The MTV series, Jersey Shore, has been accused of ethnic bias and Denny and Lynda Lou suggested we discuss it.  The reality show features eight 20-something Italian Americans in a Real World-type situation (all living together in the same house on the beach) and is currently most famous for the scene where Snooki gets socked, hard, in the face:


It features, as does nearly every reality show involving 20-somethings, a lot of ridiculous, immature behavior, a celebration of party-culture and anti-intellectualism, and capitulation to the pornification of American culture.

The show is accused of being discriminatory not because it involves all those things, but because it specifically involves Italian Americans, who vocally embrace the term “Guido,” doing all of those things.

So what exactly is the problem with Jersey Shore?

The problem is that, because of negative stereotypes about Italian Americans, the bad behavior of the show’s stars will be attributed, by some, to their Italian American-ness.  If the show simply featured young people, who didn’t identify with a particular ethnic or racial group, the bad behavior might be attributed to youth or attention-starved-reality-show-celebrities.  But when we mark a group as Other (in this case, specifically Italian American), their behavior suddenly reflects on the whole group.

This is never true for the unmarked, neutral category whose identity is so normalized and mainstreamed as to be invisible.  In these cases, bad behavior is individualized (“that person is immoral or crazy” instead of “those people are immoral or crazy”).

So part of what makes Jersey Shore problematic is the context.  Because Italian Americans are Othered in the U.S., a show featuring them will inevitably be used by some to confirm negative stereotypes of the group.  But, of course, MTV is facilitating this by putting together a show that features Italian Americans exclusively, encouraging us to notice their Italian Americanness specifically and, therefore, making their ethnicity salient when we react with horror and disgust at what we see.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.