After extensive study, I have determined that Frederico Fellini’s groundbreaking 1963 film 8 1/2 is an important intertext vital to fully understanding MTV’s Jersey Shore. For one thing, the protagonist of Fellini’s film is named “Guido.” For another, 8 1/2 is basically a movie about trying to make a movie, and studying its metafilmic elements could prove fruitful to understanding the complex and paradoxical structure of reality television. But today I want to talk about one scene in particular, which I believe laid the groundwork for one of Jersey Shore‘s most beloved characters. In this scene, young Guido and his friends go to see a woman who (1) wears her long black hair in a bump on top of her head, (2) lives at the beach, and (3) dances sluttily for their entertainment. Ladies and gentlemen, La Saraghina — the proto-Snooki:
But in order to fully understand what La Saraghina can teach us about Jersey Shore, we have to look at the third point on this triangle. Fellini’s amply-proportioned siren somehow manages to resemble Bobby Moynihan’s portrayal of Snooki on Saturday Night Live more than Snooki herself. Behold, a crappy graphic I made in Photoshop:
In 8 1/2, La Saraghina is intentionally monstrous. She is large and grotesque, living on the edge of society in a hovel, and her tattered dress suggests nothing so much as the tentacles of a sea witch. (Incidentally, I think Disney’s Ursula is also a direct descendant.) But she is remembered with fondness by Guido as one of his first experiences with female sexuality, and she seems quite harmless. She’s delighted to dance for the boys, but she doesn’t really seem like a predator, and when Guido’s mother arrives with an army of Catholic priests to take him away and shame him, it seems like a great injustice. There is a great disconnect, then, between the way Guido sees La Saraghina and the way the rest of society sees her. What Guido sees is essentially the picture on the left — a sweet, fun-loving woman who loves to “just let loose and fuckin’ kill it on the dance floor,” while what the rest of society sees is essentially the picture on the right — a ludicrous monster who should probably be ashamed of herself.
Moynihan’s drag version of Snooki is more than just cruel, however. La Saraghina was portrayed by a female actress, but her performance has drag elements: her garish and crudely-applied makeup, her large frame and somewhat manly face, and her provocative dancing. In portraying Snooki as a man in drag, Moynihan highlights the gender role-reversal that underlies so much of Jersey Shore. Nicole LaPorte has recently characterized it eloquently:
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.
This upheaval of gender stereotypes simultaneously frightens and fascinates us, just as the swaggering, assertive sexuality of La Saraghina frightened and fascinated young Guido and his friends in an imagined Italian past — and it is surely part of why Jersey Shore has captured our imaginations. If we can learn to accept Snooki on her own terms rather than reducing her to a monstrous stereotype, we might just leave the Shore as better people than we were before we started to watch it. And that is something worth doing backflips in a thong about.