Archive for January, 2010

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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.

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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.