'The Sopranos' Offered the Best Insight into Italian-American Life
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'The Sopranos' Offered the Best Insight into Italian-American Life

10 years after the show ended, we remember its first controversy.

It's been 10 years since The Sopranos universe went black. In that time, the show has cemented its status as the most groundbreaking piece of American television, spawning the "Peak TV" era with The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men following in its footsteps. The show is now remembered for its controversial ending, but its first controversy was its portrayal of Italian-Americans. Depictions of mafia life in pop culture have always been met with condemnation. The Godfather films never used the word mafia, at the request of actual mafia figures. Goodfellas, which shared at least 27 actors with The Sopranos, got director Martin Scorsese and author Nicholas Pileggi banned from one of their most-frequented restaurants, as the owner claimed their film had denigrated Italians. The Sopranos was no exception to this trend: Italian-American groups almost unanimously condemned the series from the very beginning. In August 1999, Frank Guarini, the chairman of the National Italian-American Foundation (NIAF), declared that the group intended to have The Sopranos taken off the air. In September 2000, a coalition of several Italian-American groups protested outside HBO's office just before the upcoming Emmys. That same month, these groups managed to convince the Columbus Day Parade organizers in New York City to "de-invite" cast members from the processions, claiming, "Actors who participate in this mass character assassination do not deserve to be part of New York City's annual tribute to Columbus and to the millions of Italian Americans who helped make this country the power it is today." I can't say The Sopranos was really on my family's radar when it aired, but the criticisms of the show were ones I had heard in other contexts. My southern Italian grandparents came to Canada in the 1960s. They managed to keep all of their traditions alive, which were then proudly passed on to me. I heard about the discrimination they faced after immigration, and how my mom and dad's experiences growing up were characterized by being the children of new immigrants. As someone who comes from an unapologetically Italian family, I understand why these groups were worried about The Sopranos. It could have ended up being a series that chipped away at a sense of ethnic pride. I'm also acquainted with the stereotypes critics worried the show would promote. They're the only reason a friend of mine could think my Danny DeVito-esque relative was a mob boss, or that when I met a girlfriend's mom for the first time she asked if I had any family in the mafia. Italian-American critics of The Sopranos had some legitimate beef on a political and historical level going back decades. Italians were portrayed as criminals from the moment they stepped foot in North America. In 1891, nine Italians were accused of killing the police chief of New Orleans. They were found not guilty, but a mob, including a future governor, dragged these nine men, and two others, from their jail cells and killed them, becoming the largest lynching in US history. Future president Teddy Roosevelt called the incident "a rather good thing," and a New York Times editorial called the victims "sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins."


To these groups, the Italians-as-mafia stereotype is just an extension of this xenophobic hysteria. It's somewhat fair then that critics were initially concerned about The Sopranos. It takes the worst stereotype about Italian-Americans, and plants itself squarely in it for 86 episodes, even directly addressing it on several occasions throughout the series.

But that said, believing The Sopranos promotes the Italian-as-mafia myth means you've only engaged with the show on the surface level, at best. In a 2001 interview with The Guardian, Michael Imperioli (who played Tony Soprano's screw-up protégé Christopher Moltisanti) recounted an incident where the Italian-American Anti-Defamation League, who had met with Sopranos creator David Chase to voice their concerns, admitted they had never seen the show. The NIAF claimed, "Without the family dinners, the church confessions, the Italian phrases, the Little Italy neighborhoods, and the espresso coffee breaks, The Sopranos would be just another TV show glorifying violence." Yet the opposite is true. The Sopranos is certainly seasoned with violence, but it's primarily concerned with depicting the state of modern America through an Italian-American lens.
The immigration and assimilation of Italians to America is a primary topic on the show. The Sopranos depicts how, according to author Jennifer Guglielmo, Italians went from being seen as "hordes of dark, dirty, ignorant, lazy, subversive, superstitious criminals" to the "very image of white ethnic working-class right-wing conservatism." One of the main causes of Italian emigration was the abject poverty of the 19th and early 20th century. Southern Italians bore the brunt of this deprivation, as Meadow Soprano notes to a boyfriend in season five, when she says that her dad's family, and other family, came "from the poverty of the Mezzogiorno, where all higher authority was corrupt." Many southern Italians directed their ire toward the north. Furio Giunta, the ponytailed Mafioso brought over from Napoli in season two, acknowledges this in a episode where he explains to horrified mob co-workers why he doesn't like Christopher Columbus. "In Napoli, a lot of people are not so happy for Columbus because he was from Genoa … The north of Italy always had the money and the power. They punished the south since 100s of years. Even today, they put up their nose at us like we're peasants. *Spits* I hate the North."


One of the cornerstones of Italian-American identity, the main piece of the narrative, is that they took the discrimination head on and carved out a piece of America for themselves.

This is a pretty accurate depiction of the actual history. As a result, most of the Italians that left the newly created country were from the south, which is reflected within the show.

The first major wave of Italian immigration into the US came in the late 19th to early 20th century, which is when the fictional Soprano family made its way over. At customs, Italian immigrants were often forced to Anglicize their names. The show mentions this act of cultural erasure on two occasions: when Carmela meets Columbia University Dean Ross, originally Rossi, and in one of the series' best episode endings, where Phil Leotardo, complaining that his Sicilian grandfather's surname was changed from Leonardo at Ellis Island, says, "My family took shit from the 'Merigans the minute we got off the boat." In the early days, Italian immigrants made ends meet through hard physical labour, and quickly understood that they were in America to do the jobs the WASPs wanted to avoid. This history is noted throughout the series, but most explicitly in a season two scene with Tony Soprano and his therapist, Jennifer Melfi. "When America opened the floodgates, and let all us Italians in, what do you think they were doing it for?" Tony indignantly asks. "Because they were trying to save us from poverty? No, they did it because they needed us. They needed us to build their cities, and dig their subways, and to make them richer." At this point, Italians faced serious discrimination from police, government, and employers. But one of the cornerstones of Italian-American identity, the main piece of the narrative, is that they took the discrimination head on and carved out a piece of America for themselves. This story is passed on from generation to generation, which is captured in The Sopranos. Tony, for example, brings both of his kids, at different times, to a church in Newark, New Jersey. In season four, Tony tells an uninterested Anthony Jr. that his great-grandfather, a stone mason who came to America "with $4 in his pocket," helped build the church. Tony goes on to say, "This neighbourhood used to be beautiful. 100 percent Italian. In the 1920s, most of them right off the boat. Most Italians couldn't even find a church that wanted them. So what did they do? Did they cry? Did they go to the government with their hand out? No. They took care of their own problems. They said, 'You don't want us in your church? Fine. We'll build our own. A better one.'"


I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of recognition when I first saw these scenes. Tony's thoughts could have come straight out of my dad's mouth. Almost any Italian I've ever met knows them too. We are told how are grandparents came here without an education, but were willing to work hard to better their lives. As time passed, Italians started to work their way up the economic and social ladder in America. The Soprano family's "trek up the guinea gulch," as Tony describes it, illustrates this reality. They started near the church in the Ironbound section of Newark, part of a busy inner-city neighbourhood filled with other Italians. As wealth began to accumulate, the Soprano family moved up Bloomfield Avenue, eventually reaching North Caldwell two generations later, and settling into a lavish, suburban home, where much of the series is based. Two tendencies among Italians in North America emerged from this ascent, both of which are depicted in the series. Some Italians became ashamed of who they were, and did their best to cover up their foreign roots. Carmela's mother, Mary De Angelis, is portrayed as one of these Italians. At her husband Hugh's birthday party in season five, she introduces guests to her diplomat friend Russ Fegoli. She believes he is a "cultured Italian" in comparison to the Sopranos, who she refers to as cafones, boorish peasants. Carmela eventually calls her mother out on her "self-loathing," accusing her of being happy their last name didn't end in a vowel, and noting that she was upset when Meadow was born because she saw her as being "so dark." Tony, meanwhile, views his "white man" neighbour, Dr. Bruce Cusamano, in the same way, saying he's what his father would have called a "wonderbread wop." "You know," Tony says, "he eats his Sunday gravy out of a jar." The other tendency, not mutually exclusive from the first, is that some Italians have weaponized their history of discrimination to target others. The Soprano crew's behaviour throughout the Columbus episode in season four is a good example. Silvio Dante, in a heated conversation with Tony, argues that, "The 'Merigan like [Gary Cooper], they fucked everybody else. The Italians, the Polacks, the blacks." Yet instead of using that history to find sympathy with the Native protesters opposed to the Columbus Day Parade, he complains that, "We gotta tip toe around the Indians though, don't we? We can't call our teams the Braves, or the Tomahawks." A significant portion of Italian-Americans, at least in my experience, see their economic rise as being without any assistance, in contrast to other groups, who they think get an unfair boost from the government. In reality, this is a false version of history that overemphasizes the challenges Italians faced and minimizes what others are going through. The show slyly notes at this when Vito Spatafore, in the before-mentioned Columbus episode, complains, "What the fuck did we ever get that we didn't have to work our balls off for?" Many scenes with Vito show him lounging on a folding chair at construction sites, getting paid to literally not work. There's also a tendency to see newer immigrants as somehow intrinsically flawed, lacking the traits Italians had when they immigrated. The idea is that the WASPs were wrong when they discriminated against Italian immigrants, but newer immigrants have serious problems, and so Italians are right to side with those who once discriminated against them in order to bar newcomers. There is a lack of awareness among Italians that the stereotypes launched against Muslims today are similar to the ones used against Italians in the past. In The Myth of The Muslim Tide, author Doug Saunders writes that Italians, and other Catholics, were perceived as coming from "countries that were almost all authoritarian, religiously fundamentalist and opposed to the rights of women," and adhering to "a changeless, unalterable, clerically preordained dogma that was not so much a faith as a political ideology." In season six, Bobby "Bacala" Baccalieri, in a conversation during the infamous cottage retreat with Carmela, Tony, and Janice Soprano, inadvertently illustrates this contradiction. He describes how his Italian grandfather, who had a police record due to his involvement with anti-government "shenanigans," illegally entered the US through Montreal. The Baccalieri patriarch ended up producing two generations of organized criminals, which is one of the main concerns raised by settlers about immigrants, legal or otherwise. Yet Baccalieiri earnestly states, "You ought to build a wall now though, I'm tellin' ya," to which they all nod, with Carmela enthusiastically announcing, "Amen!" With the arc of Italian-American life, from outsider to defender of the status quo, completely depicted, the show is able to properly contextualize several aspects of Italian-American life today. The mafia stereotypes, for example, are addressed head on. Melfi's ex-husband, Richard La Penna, is the stand in for critics, raising several concerns of Italian-American organizations from within the show itself. In season one, Richard constantly nags Melfi to give up Tony as a patient, arguing, "People like him are the reason Italian-Americans have such a bad image." In a dinner scene with Melfi's family, he argues, "Ask any American to describe an Italian-American in this country, and invariably he's going to reference The Godfather, Goodfellas." Eventually, their son, Jason La Penna, states, "Dad, at this point in our culture and history, mob movies are classic American cinema." This is accurate, because it reflects the fact that the stereotype, while still around, doesn't hurt Italians as it once did.


In the first three seasons of The Sopranos, Tony and his associates are hounded by the FBI. Yet in the post-9/11 episodes, attention begins to shift elsewhere. Agent Dwight Harris is moved from investigating organized crime in New Jersey to working counter-terrorism in Pakistan. Harris develops a friendly rapport with the crew over the series, and in season six, offers them assistance in their war with New York after receiving a tip from Tony about two Arab men who used to hang around the Bada Bing strip club. Harris' partner appeals to their sense of patriotism, telling Christopher that they should help the government because, "This is your country too, isn't it?"

On some level, this is simply a reflection of reality. The FBI's focus really did shift post-9/11, and the mafia, whose members tend to be conservative, really has worked with the government before to combat perceived foreign enemies. Yet this shift offers insight into more than just how the FBI decides to allocate its resources. It illustrates how the mafia is no longer the chief public enemy, or fear, for Americans.

In many ways the show reflected my own experience growing up back to me, with expressions, gestures, and customs that I hadn't, and never expected to be, seen on TV before.

Harris comes to view the mafia battles as a game of sorts, where he actively cheers on one side. Yet terrorism is treated with dead seriousness, and even the mobsters are genuinely scared. As a result, the Arabs, Pakistanis, and "Middle Easterners" in the show get treated with constant suspicion, matching the Islamophobic environment that has only gotten worse since the series ended 10 years ago. Meanwhile, it's shows like Homeland that are problematic, because the demographics they demonize are still in danger. Italian-Americans are not. That's why it's jarring when Richard La Penna, in the dinner conversation, states, "Italians Against Discrimination did a study, and at its height the mafia in this country had less than 5,000 members. And yet that tiny insignificant fraction can cast such a dark shadow over 20 million hardworking Americans." This is factual, but it seems wildly out of touch today, because most people know it's true, and don't need to be told. Muslims, meanwhile, are still viewed with deep suspicion and face discrimination, so it's unsurprising that "most Muslims aren't ISIS" graphs still need to be spread. The Sopranos also nailed a bunch of small, day-to-day things, which help make it feel more authentic and relatable to your average Italian. The death glare Livia Soprano gives Artie Bucco when he tells her the dish he made is northern. Carmela writing down the amount of money they're giving at a wedding, so they know if they get "stiffed" later on. The almost unanimous horror from characters when they find out Tony is sending his mother to an expensive "retirement community" instead of bringing her into his home. Paulie's rage at what's supposed to be a Starbucks, when he realizes that Italian coffee culture has been appropriated and turned into expensive "grawn-day" drinks. Still, it's not enough to say the show didn't portray Italians in a negative way. Instead, The Sopranos should be praised for the vast insight it offers into Italian-American life. I was 15 when I first watched the show, and it was a revelatory experience. On the surface level I had little in common with the world the series explored. I'm from Canada, not New Jersey. My dad is a plumber, not a mob boss. I've been around Italians on both side of the Atlantic my entire life, and know, at most, a couple potentially "connected" people. Yet in many ways the show reflected my own experience growing up back to me, with expressions, gestures, and customs that I hadn't, and never expected to be, seen on TV before. More importantly, the series helped me piece together my own identity at a time when it was still in flux. All of the anecdotes and remarks I'd heard throughout my life about being Italian were now strung together in a coherent narrative that helped me better understand my world, and be confident in myself. That feeling has only been reinforced over the last decade after watching the series several more times. I reached out to several of the Italian-American groups who protested the show when it first came out, asking if they still feel the same way. None of them replied. Maybe they know they were wrong. They should. It would have been a tragedy if they had it their way, and the show was taken off the air. The Sopranos deserves to be added into serious studies of Italian-American life, or at the very least, serve as an introductory course. Follow Davide on Twitter.