Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Sopranos don't accurately portray the Mafia

I've known people who have been associated with the Italian mob and the Sopranos really don't capture it. Instead, what the Sopranos are are a bunch of buffoons that have exaggerated characteristics, like accents, stereotypically associated with Italians who live out violent fantasies of white upper middle class anglo businessmen and office workers, who in turn feel like they aren't real men because they sit behind a desk all day. They fulfill their fantasies of being criminal rebels who can vent their violent urges while still appearing in a form that the intended audience can look down on and feel superior to. In that way although the racial aspect isn't there the Sopranos fulfill a role similar to that of gangster rap in suburban white boy culture. Like kids driving in their parents' SUV listening to Tupac or 50 Cent.

In reality the Mafia is a whole different creature. The type of people associated with the Mafia aren't idiots like the Sopranos. In fact, the Sopranos resemble a sort of bumbling low level criminal gang that would be the type that would get too big for their britches, intrude on Mafia territory, and be executed. Mafia types are serious people, not James Gandolfinis. I think real Mafia people can be summed up in three words: culturally conservative psychopaths.

The role of honor, honore, in Italian culture in general is something a little different from the idea of it just being sort of honest and generally a good guy. Honorable people aren't morons, which is to say they don't act like idiots. They don't unnecessarily give vent to their emotions without good reason. They don't, in other words, resemble the kind of id on legs that the stereotype of the Italian gangster invokes, someone itching to hurt people, swear, in general break the rules of polite Anglo society.

Although again there's a vast difference because of the insane structural and institutional histories connected to the oppression of Africans in America, Italian gangsters fulfill a role in American culture similar to that of the black minstrel in early 20th century America. The black minstrel wasn't completely and inescapably looked down on. Instead, the characters portrayed in black face minstrelsy were romanticized as being closer to nature and less inhibited than their white counterparts, in a way that while demeaning to actual African Americans was thought by white Americans of the time to be positive. This is somewhat hard to see today because the reality of Minstrelsy has been brought to the surface but a closer parallel could be drawn with the role of Native Americans in film, particularly Indian "Chiefs". The Lone Ranger and Tonto are a good example, Tonto being a wooden cigar store Indian type who makes semi-profound comments about things. No doubt some people who watched the show were attracted to the seeming wisdom and attractive way of live that was attributed to Tonto, yet the fact that people saw something positive in him doesn't mean that the portrayal wasn't demeaning to Native Americans, wasn't a distortion of actual Native American life rife with stereotypes.

Blacks and Native Americans have fulfilled a role in media portrayals as the Other, the representative of that which the culture of Anglo Americans has repressed and that people belonging to it secretly want to recapture. The Italian American gangster, in the media system fulfills the same role.

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