One man’s poison is another man’s stereotype

The recent controversy raised by a group of Italian-Americans in Chicago over the hit HBO series “The Sopranos” got me to thinking. The group believes that the show portrays Italian-Americans in a negative way by perpetuating ethnic stereotypes of Italians as gangsters.

They apparently feel, like so many others in our modern social climate, that the hit series gives the undiscerning audience the impression that all Italian-Americans are in the Mafia. I find this notion to be preposterous.

I do not deny the potentially devastating effects of racial and ethnic stereotypes, which are perpetuated and sustained by the media, can have on our culture. However, I do reject the idea that the American public is so unsophisticated, so na퀌�ve, so insensitive, as to make the foolish generalization that all Italian-Americans must necessarily be in the mob.

First of all, the suggestion that the show entertains the idea that all Italian-Americans are in the Mafia is unwarranted. The show is about Italian-Americans who are in the Mafia. To take away either element would be to change the show.

My advice to the concerned parties in Chicago is to create their own show featuring Italian-Americans who are podiatrists, crossing guards or nursing students. That would present the desired variety of vocations so desperately sought by these indignant activists who would rather cast the first rigatoni than do something positive to change the media depictions of their fellow countrymen. Have we really gotten to the point where every character, every plotline, every depiction is taken as a blanket statement regarding an entire ethnic group?

Furthermore, why is it that we only enact the “stereotype” argument when it will serve our particular sociopolitical ax grinding? Has anyone mentioned that Gene Hackman’s character in “The Birdcage” was a shallow political stereotype portraying all Republicans as weak-minded, homophobic and misogynistic idiots? Or has anyone suggested that Wil Smith’s character in “M.I.B.” presents a negative image of all African-Americans as being little more than laser toting, sun glass-wearing, alien hunters?

Actually, when it comes to the ever-present charge of racial and ethnic stereotyping in media it is all but impossible to chart a course through the land mines of political correctness that can keep from blowing up in your face.

Can a television show present an Italian-American family whose patriarch happens to be in the Mafia without everyone suggesting that the show presents a shallow and negative view that all Italian-Americans are in the Mafia? Can no little person star in a movie without someone making the unsupported claim that the movie is presenting all little people as ankle biting, maniacal clones of Dr. Evil?

All I am suggesting here is that we as a culture need to come to some sort of understanding on what race and ethnicity mean and how we should handle these topics in the media. I think certain social groups, our Chicago Italian-American friends included, have played the ethnic stereotype card so much that it is beginning to lose its meaning and thus its power.

We need to be more sensitive to the big picture and not allow ourselves to become the cause of the very problems we are trying so desperately to rectify. Watch “The Sopranos” or don’t. But don’t take it off of the air just because you think it muddles our perceptions of actual Italian-Americans. And by the way, if you don’t get off of Tony Soprano’s back, you might want to start having someone else start your car for you in the mornings.