I was watching an episode of The Sopranos in the TV room in Terrace last week, when a friend of mine made a comment that never fails to make me groan: “Dude, this show treats Italian-Americans so bad…”
I doubt this is the first time you have heard that The Sopranos, in its depiction of poorly educated, foul-mouthed, larcenous, murderous, gun-toting, sexually promiscuous and otherwise degenerate New Jersey Mafiosi, portrays Italian-Americans as being similarly degenerate and criminal. This is the same charge that has been slung at every Mafia-related production from The Godfather to Donnie Brasco, and its progenitors never tire of repeating it whenever a new such production hits the cinema, or in this case, the television. And as a black man living in North America, I am no stranger to the media’s tendency to stereotype entire ethnic groups in the deadliest ways. So what, then, is my take on this critique of my favorite TV show ever? In a word: Bullshit.
For starters, I don’t believe any major mob production has ever been guilty of that charge. No, I don’t believe that Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Reservoir Dogs or Casino stereotyped Italian-Americans as mobsters. The reason for this is remarkably simple. The US Mafia is an ethnocentric organization: its membership is composed exclusively of Italian-Americans of working-class origins. Therefore, in any production about the Mafia, the main characters will invariably be Italian-American. And the detestable personality traits attributed to them are always realistic to a fault. Look at The Godfather: many of the characters and plotlines of the novel and the first two films were in fact loosely based on real figures and events in Mafia history. Don Vito Corleone was inspired by the dreaded 1940s and ‘50s New York City mob boss, Vito Genovese. Don Corleone’s godson Johnny Fontane was based on Frank Sinatra. Or look at Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino, both of them true stories, adapted from Nicholas Pileggi books that were not the least bit fictional.
The same goes for the exploits of Tony Soprano and his motley crew. I recently read a New York Times article in which a Mafia specialist credited the show for its gritty realism. The best example of this was the Mafiosi’s propensity for profanity: in real life, these guys really do include at least three or four foul cuss words in every sentence they utter. Moreover, real-life Mafiosi really do have mistresses (“goomars”), do regularly sleep with prostitutes, do have hair-trigger tempers that get them into brutal brawls at the drop of a hat, do eat copious quantities of Italian food, and so on. Reviews of the show regularly tap real-life FBI agents, crime reporters and even living, breathing mobsters for their take on The Sopranos. These experts consistently praise the show.
In all, there is no way to portray a Mafioso realistically without depicting him and his compadres as working-class Italian-Americans – poorly educated, violent, profane, and just generally despicable menaces to society. To do otherwise would be a ridiculous distortion of reality.
Actually, The Sopranos, far from perpetuating the stereotypes of Italian-Americans, goes to at times ludicrous lengths to avoid stereotyping them. Watch the show closely and you’ll see that it actually portrays many Italian-American characters who stick to the straight and narrow. The best example is Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi. She is polite, classy, educated, hard-working, law-abiding and successful – a model American citizen. The same goes for the team of FBI agents who have bedeviled the Soprano family since the very beginning of the show’s seven-year run; almost every single one of them is Italian-American. Tony’s neighbor, Dr. Bruce Cusamano, is a suburban, all-American white guy – as Tony scornfully puts it, he “eats his Sunday gravy out of a jar.” In high school, Tony’s kids, Anthony Jr. and Meadow, both seemed to have exclusively Italian-American friends (Blundetto, Piacosta, Capobianco, and Scangarelo). Freddy Capuano was the owner of the retirement home where Tony placed his infanticidal mother. The Soprano family’s parish priest is named Father Phil Intintola. Tony’s best non-mob friend – a hapless restaurateur whose wife Charmaine constantly nags him for entertaining Tony and his brood in their establishment – is Arthur Bucco. And the divine Ms. Meadow Soprano is engaged to a self-effacing youngster by the name of Finn DeTrolio.
In fact, in taking aim at the show’s treatment of ethnic minorities, Sopranos critics miss the mark entirely. Want to know which ethnic minority groups’ reputations the show does horribly deface? Jewish and African-Americans, that’s who.
Don’t believe me? The show is actually breathtaking in the audacity with which it portrays Jews as shifty, mercenary hucksters and blacks as simple-minded, petty criminals. The main Jewish character on the show is Herman “Hesh” Rabkin, who plays a loan shark in league with the Sopranos. Tony and his uncle Corrado both have Jewish lawyers who embody the stereotype of Jews as money-grubbing shysters. And the Sopranos constantly do business with archetypal “niggers” – ignorant, deadbeat and usually incompetent thieves, murderers and “street pharmacists” from the ghettoes of Trenton, Newark and Jersey City. When Tony and his fellows come into contact with blacks, it’s usually with carjackers and stick-up artists, muggers and cocaine addicts, not to mention the occasional gangsta rapper—racial caricatures as deeply offensive as any World War II propaganda cartoon and clownish minstrels that would turn Al Jolson green with envy.
Mafia movies, of course, have shat on racial minorities – mainly African-Americans – for decades now. Remember the Mafia Don convention in The Godfather, when one boss argued that the heroin trade should be restricted to “the dark peoples, the coloreds…they’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls?” Or Sonny Corleone’s casual comment that “Niggers are having a good time with our policy banks up in Harlem, drivin’ them big new Cadillacs?” Or in Goodfellas, when Henry Hill told his wife, “Jail is for nigger stick-up men who don’t have their shit organized?” The Sopranos simply continues in this tradition. Witness Tony’s apoplexy upon seeing his daughter dating a half-Jewish, half-black fellow student – “Jamaal Ginsberg, the Hasidic homeboy,” as Tony called him – or his blaming an injury caused by a panic attack on a mugging by a gang of black men – or as he calls them, “fuckin’ jigaboo cocksuckin’ motherfuckers.” And crucially, this uniform hatred for the eternal nigger is not only shared by the actual mobsters in the show, but also frequently echoed by the legitimate Italian-American characters who share the screen with them.
Those who have seen any Mafia movie more than once have likely noticed this. Yet I have yet to hear any Italian-American advocacy group protest this portrayal of their people as hideous racists. Whether this is because they happen to share these prejudices, or because they simply haven’t ever noticed them or thought of them as particularly important (which is more likely), I have no idea. But to depict Italian-Americans as detestable xenophobes is, I think, every bit as odious as it would be to allegedly depict them as members or associates of an obsolescent crime syndicate. A more holistic perspective would do these aspiring censors a world of good. Bada-bing, bada-bang, bada-boom.