Adam Serwer’s throwaway line is true, and sharp:
That’s the fundamental cultural breakthrough of Jersey Shore isn’t it? They figured out how to make a “minstrel show” with white people.
But it’s a little more complicated than that, because of course Italians weren’t always considered “white.” So what “Jersey Shore” is doing is re-racializing them.
Before “Jersey Shore,” Italian-Americans’ trajectory — to generalize massively, and sweep over generations in a single graf — was just like that of any other “white ethnic” group. Demeaning stereotypes about unsavory personal characteristics (violence, “greasiness,” etc.) gradually got suppressed over time, such that “Italian-ness” eventually became a combination of cultural artifacts that were easily accessible to non-Italians (spaghetti, Christopher Columbus) and “cuddly” positive/nonthreatening stereotypes that could just as easily apply to any other “white ethnic” group (close families, overbearing mothers, loud).
So by the end of the 20th century, you have, e.g., “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”–a movie that managed to be a mainstream hit because it presented a conventional romcom plot as somehow different from other conventional romcoms because there were Greeks in it, without being ethnically-specific enough in its stereotypes to offend anyone.
The genius of Jersey Shore is that it manages to trade in updated versions of old uniquely Italian stereotypes, like male vanity/sleaziness, to back up its protagonists’ convictions that “guido” is an ethnically and culturally significant term. It’s turning cuddly My Big Fat Greek Wedding-style ethnic comedy back into minstrelsy, by adding a bit of the old wickedness into it, rather than creating new wickednesses.
If you want to talk about new frontiers in minstrelsy, let’s talk about the Real Housewives series.