I wanted to ignore Jersey Shore, I really did. I watched about 10 minutes of MTV’s decline-of-Western-civilization reality show, and thanked goodness that none of its ripped, gelled, tattooed, and horny characters was Jewish. I hadn’t been this relieved on behalf of my people since rumors of Ahmadinejad’s Jewish roots turned out to be bogus.
No, Jersey Shore was someone else’s problem, mainly the Italian-Americans who objected to the party-hearty cast’s embrace of what they proudly call “Guido” culture. Apparently for the Italian kids who descend on Seaside and other Shore points, that has something to do with weight-lifting, Jell-O shots, hooking up, and falling down, either in a drunken stupor or when socked in the mouth by an angry gym teacher. The Italian-American version of the ADL urged an advertiser boycott of the program, which was a great success — for MTV, which saw the show’s ratings double following the controversy.
I sympathized with the show’s critics, but focused on weightier issues in the Jewish community, like whether enough Jewish Senate aides would be invited to the White House Hanukka party, or if the Winter Olympics would let women compete in ski jumping. (No kidding — B’nai Brith Canada compared the ban on women ski jumpers to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews in the 1936 Olympics. And you thought Canadians were supposed to be the level-headed North Americans…)
But then I learned, via the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, that Jersey Shore has its first Jewish cast member. And worse, as if they didn’t have enough problems over there, she is apparently Israeli! Journal blogger Ilana Angel reports on an Israeli newcomer named Danielle (the name comes from a Hebrew root meaning, “God loves hair extensions”). Series regular Pauly has the BLEEPING hots for her, but she says she can’t BLEEP until she’s BLEEPING married. Pauly is ready to move on, but Danielle has other ideas — which is sort of miraculous, since no one on the show seems smart enough to have more than one. She eventually stalks Pauly up and down the boardwalk, until he calls her a psycho and worse.
Good for the Jews? Bad for the Jews? On one hand, Danielle held onto her honor, even if she lost every shred of her dignity. On the other hand, Psycho Stalker Beach Girl is hardly the first thing you want people to think of when you say Israeli, although I, and Al Jazeera no doubt, can think of plenty of things that are worse.
The problem with exploitive entertainments like Jersey Shore or The Real Housewives of New Jersey is that if not for stereotypes, they wouldn’t be nearly as fun to watch. And that’s what drives anti-defamation watchdogs nuts. You can say the same thing about most stand-up comedy — it’s the rare comedian who can mine laughs without drawing on stereotypes.
Some stereotypes are worse than others. The general rule is that the closer they hint at the traits that led to the persecution of the ethnic or religious group in question, the more out of bounds they are. I’m okay with shows or jokes that depict Jews as neurotic, unathletic, and overly involved with their mothers. I’m less comfortable with jokes about cheapness, world domination, and deicide.
Italians have it rough in this regard. The Mafia thing has inspired two of the greatest motion pictures and perhaps the single greatest television series in history, but that must seem cold comfort to Italians who are saddled with goomba jokes wherever they turn. Granted, some Italians embrace the wiseguys image, the ways some Jews take pride in “tough Jews” like Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. But it’s sad that the names Corleone and Soprano are better known than La Guardia, DeLillo, and Bertolucci.
And then there are the stereotypes that are hard to erase because they contain a grain of truth. I went to high school with about as many Italians as Jews. I recognize the “Guido” type, just as my Italian friends can name the Jewish American Princesses in our graduating class. I know, I know — I understand how the “JAP” stereotype demeans women and Jews, and traffics in ugly stereotypes about both. But even among my Jewish friends, the ability to spot distinctions was as fine-tuned as any ornithologist’s. At camp and Hebrew school, we could tell the difference between the pampered, spoiled kids and the crunchy, down-to-earth ones. JAP jokes exploited the stereotype, but didn’t invent it.
In a better world, our entertainment wouldn’t depend on stereotypes for laughs or titillation. In this world, however, the best we can hope for is that the purveyors of stereotypes do it with wit. It’s the difference between Goodbye, Columbus and The Nanny, between The Simpsons and Family Guy. The Simpsons transforms a coarse, Borscht Belt comedian into the weird and wonderful Krusty the Clown. A Jewish character in Family Guy has the last name “Hebrewbergmoneygrabber.”
The image of Italian-Americans and Israelis will survive Jersey Shore. As for New Jersey’s image — that’s another story.