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Daniela Gioseffi Rebuffs Stereotyping of Italian Americans:

Editorial: What Would Your Dead
Immigrant Father
Say About
"The World According to Tony Soprano?"
Written when the T.V. series was at box office height, 2002.

Daniela Gioseffi, Editor of ItalianAmericanWriters.com offered her reaction to ‘The Sopranos" debate in The New York Times chat room online regarding"The Sopranos" television series. She offers this editorial answer to the various debates which have taken place regarding the popularity of the series and its effect on Italian American culture and literature. Click to Letters & Opinions Received.

The over-riding issue regarding "The Sopranos, "and Michael Parenti, professor of history and sociology at UCLA, author of Make Believe Media would agree, is that "The Sopranos" takes attention away from the big, white-collar crime of the majority culture like the S & L Scandal or Enron debacle in which the Bushes were involved. The Savings and Loan Scandal of over a decade ago was the largest robbery in modern history, still costing every family in American many thousands per year—yet it’s hardly portrayed at all in the media, and, its horrendous effects are ignored by dramatists. The focus on ethnic crime takes attention away from the environmental disaster or the current administration's thuggery against our air, land and water—an utterly vital legacy that belongs to all of us. It's a way of focusing on us ethnics as the source of all crime and grime. Instead of America being forced to face a dramatization of the truths that would save her from corporate crime, she can be diverted to dwell on "The Sopranos" which offers a soap opera with stereotypical characters.

"The Sopranos" seduces as it demeans and stereotypes Italian Americans who are overwhelmingly nothing like this family in crime and violence--except that they are, generally speaking, a passionately familial people. Italian filial feelings and loyalties are portrayed against a backdrop of filth and low life crime so as to destroy what is good in them. The show’s popularity rests greatly upon the fact that Americans with their "WASPish" aspirations to propriety suffer horribly from "passion-envy" and a thirst for displays of filial feeling combined with a lavish enjoyment of good food or nurturance.

If television producers were to make such a popular series about Dillinger, a German American syndicated criminal, or one about Louie Lepke or Legs Diamond of Murder Inc., Jewish-American criminals--Germans and Jews would be furious and insulted at the stereotyping of their people as thugs. You can be sure The Jewish Anti-defamation League would not stand for it and would protest roundly--but Italian Americans, in general, may accept the stereotype because they, too, have been sold a "bill of goods" by the Hollywood and television industrialists. They have come, because of a glut of such entertainment, to patronize the very stereotype which plagues them. There is always a tiny grain of truth to every stereotype of an ethnic group, and an Italian Mafia does exist, but in small measure compared to the mania of the myth, and the same is true for a Black Mafia and a Jewish Mafia and a Russian or Chinese Mafia! None of them are as organized or widespread as myth would have it and amount to effecting far fewer lives than the Enron debacle. Certainly, in America today, we've witnessed through various Wall St. criminalities, the exposure of a huge white-collar, corporate thuggery or syndicated crime.

Moreover, would the Irish accept the stereotype of themselves as drunkards and liars? They seemed to have been very angry in the town of Limerick with Frank McCourt for his portrayal of the people of Limerick in his best selling autobiographical memoir, Angela’s Ashes. Do African Americans enjoy being stereotyped as tall basketball players, Bojangles dancers, Aunt Jemimas or Stephen Fetchits? African Americans have had the sense to widely and fully belie such stereotypes. Unfortunately, some Italians seem to relish the portrayal of characters in The Sopranos. Some young men like the idea of being seen as tough. Others thinks its jazzy to be feared. Women identify with the suffering of the wives, daughters, and mistresses in the soap opera. Perhaps, the power of the exotic characters drawn so sensationally in The Sopranos makes Italian Americans feel that any attention to their style of food, dress, decor, music, is better than none. Or, is it that they, too, are fascinated by the exotic characterization which stereotypes them? Perhaps, they’ve even bought the silly idea that these characters are so well drawn as to be analyzed for their behaviors? Or is it that the characters are finely drawn enough in their Italian aspects to draw us in so that we ignore the dark side of their criminality. Is it that we enjoy the Italian filial passions, food , wine, music, décor, ambiance, so much that we "drink them up," even as we ignore the sensationalized, criminal stereotype, or its effects on our cultural well being? Haven’t the best aspects or our post immigrant culture been used to invite us to the table of our own demise? "Will there ever be an Italian American president while such an image continues to dominate the American mind?" I hear my dead Italian immigrant father sighing that question from his grave.

Those of us who are not sucked into this conundrum, who are sensitive to this narrow stereotyping of Italian Americans, are chastised for not getting "with the program," but we are chagrined because this stereotype has occurred and succeeded more than any other ethnic stereotype in the Hollywood and television industry. There is an over-glut of this image of Italian Americans without enough countering images as frequently and constantly portrayed. Also, Hollywood and television hasn't accepted much else in the portrayal of this ethnic group, because it found this one so lucrative. I still firmly believe, along with several other scholars of our culture, that Italian Americans who enjoy this show are shooting themselves in the foot. Jews read about the Jewish struggle. Blacks read about the Afro-American struggle in these United States, but Italian Americans do not read enough about their own struggle, and the prejudice against them, to create a big enough demand for good books about their everyday culture. It's a theme we've heard for years and the main slogan of Robert Viscusi's Italian American Writers Association. "Write and read or be written!"

Perhaps, the newly affluent generation is unaware that the largest mass lynching in US history was of Italian American laborers in New Orleans, 1891? Have they read Dr. Richard Gambino of Queens College on that subject? (And, he's no relation to the Gambino crime family at all! We Italians all know him as a scholar who started the current phase of our literary renaissance with Blood of My Blood back in the 1970's--a book which gave emphasis to La Causa--as some of us dub our mission to be understood as writers of a varied people. )

Mario Puzo—one of the best known authors of our culture-- starved writing The Fortunate Pilgrim about ordinary, hard-working Italian Americans, an excellent novel from which he couldn't make any money. He could not succeed with good writing until he wrote The Godfather which is all that Hollywood wants from Italian American writers and actors since that monumental movie and book success. Puzo admits that he never met a Mafioso and based the Godfather character on his mother with her passionate family ways of la via vecchia. It’s the character of his mother whom he also portrayed in The Fortunate Pilgrim. That novel though a literary success—in terms of the reviews it received from every quarter-- was never a best seller or Hollywood success. Puzo says he read up on the Mafia in newspapers in order to create a drama Hollywood would pay money for. He died saying that The Fortunate Pilgrim was his masterwork and his favorite accomplishment, not The Godfather. I recommend it as a very moving and marvelously well crafted novel. It beats the sensationalism of The Godfather by a long shot. We can all see our immigrant Italian uncles and aunts and fathers and mothers in his true to life portrayals in The Fortunate Pilgrim--a classic of American literature, dubbed such by learned reviewers upon its publication. When The Fortunate Pilgrim appeared in 1965, Puzo was called the Italian Bernard Malamud, the Henry Roth of Italian culture in America and plaudits reigned over his most literary work—yet his book never found the readership it deserved. By the by, feminists should note that women are its main heroines.

Actually, the first big box-office film about the Mafia was "Little Caesar," a 1940’s success produced and directed by Jewish Americans and starring Edward G. Robinson, a very convincing Jewish American actor or more than once portrayed an Italian criminal for Hollywood. "Little Caesar" did so well at the box office, that many prototypes have followed, including the present day "The Sopranos." But, where are the accomplishments of other Italian Americans portrayed by Hollywood and television dramas? Enrico Fermi's dramatic attempt to save GI's from the Nevada bomb tests is not portrayed anywhere. Toscanini's beating at the hands of Fascist thugs is portrayed no where, either. A New York politician of the people, Vito Marc Antonio's struggle to help all immigrants during the depression years is not portrayed anywhere. Mario Cuomo's stellar life story is a fine drama, as he rose from ghetto to major league baseball to successful lawyer to governor of New York State, but where's that in the media? Where is the story of Mother Cabrini and her dramatic struggle to help immigrants of all backgrounds, her altruism and self-sacrifice? Where is the story of Filippo Mazzei, Thomas Jefferson’s influential friend? Where is the story of Grazia Deledda, Italian woman novelist who rose from a provincial girlhood to be Nobel Laureate in Literature?

Very few uplifting portrayals of Italians or Italian Americans can be found in the media. There are many such of Jews and African Americans and rightly so! That is the problem: the over-emphasis on this particular stereotype which even Italian Americans have begun to buy and consume as the main image of their own people. So brainwashed are they!

The fact that the writers, producers, and actors are greatly Italian has nothing do bespeaks a sell-out for profit of their own people, as Puzo had to do to make money from Hollywood and television. Read Michael Parenti's book, Make Believe Media, to understand this manipulation of all ethnics by the media to cover over and take attention away from really big-time sociopolitical criminality of our time--- by, for example, the Bush family or the Rockefellers or the Vanderbilts or other such robber baron families of America? Why isn't it big news and drama and why isn't it portrayed that "The Bush family fortune, as well as the Rockefeller fortunes, comes from the Third Reich and I.G. Farben, a corporation that built 40 death camps including Aushcwitz, and is now invested in large pharmaceutical companies involved in the G-nome project?" These facts are explained by Dr. John Loftus, Director of the Holocaust Museum in Florida, former US Attorney, prosecutor of war crimes? Why are there no dramatic portrayals of the cruel Concentration Camps in the US during WWII for both Japanese and Italian American immigrants? Why aren't these stories big drama for television moguls? That is the issue? They are certainly dramatic stories of big-time criminality and thievery on the part of the US government--but we don't see those portrayals for popular consumption. As everyone runs home to put their feet up and watch the intrigues of The Sopranos, Dick Cheney is refusing to hand over the meetings he held with big moguls like Enron on the nation's energy policies, even though he has been asked by a law suit brought by the government's accounting department to do so. The focus is off the theivery on Wall St. and the fall of the economy, the surge in homelessness and joblessness. I'm sure Mr Bush's administration loves having Tony Soprano distract America from the big white collar crimes of our time.

I repeat: read Michael Parenti, our ItalianNoam Chomsky, and his marvelous book Make Believe Media to understand the concept I'm attempting to convey. While you are at it re-read Christ in Concrete by Pietro DiDonato, about hardworking laborers of the thirties, a very dramatic and moving story and ask why it isn't on television? Where is the television drama about the" Triangle Shirt Factory," in which so many ethnic women laborers perished, Italian and Jewish alike! I am a Greek, Jewish, Italian-American by the way with other ethnic mixtures, including Polish in my family! Italy is a multicultural nation, like America. Italian Americans should take a good cue from African and Jewish Americans and read more of their own story in America.

Finally, I’d like to quote accomplished critic Camille Paglia discussing The Sopranos: "It's not the Mafia theme that I detest, tired and pointless as that is after its canonical treatment in masterpieces like the first two ''Godfather' films, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It's the sickening combination of effeteness in conception and crudity in execution that no major media article on "The Sopranos" has even noticed much less analyzed."

I find the characters really caricatures hoping to be intricate and not succeeding at being fully drawn. I find the good aspects of the series—the filial passions, food, wine, song, sentiment--used to seduce us into accepting our own defamation. "The Sopranos" and its terrible popularity stand against the fact of our being a varied people of many different abilities, styles, creativity and professions—a people who have struggled upward in America from poverty with perseverance, hard work, education and pride, and yes, honor! We are a people as perfect or imperfect as any—but, where is our true honor so widely portrayed without the cloak of stereotypic criminality? When I think of my own immigrant father’s tremendous struggle to survive and make headway in America; when I think of his accomplishments against all odds, won through hard work and education--I hear him moan from his grave at the popularity of "The World According to Tony Soprano," and I hear him weep, asking "Is this what I worked for in America? Is this my Italian pride?"

Click to Letters and Opinions in Response from Others!

______________________________________________
Copyrighted (C) 2001-2002, Daniela Gioseffi, American Book Award Winning Author Author: ON PREJUDICE: A Global Perspective, Anchor/Doubleday 1993 and WOMEN ON WAR : International Writings from Antiquity to the Present , The Femnist Press, March 2003. Author BLOOD AUTUMN , Autunno di sangue, Winner The John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry, 2007. In 2013, Bordighera Press published PIONEERING ITALIAN AMERICAN CULTURE with an Introduction by Angelina Oberdan. Click here to see what other Italian American Authors have said about her 2013 book.

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