Persistence & Damage of Negative Imagery
By Dr. Emanuele A. Alfano
The history of anti-Italian American bias manifests a blatant bigotry for the past 100 years. Long before the entertainment media chose Italian Americans as whipping boys the American press maligned them in news reports, columns and in cartoons. With the advent of movies, radio and TV programming the incidence of Italo-bashing has worsened. A forth entity that continually smears is advertising, but the favorite media outlet to stomp Italian Americans has been TV sitcoms.
If it ended today, this very instant, these sitcom images will haunt our lives and our children’s lives for decades to come. This darkened imagery will be continually be impressed on America’s psyche now and for that of future generations because of one simple word, “syndication!”
Due to syndication, programs produced years ago can be seen any day or night somewhere on television. Unfortunately, these examples are not the exception, but the common rule in portraying Americans of Italian descent.
Let’s have a look at how Italian Americans are characterized on TV. At first even Italian Americans might laugh, but shortly thereafter that laughter may turn to tears.
The most popular themes for casting Italian American characters are criminality, anti sociality and abandonment. We are all aware of screenwriter’s penchant to cast us as criminals and anti socials, but the more subtle theme of abandonment has gone unnoticed.
On Happy Days Christmas episode it is revealed why Fonzie hates Arthur Fonzarelli Sr. because he abandoned him at 3 years of age.
In the TV show “Joan of Arcadia” Joan’s father, an Italian American was also abandoned by his father.
Gino’s unruly behavior on Brooklyn Bridge is attributed to the absence of his father who is in prison.
CBS had a program called ‘”You can’t hurry love” featured a character named Carlucci who had been abandoned by his father.
If we are not depicted as abandoning our children then we are the cause of abandonment as was the storyline in the Batman T V animated film where it is revealed that Robin’ parents who were circus aerialists were killed when “Tony Zucco” cut their high-wire.
Moving to films briefly, Steven Spielberg, the Italian American antagonist, did not miss the opportunity to use the abandonment theme in “Saving Private Ryan” where the Vin Diesel character was abandoned by his Italian American dad and in “Jurasic Park.” where the lawyer runs from danger and leaves his children to their fate; of course the lawyer had a vowel sounding surname. This movie moment bears further scrutiny. Movie lawyers are usually cast as being from a denomination other that Italian Americans, but in this instance My’ Spielberg curiously chose an Italian surname for the coward who abandoned his children to save himself.
The sad and disturbing fact is that while images of other groups and individuals are considered very carefully by producers, writers, actors and advertisers Italian Americans have been left out of this politically correct environment. Is it intentional? Is it malicious? Only those who engage in defamatory can answer that question, but for certain they do not consider the lasting harm in presenting the Italian culture in this negative fashion and the public at large commonly sees this as acceptable.
Painting Italian Americans as socially unfit is commonplace on TV.
George COSTANZA of Seinfeld eats from garbage cans and accepts a discarded urine soaked couch for his apartment. On the same show “Poppy” The pizza guy never washes after using the lavatory.
Danny IMPERIALI, a former boyfriend of the Nanny is characterized as a cheat, a low life Neanderthal type.
The Michael Jackson ‘Moonwalker’ video features a futuristic character beating and stomping on a little girl, while he tells Michael that he wants to turn the children of the world onto drugs; He wants the history books to spell his name right. It’s Frankie Lideo. He then spells it, L_ I_D_E_O
On a Family Ties episode, a teacher named TEDESCO is so despicable; that both parents beat him up and warn that this ‘scum’ is not allowed in their home.
Tony TORTURRI, a mobster from a Nanny episode had to get rid of his MOTHER because she talked too much.
In ABCs High Incidents, CARLUCCI asks a co-worker to attend a wedding with him. She emphatically replies NO! She doesn’t want to go to an Italian wedding because there is too much yelling and screaming and someone always winds up getting shot.
On “Brooklyn Bridge” a group of boys with Italian names hanging out in the school lavatory terrorize younger boys who must ask permission to urinate; they state that they are not sure they like Jews.
A sloppily dressed school teacher, CAVARETTI is shown as an idiot on “You Can’t Hurry Love”
In a Nanny’s episode Dr. Frankie CRUCETELLI boasts of spending the best six years of his life in Jr. High School.
In the short term NBC sitcom, Mr. Rhodes featured a handsome young teacher from Italy that turns out to be a con-artist who swindles students out of their money.
Women of Italian ancestry, here and abroad, have in particular, been victimized on both the large and small screens. Rarely is it seen that our women are realistically represented. Instead the most commonly pictures painted are of those who are tarnished in some way.
The Happy Days TUSCARDERO girls were raised in a low class environment and one of them did time in prison for theft.
Mrs. SCAMPORELLI of Brooklyn Bridge has the limited mental capacity of being able to drive only on one way streets.
On the NBC hit sitcom “Wings”, the cab driver Antonio SCARPACCI tells his beautiful blond co-worker, that had she married him, she would have been the first SCARPACCI woman with more hair above her nose than below it.
CBS’s Johnny BAGO writing to his mother while on the run from the law remembers that CONCETTA lost her virginity the same time that she lost her moustache.
On UPN’s Platypus Man a woman described as “Miss Italy” turns out to be a prostitute.
On “High Incidents”, a program produced DreamWorks, the company of Hollywood’s King of Hypocrisy Steven Spielberg, a video is played by a groom which shows his Italian American bride to-be having sex with his best man.
One of the most egregious insults was in a TV episode of The Golden Girls where it was mused that Sicilian women get pregnant while crossing the streets prompting the question, how? And the answer given, “Narrow streets and cheap Chianti.” Imagine the outcry if the scenario had depicted a Jewish, Black, Hispanic or Asian women similarly. Each of those groups would have shouted out with indignation, but not a word of protest was heard from the Italian American Community. It has been that continued silence that has given license to screenwriters to produce more of the same materials that darken the image of our women. The longer our silence is maintained the darker the cloud of ill repute will grow. This has been only a single case, but our documentation of movies and TV programming shows a clear pattern of casting Italian women as loose an immoral.
What you’ve just read is a mere sampling of thousands of similar sitcom dialog that we have on file.
One simply has to look at TV on any given day or hour of the week and you will find a sinister or lowlife Individual of Italian extraction, an Italian American man or woman, child or adult committing some evil or anti-social deed. Hollywood and TV must never forget how effective the Nazi propaganda machine was with the use of negative stereotyping in films, radio, and in print. In doing so it planted an evil seed that would bear bitter fruit. As clinical evidence has shown once a negative thought finds its way into the human mind all evidence to the contrary is meaningless.
The peoples of Italian and Italian lineage have been victimized by an unprecedented pattern of slander and sadly some Italian Americans aid and abet the detractors by turning deaf ears and blind eyes towards the defamatory that should have been emphatically denounced. Hollywood celebrities of Italian descent are not only among that ilk, but they too have further soiled the image of their own through their works. Analogies to this situation are the Jews that turned their backs to the holocaust and the black moviemakers like Spike Lee who profit from reinforcing the negative images of ghetto life.
The term negative stereotyping has long been outdated. Disdain and ridicule have replaced negative stereotyping and we continue to tolerate it. The sad truth is that Americans accept the intolerable images of Italian Americans because Italian Americans themselves don’t shout in indignation”. Other than a few passionate individuals, not a whimper is heard.
A headline of an article in the NY Post by Jack Newfield dated Feb. 4.1992. led with, “Prejudice against Italian-Americans is the most tolerated intolerance.” This was written more than a decade ago, and nothing much has changed, in fact it may have worsened.
Italians and Italian Americans should not tolerate this. All people of good will, regardless of their ethnic background should reject these images. We have the power to reverse this negative imagery, all we need is the will to take a stand against negative stereotyping and the effort to educate the public about the media “perversion” of casting peoples of Italian culture as ignoble. We must produce documentaries books, films and programming exposing the total injustice of Hollywood and TV programming which has defined us as people lacking refinement.
A New York Times article published on March 9, 2004 by a Hollywood mogul who claims to have battled Negative Stereotyping all his life said,
“We are in a race against time for the conscious mind of our young people” and we need to teach them “the dangers of stereotyping, the dangers of discrimination, the dangers of racial and religious hatred and vengeful rage.”
Those are the words of a DreamWorks producer of “Shark Tale”, a film that targets children with the lowest form of negative stereotyping. Those are words of Steve Spielberg, the King of Hollywood Hypocrisy. If Mr. Spielberg and his filmmaking cronies would understand the true consequences of infiltrating the world of children with images and dialog that will evolve into discriminatory practices, we’d surely have less intolerance.
I leave you with these thoughts, disease takes life, defamation ruins life, don’t tolerate it; speak out in defense of Italian American dignity. Remember if you do nothing, say nothing you’ll be nothing.
Dr. Emanuele A. Alfano