Saturday Night Fever's Reflection of Italian-American Youth

Many of the academic essays we read during class mentioned the importance of the impact that several movies, especially Saturday Night Fever, had on the understanding and evolution of "Guido" culture. Filmed during the 1970’s, Saturday Night Fever portrays the struggling life of Italian-American youths in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Despite the thirty years that have passed, much of the youth culture, or the image of it, seems to have remained the same. Disco culture and dancing was an important part of their week, as techno, clubs, and DJ’s are perceived as a large part of Italian-American youth culture today. Tony took much care in his appearance, by meticulously blowing out his hair, investing in nice shirts, and wearing gold chains. This display of wealth and care in appearance isn’t much different from the expensive cars, gold jewelry, and juiced up muscles that are often associated with “guidos.” Even the gender relations in the movie demonstrates the traditional superior male role over the female, as the men in the movie have their choice of women and take advantage of them while the women easily succumb to these pressures. It is often perceived that in this youth culture, girls are seen as inferior to boys and are expected to fulfill the traditional domestic roles as they grow up. The movie also portrays the family dynamic- the Maneros sit down together for a family meal every night and the brother's involvement with the Church always makes the family proud. Although this movie was filmed over thirty years ago, the movie’s characters and environment gives important insight into what is considered “guido” culture and remains relevant today. 

Tony Manero: Are you a nice girl or a cunt?

Annette: Can I be both?

Tony Manero: No. It's a decision a girl's gotta make early in life, if she's gonna be a nice girl or a cunt.

This quote demonstrates a stereotypical view of how Italian-Americans view women. Degrading women with derogatory terms and mild abuse isn't seen as inappropriate. Saturday Night Fever has no strong, independent female protagonists, except for Stephanie. Yet we later discover that even Stephanie achieves “success” by sleeping with a man in her office, thus undermining her success. Then, there was Annette, a regular, everyday girl that Tony initially refuses to sleep with. She clearly cares about Tony but he just ignores her. She is supposed to be his dance partner, until he replaces her with Stephanie without even considering her emotions. Tony only agrees to sleep with Annette when he sees her cozying up to his friend. Although he does not want to be involved with her, Tony views Annette as his “property.” At the end of the movie, a drugged Annette sleeps with two of Tony’s friends in the back seat of a car, each of them taking turns on her, reinforcing the movie's motif of women being promiscuous and insignificant. Even at home, when the family is having dinner, Tony's father allows Tony's younger sister to clear the table. The men in the movie do not do “women’s work. Saturday Night Fever clearly demonstrates the ideology that women are inferior, should maintain a home,and fulfill the sexual needs of men. 

Fusco: You can save a little, build a future.

Tony Manero: Oh fuck the future!

Fusco: No, Tony! You can't fuck the future. The future fucks you! It catches up with you and it fucks you if you ain't planned for it!

Tony Manero: Look, tonight is the future, and I am planning for it. There's this shirt I gotta buy, a beautiful shirt.

This quote relates to the Italian-American Guido culture. Tony always has his hair in tact and spends a great deal of time in front of the mirror before departing for the disco. He buys new shirts for the weekends because wearing the same clothing is unacceptable. He accessorizes with gold jewelry around his neck. He spends all the money he makes at the work on his appearance because appearance is everything to the youth generation, closely resembling aspects of "guido" culture. It seems as if his looks and dancing skills were the only things he had going for him. Tony realizes that he is living a meaningless existence when his boss tells him how his fellow employees have been working in the store for over fifteen years. He realizes that this Guido lifestyle and mentality will take him nowhere and is hindering his path to success. He has a lot of resentment towards his father, who always praises his brother, Frankie for becoming a priest. Frankie is praised because he chooses to live a life in which he retains his Italian identity while moving up in the world. Although he is miserable being a priest, he has a hard time detaching from his chosen occupation because of the distress it would cause his family, also stressing the importance of family in Italian-American culture. It seems as if both Tony and his brother are searching for a balance between their Italian roots and their roles as young Americans.

            Saturday Night Fever is one of the most popular and critically acclaimed depictions of Italian-Americans in film. It follows the life of Tony Manero, a young man, who at the beginning of the film is content to spend his life working at a local hardware store. His only escape from the monotony of his life is the Saturday nights he spends on the dance floor at the local discotheque. Historically, Italian-Americans were concentrated in a few neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn. Adult children stayed close to their parents and the rest of their family, often working in family businesses. Tony and his friends are resigned to spending the rest of their life in Brooklyn; they have no ambitions beyond their current place in life. Even though they recognize the hopelessness of their situation, they don’t have the means to succeed.            

            For Stephanie, the one character that seems to have achieved success, she does so at the expense of her Italian heritage. She physically distances herself from her family and her neighborhood. She works in a company in Manhattan and eventually moves out of Brooklyn. She has to change her mannerisms and the way she speaks; she has to be conscious of her accent and the words she uses. The implication is that Italian-Americans are considered low-class and unsophisticated; in order to achieve success, Stephanie has to assimilate into the WASP culture of Manhattan.

            Race is also a major aspect of the portrayal of Italian-Americans in the movie. In the racial hierarchy of America, ethnic whites were considered inferior to the WASPs. They constantly had to differentiate themselves from minorities like the African Americans and Hispanics. This resulted in outbreaks of racially motivated violence. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that poverty forced minorities and ethnic whites to live in the same neighborhoods. One of the most explosive scenes in the movie is when Tony and his friends go fight a group of Hispanics who they believe beat up their friend. Not only are they avenging their friend, they are also staking their claim on the neighborhood and defending their turf.

            At its core, Saturday Night Fever is a movie about Tony’s coming of age. In the beginning of the movie, Tony was in many ways a child. He was willfully ignorant of the way race and class affected his life; he didn’t want to know about the world beyond his small neighborhood because he was content with his life as it was. The movie ends with Tony coming to realization that he wants something more than his bleak, dead-end life.


Video Clips courtesy of Saturday Night Fever