Planet of the Guidos
Why Staten Island is New York City's most mocked borough.
This week, MTV will air the season finale of Jersey Shore. Over nine episodes, the reality show has evolved from its initial, one-joke premise—an intimate look at the boardwalk blunders of a vulgar tribe of self-identifying Guidos, distinguished by their gelled coiffure and tangerine skin—into a portrait of the sort of dysfunctional but lovable TV family we've been welcoming into our homes for years. Snooki, that exhibitionist Oompa Loompa, tumbled into our hearts and passed out on the beanbag. Mike, aka "The Situation"—who, despite his prized cobblestone abdominals, failed for the first six episodes to seal the deal with any of the ladies of Seaside Heights, N.J.—has an endearingly delusional optimism about him. Ronnie is at once fearsome for his temper and sympathetic for his romantic streak—he's Stanley Kowalski with a heart of GNC Ultra Mega Gold. And Pauly D.'s "blowback" hairdo, a character in its own right, has benefited from prolonged exposure—its sculptural audacity deserves our awe, not our disgust.
Italian-American organizations, a New Jersey state senator, irritated Jersey locals, and Alyssa Milano were among those who tuned in (or refused to) and hammered MTV for trafficking in negative stereotypes. I'm among those who watched Jersey Shore on behalf of another interested, albeit less vocal, party, one that has resigned itself to a regular regimen of slights and abuse: Staten Islanders. Three members of the Jersey Shore cast (Vinny, Angelina, and The Situation himself) are natives of New York City's fifth borough, which sits obstinately across the harbor from Manhattan. "Did you see the show?" asked a story on the Web site of Staten Island's local paper, the Advance, after Jersey Shore debuted. "Are you proud or ashamed that three of the cast members have ties to Staten Island?"
Staten Island is to the Jersey Shore what, say, the Upper West Side is to the Berkshires: a prime summer-rental feeder community. The relationship between shore and island is occasionally fraught—the mayor of Belmar, N.J., recently took flak (and won some fans, no doubt) for a statement denigrating the island-headquartered "Guidos" who flock annually to his beaches—but it holds firm. "Go back to Staten Island, bro!" an antagonist yells at Ronnie in one episode. "I'm not from Staten Island, bro," he responds. Honest mistake.
People who know little about Staten Island tend to know this much: It is a historical haven for mobsters (Paul Castellano's former mansion is a short drive from Vito Corleone's Godfather compound); it is home to a 2,200-acre landfill, the city dump from 1948 to 2001; it is home to the city's strongest conservative voting bloc (it's the only borough McCain carried in 2008); and it's home to the largest per-capita Italian-American population in New York state. This last factoid extends back to the 1950s, when "white flight" began to scatter Brooklyn's Italian-American communities out to suburban Staten Island. This migration was further enabled and encouraged by the 1964 opening of the Verrazano bridge, which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island and which gave the rest of the city a means of entry besides public ferry. (There are three bridges that connect Staten Island to New Jersey.)
MTV deserves ample credit, however, if Staten Island is best known today as Planet Guido. Jersey Shore isn't the first time the network has tapped the island for deliciously unflattering programming. The past few years have also seen the broadcast of True Life: I'm a Staten Island Girl, in which three teens share their preferences for buff, "orange" guys and fantasize about high-paying waitress jobs; and My Super Sweet Sixteen: Cindy, in which a luxuriously pampered adolescent arrives at a garish New Dorp catering hall via Cinderella-style carriage, her beau in full-on princely regalia and wearing a blowback to make Pauly D.'s wilt with envy. One commenter responding to the Advance article wrote that "thanks to MTV, no one believes me when I tell them I'm from SI, NY ... they say I'm not orange enough."
Saturday Night Live has done its part, too, and with none of MTV's documentary pretext. A 1999 sketch featuring host Gwyneth Paltrow sent up a pair of "Staten Island Nurses": gum-smacking, big-haired, empty-headed, attitudinal. In late 2009, a sketch called "Gossip Girl: Staten Island" told the same joke, more or less: Bobby Moynihan put on a shiny shirt and mook accent, Bill Hader gesticulated wildly in a pizza parlor, and host Blake Lively tottered on high heels under the tremendous weight of her hair-sprayed wig. (Maybe it's written on some SNL idea board that patrician blondes impersonating outer-borough trash = big funny.)
I was born in Brooklyn, but when I was six, my parents moved to St. George, the northernmost neighborhood on Staten Island. St. George is occasionally referred to as "downtown," typically by residents hoping that some of the designation's urban cool might rub off: It's the part of the borough that most wishes it were somewhere else. Periodically, reports citing the neighborhood's prewar architecture, skyline views, small artists' community, and some newly opened café will announce St. George as a burgeoning hipster enclave, but that's more or less the same thing my parents heard in the '80s. The poor public-transit access and dearth of nightlife and cultural life keep that dream deferred. In high school, a classmate of mine wrote an essay bemoaning the absence of a Barnes & Noble on Staten Island: A middling prize, you might say, but the island's culture-hungry couldn't be choosy. (One did open in 2000.) My own relationship to Staten Island is ambivalent. And yet I get a little defensive whenever it shows up in the popular culture as a cheap punch line.
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.
Photograph of Jersey Shore's Mike "The Situation" © 2009 MTV Networks.