Well, I finally watched The Sopranos; all seven seasons beginning to end.
Those who know me know I never watched the show. Not once. I had the gut feeling that it was stereotypical of the television and Hollywood treatment of Italian-Americans. Demeaning, but we were all supposed to laugh. I was not disappointed.
Imagine, if you will, an updated television version of the old radio show “The Goldbergs,” in which the normal, middle-class Jewish patriarch pulls off some financial scams on the sly. How about a show called “The Tongs,” where the normal, middle-class Asian American dad operates a heroin ring out of the back of his popular Chinese restaurant? Or a show about Mexican drug gangs or black on black violence between east coast – west coast rappers?
Would such shows be considered preposterous and racist? Absolutely, and with good reason: They promote gross, one-dimensional stereotypes of individual American groups.
“The Sopranos,” not only reveled in negative, cartoonish images of a specific community–Italian Americans–but was congratulated for doing so. Even many Italian-Americans thought the show was the best thing since sliced bread. Being of Italian descent I personally don’t care much for sliced bread.
“In the end, “The Sopranos” turned out to be just another gangster show, a seven-year, blood-and-guts “Goodfellas” soap opera.
Psychologically dark and complex, yes, but nothing we didn’t see in “One, or Two,” (which is how Tony’s crew labeled, with reverence, “The Godfather.”)
Funny, too, in a Joe Pesci kind of way.
But also predictable.
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 bullies and drunken frat boys. And of course every Italian husband has a “goomah” whom he keeps and showers with gifts while his accepting wife suffers in silence; after all boys will be boys. Yeah, right.
In “The Sopranos,” the Scorsese-variety lowbrow mobsters like Paulie Walnuts were not much more than cartoon characters, unless they were the old-school Coppola-brand stand-up guys like Phil Leotardo, another stereotype.
Vito was gay, so he had to be shown dancing in Brando-biker leathers, like one of the Village People.
This passed for groundbreaking genius.”
The early promise of the show was that it would be a metaphor for third- and fourth-generation assimilation into modern suburban life. The Great Wave Immigrants at 100.
The kids, once the silent junior partners in a family, are now overindulged and the center of all family life. The father, once unquestioned, no longer gets respect for free, if at all. The mother, once a head-down homemaker, wants more, but of what? American consumerism and pop culture have crushed traditional values. The old ways are a wistful memory, replaced by a mishmashed family structure and the disappointment of failing to achieve a Hallmark-card home life.
Life in America was supposed to be easier. Instead, this lifestyle has somehow led to incredibly corrosive stress.
“The Sopranos” seemed poised to tackle the themes of our Prozac nation.
That David Chase, the writer who grew up DeCesare, chose a gangster and his family as the vehicle was unfortunate, but predictable. Stereotypes always are more palatable to entertainment executives than complex characters. From Amos ‘n’ Andy to Archie Bunker to Tony Soprano, stereotyping remains the staple of our pop culture, especially television.
The ambitious assimilation themes all but dissipated by mid-run. The scenes of Tony S. squirming as he tried to schmooze with neighbor-golfers at a backyard barbecue or rushing into his daughter’s choral recital still sweating from “work” were gone, replaced by more conventional mob stuff.
“The Sopranos” sold out.
This is not written lightly. This is written with some degree of pain. Because unlike the days of Amos ‘n’ Andy and early ethnic and racial stereotypes, the chief purveyors of these negative and in some cases destructive images come from within. In Italian-American circles, it has been done by the most talented directors, writers and actors. Coppola, Scorsese, DeNiro, Pacino. Pesci. Now DeCesare and Gandolfini.
Sacrilege? No, truth.
They have solidified the image of Italian-Americans as goons. Over-emotional, anti-intellectual, hot-headed, stupid goons. Worse, it gives some impressionable Italian-American young men a role model for acting like wannabe goons. Don’t believe it? Cruise the bars at the Jersey shore this summer and watch the “guidos” from Staten Island, North Jersey and South Philly act it out, especially near closing time.
The real story of American immigrant assimilation — Jewish, Italian, Hungarian, Indian, Mexican — is much more interesting and nuanced and complicated and deserves better than being illuminated in gangster shows.
The turning point came in 1969 with the phenomenal financial success of the late Mario Puzo’s fictional pulp novel, “The Godfather.” Before that, Italian gangster images, like images of other groups, were considered antiquated and offensive, something you wouldn’t bring up in polite company. Yet Puzo’s book, along with Francis Ford Coppola’s lush, romantic treatment of it three years later, literally enshrined Italian stereotypes and made them respectable. It has been a nonstop orgy oever since; Growing up Gotti; Jersey Shore; Mob Wives. Hey, there’s money to be made!
The real life story of assimilation is not very interesting. A young boy, growing up with two parents in Brooklyn, though poor, growing up in a safe neighborhood. A stay at home mom. Attending good safe schools. Finding a Summer job each year from age 13 on to high school graduation at 16 skipping the 8th grade entirely. Graduating on a Thursday and going to a full time job on Monday in the mailroom of a major New York bank.
No money for college so he attended at night after work earning his B.A in economics. Served in the Army for four years during Vietnam. Married his high school sweetheart from the same background as he. Had four children; buried two and raised two fine, successful daughters. Never once in forty years of marriage were his wife or children ever struck. His daughters graduated from Rutgers and Monmouth University with no debt to speak of. No drugs. No drinking excessively. No unwanted pregnancies. No drama. They both married fine men.
He always owned a home from the time he left the service. He never got rich but he made a living – honorably. It’s all he ever wanted. A decent life, a home and a future for his children.
That is the story in a nut shell of this Italian-American. Too boring for Hollywood.
“But criminal stereotypes pay in American pop culture.
And there is no shortage of writers and actors who will exploit that no matter how it hurts the overall image of their people or sets them back in the greater public’s mind. Even if it means kids might beat each other or shoot each other in the streets to mimic glorified criminal behavior.
Ralphie from “The Sopranos” had a word for it.