As much as I thoroughly enjoyed the HBO mega hit The Sopranos, and knew full well that it didn’t reflect the reality of the average Italian-American, I do have some Italian friends that didn’t like that show at all; some of them found it to be quite racist and hurtful to their culture.
This is mainly because it constantly fell back on, rather than challenged, stereotypes, as TV almost always does. Let us count the ways: Italian men mostly as angry, semi-educated, gabagool-shoveling slobs. New Jersey mostly as an ugly, industrial, tree-barren urban wasteland populated by angry, semi-educated gabagool-shoveling slobs. Italian wives as either fat or slender naggers, or beaten-down abuse victims, all happy to be bought off by cars, jewelry or Italianate living room sets. Italian Rutgers students as cowardly bullies and drunken frat boys.
When speaking with Sal Canzonieri, guitarist from New Jersey punk/rockandroll band Electric Frankenstein and proud Italian-Americans, he likened it to saying all African-American’s eat watermelon and fried chicken. That ‘thing’ they had, the underground network of the mafia, is something so few Italian people ever get near. That stereotype of the violent gangster lives in a select population in the community, and Sal tells us is mainly orchestrated by ‘psychopaths.’ He also goes on to remind us that Italian’s have been in North America for hundreds of years, and many generations have gone on to be highly educated and hold high positions within their communities.
So why was the show so popular? I mean, I’ve seen all of the Godfather films, as well as Goodfellas and Casino, and not once did I believe those movies represented the entire population of Italian-Americans. I knew it was make-believe. Yet, I still had friends up in arms over the airing of the show. Maybe it was the idiotic miming of the catchphrases by silly white folks that drove my Italian friends nuts. Maybe it was the Jeep loads of over-influenced young Italian men driving up and down the streets at all hours of the night, screaming at all who would listen. And, maybe you actually had members of your family that were part of that ‘thing’, and found the fact that the Don was seeing a shrink too offensive to comprehend. Well, guess what – it’s fucking make-believe folks.
I loved the Sopranos for it’s irreverent disregard for safe content. I loved the fact that David Chase didn’t give a fuck who he offended when he put the leader of the mafia on Prozac. It’s make-believe, but that took some balls. If you take The Sopranos for what it was, a cable television drama, I say it was brilliant. The over-the-top setting of Newark, New Jersey’s mafia filled with 21st century family problems is almost Elizabethan in scale. Having to juggle the life of a businessman, 21st century father, and mafia Don made Tony Soprano a superhero to me. The show was hilarious and terrifying all at the same time. I do hate it when people get bent out of shape about stuff, and racism is fucking rotten in any form, but The Sopranos made the surreal world of that ‘thing’ they had seem all that more bizarre when set against modern day family life. I’m sorry that it made a few people upset, but I still hold it in my top 5 shows of all time. – FATS