In early N. American history certain ethnic and religious groups were not considered white, most notably the Irish, the Italians, and white Jewish people. Due to certain fears about economic and social allegiances forming between these groups throughout U.S. history, many of these groups were granted whiteness while the undercurrent of discrimination against them remained intact. In recent years, historians and cultural theorists alike have revisited the issue of white-not white in the history of these groups and what it has meant to their cultural formation as hyphenated N. Americans.
Now it seems MTV, which has moved from a place of selectively embracing black performers to largely exploiting them (including helping to invent the video whore first in white rock and then hip hop videos), has turned its attention to white ethnics. Their show Jersey Shore is causing controversy precisely because of the ways it re-racializes Italians . The turn is both interesting in its wrong assumption that no one would care and what it tells us about post-racial N. America. IE, when white liberals believe that African Americans are “off limits” in public, often racial anxieties get played out against white ethnics (as well as along other lines of oppression like classism, sexism, etc.) The resurrection of this practice in the public sphere serves two purposes:
- the mediation of racial anxiety through the public resurrection of an “acceptable Other”
- the reinforcement of certain white people’s beliefs that they are more targeted and less protected than black people in the U.S.
The latter also serves to reinforce the very race divisions that prevented working class people from coming together across racial lines during reconstruction and industrialization and can be seen in some of the conflicts between white women and women of color in feminism dating back to the so-called first wave.
Alyssa Milano’s response video complete with the darkening of her skin and the extension of her bum follows in this vein:
The video both correctly identifies and trades on racialized stereotypes in the show. In other words, while the video highlights the racialization MTV is engaged in, it also re-posits whiteness by pointing to very specific stereotypes associated with blackness, skin color and bottoms, that are absent from Milano’s own features. There are several other stereotypes in the Jersey Shore that are ignored in order to do this and interestingly most of these have everything to do with gender.
Milano points to how poorly women are treated and how that is linked to the denigrating of Italian American Identity on the show. At the same time, the juxtaposition of her large bottomed brown-skinned body with a man urinating untintentionally calls into question the treatment of women more usually associated with these features and why these features make such things acceptable. And one has to wonder, how effective this video would have been if the women in the Jersey Shore simply had puffed up hair (another feature Milano emulates) without the drastic change in skin color and physical features? So what is being said about women here and how is it racialized in ways that are both critical and offensive?
Though these racialized explorations of [gendered] ethnic divisions are often associated with conservatives, and neo-nazis, MTV has also exposed it’s connections to liberals as seen here in this Michael Cera promo:
These connections call into question a growing trend in which hipsters are at the forefront of racially questionable media and/or business ventures that they excuse away based on a constructed identity that defines racism as outside of their social identity. By claiming an identity that is somehow exempt from racism, they are able to behave in racist ways, tell racist jokes, and even claim racist stereotypes and language for themselves all the while calling it ironic, subversive, or satire. While their behavior is becoming less salient to actual progressives and communities of color, there appears no end to their willingness to mobilize racial oppression in the name of profit, whether that profit be made through the linking of hipster films like Youth in Revolt with MTV’s Jersey Shore or the intentional building of stores catering exclusively to middle class white people’s tastes (and hiring people who look down their noses @ or call the police on people of color) in gentrifying neighborhoods.
Ultimately, the questions MTV’s show raise are about much more than “just a tv program” despite what the stars of the show would have you believe: