Fellini at the Shore

January 16, 2010

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.


Jersey Shore = Hate Crime?

January 2, 2010

In one of the most hilarious developments in the Jersey Shore controversy to date, NJ state senator Josef Vitale has recently alleged that the show violates the spirit of New Jersey’s hate crime legislation. That’s right, Jersey Shore may actually be a hate crime. But settle down, America; the show is not a hate crime against you just because it sucks and you hate it, nor is it a hate crime against you just because you’re a dermatologist who experiences great existential anguish at the thought of the skin cancer that those kids are going to get later in life — no. Senator Vitale (who is also the chairman of the New Jersey Italian American Legislative Caucus) says that Jersey Shore resembles a hate crime because,

“The bias-related acts displayed by employees of MTV Networks in the production and marketing of Jersey Shore, by their nature, are confrontational, inflame tensions and promote social hostility. . . . These acts are contrary to the spirit of New Jersey law and jeopardize the active and open pursuit of freedom and opportunity.”

It’s important to notice that all Vitale can say about the show is that it violates the spirit of NJ’s hate crime laws, because to claim that they violate the letter of those laws would be completely stupid. How do I know? I did my research, bitches. I read those laws, and you can too, provided you are willing to deal with the completely shitty and unhelpful user interface of the NJ state legislature’s website.

I’m guessing you won’t, so I’m going to break it down for you.

1) Jurisdiction, Jurisdiction, Jurisdiction.

In order for Vitale’s accusation to even begin to be coherent, the “production and marketing” of Jersey Shore, which he believes constitute “bias-related acts,” would have to have occurred in New Jersey. And most of them didn’t. The filming of the show took place in Jersey, yes, but MTV’s corporate headquarters are in New York, and that is probably where the conception, post-production, marketing decisions took place. While it’s entirely possible that dreaming up a show originally called “The Guidos” and marketing said show with liberal use of that word might fall under the definition of a “bias-related act,” probably none of that happened in New Jersey. The only thing we know for sure that happened in the Garden State’s jurisdiction is that a bunch of kids were put into a house and filmed acting like jackasses.

2) Reality Shows Are Not (Technically) Crimes.

NJ Statute 2C 16:1 defines “bias intimidation” as follows:

A person is guilty of the crime of bias intimidation if he commits, attempts to commit, conspires with another to commit, or threatens the immediate commission of an offense specified in chapters 11 through 18 of Title 2C of the New Jersey Statutes; N.J.S.2C: 33-4; N.J.S.2C:39-3; N.J.S.2C:39-4 or N.J.S.2C:39-5,

1) with a purpose to intimidate an individual or group of individuals because of race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity; or

2) knowing that the conduct constituting the offense would cause an individual or group of individuals to be intimidated because of race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity; or

3) under circumstances that caused any victim of the underlying offense to be intimidated and the victim, considering the manner in which the offense was committed, reasonably believed either that (a) the offense was committed with a purpose to intimidate the victim or any person or entity in whose welfare the victim is interested because of race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity, or (b) the victim or the victim’s property was selected to be the target of the offense because of the victim’s race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity.

I’m no legal scholar, but what we’re looking at here in items 1), 2), and 3) seems to be a list of circumstances under which the actions specified in the first paragraph would be considered bias intimidation. Do you know what actions are specified in that boring-looking list of statutes up there? CRIMES. Crimes from murder to assault to “throwing bodily fluids at certain law enforcement officers” (2C: 12-13). I’m going to go out on a legal limb here and say that FILMING A REALITY SHOW, no matter how crappy or generally offensive to humanity that show is, IS NOT A CRIME.

3) The First Amendment Gives You the Right To Be A Jackass.

To the best of my knowledge (and I invite you to correct me if I’m wrong), the mere use of a racial slur is not technically illegal; in fact, it’s protected under our first amendment rights to free speech. Using a racial slur may be offensive, rude, insensitive, and mean, but it’s not illegal in New Jersey or anywhere else in the United States. One of the few exceptions to this is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, under which employers may sometimes be prosecuted for tolerating hate speech by their employees if it contributes to a broader pattern of harassment resulting in a hostile working environment for employees. But until we hear from an Italian-American producer, film editor, or cameraperson who says that he or she felt uncomfortable working on Jersey Shore, Title VII isn’t applicable. New Jersey’s actual hate crime laws, like most of those in the US, are a set of provisions under which an act that is already criminal can be considered a hate crime — and the only crimes committed by Jersey Shore are those against taste, fashion, and intelligence. If that was illegal, the only channels on the air would be PBS, The Weather Channel, and Animal Planet, and we’d all have to figure out how to get excited about Meerkat Manor. Personally, I’d take Flower over Kim Kardashian any day of the week.


An Introduction to the G-Word

December 25, 2009

It seemed like I heard about MTV’s Jersey Shore and the controversy surrounding it at the same time. Logically, there ought to have been a timelag between MTV’s announcement of the show and the organized opposition to it — but they appear to have been birthed at the same moment, like freakishly conjoined twins. One of my most fundamental theories about the show is that it could not survive, let alone thrive, without this controversy and has been deliberately cultivating it all along. Not only did the original advertisements feature the term “guido,” but the show in its casting phase was actually called “The Guidos.” MTV executives are not stupid, and it could not have come as much of a surprise when Italian-American groups began to protest the show well before it aired — but, of course, articles like this were free publicity.

Joseph Del Raso, the president of The National Italian-American Foundation, said in a press statement that his organization’s problem with the show is that it “attempts to make a direct connection between ‘guido culture’ and Italian-American identity.” “Guido,” he says, “is widely viewed as a pejorative term and reinforces negative stereotypes.” And he’s got a case; the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word to mean “a person regarded as socially unsophisticated, especially one whose attire and behaviour are viewed as typically lower-class suburban,” and goes on to say that, specifically, the word is often applied to “an Italian-American man.” But Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino offers quite a different definition of the term in the first episode of Jersey Shore — he says he’s proud to be a guido, because a guido is “a good looking, smooth, well-dressed Italian.” Moments later, Sammi “Sweetheart” Giancola defines “guidette,” the female counterpart, as follows: “somebody who knows how to club it up, takes really good care of themselves, has pretty hair, cakes on makeup, has tan skin, wears the hottest heels, pretty much you know how to own it and rock it.”

So what’s going on here? How did these competing definitions of the term come to exist, and whose definition should we honor? Philosopher Judith Butler might say that what we are looking at is a classic case of the reappropriation of an injurious word, the same phenomenon behind the adoption of the N-word by the black community and the adoption of “the Q-word” (as long as we’re being coy) by the gay community. In her book The Psychic Life of Power, she describes how this can happen:

“Called by an injurious name, I come into social being, and because I have a certain inevitable attachment to my existence, because a certain narcissism takes hold of any term that confers existence, I am led to embrace the terms that injure me because they constitute me socially. The self-colonizing trajectory of certain forms of identity politics are symptomatic of this paradoxical embrace of the injurious term. As a further paradox, then, only by occupying — being occupied by — that injurious term can I resist and oppose it, recasting the power that constitutes me as the power I oppose.”

The process, in other words, works like this: you are called a name, and that name identifies you as part of a social group. The name is meant to be an insult, but it also solidifies your identity as a member of that group. Despite the injurious intent of the name, then, it ends up having potentially positive consequences for you. When Butler says that the names you are called “constitute [you] socially,” what she means is that they literally cause you to exist as far as society is concerned; without terms like “guido,” the Italian-American identity wouldn’t exist because it wouldn’t be recognized as substantially different from any other kind of American lifestyle. What you can do, then, is “embrace” and “occupy” the injurious term in order to de-claw it. If Vinny Guadagnino can yell “I’m proud to be a fucking guido!” on national television, who can ever hurt him with that word?

Ultimately, the castmembers want to claim that “guido” describes a lifestyle, not an ethnicity, and in particular a lifestyle that they value highly. This does seem to be borne out by Sammi’s definition of a “guidette,” which could just as easily apply to Jenni “JWOW” Farley (presumably Irish?) as herself. So rock on, ladies and gentlemen of the shore house, with your politically progressive transcending of ethnic categories.

Note: This is far from the last word on the potential racism of The Jersey Shore; I just figured your attention spans were pretty limited, America. Tune in next time for a consideration of the recent allegations that The Jersey Shore may actually be a hate crime.


Merry Christmas, America.

December 23, 2009

As my gift to you this year, I have created this blog. It’s exactly what you wanted but were afraid to ask for: sophisticated academic analysis of the antics of a bunch of tanned, drunk, self-absorbed party animals and animalettes. Note my tactful avoidance of the G-word, which will be discussed at length in my first substantial post.

But don’t worry, America. I’m aware that your average reading level is somewhere in the middle school range, and I intend to break down these intellectual concepts into terms you can understand. Each week, I will offer an analysis of the new episode that hopefully will help you see what MTV’s Jersey Shore has to teach us about our culture, our values, and ourselves. I will also write occasional pieces analyzing the coverage of Jersey Shore in various fine media outlets such as The New York Times, Saturday Night Live, and Cracked.com. But I’m getting ahead of myself. In fact, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Fortunately, Jersey Shore is on a hiatus this week for the holiday, so I’m going to take the opportunity over the next few days to get you up to speed on what pressing intellectual questions are presented to us by the first four episodes.

You’re welcome, America. God bless us, every one.