(Wise Women's Web)
Daniela Gioseffi Rebuffs Stereotyping of Italian Americans:
Editorial: What Would Your Dead
Father Say About
"The World According to Tony Soprano?"
Written when the T.V. series was at box office height, 2002.
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.
Letters & Opinions Received.
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 yearyet its 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 wateran 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.
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 shows 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.
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, Angelas
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, theyve 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? Havent
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. )
Puzoone 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. Its the character of his mother
whom he also portrayed in The Fortunate Pilgrim. That novel
though a literary successin 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 workyet his book never found the readership it
deserved. By the by, feminists should note that women are its
Actually, the first big box-office film about the Mafia was "Little
Caesar," a 1940s 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 Jeffersons
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, Id 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 seriesthe 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 professionsa 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 anybut,
where is our true honor so widely portrayed without the
cloak of stereotypic criminality? When I think of my own immigrant
fathers 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?"
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.
Back to Top