The Italian mafia has been a prominent them in the media for centuries. The portrayal of mobsters and the mafia in the U.S.’s motion picture industry has created a stereotype for Italians that is very well accepted in the American culture. In this paper I will discuss various films and TV that address the topic of the Italian mafia and the way in which these shows depict citizens of Italian origin. More specifically I will try to show how movies such as The Goodfather, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, and more recent works such as HBO’s hit The Sopranos create a negative stereotype for Italian American man and women, glorifying them by their flashy lifestyles and relations to organized criminal activities. Movies of such sort have reached such popular success because they appeal to the public and, unfortunately, many Italian American citizens embrace these accusations and consider them part of their heritage, thus reinforcing the stereotype made by the movie industry in the eyes of citizens with different ethnical backgrounds.
Since the very beginning, the Italian mafia, in the eyes of Americans has been a very wide spread cultural phenomena. The origin of the mafia is very hard to investigate and report, many experts have dated its origin back to a time of instability for the Italian nation. The cause of this disturbance was the instable relationship between the northern and southern regions of Italy. Southern Italy was often insulted and considered rural and uncivilized by the wealthier businessman of the North. This unjust treatment caused the southern citizens, especially the Sicilians, to resort to violent “gangs” for protection of the little land and wealth they owned. As time progressed, and the demand for these bands increased, these rebel groups united into larger, and much more organized, groups that lead to the creation of the mafia. The most famous of these groups, and perhaps the first, originated in Sicily and later became known as “Cosa Nosta” which many often use the term incorrectly referring it to the Italian mafia overall and not just as one of it’s sects. These groups prospered and grew on to the Italian people, infiltrating the unstable government after the unification of Italy in 1861. The mafia made its first appearance in the US between the 19th and 20th century, as this cultural phenomenon grew in America, the mafia’s portrayal in the media grew with it. The media created a name for the mafia in America. The people loved “gangster” movies, and the film industry capitalized on this assumption. In order to give their work a more realistic feel, directors, would often cast Italians as mobster characters thus building a stereotype of Italian Americans. As time evolved however, the simple stereotype morphed past the simple “gangster” image; in more recent works, Italian women were also effect; being viewed as old housewives or young bimbos. Men became viewed as lazy and uneducated like in the 1995 movie To Die For. In this example from the Italic Institute of America’s website, Nicole Kidman’s character tricks three teens into killing her lowbrow Italian husband. The development between the Italian mafia and its presence in popular American culture could have not been possible without the five million Italians who left their home country for hope in a new life and a chance at a new beginning, (Wikipedia).
Prior to the rise of the fascist regime to power, America was a prime destination for many Italians during the late 19th century. This expatriation grew exponentially in the early 20th century when it was recorded that over 800,000 Sicilians immigrated to the United States. During this time however, the Italian mafia was under attack by their own government, especially thanks to the works of Cesare Mori who made life impossible for many Mafiosi. Because of the anti mafia war imposed Mussolini’s regime in the southern provinces of Italy, many of the members of Cosa Nostra and similar organizations fled to America. The American press immediately attacked this movement publishing headlines such as: “The boot unloads its criminals upon the United States.” Many of these Sicilians in fact had connections to the mafia but, in the most part, they were regular people just looking for a better life. Italian Mafiosi and regular citizens traveled to America to escape fascism, to escape persecution from criminal charges, and to start over. Many where thrown into a society already filed with criminal gangs. Purchasing fire weapons in the US at that time was a piece of cake. Add these two together and its simple to understand how the Italian mafia succeeded in America.
Just as the mafia began to take power in America, the movie industry noticed an opportunity to make some profit as well. Americans became obsessed with the mafian lifestyle; the danger associated with the mafia and their disrespect for the law managed to frighten and keep Americans glued to their TV screen at the same time. Films like Little Cesar(1931), Public Enemy(1931), and Scarface(1932) were the very beginning to a brand new genre of films. As author George De Stefano points out in his book An Offer We Can’t Refuse, “…the Italian mobster seemed to bring a different image to the mobster lifestyle…, [however],… and this image of a more powerful, organized criminal system caught the public eye and has stuck every since.”, (De Stefano 70-94). Some of the early movies of this genre were produced during the silent motion picture time period. Producers however, did not have a hard time looking for a plot that would capture their audience; they just used whatever the print gave them. The earliest account of a gangster film that exists is the film The Black Hand (1906). The Black Hand was a silent movie which story line pictured Italian Americans using kidnapping and extortion to gain money, known as “il pizzo”, from a butcher they were “protecting”. The movie shows the Italian protagonists were not only shown as violent, but the Italian Americans in the film are shown to speak little to no English and drinking wine as if it were water. It was not until the 1930’s with the release of Little Cesar and Scarface that the stereotype was created and linked Italian Americans with the gangster image. With the introduction of these films one can clearly see that with the changing image of the gangster, the American ______ towards Italian Americans was changing as well. These “new” characters were no longer drunk illiterates, these Italians dressed in fancy suits, spoke better English; in a sense, they were following the American dream. Still violent and reckless.
Organizations favoring the destruction of this stereotype took the subject to heart and managed to abolish violence and crime in movies. However in 1968, the Production Code was dropped and replaced by the same MPAA system still out there today. Only four years after this change, came the first of a trilogy that would change the image of Italian Americans forever. The Godfather (1972), based on Mario Puzo’s novel was the hit success of the great American director Ford Francis Coppola. His work was such a success for the public that it won three Oscar nominations out of the ten categories it was voted for. The American people were literally obsessed with the violent, vulgar and classic gangster films. Francis Ford Coppola in an interview with author Peter Bondonella explained his clear reasons for pursuing this movie:
I always wanted to use the Mafia as a metaphor for America. If you loo at the film, you see that it’s focused that way. The first line is “I believe in America.” I feel that the mafia is an incredible metaphor for this country. Both are totally capitalistic phenomena and basically have a profit motive, (Bondonella 239).
Many critics argue, with merit, that The Godfather was the first film that really started the stereotype of Italian Americans. The film established a permanent connection in the minds of Americans between the mafia and Italian Americans. De Stefano describes his own experience after the release of the film: “…strangers would ask me if I knew the godfather whenever they red my last name.” “It was this film that really…cemented the stereotype into American culture.”, (De Stefano 105-106). Predictably enough, after the tremendous success of The Godfather, many more films, as long as commercial products, relating to it’s theme followed. Today The Godfather, both the films and the novel, continue to sell as if they were new releases, and the films can still be seen, by popular demand, on ordinary television.
Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), showed the mafia in New York in an extremely realistic way. Based on the life of real mobster Henry Hill, it shows the process of going from a nonentity to a success in the mafia organization. The film depicts brutal murder scenes, vulgar language, and vile treatment of women. However, a particularly different element is that it also shows the consequences of being too wrapped up in the mafia life and what it is like to become “the rat.” This film showed a much less glorified portrayal of the mafia, and yet, it appealed greatly to society. The most recent of Hollywood’s award winning creation evoking the mafia is HBO’s hit series The Sopranos first airing in 1999. The show takes great inspiration from Scorsese’s work and Coppola’s masterpiece, characters in the show are often viewed idolizing Mafiosi from these directors respective films, reciting lines, copying stunts, and even comparing themselves. This idolization showed that Italian Americans not only identify themselves with these gangsters but also look up to them. Tony Soprano, the protagonist of the show, is of Italian American descent and part of the mafia. Besides his connection to the gangster life, he lives in a typical residential neighborhood for the average white American male, he is a family man just like everyone else. In the book Tony Soprano’s America, David Simon, states that “the viewer is always reminded that the one thing that stands Tony Soprano apart from the rest of society is that he is mobster. The [TV] series successfully brought the mafia to the 21st Century, renewed the use of “mafia” as a household word, and took one step further in fusing the image of Italians and Italian Americans.” The media has led to this stereotypical image of Italian immigrants as gangsters. This stereotype is still very much alive today. However, it is noticeable that there does not seem to be as much controversial propaganda to the use of this negative connotation against Italian Americans as stereotypical use against other ethnic groups.
Going back to the stereotype against Italian American women, these movies depicted the mafia wives as enabling and looking the other way in their husband’s business affair. The mother in The Godfather plays the role of the housewife. Carmela Corleone never reacts to the actions of her husband and sons, always turning a blind eye. She is shown caring for her grandchildren and providing the family with a traditional Italian meal. She is essentially the stereotypical enabling Italian mother and wife in the mafia family. On the contrary, the character Kay in The Godfather is a complete juxtaposition to the character of Carmela. For a while, she acts just like Carmela, enabling her husband activities, but eventually she can no longer accept her husband as a “cold blooded killer,” as Michael Corleone’s sister, Connie, calls him after he murders her own husband. Kay represents the American wife who marries into an Italian family not knowing what she is about to face. She is victimized. This way, the audience, feels bad for her, torn between her love for her husband and her morals that can no longer tolerate the criminal activities of the family. The third major feminine character, Connie Corleone, is a completely different character. She is the stereotypical Italian relative that cannot escape the horrors of her own family. She starts out as a princess to her father, the godfather himself. After her brother, Michael, kills her husband she goes through a brief grieving period distancing her family from her family only to realize that she cannot escape her destiny. She eventually becomes an enabler of the behavior of the rest of the family and takes on the role of the matriarch.
Just like her, Karen Hill, also plays the enabler who puts up with her husband, Henry Hill’s pursuit as a Mafioso in Goodfellas. One scene in particular comes to mind that depicts her as the typical mob wife. In a scene she narrates herself, Karen attends a party with the other mob wives during a drug scene, she tells the audience that all the women look beat up; in fact, they do: all wear too much makeup and overdone hair. Throughout the party, these mistreated wives, discuss the horrible tribulations of being married to a mobster as if it were typical housewife gossip. Most of the women in these movies are unemployed house makers who take the events as part of the package of marrying a mob.The show The Sopranos isn’t the only example of the stereotype of Italian American being represented in more recent TV production. Characters like Arthur “the Fonz” Fonzarelli from Happy Days, Tony the taxi driver of Taxi, and Joey the all around dimwit of Friends all represent demeaning images of Italian Americans. All appear to be uneducated womanizers, and yet most may not even realize they are stereotypes of the Italian American male. These examples show that, sadly, our culture still finds humor in stereotyping ethnical groups.
In 2002, The Italic institute of America conducted a study to analyze the movie industry and its relation to Italian-American based movies and the post Godfather movie industry. Their studies showed that out of the 1233 movies made about Italian Americans, 69% of them present Italian-American characters under a negative light, against 31% that show Italian-Americans as good human beings. Moreover, out of the movies made since the sound era that deal with mob characters, 88% were revolved around fictional characters, 293 of which came out after the Godfather. The Godfather is and will always remain the most important tie between Hollywood and the Italian-American stereotype.There is much research out there that show that the Italian immigration to the US didn’t only bring so called “Mafiosi” but also great people who beneficially influenced the United States politically and economically. This research, however, does not eliminate the fact the entertainment industry will continue to pursue the stereotype. As for the mafia, this means that it will only continue to be a part of America’s favorite entertainment as long as the culture of violence persists