With her leopard thong, poof hairdo, and “Pornstar in Training” trucker cap, Nicole Polizzi—better known as “Snooki” on the MTV reality series Jersey Shore—is no Meadow Soprano.
And not just because Snooki and her female cohorts on the show—in which a group of self-proclaimed guidos and guidettes shack up in a house in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, for a summer of boozing, clubbing, and Jacuzzi-ing—aren’t Ivy League-educated Good Girls. Or that Snooki’s response to an Italian-American group and companies that recently pulled advertising from Jersey Shore because they said it reinforced negative stereotypes was: “FUCK YOU! If you don’t want to watch, don’t watch. Just shut the hell up! I’m serious. FUCK YOU!”
The truth is, the show is actually undoing age-old stereotypes and replacing them, for better or worse, with a progressive, and even revolutionary, model of prima donna that is more Lady Gaga than Victoria Gotti. In contrast to the one-dimensional portraits of Italian-American women that have been trotted out over the years—the loud-mouthed bimbo (Marisa Tomei’s Oscar-winning performance as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny); the long-suffering housewife (Connie in The Godfather; Carmela on The Sopranos); the daddy’s princess (Meadow Soprano)—the trash-talking, overly tanned ladies of Jersey Shore pick fist fights, refuse to cook or clean up, and shuffle around in slippers and sweats while the guys in the house preen and put on lip gloss. Most dramatically, they are not women who are defined by, or in the service of, the guidos and goombahs around them, whether it’s their fathers, husbands, or boyfriends.
Sure, they’re sex objects whose main mission in life is to snag a man. Snooki, who looks like a miniature cross between Donatella Versace and Elvira, tells the camera: “I want to marry a guido. My ultimate dream is to move to Jersey, find a nice, juiced, hot, tan guy, and live my life.”
But when it comes to sex, they’re aggressive predators who, if anything, objectify the men they’re so intent on scoring.
“I have a bad habit of playing little emotional games with men,” Jenni “JWOWW” Farley says. “When they date me, it’s cool at the beginning, we do our thing in the first month, and then I send them on a roller-coaster ride to hell.”
“Your No. 1 mission is to go out and find the hottest guido and take him home,” says Sammi “Sweetheart” Giancola, who, by the second episode, has attracted and spurned one roommate, Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino (an ab-ripped phenomenon who, naturally, refers to himself in the third person), and is sleeping with another, Ronnie Magro (the resident dumb-but-sweet thug). Though she momentarily ditches him, too, for an “old friend” referred to as “The Cop.”
Jenni “JWOWW” Farley, a smoky-voiced Long Islander with fake boobs, the proportions of which, presumably, inspired her nickname, is even more bold about her particular brand of feminism:
“I’m like a praying mantis. After I have sex with a guy, I will rip their heads off,” she proclaims on the show.
“I have a bad habit of playing little emotional games with men,” JWOWW elaborates. “When they date me, it’s cool at the beginning, we do our thing in the first month, and then I send them on a roller-coaster ride to hell.”
JWOWW does just this when, hours after proclaiming her undying love for boyfriend-back-at-home, Tommy, she fools around with roommate “Pauly D” Delvecchio, a cheery DJ with a spiky blow-out, and discovers that he has pierced his nether regions. This is duly reported back to Tommy over the house duck phone, a bizarre, mallard-shaped contraption that quacks instead of rings, and that no one seems to know how to use. (Other production design details, courtesy of MTV, include several Italian flags, one that serves as a bedspread, and a Scarface poster.)
“They’re empowered sexually, that’s what I’m seeing on Jersey Shore,” said Donald Tricarico, a sociology professor at City University of New York/Queensborough, in an interview. “The women seem to be making their own decisions about who they sleep with and when.
“Almost by definition, ‘guidette’ is a derivative term. It is a male-based subculture. It’s the guido that names it. The women were always defined as sex objects. And I think that’s something that they’re reversing.”
Tricarico, an Italian American who lives in Long Island and has two teenage daughters, said that the women’s behavior isn’t just a rebuke to cinematic stereotypes, but real life.
“The girls on Jersey Shore are pretty free, sexually, and that’s not what you expect from traditional Italian-American girls, who have to go on dates with their cousins [protecting them]”
On Jersey Shore, where heading out to clubs like Karma and Headliners, is a nightly ritual, the women may arrive in a group with their roommates, but once there, they shed the entourage and the man-hunting begins.
On the dance floor, while the guys buffoonishly pump the air with their fists—“beatin’ the beat,” as Pauly explains—the guidettes majestically bump and grind up to their prey.
“Angelina’s really surprising me in the club,” Vinny Guadagnino, a “mama’s boy” from Staten Island, says of his roommate. “There’s not much between her ass and the guy she’s ridin’. Next thing you know, she’s grabbin’ guys, they’re buying her drinks. It’s really shocking to me.”
In one episode, a particularly empowered Snooki (“I just let loose and fuckin’ kill it on the dance floor”) breaks out into a back flip, her thong exposed—and blurred by the camera.
Afterward, a choked-up JWOWW recalls the performance: “It made me so proud of her.”
Thirty-year-old Anthony Moussa is the New Jersey-based founder of the nightlife Web site NJGuido.com, now NLSociety.com. Like his MTV counterparts, he has a colorful nickname: “The Moo.” In an interview, he paints the women’s behavior in a less Betty Friedanesque light.
“Back when I was going down to the Shore, I never had girls that were slutting around like that… Normally, girls are on the hard-to-get side in New Jersey. If you went up to her, she would turn her nose from you, make you buy her a couple of drinks, then walk away. That would be a typical guidette. These girls are, like, attacking the guys, these girls. I’ve never seen anything like that."
Most Jersey girls, Moussa says, “are prudes.” He argues that the reason the Jersey Shore ladies are anything but is that most of them hail from New York.
The show does not entirely do away with cultural traditions and preconceptions, however. The women may be loose, but they’re still overcome with Catholic guilt that leads them to lay out their sins—such as JWOWW’s confession to Tommy that she cheated.
Angelina Pivarnick, who carries the hard-won distinction of house drama queen, similarly calls her boyfriend after her roommates convince her she hooked up with a goomba the night before, even though she has no memory of it.
And in times of distress, men are called to the rescue. In the most recent episode, after Snooki is punched in the face by a fratty guy, her male roommates rise up in outrage and vow revenge.
“I’ve never seen that in my life—a guy’s gonna punch a female in the face,” says Pauly. “It’s crazy.”
Girls hitting girls, however, is OK. Later in the episode, on a different night, when a girl calls Snooki fat, JWOWW throws her drink at the girl and starts throwing punches.
“I tried to, like upper cut her, but at that point I had too many bouncers wrapped around me," JWOWW says.
Then, smilingly proudly, she adds: “I just wished for, like, three more seconds. I would have done justice.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.