Mirror Essay: Italian-Americans

Jasmin Limbaugh

9 March 2014

Mirror Essay

Italian-American Stereotypes in the Media

         Italian-American stereotypes projected by the media in films and T.V. often suggest that they “Italian-Americans” are heavily involved in organized crime. However, a survey conducted by the Italic Institute of America between 1996 and 2002 shows that 88% of these such characters are fictional(2007). The purpose of this essay is to better understand where these stereotypes originate, how they were popularized, and how they affect perceptions of the Italian community. In particular, what is it that attracts us to these portrayals, and why do we continue to accept them as a form of reality despite repeated criticism from large numbers of the Italian community?  This is not to say that there aren’t those who embrace the association, however in my opinion, and speaking as an Italian-American, our media portrayal should be viewed separately from us, for the most part. These stereotypes are an artistic expression which largely serve the purpose of entertainment, rather than claiming to represent an accurate historical context. Furthermore, that which is considered to be what is taken from history pertains to a very small demographic of Italians. The portrayals we often see today are often associated with Italians who arrived from Southern Italy; and while the Mafia did originate there, it was originally formed by rebels uniting over political oppression. Like the Swastika, which now conjures thoughts of anti-semitism, but was originally a symbol of peace, the term “mafia” according to Selwyn Raab, author of “Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires,” (Staff, 2009) originates from Sicilian-Arabic slang which meant, “acting as a protector against the arrogance of the powerful”. Nevertheless there are few mainstream films whose representations of Italians outside this skewed avoid the clichés we have all become to familiar with.

Italians were not always represented as gangsters. Prior to the influx of Italian immigrants to the U.S. in the early nineteenth century, Italians were held in very high regard. They were admired as artisans, craftworkers, intellectuals and artists. However, as an increasing number relocated to America in search of a better life, anti-Italian sentiment grew. With the introduction of film Italians began to be typecast with embellished accents, which later would change to the stereotyped New Jersey accent, which has become synonymous with Italian movies. Their roles often included the jokers, village idiots and small time crooks. As these films gained popularity, so did the stigma of Italians as low life criminals. Films began portraying Italians as being heavily involved in organized crime, and the public couldn’t get enough of these gangsters on screen. However, in day-to-day life Italian-Americans began to feel the effects of this systematic misrepresentation. Regular people who’d never done anything wrong were facing prejudices because of such portrayals. Organized crime became synonymous with Italians. Italian-American former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, has long opposed the image pop culture lends to our community and even urged press to refrain from using the term mafia, stating “Every time you say it, you suggest to people that organized crime is Italian”(Sam Roberts, 2013). The truth is there are many different Mafias across the world, Israeli, Jamaican, Russian, Chinese and more, yet none of these are used by the media to stereotype their ethnic group quite like the Italian. Yet, historically, Italian gangs have had the lowest number of members, never reaching more than 5,000, an amount which translates to less than .0034% of Italian-Americans(Italic Institute of America, 2007). However, thanks to the film industry and its continual depiction of Italians as Mafiosi, many began to believe in the stereotype.

One of my first experiences in facing the power of stereotypes in the media came when I moved to Scotland. A group of boys began to bully me because I was foreign, using verbal and physical abuse simply because I was outside their comfort zone. At first I felt like it was my fault, but I soon realized that it was their own ignorance and fear of the unknown that led them to their actions. In response a few of my friends spread a rumor that my family back in Italy was involved in the Mafia. As an Italian-American who has seen many films which portray us as gangsters involved in crime I had never given it much thought, or considered them to be autobiographical in any way. However, as people started spreading the rumor around the school, I began to realize just how much the media can have an impact on our perceptions. The image of “The Godfather” burned in every teens mind. Of course the factor of everyones young age played a huge role in the ability to persuade. This is further highlighted in a poll conducted by Zogby, showing an overwhelming 78% of teens between the ages of 13-18 relate Italian-Americans to organized crime or blue collar work(The Order Sons of Italy in America, 2003). In the end teachers got involved and the rumor was laid to rest, but the boys who had previously been bullying me did not bother me again. The experience has taught me about the false reality media can evoke, how for a lot of people it is the only exposure they have to certain subjects. It highlights the importance for us to look for truth beyond what we see stereotypically as well as the responsibility which should be placed on popular culture to portray more accurate representations.

The release of “The Godfather” in 1972 saw Italian-Americans were finally portrayed in a humanized manner, allowing the audience to engage and relate to the characters on screen. Unfortunately they were still being portrayed as criminals, albeit romanticized criminals, who’s lives exhibited a sense of excitement, opportunity and refinement previously not associated with Italian-Americans. The story follows the Corleone crime syndicate as two generations struggle between traditional values and the obstacles a modernizing world brings. Don Vito Corleone, head of the the crime family is shown as compassionate, though ruthless when necessary to those who fail to show respect and loyalty. Michael, his youngest has just returned from the war and has always shown contempt for his family’s line of work. However, when an attempt on his father’s life is made and his older brother Sonny is killed, he is faced with the responsibility of taking charge as new head of the family. Michael quickly becomes conflicted with himself morally as he struggles between what is right for the family and what is right for the family business. As he becomes more heavily involved Michael begins to lose himself as he is blinded by power and revenge. While the film received critical acclaim and is revered for it’s cinematic artistry, the film enforces stereotypes that Italian-Americans are inherently involved in organized crime. The images of power, affluence and masculinity invoked by the Mafia has been the biggest draw to these genres of film and in terms of entertainment they are excellent, but in terms of generating an accurate portrayal of the everyday Italian it does little justice. Furthermore, they do not support a positive image of Italian-Americans. A study conducted by the Italic Institute of America between 1996 and 2002 shows that 69% of films which portray Italians do so negatively. (2007)

The T.V show “The Sopranos” shares many similarities to “The Godfather,” the portrayal of a man in two families; the one he has at home and the one formed with his work in organized crime. He too is humanized as we often find him in his discussing his inner most fears and anxieties with his therapist, Jennifer Melfi. Watching him talk to his children about school, problems at home and the day to day, makes his life more relatable. Taking the fundamental values of influential cinematic crime lords of the past and generating them in our present enables us to imagine Tony’s life in a more accessible way. The structures are essentially the same, yet on some level we’ve deteriorated back into a less refined criminal. Tony Soprano is not a degenerate but he lacks Don Corleone’s charisma and value of tradition. The women are louder and more emotional than before, often portrayed as bimbos and regarded as material possession. These portrayals have become so banal they border on reality, it’s what we expect and know. Even the character of Jennifer Melfi in “The Sopranos” comments on how cliché Tony’s life is. Despite these clichés and the fact that there is no longer any real mystery to the characters we see portrayed all too often, their popularity does not diminish.

While my focus is on the endless characterization of Italian-Americans as gangsters, I feel I would be indolent in failing to mention anything of “Jersey Shore.” Here I wish to draw parallels between the cultivated criminals of the past and the crude socialites which seem to be the only representation in media we have today. “Jersey Shore” is like a punch to the face of Italian-Americans; there is absolutely nothing subtle about it. The housemates were cast based on how loud, candid, short fused and obnoxious they were. It was all about the drama. It’s about entertainment and making money, but it did something more. It branded Italian-Americans in a rather unfortunate way. Suddenly anything stupid associated with “Jersey Shore” wasn’t just a “Jersey Shore” thing, it was an Italian-American one too. It’s not just that “Jersey Shore” is utterly obnoxious, but it’s offensive too. Here you have eight people oozing about how they are Italian and proud, yet they bring no pride to their country. They go around calling each other guidos, which in its original context is a slanderous term referring to a working class, urbanite Italian. Yet here they are branding themselves  and their lifestyle as “the guido way.” If that was not enough two of the main “stars,” Snooki and JWoww are not Italian, so why are they representing us?

Why is it that Italian’s cannot seem to catch a break? Suddenly our options are being fame hungry Oompa-Loompas or criminals, I’ll take the latter please. Having said that, what we’d like to be remembered for are our achievements. There is so much more to our community than what the media might suggest. It was after all Italian-Americans who discovered AIDS, invented the jacuzzi and founded the FBI, amongst many other achievements (OSIA, ). However, to popular media these are not topics to capitalize on so do not expect to see them on the big screen anytime soon.

The Godfather. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James
Caan and Diane Keaton. 1972. VHS. Paramount Home Video, 1999.

– The Sopranos. Creator David Chase. Perf James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco. 1999. Home Box Office (HBO)

– Jersey Shore. Creators Anthony Beltempo, SallyAnn Salsano. Stars Ronnie Ortiz-Magro, Vinny Guadagnino,Jenni ‘Jwoww’ Farley, Nicole ‘Snooki’ Polizzi, Mike ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino, Paul ‘Pauly D’ DelVecchio, Sammi ‘Sweetheart’ Giancola. 2009. MTV

-Image Research Project: Italian Culture on Film (1928-2002)                                         http://www.italic.org/imageb1.htm

Article Details:

Origins of the Mafia, Author- history.com Staff. Published 2009


– Mario Cuomo, Vocal Foe of Italian Stereotyping, Finally Sees ‘The Godfather’


Published: October 21, 2013



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