By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
“Jersey Shore” is for stupid people.
That’s what best-selling author and journalist Gay Talese thinks about MTV’s wildly popular show that spotlights all the unsavory behavior of a pack of club-going, fist-pumping “guidos” and “guidettes.” As an American of Italian descent, Talese finds shows like “Jersey Shore” and “The Sopranos” unfair depictions of what it means to be an Italian-American.
On Saturday, when Talese appeared at Red Bank’s Two River Theater as the keynote speaker for the New Jersey Italian American Heritage Commission‘s annual gala, there was no question why, in his opinion, the Italian-American is laughed at rather than respected: the media.
“We should not be proud of the Italians in the media because they’re not there. Why? Because they didn’t educate themselves to be in the media,” he said. “The Italian image in the media today is rotten because there are no Italians to defend them.”
On a day that celebrated the Italian immigrant experience, Talese, 78, bounced between pride for his own heritage his parents were Italian immigrants and frustration that some things haven’t changed much.
He didn’t come to kvetch about the paucity of Italian role models today but to tell his own story of growing up in Ocean City, attending college at the University of Alabama and landing a job as a reporter for the New York Times.
But when an audience member asked him who he respects as international journalists (answer: John Lee Anderson of The New Yorker), Talese had a “since you didn’t ask” moment and raised the subject of what he thinks is lacking in today’s media.
Talese said as a young man, he felt a sense of confusion about his own identity. Sometimes he thought he was more Italian than American, and sometimes the reverse, because there were no significant influences “Sinatra had yet to arrive,” he said to defend the Italian-American image, which was, like today, not great.
“The only people who were getting publicity in America were gangsters and athletes,” Talese said. “People with Italian names are normally notorious people.”
In a world where getting drunk and flaunting washboard abs to strangers is hit television, not much has changed, Talese said.
“Still, in the 55 years I have taken from boyhood to maturity if I am mature now [the rotten image] is the same,” he said.
Talese has done his own part to celebrate Italian heritage and boost its image. His book Unto The Sons tells his story of growing up with immigrant parents, and his website says he is working on a television series, “Italians in America.”
Outside of that, though, Italian-Americans aren’t getting the fair shake they deserve, he said.
“Italians are very cultivated people. They have beautiful taste and they do wonderful things,” he said, “but when it comes to entertainment, it’s just disgusting.”