It was like P.T. Barnum's freak show was in town."

The show has become a cultural phenomenon due to the oversized personalities of its cast, including pugnacious Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi and gym rat Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino, who have introduced several catch-phrases into the popular lexicon, including "gorilla juiceheads," which refers generally to muscled-up guys seen at New Jersey's shore.

"Gorilla juiceheads"?  Does that ethnic refrain sound familiar in the history of this country?  What kind of person would call himself that?  A person who does not care if he or she is reducing the entire group to the lowest common denominator.  The kind of person who does not have to live or suffer what they perpetuate.  The kind of person with no sense of self-respect. 

To think, all of those years I spent in school studying, all of those jobs I have worked since the age of 9, saving to get myself to the point where I am at in life, following all of our laws, paying my taxes, trying to live a life of substance and with the values imparted by my family (and partly as a counterfactual to the stereotypes transposed on us since our arrival to this country a century ago), all of this was for naught.  The entire time, I could have been giving myself a body wax, taking HGH, putting Vaseline on my lips, spray tanning myself the same color as a construction barrel, and beating down any peon less orange and muscular than myself, so that I too could be opening the NYSE, "pumping bitches" (as Mike the Situation would say), and relegating myself to a life of weekly clinic visits.  Whenever I think of why I do not watch MTV anymore, why I stopped watching just about all t.v. shows (reading all of my news and getting my movies and documentaries from Netflix), the cultural toilet that is Jersey Shore illustrates perfectly what we have come to.

On behalf of the 95% of my community who do not enjoy seeing ourselves portrayed as a race of drug and sex-addled, ill-tempered morons, please, stop it.  We are not amused.  And to the other 5%, put down the pills and pick up a book.  Study what it means to be "proud" of a heritage that you are running into the ground. And just in case you need a primer, here are a couple of real Italian-Americans that your school history text books, printed in Texas, are unlikely to cover.

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