Tuesday, September 09, 2008

That's A Bigga Pizza Pie!

Question: Why is the stereotyping of Italian-Americans still acceptable?

I was watching this episode of "Fairly Odd-Parents" the other day that had a Jetsons parody -- basically, "what if the Jetsons were Italian?" And you had people talking like gangsters, threatening to do violence on other people for no reason, intimidation, etc. To be clear: the cartoon was not parodying gangsters. It was parodying Italians.

If this was a parody of another nationality, you might have had the episode pulled. But why is it acceptable with Italians?

Or take Super Mario Bros. Mario is an Italian stereotype. And when they have him talk, he talks in a stereotypical Italian accent. Fine. I'm not asking for it to be pulled. I'm just asking that you take a minute and picture a similar character based on some other group of people.

I know. Super Mario is a beloved cultural icon, a part of the fabric of our childhoods. Just like Memin Pinguin is to Mexico?

To me, it's the same blindness, the same offensiveness. And the fact that people will no doubt defend the icon of Super Mario to the death on this and other blogs/boards points to the fact that we all have our cultural blind spots.

It's like when you need to write an organized crime story, just plop in an Italian gangster. Call him "Boss Ronzoni," have him fight Batman, and call it a day. Never mind how many different nationalities are into organized crime these days. "Boss Ronzoni," "Boss Cannoli," "Boss Rigatoni." "Boss Falcone." Take your pick.

Hey, at least Marvel back the old school used to have a little fun with it. Instead of The Mafia, they had...The Maggia!

You want to turn me off to reading a story about Gotham City? Start peppering it with lame-ass cliché Italian gangsters. Please see how much I don't care.

And that's nothing compared to how one of the titans of science fiction decided to be cute on the phone and say to me, in an Italian accent: "that's a bigga pizza pie!" 'Cause you know, he noted that my last name was Italian. I'm sure he thought and still thinks he's the most liberal guy on this or any other planet.

Oh, and before I forget:I hate this fucking film.


  1. I think the rule of thumb is roughly:

    It becomes "okay" to stereotypically mock a group when individuals from that group are judged to be secure enough in their positions in society that the mocking won't actually cause others to harm them or interfere in their lives (hurt feelings notwithstanding).

    All the other stereotyping against underdog groups is still rampant, but the tut tuts are more audible.

    Italians Americans are pretty established in the US, as are Irish Americans. The French take a horrible bashing for no reason I can discern, but it's not like Franco Americans are notably oppressed in the modern USA.

    Explains why Catholics, Evangelicals and Southerners also seem to be fair game.

    In case this post was a non-rhetorical.

  2. From wikipedia:

    " Its structure is somewhat similar to the Mafia, but the Maggia differs in that it frequently hires supervillains and mad scientists to work for them."

    Yeah, why doesn't our world's mafia get into the supervillain and mad scientist racket?

  3. Anonymous12:09 PM

    As someone who's of Italian descent, it annoys the shit out of me when ignorant people do ignorant shit like this.

    I mean. I liked The Sopranos. Mario is an Italian plumber made up by a Japanese video game designer, and, for some reason, I feel that means I can forgive some of the weirdness there.

    Side note. Captain Lou always reminded me of my Uncle Joe.

    Anyway, I remember being in a retreat camp for my confirmation, and the group I was with decided it would be hilarious to name itself, "Nazis of America." Why was this so funny? Because Nazis don't exist anymore! It's some quaint group from a long time ago.

    Nobody like that's around anymore, right?

    It's this weird mental place where people think they can be bigoted because they are stupid or ignorant enough to think that bigotry doesn't exist.

    I think this is the same thing. Look, people don't really hate Italians, right? I mean, that was, like, in the 1920's or something, right? That means it's funny to do it now! Because it doesn't mean anything!

  4. Never really thought about it. I guess it really is a blind spot in our culture.

    One thing I've started paying more attention to lately are the France jokes. Really didn't like Ultimate Captain America's "'A' doesn't stand for France" line when he was told to surrender. First of all, it's lame and it's a cheap shot. "Ha ha, their forces were mightier than yours and they occupied you and made life a living hell! We find that funny!" And it shows the kind of contempt for those perceived as "weaker" or "inferior" that Hitler championed.

    But we're talking about Italians.

    Um... I got nuthin'.

  5. Italians are not alone there. Rednecks and Hillbillies are fair game.

    Anyway, I am just one quarter Italian so what I am going to say might be meaningless, but here it goes: I really can't find Mario all that insulting.

    There is a big difference between Mario and Memin, for instance. Mario is not grotesque. I think that's the appropriate key word, grotesque. Memin's exaggerated afro features make him look inhuman, while Mario is just a cartoonish, stereotyped human. Mario doesn't have anything like the exaggerated lips of racist black cartoons, or the huge witch noses of racist Jewish cartoons.

    Also, while Mario is a stereotype, he is not a particularly negative one. He is not a member of the mafia or anything like that; he is just a plumber who saves a princess from another dimension from evil turtles while riding his pet dinosaur every once in a while. His only problem is that he talks in a silly accent as if he just got off the boat.

    I don't want to defend stereotyping at all; but as far as stereotypes go, Mario is almost benign.

  6. See Apu. Blacks on CBS. The religion of Vodoun.

    'Catholics, Evangelicals...fair game'

    When you think everyone who doesn't believe like you is going to burn in a divine concentration camp, or rail against gay marriage while your priests molest altar boys, well in my book you're more than fair game.

    But...did I actually see a complaint against Marvel amidst the usual hating on DC?

    wow. just wow,


  7. I don't have much insight to add to the discussion, but I'd like to thank you for initiating it. As an Italian American myself, I've often thought this EXACT same thing, and it bugs the hell out of me. Eric is dead one when he says that it's more socially acceptable since Italian Americans aren't considered generally considered an underprivileged group. But goddammit, that's just wrong.

  8. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. When Italians and the Irish raise as much stink as the ADL, LULAC or the NAACP, it won't be cool anymore.

  9. Hopping on the derailed train:

    I loved the "do you think this stands for France" line, because, being Canadian and knowing the writer is Scottish, it read to me like a big dig at a certain kind of USAmerican. Digression over.

  10. For the record, I'm half Italian and my biggest complaint with Mario is that they turned him into Mickey Mouse with an Italian Accent.

    As for why it's okay to do Italians and no other nationality? Well, maybe it's because Italians just don't care as much as the others. Nobody speaks up, nothing happens. Fact is, the stereotypes will always exist and they'll always be used in entertainment. Some are more harmless than others, and those I don't mind as much. You (the general you, not you you) basically need to have a sense of humor about these things and realize some moron somewhere started all of it and if there's one type of people you should NEVER take seriously it's morons.

    P.S. Is it bad I just got the first season of Super Mario Bros Super Show?

  11. I'm technically italian (I was born and live in Italy) and I never thougth mario was offending my 'national or cultural identity'.

  12. As a Canadian with some Irish in my blood, I'd be lying if I said the stereotypes of the polite, hockey-playing mountee and drunken, wife-beating leprechaun didn't get to me.

    Not sure if I'm with you on Super Mario though. He seems harmless to me. Not to sound like a jerk or anything. Terribly sorry.

    Have a good day.
    George Morrow

  13. Noone clings to negative stereotypes about Italian-Americans more than Italian-Americans, present company excluded.

    Mario's character isn't really negative or stereotypical. Yes he does have the accent, but he's not a meathead, doesn't eat pizza, isn't in the mafia, doesn't have frosted tips and a fake tan, doesn't call blacks mulianos, etc. That's real talk.

    If you are really eager to be offended you can manufacture a outrage about it I guess, but it seems gentle in comparison to what some other ethnicities have to deal with.

  14. Thank you so much for this. As an Italian American( on top of that I'm also from Brooklyn!) I find these stereotypes to be very hurtful. I've been on interviews with major companies and they have asked me if I saw the previous night's Sopranos. The reason why this is acceptable is because a large of Italian EMBRACE the stereotype. They like to think they are on the Sopranos or Goodfellas. We need to show more postive figures in the media.

  15. Well, speaking as a German with some French, Italian, Czech and probably Polish ancestors, I'd say part of the problem is that one tends to be more sensitive about stereotypes about one's own group. So of course you are more bothered about mafiosi and whatever stereotypes Super Mario propagates apart from "Italians speak with a funny accent" (which at first blush is not really that different from "Englishmen/Scots/Australians speak with a funny accent") and "speakers of English as a second language make grammatical mistakes" than e.g. about Germans being portrayed either as goose-stepping Nazis (any number of comicbook villains) or lederhosen-wearing sausage-suckers (Uter in The Simpsons).

    As for the strength of the mafioso stereotype, there are a couple of factor to consider here:

    Yes, there is organized crime connected to other ethnic groups in the US and elsewhere, but for the most part it is not that well known as the mafia. Lots of people will be familiar with terms like "omertà", "capo di tutti capi" and "consigliere" (even if they can't pronounce them correctly), but not the equivalent terms from e.g. the Russian mob. Part of the reason is of course that the media have been on working on mafia themes a lot longer and better (The Godfather is a bestselling novel and a trilogy of classic movies), another is that Al Capone, Lucky Luciano et al. became celebrities, iconic even in real life (there's probably dozens of restaurants called "Al Capone" or "Casa nostra" etc.).

    Another factor is probably that part of the mystique of the mafia is its family-based structure, which gives it a more "cosy" image than e.g. the Russian mobs, even though that may not actually be justified in real life. Belonging to the mafia can easily be portrayed as belonging to a real or surrogate family. Also, since a lot of the stereotypes about the mafia hearken back to Prohibition days, there's possibly even a bit of nostalgia involved. How many comicbook mafiosi tend to be dressed in pre-World War 2 clothes? And with stuff like the "kiss of death" etc., there is a bit of ritual involved to spice things up. You also get quite a bit of that with East Asian criminal societies (Yakuza, Triads), who probably are almost as omnipresent as the mafia in present-day mass entertainment.

    Which brings me to another point: they probably could have done a "what if the Jetsons were Japanese?" parody very much like the one you described with peole talking like Yakuza thugs without that many people batting an eybrow. If they want to do an organized crime story in certain fields of comic-books, they'll throw in a Chinese, Japanese or South-East Asian mob. Just look at the Asian characters in the Marvel's mutant books - the Yashida family (to which Sunfire, the Silver Samurai and Wolverine's late fiancee Mariko belong) is Yakuza-connected, Yukio used to work for a Yakuza, Karma's uncle is a mobster, Lady Deathstrike's father was a crimelord.

  16. snow princess, thank you for illustrating my point with you post.

  17. Anonymous3:49 PM

    Oddly enough I found "Growing up Gotti" more offensive than any fictional portrayal of Italians. Now THAT made us look bad!

  18. "But why is it acceptable with Italians?"

    Because italians do it better, capisc?

    And honestly we dont give a fuck, it's only fiction.

    Great blog!

  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

  20. Huh. Yeah, I never really thought about it.

    It's fun to bond with other Italians though, over the fairly universal experiences of constant family parties, grandmas who always made you eat too much, and those relatives whose hands never stop waving around while they talk.

  21. like others have said, it's not just the italians that have stereotypes you're just sensitive to the one's of your own group.
    honestly, there's a lot of ignorance out there.

    and i don't see anything wrong with giving a gangster an italian name, i've never thought of falcone as some horrible stereotype, he isn't written with a goofy accent, him and his ilk just seem and homage to the godfather and such.

    and if you're writing organized crime you really only have three ways you can go. (or so it seems)
    1. italian
    2. russian
    3. asian

    or those any more or less offensive? and the asian gangster's are often ridiculous nearly anime characters.

    and don't worry val, everyone hates my cousin vinny.

  22. Well, Valerie, I am French and I understand your point of view on offending stereotypes, especially coming from the Americans.

    You know what is worst, being French in a foreign country, like me... you have to face them way too often!

  23. Serious answer: its the same reason its ok to make fun of the Irish. The reason its "ok" to make fun of Italians and Irish on TV is because of an unspoken (and often unknown) understanding that these stereotypes are so completely outrageous and untrue that its absurd. You'd be hard pressed to find someone who will point to Fat Tony or Mario and go "see? SEE? THEM ITALIANS IS ALL LIKE THIS!" the same way you have people point to Jewish, Hispanic or Black stereotypes in the media. This unspoken understanding comes from the history of American entertainment all the way back to vaudeville. Vaudville actors were mostly minorities, especially immigrants. Irish, Italian, Jewish and Black stereotypes were among the most common form of vaudville humor, and often performed by the minorities themselves. It was a way to survive. If swallowing your pride and donning black face and singing "Danny Boy" in Yiddish while eating a cannoli would get an actor room and board, so be it. When vaudeville was replaced with movies and tv, the Irish and Italian vaudvellians quickly made the jump to the new entertainment industry. Nearly all of the early sitcoms are based on old stereotypes of Irish and Italian families from theater. Even today, just compare The Simpsons to a family from an Irish play. Of course the Simpsons aped this because they were aping earlier sitcom family troupes., the same way the McFarlane crap just rips off Simpsons family troupes. They're so ingrained we don't even recognize them as being stereotypes anymore. The entertainers of the two ethnic groups, who up until the 20th century weren't even considered "white" (just look at newspaper cartoons from the late 1800s up until the 20s), first used these stereotypes to survive, and then subversively used them to advertise themselves as normal Americans. Suddenly all the old stereotypes and traditions of Irish and Italian-americans were suddenly identified with all Americans. So the media then created these super-stereotypes as placeholders to represent these minority groups, and they were accepted because the Irish and the Italian-Americans were now "one of us". The Italian and Irish-Americans who get offended by these more recent stereotypes are usually younger and so don't have the same cultural or historical context for their creation. Note: I'm not saying that these stereotypes are good or bad (I totally believe that people have a right to be offended by anything they want, and there's good reason to be offended by some of these), just that there's historical context for why you get less people up in arms about Mario than blackface or hooknoses. Recently, this understanding has been breaking down on both sides, as is natural. Both because its offensive and because its now boring cliche. The more recent backlash against these new stereotypes of Italian-Amemericans is completely a completely natural step in the process that all stereotypes and cultural groups go through. Except the Irish. For some reason we still don't give a crap about the drunk jokes.

  24. Anonymous12:58 AM

    --But...did I actually see a complaint against Marvel amidst the usual hating on DC?--

    Huh, I must have missed that one..

    Course, when I think about it, when I've seen Marvel roll out some of the asians they do at times I usually end up rolling my eyes and putting the book down.

  25. I too have noticed that Italian-American stereotypes are a bit more common in public. As an Italian-American cartoonist however, it has never been a problem for me yet. Truth be told, in the past I have contributed much to the stereotype. Great blog by the way.

  26. To be fair Mario also know as jumpman was done `cuz
    technical handicaps of the arcade machines

    instead of hands mittens, cap instead of hair etc.

  27. The recent Batman anime DVD had Russian mobsters too.

  28. When you condemn Austin Powers...

  29. I would say it's just as common and acceptable to stereotype and mock the French as well as Italians. It's not as popular, but the same also tends to be the case for Russians as well.

  30. Val I think you make a good point in comparing this to Memín...but as far as other groups go I don't think family Guy pulls too many punches. They've had offensive jokes about all groups.

  31. I think it's wrong when a writer assembles a character out of cliches and stereotypes no matter what the nationality or ethnicity is supposed to be. It's poor writing, shows a lack of creativity and definitely a lack of empathy.

    Those last two characteristics are necessities when writing. Creativity is obvious, but empathy allows a writer to become the character and define him or her more sympathetically, giving them wants and needs rather than just using them to fulfill a plot mandate- for which any old stereotype will do.

    But yeah, I do wonder why is it okay to do things like say, "That's a bigga pizza pie." I don't lump The Sopranos in with this stuff because the writing fulfills my criteria for good writing. It's one of the few Mafia-related fictions that approaches the characters as human beings beyond their Mafia positions. Although you chose to illustrate your entry with the one character who hews closest towards being clownish at times.

    But if all a comic writer can do is see the Mafia aspect and then create crap Italian-American characters without the depth of those on The Sopranos, just regurgitating the violent aspects... well, that's just weak. Especially if you read the comic and every Italian-American is a Mafia member.

    You know, I generally love Spike Lee's movies but he tends to make his Italian-American characters brutish to the point of cartoons at times. To me, this is a weakness in an otherwise brilliant body of work. And it irks me.

    I also agree with a lot of the comments here about Asians, the French and Southerners. Even in liberal movies like Crash, Asians tend to be used as comedic relief. Lots of broken English screaming. It's reached the point where dreck like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is seen as a positive step forward!

    I mean, people are so sick of being portrayed as angry laundry shop owners or neutered super-geniuses they're actually happy to be portrayed as stoner morons, as if the world needed yet another movie celebrating and worshipping Stoopid Doods and their low-brow scatalogical concerns.

    Has our art and culture devolved to the point where it's considered progress to exchange one set of hate-filled stereotypes for a more affectionate one that's no less reductive and negative?

    Whoopee, ain't stereotypes grand?

  32. Anonymous11:49 PM

    Technically, the leads of Harold and Kumar are "smart" stoners. The movies go to great lengths to show they are not idiots.

  33. Anonymous11:44 AM

    It's been argued that the supernatural sitcoms of the sixties were partly a reaction to ethnic humor becoming unacceptable: Rather than show the Wacky Italians (and Italian-American groups have protested very loudly against their portrayals in the past), do the wacky Addams family! You can't write about intermarriage but what about a mortal marrying a witch! And so on.

    As a couple of people noted, Russian mobster seems to have become just as much a stereotype--or more likely, Russian mobster with KGB ties.

    It's always fascinated me how detente, glasnost and even the collapse of the USSR have had so little effect on how comics handle Communist villains: We got "the hardliner who rejects detente and hates the USA," then the hardliner who rejects perestroika and hates the USA, then the hardliner who wants to restore the USSR, and then the hardliner turned Russian mobster.

  34. Anonymous11:50 AM

    By the way, I loved My Cousin Vinnie as did most of my friends. It may have something to do with living in the South.

    One stereotype that I've noticed in recent years is that if there's a character with a centuries-old warrior tradition/destiny, they're invariably either generic white or Asian--Samurai Girl, Juniper Lee, American Dragon, etc. Not black, Latino, Native American, etc.


    I'm not defending said stereotype, I just think you should remember where you're pointing your finger.

  36. When I was a kid, my mother, born in Germany in 1937, hated "Hogan's Heroes". Not so much so that she wouldn't let us watch it, but she hated it, because it made the Germans look so stupid. Year's later, I read MAD Magazine's parody, and discovered another reason. (That said, Robert Clary was a Holocaust survivor, John Banner was a Jewish refugee, Werner Klemperer was a jewish refugee who served in the U.S. Army during World War II...)

    Most of the German stereotypes in use today are mostly Nazi stereotypes. One could argue that making fun of something horrendous is a coping mechanism. It doesn't blot out the horror, but helps us deal with it. (See M*A*S*H, for example.)

    I judge stereotypes by how hurtful they are. Exageration (especially in cartoons) is often required. When does it cross the line? When it upsets someone.

    I like "My Cousin Vinny". The writing is well-done, the Southern and New York characters are comical but not offensive, and the main actors do a terrific job. For the record, the box office hit I find most offensive is "Pretty Woman", which takes Cinderella and turns her into a whore. But that's just me.

    Do we laugh with the stereotypes, the broad characters which reflect a part of ourselves? Or do we laugh at the stereotypes, feeling a little bit superior?

    And Valerie, I've seen your name, and I never once thought of your ancestry. I judged you by what you said, how you acted, but I never judged your name (or your gender).

  37. Smart stoners behaving stupidly in a sub-mental movie.