A life of organized crime, fancy cars, machine guns, beautiful women, money, power and family; these are the images that have perpetuated the associations of Italian-Americans with the Mafia in film and television for decades. It is in this traditional Godfather fashion that the HBO hit series The Sopranos continues to perpetuate this stereotypical image into the 21st century.
From classic films like The Godfather and Goodfellas, to miniseries events like Bella Mafia and The Last Don, to the dramatic series The Sopranos, Italian-Americans have traditionally been portrayed as gangsters and mobsters and have been seen living the lives of organized criminals. Italian-Americans and the Mafia have traditionally been linked in popular culture and The Sopranos is no exception. “It’s undeniable that the dominant pop-culture images of Italian-Americans have been the mobster and the related, anti-working class stereotype of the boorish gavone” (De Stefano 32).
Textually, Tony Soprano is just this. He is an Italian-American, living in a suburban New Jersey town, the head of the local Mafia family. He is anything but working class, as he is continually portrayed as the mobster dealing with “business. ” He is involved in murders, blackmail, illegal gambling and racketeering. Inter-textually, there are frequent references to Mafia popular culture. Tony and his gang regularly recite lines from The Godfather and refer to each other as “Donnie Brasco.
Tony’s relationship with his therapist parallels that of the satiric Mafia film, Analyze This and comments are made to that effect. These inter-textual references draw attention to the traditional Mafia portrayals in film and television and acknowledge the existence of this stereotypical depiction of Italian-Americans in visual media. The producers of The Sopranos go as far as to include comedic extra-textual references, drawing upon the social commentary of ethnic stereotyping.
When Tony’s therapist and her family make a toast over dinner to the “20 million Italian-Americans” who have nothing to do with organized crime, we see here a representation of the opposition by Italian-Americans to the Mafia-stereotype. Sub-textually, the covert commentary within the series runs deep. Running between the lines are sub-plots dealing with family values, good vs. evil, morality in society, crime and punishment and ethnicity. This HBO hit series has taken audiences by storm. In its first season, The Sopranos was nominated for 16 Emmys.
But what are audiences taking from this popular dramatic series? What allure does this show have the keeps families drawn to their televisions for one commercial-free hour every Sunday night? It is a part of the same allure that made Mario Puzo’s The Godfather a 1969 best seller and Francis Ford Copppla’s Godfather trilogy a classic. It is the appeal of the exciting life of crime and the aura of the glorified outlaw. In traditional Mafia-movie fashion, The Sopranos glorifies a life of murder, drugs, infidelity, crime and betrayal as glamorous. Tony Soprano has money, power, control, influence and respect.
The Sopranos sensationalizes the Mafia lifestyle, creating an appealing image that draws the viewer in and leaves them wanting to know more. It creates a window to a way of life that has traditionally been surrounded by an untouchable aura of glamour, danger, excitement and prestige. Despite the sensationalism and glorification of the mobster’s life, most viewers are able to take more than just this dominant reading of the Mafiosi-portrayal. A negotiated reading results from the oppositional and dominant perspectives that can be assumed by viewers of the series.
While viewers see many aspects of life on The Sopranos as enchanting and attractive, the series successfully shows viewers some aspects of the harsh realities of organized crime. Not only does Tony have the power to reward his friends and family, but also he is quick to punish his enemies and the brutality of this can be seen as a harsh reality of the life he leads. Aside from Tony’s need for psychological therapy, he is tormented at times by the actions he is forced to take and the decisions he makes. In one episode, Tony pulls the trigger and kills a man as punishment.
Afterwards, his conscience reminds him of the man’s cries for his mother in the moments before his death. Tony has to deal with the guilt and is forced to see the consequences of his actions from a parent’s perspective. As likeable as Tony and his friends are, we as viewers are still forced to see them at times for the brutal and merciless criminal they are, and this realization shatters our idealistic perceptions that we like to hold. No matter how appealing Tony isthere is a moral dimension to his action that can’t be ignored.
Indeed, its something that has had to be considered ever since the first season’s fifth episode, when during a college campus tour with his daughter, Tony stumbled across a Mafia informer in the witness protection program and brutally garrotes him to death. Thus, all of Tony’s very human vulnerability can’t obscure the fact that he is also a killer, and ultimately some sort of judgment has to be made about him. (Auster 37) The viewer deals with a moral conflict just as Tony and the characters in the series deal with moral conflicts.
It is a constant choice between right and wrong and the line is not always clear. Stereotypes of Italian-Americans in The Sopranos also wavier between right and wrong. While the series is a personal story of the creators’ own experiences and dramatic interpretations, many Italian-American argue that the show, along with the history of Mafia depictions in film, television and literature, present defamatory ethnic stereotyping and portrays an ethnic minority in a negative and discriminatory light.
A coalition of seven Italian-American organizations issued a joint statement condemning The Sopranos for ‘defaming and assassinating the cultural character’ of Americans of Italian descent” (De Stefano 32). The series perpetuates the traditional image of Italian-Americans as mobsters and thus associates people of such ethnic descent with crime and corruption. Those in opposition of the show see it as ” a buffoonish caricature of (these) people” and “an ethnic minstrel show” (Showalter 42).
In line with traditional representations of Italian-Americans in visual media, the Sopranos continues a portrayal of Mafiosi and glamorized lives of crime and power. Yet, this fresh take on and old image successfully creates a window to the realistic lifestyle of a modern-day Mafia family. While this series presents a look at only a microcosm of contemporary society, it perpetuates the stereotypical association of Italian-Americans as sensationalized Mafiosi and glorifies the lifestyle of organized criminals in the 21st century.