In our struggles to end media injustice against Italian Americans, what I find most puzzling are those people who honestly admit to being unaware of anti-Italian American discrimination. It’s everywhere!
Most culpable? The media who project a very negative image of Italian Americans, and they do so ad nauseam, because they know the public is hooked on the dark-side entertainment of blood and gore. Viewers inexplicably are drawn to those violent scoffers of the law who never bat an eye when they kill and all in the name of respect and honor. It seems to be a warped kind of vicarious thrill the public enjoys.
Even while these gangsters were knocking them dead in the bloody streets of the Roaring 20’s, Hollywood movie makers were releasing films like Little Caesar and Scarface because they believed art should imitate life. Their mission? Give the folks what they want!
In time, the word “gangster” became synonymous with “Italian American.” It mattered little that every ethnic and racial group has its own gangster element, an infinitesimal percentage of the total ethnic population, of course. Gangsters do exist. They all commit violent crimes; yet, it is still the image of the Italian American gangster that is projected to the near exclusion of Hispanic, Chinese and Irish gangs, etc.
Italian American gangsters of the past like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Albert Anastasia and even those of recent times like John Gotti, became larger-than-life ‘heroes.’ Books about their lives sold millions of copies. Films are made about them. Finally, their allure became so overwhelming it made sense to HBO producers to hire an Italian American named Chase to write a series about a fictitious Mafioso named Tony Soprano who suffered the same angst as the rest of us, raged over the same trivia, tried to keep himself together in a world falling apart around him. He had a family: a wife and children. And he had a Family: mobsters at his command who did his bidding without question.
If the story of the celluloid gangster ended there it would merely be harmless eye candy. Unfortunately it goes well beyond being simply movies for the masses. By equating gangsters with our Italian American ethnicity the Media Monsters – not even subliminally! – convince millions of viewers of this illogical syllogism:
Film gangsters are Italian Americans
There are over six million Italian Americans
Therefore, all Italian Americans are gangsters
What about those viewers out there in TV land who live in towns devoid of Italian Americans? A man in West Virginia told me I was the first Italian American he had ever met. I’ll bet he expected, instead of my shaking his hand that I would shake him down!
Perhaps those sophisticated people in metro cities who might claim, “I have friends who are Italian Americans,” can watch The Sopranos and know it’s meant to be dumb fiction. But what bothers me are those who learn what an Italian American is by watching The Sopranos or The Godfather or any of those shows or films that portray us as violently uncouth, dumb as hammers, and married to Italian American “bimbos” who can aspire to nothing more than perhaps becoming “a little less stupid” than the next one.
What about those Italian Americans who watch these shows and feel pride because somehow they are being validated? Do some feel tough by association? Is Tony Soprano their hero, one with whom they share ethnicity and therefore their earned respect as well?
Italian Americans who love being negatively portrayed by the media are seemingly not cognizant enough to realize they too are being denigrated. The media is kicking their rear ends as hard as they are kicking ours, but they seem to like it! I’ve even heard some of them call themselves “wops” as if the word were an endearing term instead of the mud word non-Italian Americans hurled at my grandfather who came to America in 1905 to give an honest hand to building and beautifying our great land. To him and the millions who emigrated from Italy, being called a “wop” was not a pretty thing, nor was being identified with the crime element from whom they thought they escaped when they came to this free land.
We need more Italian American sensitivity in the media. Why is it all right to slander my ethnic group but not the Jews or the African Americans or the Hispanics or any of the others? Why is it advertisers are free to sell their products in the context of Italian American gangster scenarios?
Living in a free country does not entitle one to disparage a select group of its citizens. The media must rethink its gross lack of social consciousness and begin doing right by us!