Early film portrayals picture Italian American women as nearly mute, shadowy, homebound creatures relegated to serving men food (always pasta) and quietly retiring while the men ate and discussed business, usually criminal enterprise. This portrayal was a Hollywood invention that couldn’t have been further from reality that most Italian Americans experienced.
Rather, I remember my grandmother, Noemi, who emigrated to this country alone at age 19, the breadwinner of the family, an expert seamstress who had to take her baby to work in a basket to the grimy factory where she worked. She boldly risked her job to become one of the early members of the groundbreaking Ladies International Garment Workers Union. There was no criminal activity in the house where my grandfather had dinner ready for her every night. My grandmother worked for most of her life in one of the few careers open to immigrant women at the time. And she proudly carried her Union card until the day she died. That is a true image of an Italian American woman.
Over the last several decades our image has been on a consistently downward spiral with TV characters that are ignorant and appalling. The primary stereotype in this genre was developed through roles such as Val in The Nanny, Carla in Cheers and the sisters of Joey Tribbiani in Friends. Uneducated, dumb and promiscuous, they were always cast in poor light, victimized by every man that came along. The audience was cueued to laugh at their endless peccadilloes and predicaments, often an unwanted pregnancy. They expressed surprise and bewilderment at their circumstances meant to illustrate a lower intellectual capacity. Incapable of taking care of their problems, they had a “woe is me – again” mentality, as if this is indicative of our culture and experience. It is not remotely reflective of the world I knew growing up.
Instead, I look up to my grandmother Josephine, twice a mother while still in her teens. Abandoned and even abused by men, never saw herself as a victim. She worked for minimum wages, supporting and raising her two sons. Far from unwanted, she was absolutely devoted to her sons; she worshipped the ground they walked on. Though lacking in formal education, she overcame what many sociologists claim is an unavoidable and repetitive cycle: poverty, violence and family dysfunction. Not Josie: her sons became successful men who were devoted to their families and children. She would marvel at the level of education and success her great-grandchildren enjoy.
With the advent of cable television, the image of the Italian American woman has further deteriorated with overtly brash characters such as Carmella Soprano, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Jerseylicious, Mama’s Boys, Mob Wives, The Capones and countless rip-offs. These heavily scripted “reality” portrayals are loud, combative, crass, vain and vacuous.
In my considerable large circle of Italian American acquaintances, friends and family, and in my entire life for that matter, I have NEVER witnessed a fight over, with or for food!!! In my home and that of every Italian American woman I know, what’s on the table is for everyone, including drop-in visitors. Thankfully, I don’t know anyone who would tip over a table to make a point. Instead, Italian American women I know are far too busy with families, professional careers, communities and volunteer work to be consumed with plastic surgery, self-centered activities, gossip and designer clothes.
How sad that our image is so maligned and so few of us speak out.
Finally, we have the next generation. The image we see is of Jersey Shore – shocking, sickening behavior. One might say “Well, it’s only a silly show!” Well, it can have a definitive effect on opportunity. Someone who watches these shows can be seriously prejudiced against hiring young Italian Americans if they thought this type of behavior may exhibit itself in inappropriate places such as a corporate boardroom, a classroom, a court. And how will these images, coupled with an Italian surname, resonate, subliminally or overtly with a voter?
I know so many professional and accomplished young Italian American women; my daughter-in-law, Carla; daughters of friends – Lauren, Chelsea and many more. While I am thankful they are nothing like those awful stereotypes, I worry that someone might actually think otherwise…and it will have a negative effect on their blossoming careers.
During Women’s History Month, I ask all Italian American women to speak out against these ugly stereotypes in honor of their own grandmothers, mothers, aunts and true role models. Boycott shows that portray us in a negative light and stop buying their sponsor’s products. Most importantly, rediscover a heroine in your own family and share their story with the next generation. We owe it to the wonderful women who came before us and to those who will follow.
About the writer:
Victoria DeMarinis Miragliotta is on the Board of Directors of the Italian American One Voice Coalition, and the writer/director of “In the Footsteps of Columbus, 500 Years of Italian American History in N.J.” She holds an MBA from Fordham University, where she is a mentor to women in the Graduate School of Business and also serves as an alumni mentor at Monmouth University.