Estrangement, Italian Style: The Myth of the Jersey Shore

How is it that such a persistent stereotype -- which is certainly not unique to Jersey Shore-- has been reproduced for so long, and continues to resonate in today's culture? 

After Barbara Walters included the Jersey Shore cast on her list of the "10 Most Fascinating People" of 2010, the Associated Press had perhaps the best reaction: "Did she figure that the full cast of eight might add up to a single fascinating person?" 

What is truly fascinating is why MTV's hit show, which ends its three-year run tonight, became such a cultural phenomenon in the first place. It certainly wasn't due to the good-natured personalities of its cast members. The success of the show has been linked to various cast members' willingness to debase and degrade themselves—and, "by extension, all Italian-Americans," as critics such as Linda Stasi have charged. Stasi says the stereotype the cast perpetuated was this:

Italian-Americans are gel-haired, thuggish, ignoramuses with fake tans, no manners, no diction, no taste, no education, no sexual discretion, no hairdressers (for sure), no real knowledge of Italian culture and no ambition beyond expanding steroid-and silicone-enhanced bodies into sizes best suited for floating over Macy's on Thanksgiving.

What's the Big Idea?

How is it that the stereotype described above -- which is certainly not unique to Jersey Shore -- has persisted for so long, and continues to resonate in today's culture? According to Joseph Luzzi, Director of Italian Studies at Bard College, Jersey Shore is part of an ongoing myth about Italian American culture that has been produced by the media and repeated again and again. According to a study by the Italic Institute of America, of the 1,200 "Italian-related films" produced since 1928, more than two-thirds portrayed Italian Americans in a negative light. The study concluded that "the mass media has consistently ignored five centuries of Italian American history, and has elevated what was never more than a minute subculture to the dominant Italian American culture.

By "minute subculture," the Italic Institute of America was specifically referring to one of the most common stereotypes of Italian Americans -- the gangster. While very few Italian Americans were actually members of the Mafia, what makes this stereotype all the more pernicious is that by extension, all Italian Americans are seen as permissive of corruption and violence.

So how did this stereotype of Italian Americans come to prominence instead of the many positive associations we have with one of the great cultures of the world? Why is this image so far removed from the Italy of the Renaissance, what Goethe called "the world's university"?

"When we talk about Italian American culture what we’re really talking about is southern Italian culture exported to the United States," Luzzi says. Luzzi points out that most Italian Americans, his family included, are from southern Italy. Southern Italians didn't have access to the high art traditions of the north. The two regions continue to view each other with disdain. When Italian immigrants came to America, Luzzi says, "I think that we kind of brought this rift between north and south with us." 

Watch the video here:

What's the Significance?

As Luzzi points out, the so-called "southern question" -- how to resolve the cultural differences and address the uneven economic development of northern and southern Italy -- became an issue shortly after the country's reunification in 1861 and continues to dominate Italian politics today. 

The southern question is the subject of a vast amount of literature and also figures prominently in Italian cinema. Luzzi, the author of the recent book The Blessed Lens: A History of Italian Cinemanotes that cinema was Italy's "most influential contribution to the global art scene of the last century." One notable example of the southern question expressed in cinema is Michelangelo Antonioni's masterpiece, L'Avventura, the only film of Antonioni that is set in the south. 

"I would feel ill at ease if I had to do any shooting in the South," Antonioni once said, "for the people who live there are too different from me. I can never understand them."

To expose the rift between northern and southern Italy, Antonioni self-consciously puts the concept of defamiliarization, or estrangement, into play in L'Avventura. This idea comes from Karl Marx ("Entfremdung"), and is used by social scientists to describe the result of living in a socially stratified society. In L'Avventura, estrangement serves as a cinematic device, as we experience southern Italy through the eyes of wealthy urban characters who are completely unaccustomed to their environment. 

This device is perhaps most clearly realized in a famous scene in which Monica Vitti's character, Claudia, wanders through the central square of Noto, an impoverished southern town. There she is ogled by a crowd of unemployed men, or pappagalli. The men gaze on Claudia like she is a foreign aristocrat, a stranger in her own land. 

Watch the scene here:

The southern Italian subject in the scene above is clearly constituted as a threat, and this is an image that made its way across the Atlantic, casting Italian Americans as "the other." This breeds violence. Early Italian immigrants to America endured extreme forms of bigotry and violence perpetrated by the anti-Catholic nativist movement. There were lynchings. There was the mishandled trial and later execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

So how do these negative stereotypes impact us today? 

Could his heritage be an issue if New York Governor Andrew Cuomo decides to run for president in 2016? The question seems incredibly backwards. And yet, at least one State Senator thinks so.  

Images courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

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