So, K. and I have finally gotten around to watching The Sopranos. I say “finally,” because the show was on TV from 1999-2007. There was a lot of fanfare around the show when it was on, and nowadays many culture critics cite the show as ushering in a new era of TV that focuses on complex plotting, multiple story lines, and oodles of characters, many of whom never make it to the final episode.
The Sopranos is fairly easy to get hooked on, as it has several qualities that are generally of interest to avid TV drama viewers: mobsters, wealth, violence, and psychological depth. The main character, Tony Soprano, goes to a shrink (the show even makes a quick quip about Analyze This at one point, demonstrating that even the writers acknowledge that such a plot set up has already been done). Similarly, the characters are varied enough that we all have our favorites, and even the characters that we hate, we love to hate. Shows like Rome, Mad Men, Game of Thrones and no doubt many other HBO and Showtime series are indebted to the plotting and characterization techniques of The Sopranos, a show that frequently introduces new characters and plot lines without explaining them overtly to the audience. And like the later shows, The Sopranos has some local color—the action takes place in Northern New Jersey, among Italian Americans who are proud of their origins and often pepper their conversations with Neapolitan, Southern Italian and Sicilian dialect and pronunciation.
As a former student of Italian language and a fan of Italy and its cultural heritage and food in general, as well as a former resident of another North Eastern enclave of Italian-Americanness (Long Island), I enjoy the show on a lot of different levels. One thing that bothers me, however, (and I’ll try to keep it just to that one thing) is that the set-up of the show does little to dispel the mythos of Italian-Americans as mafia gangsters with serious anger management problems. Sure, the show includes characters, like Dr. Melfi, her ex-husband who is a prominent member of the Italian American Anti-defamation League, and the Sopranos’ neighbors, the Cusumanos, who are Italian-American and deplore this stereotype. But this rhetoric of resistance against stereotypes seems to be the exception that proves the rule. By and large, the show focuses on Tony and his gang of capos and underlings who use explicit language and racial slurs, have no control over their anger, resort to violence at the drop of a hat, and constantly drink and smoke. That’s not to say that the Italian-American mobsters who inhabit the show don’t enjoy high culture. Tony frequently uses SAT words and makes allusions to literature; the characters often watch classic black and white films; and even Paulie takes his mother and some other senior ladies to see The Producers on Broadway. These moments, however, are often jarring or humorous precisely because we read them as a deviation from the norm.
All these issues got me thinking about how annoying it must be for many real-life Italian-Americans to be represented so often on film and television as either poor immigrants or angry mobsters. When I thought about this a little more, I realized that immigrants in the US are almost always portrayed as either poor or gangsters—when they get a role on the screen at all. This characterization flies in the face of my own experiences. My parents moved to the United States because my father got a post-doc position at an American university. Growing up, nearly all the Polish people I met had graduate degrees, often doctorates, in biology, biochemistry, chemistry, physics and other lab sciences. I had friends whose parents had also immigrated to the US from other countries, like India or China, and whose parents were also solidly middle-class and educated. (One film that does represent such a “class” of immigrants is The Namesake, based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel.) Yet, when Poles do get time on the big (or small) screen, they are cleaners, plumbers, mechanics or other working-class characters. And I’m not even talking about just the representation of Polish immigrants (who are usually either cleaners, like on The Sopranos, or gangsters, like Ben Kingsley in the film You Kill Me. Yes, there are Polish gangsters.). Characters with Polish last names are almost always working-class characters. Consider Vince Vaugh as Gary Grobowski in The Break-Up or as Dave Wozniak in the recent Delivery Man (the title says it all). Or how about Dave Lizewski, the underdog superhero of Kick-Ass? Or the Lorkowski family that struggles to pay the bills in Sunshine Cleaning? The list could go on. Polish-American seems to equal working class in Hollywood. Why can’t there be a doctor or a lawyer with a Polish last name? Why do Polish or Polish-American characters have to be yet another version of Stanley Kowalski?
When we consider the bigger picture, Polish-Americans and Italian-Americans are not alone. Rarely are there characters with non-Anglo names in film or television (the one exception may be Jewish characters, who are frequently depicted in entertainment media as business owners, lawyers, entertainers and doctors, among other professions). Regarding the rest of the many immigrant populations, the obvious mental block seems to be that people (read: Americans) cannot readily believe that someone named Dr. Kowalski could be a brain surgeon, or that a Ms. Abruzzo could be the CEO of a company. On the other hand, at least Italian-American actors have many roles to choose from, even if they are the same kind of role (a large percentage of the actors on The Sopranos have Italian last names, for example). When the actress playing the Polish cleaning lady on The Sopranos spoke in Polish on the show, she had an accent a mile wide. A quick check revealed that, just as I suspected, she isn’t at all Polish in real life; she’s Russian.
But maybe the producers of the show thought we wouldn’t notice…Stugots!