Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Problem is It's Just Too Easy

When you're reaching for an analogy to help describe a situation that's a bit shady, high pressure or even criminal, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the Mafia. It's an easy one. And everyone gets it right away.

Well, that's the problem. It shouldn't be that easy and it shouldn't be the universal symbol for all things that are wrong. Sure the members of the American Mafia are criminals and are bad people. And sure they are Italian-American. But not all Italian-Americans are in the Mafia. This bears repeating. While all Mafiosi are Italian-Americans (at least all made Mafiosi anyway), not all Italian-Americans are in the Mafia. To associate the two groups is wrong, unfair, insulting and perpetuates stereotypes.

How long would it be tolerated if African-Americans were continually associated with the Stepin Fetchit character? How long would it be tolerated if all Jews were associated with the Shylock character? Not very long.

But it seems to be readily accepted that Italian-Americans and the Mafia go together. Well, I'm here to tell you they don't.

As an example of how easy it is to reach for and grab the Mafia analogy, even though it has nothing to do with anything and is irrelevant to the situation at hand, is a recent article from the Associated Press about the sale of two Philadelphia newspapers to a private company. A columnist for one of the papers being sold spoke to the Associated Press and complained about the corporate mentality that has overtaken the newspaper business. He expressed relief that the newspapers would no longer have to please Wall Street and the company's shareholders above everyone else.

Here's what the columnist, Stu Bykofsky, told the AP:

"That is enormously important because Wall Street has been the poison that has destroyed American journalism by its constant demands to return, say, 25 percent annually on investment, which is a figure that only the Mafia used to get," Bykofsky said.

His point being that trying to please the shareholders is akin to extortion by the Mafia. Sure, it's a colorful analogy. But is it necessary. No. Could he have used another, less stereotypical, less offensive analogy. Yes. But it was an easy one. It came to mind quickly.

That's the problem. It's too easy. It's our job to make it less easy.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Hello, Ma? It's Me, Guido.

A blogger called The Doorman, who writes a blog called Clublife (which covers topics related to the nightlife in New York City) recently wrote an offensive piece called "Stiffs."

What makes the piece offensive is not the title, but the subject. He is writing about Italian-Americans in the two clubs he works at and the way they hold their cell phones. Apparently it's different from the way everyone else holds their phones. But the offensive part is he refers to them as "Guidos." Now we all know (at least we all should know) that "Guido" is a pejorative term for an Italian-American from Brooklyn. "They" are supposed to be the height of the stereotype – you know, T-shrt wearing, gold chain sporting, Trans-Am driving young man with no class and no brains.

Since I'm an Italian-American from Brooklyn (but about as far from a "Guido" as you can get) I find this highly offensive.

Here's a little taste of the stupidity The Doorman espouses:

Next time you're in a nightclub, I want you to look for guidos. There's something about them I want you to see. If you're not in their natural New York habitat, they might be difficult to find, but if you are making the rounds of the Manhattan club dungheap this weekend, I want you to focus on some guidos because I'd like to share this with you.

What I want you to scan the room for are guidos talking on their cell phones. You'll be doing this because I want you to notice the stance. The Official Guido Cell Phone Stance.

He also offers photos of what "normal" people look like on their cell phones, in contrast to what a "Guido" looks like.

This kind of stupid, insensitivity only to helps perpetuate stereotypes. There's no reason for it, other than prejudice. Either that or The Doorman is just an insensitive dolt. Either way, there's no call for this kind of thinking, let alone a need to write about it.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Gratuitous Mafia Comment of the Week

And the winner is...Arianna Huffington. The liberal blogger on CNN's "Reliable Sources" yesterday compared New York Post publisher and News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch to Tony Soprano. She was talking about Murdoch's support for Hillary Clinton. Murdoch, a staunch conservative and a Republican, has publicly backed Hillary Clinton, a Democrat and a liberal.

Here's what Ms. Huffington had to say on CNN:

No, I think it's a question about power and access, and that's what this alliance is about. I mean, after all, Rupert Murdoch is the Tony Soprano of the right-wing media machine, and the idea that Hillary Clinton, who famously coined the phrase the vast right wing conspiracy, is now aligning herself with him is really very emblematic of who she is as a candidate, a triangulating, calculating, stand for nothing, try to please everybody candidate who cannot win.

You can read the full transcript here.

Now Rupert Murdoch is a lot of things. And you can disagree with his politics and his style of journalism, but to my knowledge he has never had anyone murdered. To equate him with Tony Soprano (a fictional Mafioso, but a gangster nonetheless and the embodiment of all things corrupt in most people's eyes) is gratuitous and inappropriate.

I think Ms. Huffington was trying to make the point that Mr. Murdoch is the "boss of all bosses" when it comes to right-wing journalism and politics. If this is the case, then her analogy does not hold up. Tony Soprano is not the "boss of all bosses," he's just the Capo Regime of New Jersey. If she wanted to be correct, she should have equated Mr. Murdoch with John "Johnny Sack" Sacramoni, the boss of the New York family Tony Soprano is associated with.

Still, invoking Tony Soprano sells papers (or in this case, blogs). But her analogy was wrong and gratuitous.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

"Bonasera, Bonasera. What Have I Ever Done to Make You Treat Me So Disrespectfully?"

Chris Thilk, who writes about the marketing and promotion of movies on his blog Movie Marketing Madness, has a recent post about his joining MySpace, the online social web phenomenon.

To illustrate his point that he's a bit older than the teenagers and twentysomethings that frequent MySpace, but he joined because the movie studios that he writes about are making greater use of the online community so he figured he'd better be involved or risk missing out on some good stories, he uses a scene from The Godfather as a metaphor.

Here's how he starts his piece:

I feel like I've caved, kind of like Bonasera at the beginning of The Godfather. I need the help, and I realize what a resource having the help of such a powerful man is. That comes with knowing that one day I will be called upon to do a service for him, one that I might not be ready for.

You can read the entire piece (it's short) here.

I'm not really sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, it's not overly offensive. I understand he's reaching for a metaphor to explain his use of the MySpace service–which he normally wouldn't utilize unless he felt it was absolutely necessary. But on the other hand, I'm troubled by the fact that he had to reach back to The Godfather for this metaphor, which really has nothing to do with his situation. It's gratuitouss. It's not necessary. He could have eliminated the entire paragraph and still gotten his idea across.

At least he didn't sat they "made him an offer he couldn't refuse."

Thank goodness for small favors.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Father Greeley is No Sopranos Fan

Father Andrew M. Greeley, an author and a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, is no fan of The Sopranos. In fact, he plainly stated as much in his column today on, the newspaper's online site.

According to the good Father, today's column on The Sopranos was inspired by an editorial in The New York Times. However, he failed to mention that the editorial ran on March 19–fully six weeks ago–when The Sopranos' season started.

Anyway, Father Greeley's thesis in his column is that The Sopranos glorifies violence (which it does) and is essentially The Godfather with cursing.

Father Greeley is a good writer. But I don't agree with him on this one. Much of what he says about the show is true (that it is violent and glorifies criminals). However, many of those things are what attracts people to the show.

Where he goes off track, I think, is here:

Moreover, it stereotypes Italian Americans, bigotry which many Americans seem to enjoy. The Soprano family, it is implied, is a typical Italian American with high regard for the virtue of their wives and daughters and no hesitation about wanton murder.

The Sopranos does not stereotype all Italians. If anything, it stereotypes Mafiosi. And I do not think it depicts a "typical Italian-American" family. It depicts an Italian-American Mafia family. Maybe not a typical one, but it comes pretty close.

And then there's this:

Yeah, well, just imagine a similar series about African-American or Jewish criminals. Fuhgeddaboudit!

The good Father comes pretty close here to perpetuating stereotypes of his own. I'm getting pretty sick of having to read "Fuhgeddaboudit!" in nearly every article about Italian-Americans. As an Italian-American myself, I have ample opportunity to mingle with IAs, and not one of them has ever uttered that word. I think it's time we exorcised this word from the lexicon once and for all. I find that word more offensive than all the episodes of The Sopranos combined.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Sopranos Coming to a Video Game System Near You

THQ Inc., a California-based maker of video games, says it is producing a video game based on The Sopranos TV series.

According to the company, The Sopranos game will feature the voices and likenesses of most of the main characters from the show. The game is being developed with HBO and The Sopranos creator David Chase.

"...[T]he game will evoke the atmosphere, action and conflicts that are the cornerstone of the hit show, which has found worldwide success as one of HBO's premier original programs," THQ says. "The game is backed by key members of the all-star cast who will lend their voices and likenesses, including James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano."

The company describes the game this way:

A mob war is brewing as Philadelphia's and New Jersey's most powerful families are about to collide. As the illegitimate son of "Big Pussy," you have been born into the organization and are now being given an opportunity to demonstrate your loyalty to Tony Soprano. As a soldier you must earn money on collections, protect your turf through intimidation, and gain admiration within your own family to move up in the ranks of the organization. Carry out orders from Paulie, Silvio, Christopher and Tony in familiar locations such as the Bada Bing!, Nuovo Vesuvio's and Satriale's.

Sounds like they have a winner on their hands with this one, doesn't it? Unfortunately, they probably will.

James Gandolfini Gets 'Whacked' in the Press

I was reading about James Gandolfini's scooter accident in New York City the other day and noticed something "fishy" about the news coverage. If you haven't heard, Gandolfini (a.k.a. The Sopranos' Tony Soprano) was hit by a taxi while riding his Vespa scooter in the city. He wasn't hurt.

Anyway, I did a Google search for news on the accident and was struck (sorry, bad pun) by the fact that a good percentage of the headlines used the word "whacked" to describe what happen to Gandolfini. In a very unscientific survey, I found 25 articles about the accident and five of them (that's a total of one-fifth for the mathematically challenged, like myself) had "whacked" in the headline.

Here are some examples:

"Sopranos" star whacked by NYC cab - Boston Herald
Cab whacks 'Sopranos' Gandolfini -
Cab whacks 'Sopranos' Gandolfini - New York Newsday
Cab whacks 'Sopranos' Gandolfini - Orlando Sentinel

The fact that the headline from three different newspapers is identical is another matter altogether. I guess it's natural–given the tendencies of the tabloids–to refer to the accident as Gandolfini being "whacked." After all, he plays a mob boss on TV. But, come on. Just because he's Italian-American and plays a Mafioso on TV does not make this kind of stereotypical wordplay acceptable.

Maybe if the copy editors at these newspapers showed a little imagination, instead of reverting to their tried and true patterns, things would be different. Let's hope they wake up one day and realize that this is unacceptable.

Here We Go Again

A California-based film company called Clear Cut Film Technology Studios (formerly Trans-Global Holdings) is developing several television and film projects with, you guessed it, mafia themes.

According to a company press release, these projects are in the works:

MAFIA FILES: a 12-Episode TV Series

This made for TV series will take you through a walk through time with real Mafia Dons illustrating real events that took place over time. These episodes will answer questions that have lurked in our minds over time, for example,"Who really killed Kennedy"/"What happened to Jimmy Hoffa". The real question is, can people handle the truth.

And then there's this one:

TRACK EM & WACK EM: A Reality TV Show and Possible Video Game

The object of this TV Show will be to have contestants traveling from point A to Point B without getting whacked. Each successful round will yield points. At the end of the season the contestant with the highest points gets to enter "The Competition" in Las Vegas.

It's hard to tell from the description if the last one has a mafia theme, but the use of the term "whacked" is suspect. Still, it sounds horrible just the same.

They also have something in development called "Sal and His Pals," but there's no information about it in the press release or on the company's web site.

All I can say to this is, Ugh!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

In the scheme of things, this is not over-the-top offensive, but it does show how the negative stereotypes and cliches about our culture are pervasive.

The Herald Democrat in Texas has a column on its online site called "Good Morning" wherein columnist Ken Studer gets to write about basically whatever he wants. In this column he writes about his wife's "full Italian" aunts coming to visit for a week from Detroit and how all they want to do is eat.

This is how he starts off the article:

We just survived a week-long visit from two of my wife's full Italian aunts from Detroit. I was ready to put myself in a witness protection program just so they couldn't find me to make me eat more food.

Then there's this:

That Saturday we had more than 30 people for dinner. The majority of them were Italian and that was quite an adventure. People were eating, screaming, laughing, babies crying and food being carried through the house like they were putting out a fire. It was a scene from the Godfather movie.

The mob jokes and references are not what's so offensive about this piece. It's the cliches and ignorance that offends.

The problem, as I see it is that this piece was written by a mediocre writer who thought it would be quaint to write about his wife's "full Italian" aunts for his yokel Texas audience who think the height of Italian culture is Domino's Pizza.

Monday, May 01, 2006

How to Succeed in Business–and Perpetuate Negative Stereotypes

A new book is in production called "The Mafia Guide to Succeeding in Business," which the company promoting it says "shows how entrepreneurs can learn valuable business lessons from the Mafia." I kid you not. You can't make this stuff up folks.

The book has a web site that acts as a teaser for the upcoming book. Though the site does not say who wrote the book or when it will come out, you can sign up to be notified when it's available.

The company promoting the book, Network Media of California, has sprinkled the web site with quotes and photos form The Godfather movies.

The "rules" supposedly are based on "a company associate's" lifelong friendship with a "reputed mob boss." The mob boss, someone named Louie, offers such words of wisdom as: "You don't have to be the best, you just have to be damn good" and "People are either with you or against you, there's no middle."

By trying to ride The Godfather's coattails this book just serves to perpetuate demeaning stereotypes. I'm going to go out on a limb here and make a bold prediction that this is one book that will not become a bestseller.