Moving Beyond the Mafia
Surprise! Most Americans of Italian descent speak proper English, work in legitimate professions and make positive contributions to society. So where are they in pop culture?
Let me begin by stating I abhor the notion of a “hyphenated” American. Raised in a patriotic, middle-class family that enthusiastically celebrated quintessential American holidays like Independence Day and Thanksgiving; actively participated in politics at the local, state and national levels; and sincerely appreciated the opportunities the USA afforded all of us, I have always considered myself an American first. Growing up as the youngest of five children, I related well to classic television programs like Little House on the Prairie and Eight is Enough, where conflicts arose out of such relatable things as sibling rivalry and the struggle to resist temptation when presented with a sometimes ambiguous choice between right and wrong.
None of the characters in the above-mentioned programs are Americans of Italian descent, yet they very much mirrored the folks I interacted with on a daily basis, whether family members, friends or acquaintances. The former series, with its emphasis on Christianity and faith, brought to life the values reinforced in my own home and Catholic school; the latter, although not overtly religious, also presented moral conflicts (e.g. when Joanie appeared naked in a stage production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream, to the horror of her unsuspecting father). Yet ironically, whenever pop culture did present characters in film or television that were specifically designated as Italian Americans, more often than not, I’d be left wondering where the hell these people came from.
Even the mostly positive portrayals tended to miss the mark. Take Arthur Fonzarelli (a.k.a. “The Fonz” or “Fonzie”) of Happy Days, for instance. A high school dropout and hard-working mechanic, he and his mother were abandoned by his father when he was just a young child. Fonzie is a typical womanizer who amazes establishment characters like Richie Cunningham with his prowess in attracting one hot babe after another, despite his cavalier love ‘em and leave ‘em relationship philosophy. And while he does evolve over the course of the series, eventually earning his high school diploma and becoming part-owner of Arnold’s Restaurant, he is mostly remembered for catchphrases like “Aaaay!” and for snapping his fingers at any random, attractive “chick” who caught his eye, causing her to immediately stop whatever she was doing and rush over to his side.
At the movie theater, things were not much better. Sure, there was Sly Stallone’s Rocky, a film celebrating a scrappy, determined southpaw who against all odds finds incredible success as a professional boxer. Our inspiring hero is also a religious, patriotic family man who seeks counsel from his neighborhood priest before going into the ring, and genuinely falls in love with shy, late-bloomer Adrian, whom he eventually marries (can anyone ever forget his primitive howls of “Adrian!” while standing behind the ropes, beaten and bloodied, at the film’s conclusion?).
Now don’t get me wrong: as a Philadelphia native and a sucker for a good triumph-over-tragedy story, I absolutely love the character of Rocky Balboa. I’m just wondering where the educated, proper-English-speaking, Italian-American suburban dwellers with whom I am intimately acquainted, are represented in the entertainment industry. Most Hollywood productions would leave aliens visiting from outer space with the impression that all Italians are mobsters, wife-beaters (or at the very least, skirt chasers) and hooligans who either operate outside of the law or precariously on its fringes.
The most egregious example in recent times is of course, The Sopranos, described by Wikipedia as “a major commercial and critical success,” and “the most financially successful cable series in the history of television,” frequently hailed by critics as “one of the greatest television series of all time.” For those who have been hiding under a rock for the past ten years, the drama revolves around mobster Tony Soprano, a man who constantly struggles to reconcile the competing obligations of family with his role as head of a crime syndicate. Stereotypically, Tony’s problems include an overbearing mother and an inclination to cheat on his wife, in spite of his love for her.
David Chase (himself an Italian-American), The Sopranos creator, based the plot and characters on his own personal life and experiences growing up in New Jersey—in his own words, “applying his own family dynamic to mobsters.” Raised on gangster films like The Public Enemy and the crime series, The Untouchables, Mr. Chase “thought the Mafia setting would allow him to explore themes such as Italian-American identity and the nature of violence.”
I don’t begrudge David Chase his right to free speech or his authentic remembrances of childhood and adolescence. But it’s exceedingly frustrating that my upbringing and experience as an Italian-American are rarely, if ever, celebrated anywhere in pop culture. Where’s the representation of folks like my maternal grandfather, Raphael, who arrived on American shores at the age of eight with his widowed mother and two brothers? A gifted scholar, he learned and spoke proper English, attended the prestigious Central High School in Germantown, Philadelphia, and graduated from Temple University School of Pharmacy in 1919—an almost unheard of achievement for an immigrant. He then opened up a thriving corner drugstore, which became a neighborhood landmark for over 25 years.
Where are Italian-Americans like my Uncle Dan, an Admiral in the United States Navy? Where are all the strong, yet loving women like my Aunt Emma, who owned her own beauty salon, or my mom’s cousin Millicent, the first female graduate of Temple University School of Pharmacy? What about talented musicians like my cousins Joseph, Francis, Robert and William DePasquale, all of whom were in the Philadelphia Orchestra? Whither decent, upstanding men like my father, Dr. Alphonse J. DiGiovanni, son of blue-collar immigrants who worked his way through medical school and went on to a distinguished career as a general and vascular surgeon?
And let’s not forget about offspring. Out of my four siblings, two became successful attorneys (brother, Mark and sister, Carolyn), one a respected pathologist (brother, Paul) and still another, a productive, loving human being who beat the odds and worked for 24 years in material services at a local hospital (brother Ralph, born with Down syndrome in 1959). Among my closest friends and extended family members, there’s Lisa Macci, Family Law Attorney and host of The Justice Hour, a weekly talk radio program; Trish Doll, owner of a renowned PR firm; Frank Lavalla, highly competent dentist and entrepreneur; and Theresa Bonnie, small business owner and moving estimator extraordinaire. (While this list is impressive, it is by no means exhaustive. I wish I could include every individual that comes to mind, but alas, space constraints do not allow for that).
None of the aforementioned people have mob ties, nor do they talk as if they have a mouthful of food they forgot to swallow. All are bright, intelligent, law-abiding citizens who continue to make meaningful contributions to their country, clients and family. Yet none are represented specifically as Italian-Americans on film or television. That is a grave disservice, not only to them, but to their hard-working immigrant forefathers who came to America in search of a better life, and left an indelible mark on the country in the process.