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The Soprano Effect

Settembre 2013
Dal Padrino a Jersey Shore, passando per i Sopranos. L’immagine dell’italoamericano diffusa da film e serie TV si è evoluto nel tempo, spaziando dal criminale mafioso al cafone un po’ sfaticato. Su tutto questo vigila la National Italian American Foundation, che promuove l’immagine dell’Italia negli USA e denuncia ogni stereotipo denigratorio.

di Talitha Linehan

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The Sopranos. The show is hated by organisations like the NIAF.
The Sopranos. The show is hated by organisations like the NIAF.

All Italian Americans are obsessed with good food and their families. The men are all mobsters and the women are overweight housewives whose lives revolve around their husbands. These are just some of the stereotypes that Hollywood has created and that organisations such as the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) are working hard to combat.

THE MOB

Italians have been moving to the US for about 500 years. But the stereotyping became widespread only in the last century. That’s when Hollywood started making movies such as The Godfather and Goodfellas, about Italian mobsters. These films became very popular and, as a result, many people believed all Italian Americans were like the men and women they portrayed.  
In recent years the reality TV show Jersey Shore has been responsible for popularising different, but equally offensive stereotypes. This MTV show features young Italian Americans who are often loud and obnoxious.

REALITY

So are most Italian Americans anything like the ones we see in movies and on TV? For the most part, no, says Phil Bartenetti. Phil is a third-generation Italian, an attorney in Los Angeles and a regional coordinator for the NIAF, which promotes Italian American culture and heritage.

INTERVIEW

AN IMAGE PROBLEM

LANGUAGE LEVEL C1 (ADVANCED)

Speaker: Chuck Rolando (Standard American accent)

Do TV shows like The Sopranos and Jersey Shore help perpetuate prejudice against Italian Americans? According to the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) they certainly do. We spoke to the organisation’s regional coordinator, Phil Bartenetti, a third generation Italian who works as a lawyer in Los Angeles. To give an idea of the traditional view of Italian Americans, he read from an old magazine profile of baseball star Joe DiMaggio, the man who later married Marilyn Monroe:

Phil Bartenetti (Standard American accent)

In 1939 Life magazine did a piece on him that its editors thought sympathetic, but which said, among other things, “Italians, bad at war, are well suited for milder competition, and the number of top notched Italian prize fighters, golfers and baseball players is out of proportion to the population.” Life found that young DiMaggio to be “better groomed than expected for someone who was not a WASP. Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease, he keeps his hair slick with water, he never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti!”

THE FERRARO FACTOR

So has the Italian American image improved since 1939?

Phil Bartenetti

There is still the organised crime stereotype which, really, it’s eroding a little bit, but it’s still there. I can remember yelling at the television back when Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro were running on the Democratic ticket (against Ronald Reagan in 1984 - ed) when a professor from Notre Dame was on one of the Sunday talk shows, and a well-educated man from what I could determine, but at that time there were issues that the opposition was raising concerning Ferraro’s husband, and questions were coming,”Is this a fair topic? Is this fair game?” And his response was, “Well, he is Italian, you know. I think it’s totally legitimate to go into organised crime and to go over whether he’s involved in any illegal activities.” And I thought, “What an idiot!” And he said that based on no information, just based on the fact that Ferraro is an Italian name.

THE GOOD LIFE

And yet the Italian American stereotype isn’t all bad:

Phil Bartenetti

Some of them are positive stereotypes – Italian food, Italian music, Italian family structure. In some circumstances people will think that maybe you might be a little more frivolous than someone else because you come from a background that puts a higher premium on la dolce vita, as opposed to the work and the more American puritanical side.

THE TRUTH IS...

But are these stereotypes valid?

Phil Bartenetti

I think there is always a basis for the stereotype, like if I meet somebody with an Italian name and they don’t have a sense of humour, my friends and I will always joke, "He’s a faux Italian. He can’t be Italian 'cause Italians have a sense of humour!" And if you go to the restaurant and you say you don’t like garlic, you say, “You don’t like garlic?" Or "You like your pasta mushy, come on! You’ve got to eat it right!” Food is not something to be treated lightly. And so there is a little bit of that, and there is in the sense of family, too. The family is very important. And I think that’s why in a place like LA, you see a little bit of affinity between the Mexican Americans and the Italians because they have the same thing – meals and family and, generally, a common religion. They both come from countries where, one of the reasons they came here is they didn’t like their government because they didn’t think their government was particularly receptive to them and their needs.


NIAF

The National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) was founded in 1975. It has its headquarters in Washington, D.C., and represents the 20 million Americans who are of Italian origin. It is a non-profit, non-political organisation. Its aims and activities include:

Promoting Italian language and culture.

Offering American students scholarships (it has an annual budget of $1 million).

Monitoring national media in order to oppose the often negative portrayal of Italian Americans and their culture.

Working alongside other Italian American organisations in taking action whenever Italian Americans are denigrated.

Promoting economic and cultural relations between Italy and the United States.

Every year in October the NIAF organises a special gala evening in Washington, D.C. Guests usually include the President of the United States, leading political, cultural and business figures, and 3,000 other prominent people from both Italy and the United States.

On this occasion the Foundation makes special awards to eminent Italians and Italian Americans who have distinguished themselves in either a professional or civic activity. In the past NIAF has honoured such individuals as Antonin Scalia, the first Italian American to become a Supreme Court judge, singer Frank Sinatra, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, Chrysler executive Lee Iacocca and singer Liza Minnelli. The Italian citizens who have been honoured include opera star Luciano Pavarotti and actress Sofia Loren.

 


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Explains

Sympathetic è un classico false friend: non significa “simpatico” (che in inglese si dice nice oppure funny), ma positivo, comprensivo, favorevole.

Top notched.
La parola notch significa letteralmente tacca. Top notch sarebbe letteralmente “la tacca superiore” ma si usa in senso figurato per indicare “il meglio”.

Better groomed.
Curato meglio. La parola groom ha vari significati. Come sostantivo significa sia stalliere sia sposo, mentre come verbo significa curare l’apparenza. Lo stalliere grooms the horse (cioè cura l’apparenza del cavallo). Se un uomo è well groomed, significa che ha i capelli a posto ecc.

WASP è un acronimo che sta per “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.”