The People, The History, The Culture
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Italian Americans are making it clear that they are fed up
with the culture's cartoon-like treatment of their lives.
Author: Terry Golway
Gale Group-America Press, Inc.
Issue: March 27, 1999
SOME GOOD PEOPLE in my adopted state, New Jersey, are up in arms about a hot new Mafia television program set in a hard-edged, suburban Jersey town. It shows you how times have changed. Back in the prehistoric era, when I was something other than middle-aged, New Jerseyans probably would have welcomed the attention. Stuck in the shadow of New York and Philadelphia, New Jersey didn't even qualify as a cultural afterthought.
It was strictly drive-through territory, a stretch of highways connecting New York with the American mainland. Why, New Jersey didn't even have a television station!
Now, however, New Jersey is on the ascent, a development that began, as far as I can tell, just about the same time I moved there. Coincidence, no doubt. The state has real-live major-league teams, genuine cultural attractions and even, at last, not one but several television stations. No wonder New Jersey is stealing New York City residents hand over fist.
So it is with a certain degree of self-confidence that New Jerseyans, or more specifically, New Jersey Italian Americans, are complaining that a show called "The Sopranos" is littered with cultural stereotypes of the sort that wouldn't be permitted if the show's characters were of other backgrounds.
This is a familiar complaint. Everybody, it seems, wishes to claim membership in the Last Ethnic Group in America Against Which One May Fling Offenses Without Fear of Consequences. Some spokesmen for the Irish and the Poles have claimed the title on various occasions. There's a good case to be made for the Germans- have you ever heard of the diversity police conducting a house-to-house search for German jokes or stereotypes?
And then there are Italian Americans, who are the focus of "The Sopranos." Of the many groups that wish to lodge a complaint against the purveyors of popular culture, this country's 25 million Italian Americans probably have the strongest case. (Just over a decade ago, a Texas politician dismissed Mario Cuomo's chances of winning national office because, he said, there weren't many people named Mario in his part of the world.)
No doubt there are some, perhaps even many, films and books with Italian-American themes that do not feature organized crime. No doubt there are many Italian-American film or television characters who are not made to sound like rejects from "Saturday Night Fever." But it seems fair to say that "The Godfather" trilogy, "Goodfellas" and now "The Sopranos" have inextricably linked Italian Americans with organized crime, at least in the minds of our pop-culture consumers.
Given the amazing breadth of Italian-American accomplishment, surely some film maker or scriptwriter could imagine a scenario in which organized crime, meatballs and philandering patriarchs do not play featured roles. Imagine if every movie or television show with Irish themes focused exclusively on, say, the Irish Republican Army or machine politics or-dare one say it-pubs. Luckily for the Irish, their diversity and achievement in America has in the last few years been reflected in the arts and letters. (Oh, yes, there was a spate of awful television shows last fall, including one set in, yes, a pub. But justice prevailed. The shows lasted a combined total of about seven minutes.)
Having spent my first 31 years in the Italian-American bastion of Staten Island, I know dozens of Italians, and I've yet to meet my first mobster. But I've met plenty of Italian politicians, writers, lawyers, artists, clergymen, laborers and civil servants. Many of them are the children and grandchildren of immigrants, and some still live in old ethnic neighborhoods like Newark's North Ward, Boston's North End and New York's Bensonhurst. Some feel suffocated by ethnicity and family; others revel in it. Who is telling their stories?
That's where "The Sopranos" is so disappointing. As a work of art, it is wonderful. The writing is subtle and complex-the show's writers obviously aren't hacks willing to spit out cliches. The atmosphere is terrific: The show captures the feel of New Jersey's gritty, nearly-urban suburbs and towns. The characters are complex and intriguing.
Imagine, then, what these creative people could do with the textured lives of Italian Americans who have nothing to do with the mob, who are educated, hard-working and struggling with the eternal questions of life, death and truth. Surely they are a lot more interesting than a bunch of mobsters, however much more depth "The Sopranos" shows than your average shoot-'em-up mob movie.
The controversy over "The Sopranos" comes at a time when Italian Americans are making it clear that they are fed up with the culture's cartoon-like treatment of their lives, as well as what they believe to be outright anti-Italian bias. A group called the National Italian American Foundation has accused the Immigration and Naturalization Service of "systematic and institutional discrimination" against Italian Americans. The group's complaint also charges that some I.N.S. officials have used anti-Italian slurs against subordinates.
It's true, of course, in this era of extreme ethnic sensitivity, such charges deserve a certain degree of skepticism. We all are quick to take offense these days, in part because the practitioners of political correctness have instructed us that certain kinds of speech amount to nothing less than criminal offenses.
The larger point, however, remains: Italian Americans, more than most groups, have a genuine complaint about the way they are portrayed in the popular culture. And those portrayals do, in fact, suggest a real bias against Italian Americans, despite their glorious accomplishments and hard work.
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