Why are Italian stereotypes still acceptable?
The official trailer for the new Super Mario Bros. fell last week with great fanfare. Mind you, I know very little about the Mario Bros video game, TV, and movie universe. other than playing the game many years ago. The hype, it turns out, had very little to do with the trailer itself, and more to do with actor Chris Pratt’s accent – or lack thereof – for the titular Mario character. Apparently it’s not stereotypical “Italian” enough. Either that or his “Brooklyn Italian” accent isn’t authentic enough. This latest complaint comes as no surprise given that Pratt grew up in Minnesota. As for the first, I’ve been to Italy and Sicily and no one talks like that when they talk.
Either way, I think the big question is, why is it still okay to push Italian stereotypes into popular culture?
Too bad the character of “Mario” has a prolific mustache and an imposing nose. Now you want it to sound like the singing Italian stereotype too? Why not give him a barrel organ while we’re at it.
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We live in a time when stereotypes of African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Indian-Americans, Muslim-Americans, Native Americans, and even Irish-Americans are FAIRLY condemned. But in a way, Italian-American stereotypes are acceptable.
As one of approximately 36,000 Italian Americans in Idaho, I don’t understand.
Before I get too carried away, I’m going to make a few revelations. According to DNA tests, I’m about 30% Italian, mostly Sicilian. However, I “look” and “sound” Italian American according to most Idahoans I’ve met over the years (although I can’t grow a mustache and my nose is regulations). My surname is obviously like that. When I was in Venice a few years ago, I was tanned enough to pass as a local to several tourists who asked me if I spoke English. Same thing in Athens. Overall, I identify as Italian-American and I’m proud to do so. That being said, our time in America has not been easy.
Let’s start with New Orleans in 1891, where the largest mass lynching in American history took place – nearly a dozen people. The victims? Italians.
During World War II, hundreds of Italian “enemy aliens” were sent to internment camps. Thousands more had to register with the federal government and were subject to surveillance and asset confiscation.
In the years following the war, congressional hearings and a New York State Police raid near Buffalo revealed the existence of a national criminal organization called the “Mafia” or “La Cosa Nostra “. Italian Americans – who were already considered criminals and suspects by nature – were now officially branded as such.
In the decades that followed, when Italian Americans weren’t portrayed as criminals in popular culture, a new strain of stereotypes began to emerge: the handsome, handsome guy who was great with the ladies, but that was kinda dumb and didn’t make a lot of money. Italian-American women didn’t fare much better. Although they tended to be attractive and strong-willed, they were also “loose”. John Travolta (who has family in northern Idaho) played these stereotypes to the hilt in the hit movies Saturday Night Fever and Grease, as well as the popular TV show “Welcome Back Kotter.”
More recently, one of TV’s all-time greats – “Friends” – featured the character of Joey Tribbiani played by Matt LeBlanc who, to much fanfare, perfectly portrayed the handsome, but silly, Italian- American.
I ask again, how are you still doing?
Today, about 75% of Italian Americans are white-collar. For decades we have earned incomes above the national median. We have members of Congress, senators and, for several years, two of the nine seats on the Supreme Court of the United States. The most powerful woman in American history – Nancy Pelosi, formerly Nancy D’Alessandro of Baltimore – is Italian-American. We have business owners, scientists, doctors, lawyers, millionaires, billionaires, and yes, some of us can wear a piece. Our acting chops are also very good.
Italian Americans have run the gamut of American culture since we set foot in this great country. Whether picking cotton in the South or onions in the North; mining coal, cutting hair, running businesses, inventing financial products, advocating for clients, representing counties, states, and the nation itself, Italian Americans have made their living in this country. Yet despite these gains as a people in this state and country, stereotypes persist.
Italian Americans long ago became one of America’s leaders. We must not tolerate the demeaning stereotypes of the millions of Americans who have helped make this state and this nation better than it was before we arrived. Reducing Italian Americans to a cartoon isn’t just insulting, it’s un-American.
Jeremy J. Gugino is a Democratic communications volunteer.