On January 10th, 1999, The Sopranos first debuted on HBO. The six-season series tells the story of Tony Soprano, a fictitious New Jersey mob boss who attempts to balance his criminal and family responsibilities with the help of his psychiatrist. Widely regarded as one of the best television shows to ever be produced, it has won 21 Primetime Emmy Awards and 5 Golden Globe Awards. However, the series has also faced its fair share of controversy among the Italian American community for perpetuating negative stereotypes.
Groups like the National Italian American Foundation, Order Sons of Italy in America, and Unico National all condemned the show for its depictions of Italian Americans. The Columbus Day Parade organizers in New York City even went as far as un-inviting multiple Sopranos cast members from participating in the 2002 parade for their contributions to the project.
That being said, a survey of 800 people conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that two-thirds of the show’s national audience felt that Italian Americans were not portrayed negatively. For those that did find the portrayals to be offensive, this likely stemmed from general discontent surrounding the portrayals of the ethnic group as a whole in Hollywood, with very few instances of Americans of Italian descent holding high-level positions such as corporate executives, medical professionals, etc.
According to a study called “Psychological Perspectives on the Stigmatization of Italian Americans in the American Media” by Elizabeth G. Messina, 73% of the 1,078 films analyzed that featured Italian American characters portrayed these characters in a negative light. They are commonly represented as gangsters, racists, bimbos, and buffoons, which is inaccurate to say the least. While less than ¼ of 1 percent of Italian Americans participate in organized crime, this characterization in particular has been a dominant theme across the television and film industries – and for good reason.
Projects like The Godfather and Goodfellas have all performed extraordinarily well at the box office, raking in solid profits for the studios that created them. However, by following the mafia mold that has worked so well in the past, are these production companies to blame for repeatedly depicting this small subculture that seems to grab the attention of Italians and non-Italians alike? While these representations may not be fair or accurate, Hollywood will always be more concerned with their bottom line than the accuracy of representation – no matter how much they do not want to admit it. So how can we blame the TV studios for following the interests of their viewers? Perhaps the solution is not to demand the removal of negative portrayals, but to strike a balance with positive images of Italian Americans to give a more accurate representation of the group.
There is an argument to be made that some aspects of Italian American culture in the show are positive, like the importance of family, food, and faith. Yet, the characters are almost exclusively mafia members, with a few exceptions such as Dr. Jennifer Melfi and Artice Bucco. Maybe there would have been less controversy if more prominent recurring characters of Italian origins were present that held positions of authority outside of the organized crime world. On the other hand, maybe not. One thing is for sure – all groups, including Italian Americans, deserve to have their heritage represented on screen through characters that they can look to as role models as they navigate their sense of identity and self.