Read in chronological order:

Post 1: Gangster Films: “*@#% Being Poor”

Post 2: The Rise of Individualism and Materialism: The Modern Mafioso

Post 3: The Political Economy of Jersey Shore

Post 4: Playing Italian

Post 5: Are You Italian Enough?

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Are you “Italian” enough?

By Iris Bull

(note: the following video may not be suitable for all audiences—the title explicitly warns, “Cooking and Cursing with the Grandsons of Italy”)

Vulgarities aside, the cooking-and-cursing grandsons of Italy are appropriately questioning our notion of what “authentic,” “Italian” cuisine is, but they fall short of exploring the irony of their own cooking presentation—the “Italian” cooking show. Media conglomerates like Scripps Networks Interactive have comprehensively capitalized on what these notions are, and have pipped television programming such as Cake Boss, Everyday Italian, and David Rocco’s Dolce Vita into homes all over the world. These shows are both formulaic and normative—any deviation from the standard can wind up costing a chef his reputation, as Beppe Bigazzi learned:

These standards, while overt in the production of the show and the show’s content, are particularly noticeable when looking at a show’s host. Generally, cooking show hosts characteristically pander to their ethnic heritage to authenticate their reputation in a regional style—it’s weird if they don’t. In terms of Italian-themed cooking shows, books, and celebrities, you can’t swing a cat without hitting someone toting their Italian heritage.

I don’t mean to say that chefs shouldn’t be proud of their ethnic heritage, but would a chef be as attractive if that part of their biography was left out? Enter Exhibit “A,” Michael Chiarello of Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello.

The content of that webisode, and many others under his name, make absolutely no reference to anything “Italian” in nature. Which is perfectly fine.

My beef is with his biography on the show’s website:

Michael Chiarello is an award-winning chef and owner of critically acclaimed Bottega restaurant in the Napa Valley. He made his mark by combining his Southern Italian roots with the distinctive hallmarks of Napa Valley living. From his earliest childhood experiences – created around his mother’s California kitchen with his extended Italian family of butchers, cheese makers and ranchers – Michael dreamed of becoming a chef one day. Decades later, he has realized his dream – and much more.

What does his Italian heritage add to the show? His experiences as an Italian-American aren’t palpable at all in watching the previous clip. Actually, from the last clip, he just seems like any normal guy. If you have never seen his show he probably doesn’t come across as distinct or memorable—anyone could have read his script, and the show wouldn’t necessarily lost its function as a 101 guide to “easy entertaining.”

Chiarello isn’t special—he’s a part of a family of talented chefs that happen to be similarly featured on The Food Network. To sell the programming, The Food Network, as a media company, must carefully tailor its products in a diverse, yet consistent, way. The Food Network website can sell more cookbooks by distinguishing chefs by a style—this provides for a maximum number of slightly different cookware sets, knives, and sauces, among other eclectic kitchenwares. Like Mattel, The Food Network finds ways of repackaging the same concept—accessible, 101-level cooking demonstrations—through a consistently wholesome, canned distribution channel.

Cooking.com

The machine that drives this retail gravy train is Cooking.com, an online retailer of  cooking-related products and specialty foods. The company was founded in 1998 by former Disney executives David Hodess and Tracy Randall, and operates as a privately-held, venture-backed, e-commerce entity. In addition to serving several other cooking-themed websites such as StarbucksStore.com, KitchenEtc.com, PillsburyStore.com and BettyCrockerStore.com, Cooking.com works directly with The Food Network to pimp chef celebrities such as Rachael Ray and Paula Dean. Essentially, The Food Network creates celebrity chefs, and then Cooking.com sells the accessories.

Oh, wait—not those kinds of accessories!

Scripps Networks Interactive and Tribune Company

So, who ultimately decides the fate of wannabe celebrity chefs on The Food Network? That company is owned by two media companies; Scripps Networks Interactive (SNI) owns 70%, and Tribune Company (TC) owns 30%.

SNI claims to be a “developer of lifestyle-oriented content”—translated, that means it is a growing multimedia conglomerate with a hand in producing content for television, digital, mobile and print publishing. The company hopes to “be known for convergence” this year, as it moves to diversify its commodity portfolio.

Part of this diversification project includes partnering with other industry conglomerates, like General Mills:

Foodnetwork.com and HGTV.com were looking to address the needs for busy families to celebrate special moments that could otherwise be overlooked, Roman says.  This “Everyday Celebrations” idea resonated with General Mills, and it was developed with that client in mind, Roman says.  The project involved online content created both by Scripps and by General Mills.

Once the project got off the ground online, television was added to the mix, with 10-second tips that toss to the Everyday Celebrations content online.  When those run, Web traffic spikes, proving the value of convergent programs, Roman says.

Source: SNI

It’s not unreasonable to assume, then, that SNI actively takes advantage of cross-promotional opportunities; further, that SNI and TC might take advantage of the opportunity for any of SNI’s cuisine-themed properties to be featured via any of TC’s media outlets. TC is a large media conglomerate with properties in television, newspapers, radio, and service-based websites sites like CareerBuilder.com and Zap2it.com. Oddly enough, TC also owns South Park.

In November 2010, South Park aired the episode, “Creme Fraiche” (no longer available on YouTube, I recommend watching it on South Park’s website). If you’re able to watch this episode on DVD with commentary from Matt and Troy, you hear them describe this episode as a giant tribute to The Food Network—in essence, the show was a giant promotional plug for celebrity chefs. Although they claim that the focus reflected their love for the network, I suspect TCs relationship with SNI helped ensure the episode would air—TC has been known to censor critical content before.

How does this relate back to “The Italian Fantasy?”

Cooking shows are exemplary in demonstrating how a media company can commodify ethnic identity as an accessory to a media product. Cooking shows are not a public service. While a show can educate an audience—perhaps “better our lives”—it is a product to be sold, first and foremost. Just like the many commodities talked about previously on this blog, cooking shows use Italian ethnicity to color the palate of mainstream, internationally-distributed products. Italian-themed cooking shows are not intended to educate the populous on what people in Italy eat—they aim to validate what we already think about Italian cooking.

Try to imagine an Italian-American who didn’t have a close, wholesome family; who comes from an affluent background; and who doesn’t speak a word of the Italian. Would you still give her a cooking show? Does she need to have Italian heritage cook authentic Italian cuisine?

Of course, maybe Giada isn’t there to just sell her 101 know-how.

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Playing Italian

By Iris Bull

Italian and Italian-American stereotypes are ubiquitous across media. So far I’ve touched on literature, film and television—time for video games!

Video game companies are often vertically and horizontally integrated, meaning that companies are able cut some costs in the production process, but generally game development costs are too expensive for consumers to absorb. As a consequence, these companies can take a loss on each game development, and subsist on the revenues of widely successful games that root themselves in our culture. This structure, among other things, incentives industry leaders like Nintendo and EA to invest in tried-and-true stories and concepts that will payout over a long period of time (much like the recording and film industry).

How might video game narratives relate to Italian stereotypes?
Think on it for a moment, can you guess when the first use of an Italian stereotype might once have pervaded 8-bit screens?

Maybe you couldn’t tell who was fighting Donkey Kong, or you missed the fake mustache?

I can’t get enough of “Super Mair-io,” and luckily, I never will. In addition to being one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, Super Mario Bros. was spun-off as a bizarre television series created by DIC Entertainment, Nintendo of America, Saban Productions, and Sei Young Animation Co. The show, which ran churned out 65 episodes, initially distributed through Viacom, but those rights now belong to CBS Entertainment and Cookie Jar Entertainment. The show was basically a huge promotional plug for the Nintendo company, who used the platform to advertise other games, such as the Legend of Zelda. Not surprisingly, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! was followed by two strictly animated sequels.

Indeed, legend has it that the famous game avatar was inspired by an actual Italian-American businessman by the name of Mario Segale (though there is some contention around the specifics of the story). Many more “Italians” would follow Mario, including—but certainly not limited to—Relentless Rolento, Pizza Pasta, and Luigi Goterelli. Relentless Rolento and Pizza Pasta are from the era of arcade cabinets, and illustrate a overt marginalization and racism that blatantly commodify Italian and Italian-American identity.  Goterelli, though, is a little different; he was one of the early representations of mafioso in video game history. He appeared in Grand Theft Auto III (2001), an installment in the Grand Theft Auto franchise produced by DMA Design.

Meet Mickey Hamfists, one of Luigi's lackeysCapisci?

DMA Design, who became Rockstar Games in 2002, was not the first to publish the mafia in a video game—Gangsters: Organized Crime (1998) by Eidos Interactive may have that credit—but GTA III was one of the first to popularize representations of the classic mafia narrative in mainstream markets. The game was published in 2001, and distributed by parent company Take-Two Interactive. The game was considered by some as the most important video game of the decade. GTA III would inspire Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, a game that more openly borrows from traditional Italian and Italian-American stereotypes.

Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven


Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven was written by Daniel Vavra, developed by Illusion Softworks, and published by Gathering of Developers in 2002. It was fairly “indie” for its time (Gathering of Developers had only been bought out 2 years prior), and spawned a new 3D development engine, the Ptero-Engine, named after the co-developing company, Pterodon. The game came out 3 years after the season premiere of The Sopranos, and successfully rode the wave of popularity mafia-themed media before it had created; it borrowed from both GTA III in its game structure, and “Italian” motifs popularized in Goodfellas (1990) and The Godfather (1972). It even went so far as to employ actors popularized through The Sopranos for vocal actors and actresses.

Before the game’s sequel would be released, Take-Two Interactive—the publishing company that owns Rockstar Games—decided to purchase and rename Illusion Softworks and its parent company in 2008. By the end of 2008 Illusion Softworks had changed its name to 2K Czech, and had acquired new upper-management in the form of 2K Games, a subsidiary of Take-Two. Take-Two was concurrently restructuring ownership within the administrative hierarchy in 2007. By the end of 2007 Strauss Zelnick was chairman and CEO of Take-Two, and his multimedia conglomerate company ZelnickMedia became the financial and management consultant for Take-Two Interactive. Oddly enough, ZelnickMedia co-founder Ben Feder was named Chief Executive Officer of Take-Two in 2007.

When Mafia II debuted in 2010, it managed to be nothing more than recycled narrative concepts once again. Developers invested more time on a new “Illusion Engine” —an independent evolution of the LS3D engine invented for Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven—than on developing an original plot. This time around, though, the game drew heavy criticism for being racist in nature from groups such as UNICO, an Italian-American organization. Zelnick took the criticism head on, saying,

“At Take-Two, we balance our right to free expression with what we believe is a thoughtful and responsible approach to creating and marketing our products. …We will only release a title that meets our standards: as art, as entertainment and as a socially responsible product. We aim to distinguish creative and compelling story telling that advances artistic expression from subject matter that gratuitously exploits or glorifies violence or stereotypes.”

This despite the fact that the game obviously displays other overtly racist behavior:

These conversations around race, violence, and historical accuracy in the context of this game, though, really distract us from pursuing other questions regarding game design that have a real impact on future titles published by companies like Take-Two. The conversation around games like Mafia II shouldn’t be about how future games could be more/less racist/violent/etc. Rather, audiences should concern themselves with encouraging the diversification of stories told through video games. Political economy theory predicts that change regarding these issues around representation won’t happen unless there is an empowering incentive for publishers and developers to gamble with original stories and games. It is in the best interests of companies like Take-Two to make money, not necessarily provide culturally sensitive games, after all.

Headline: Snoop Dogg Pimps Mafia II, Promises He's Still A Gangster

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The Political Economy of Jersey Shore

by Iris Bull

How do we begin to untangle the social and political forces that connect The Godfather (1972) with the likes of MTV hit reality show Jersey Shore?

495 Productions

Jersey Shore first debuted in 2009 promising to contextualize the “guido” lifestyle for ordinary audiences. The show is produced by 495 Productions, a company exclusively owned by SallyAnn Salsano.

Salsano, pictured left.

Salsano’s production company first crafted an “Italian-American”-themed reality television show with That’s Amore! With Domenico Nesci (2008). That’s Amore! tried to ride the coat-tails of A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila (another Salsano reality-television creation that premiered in 2007 and ran for 2 seasons)—Domenico Nesci was a dejected contestant on that show.

Jersey Shore came a year after the premiere for That’s Amore! In some ways That’s Amore! primed MTV audiences for the overenthusiastic “Italian” motif.

Salsano has reported in several interviews that Jersey Shore has always meant to be representative of how she spent her younger years at the Shore, but how much Jersey Shore is an original creation inspired by a nostalgic revival of her younger years is debatable.

495 Productions has a long history of spinning shows from tried-and-true hit sensations. The company debuted with Nashville Star (2003), a “twist on American Idol, amateur singers compete for several weeks to see which one will be selected by viewers’ votes as the next country music superstar,” and went on to produce such “original” shows as HGTV Design Star (2006; essentially a cooking show with interior designers), The Big Party Plan Off (2007) (a HGTV Design Star and game-show motif mash-up), and Dance Your Ass Off (2009; an obvious spin off of The Biggest Loser (2004)).

So, the show wasn’t initially Salsano’s idea, but she knew how to make Jersey Shore into a cultural phenomenon. Phase one of her plan was to pitch the show to MTV executives, the company that had just distributed A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, A Double Shot at Love, and That’s Amore—all money-makers for the network.

Within a year of the show’s first broadcast, ratings for Jersey Shore were up 194% compared to its first season, totaling 5.3 million viewers. In March of 2011, MTV reported its highest ratings in 5 years, and viewership among its targeted demographic (18-35 year-olds) was up 27%—Jersey Shore snowballed like no other MTV show. This was all good news for MTV’s parent company, Viacom.
In a single quarter from this year for Viacom, “Jersey Shore contributed to a 14 percent increase in ad revenues worldwide and 12 percent in the U.S.” Since the end of Jersey Shore’s first season Viacom has seen gains in stock prices, with the most dramatic increases correlating with the progression of Jersey Shore’s 3rd and 4th season.

This rapid success prompted 495 Productions to attempt a wide variety of television show spin-offs that experiment with the show’s premise. Shows that have been formally pitched or piloted include:

  1. Untitled “Nicole ‘Snooki’ Polizzi and Jenni ‘JWoww’ Farley Project (to be produced by 495 Productions)
  2. Untitled “Paul ‘DJ Pauly D’ Delvecchio Project (to be produced by 495 Productions)
  3. Wicked Summer and Tehrangeles/Jersey Shore: The Persian Version (supposedly pitched by 495 Productions, in conjunction with Doron Ofir Casting, but is suspected to be “fake”—a publicity stunt designed by Doron Ofir Casting)
  4. Party Down South (in production; produced by 495 Productions, in conjunction with Doron Ofir Casting)

Other shows that have spun off of Jersey Shore include:

  1. Lake Shore (Toronto, Canada; 2010—it didn’t do so well. Produced by Sunrise Multimedia)
  2. K-Town (in production, supposedly; independently produced by Tyrese Gibson, a former MTV VJ)
  3. Russian Dolls (in production; owned by A&E Television Networks, which is owned, in part, by Hearst Corporation, Disney-ABC Television Group, and NBCUniversal)
  4. Shahs of Sunset (conceptually identical to Tehrangles; to be produced by Ryan Seacrest Productions in partnership with Bravo, Bravo being owned by NBCUniversal)
  5. The Only Way is Essex (produced by Lime Pictures, which is owned by All3Media, reputably Britain’s largest independent production company)
  6. Geordie Shore (also produced by Lime Pictures; distributed by MTV, a Viacom subsidiary)

The more attention Jersey Shore and her spin-offs have garnered, the more popular the show has become. The show’s ability to garner an audience, though, is closely liked to its support from Viacom, and not necessarily any promotion from 495 Productions.

Viacom

Viacom is one of the biggest media conglomerates in the world, and—after merging with CBS in 2000—touts a presence in online, film, television, radio, book publishing, and outdoor advertising industries, among others. Viacom is so powerful, it can “generate its own entertainment through Paramount Pictures, distribute it on CBS and possibly UPN stations, promote the soundtrack on MTV or VH1, rent out the videotapes at Blockbuster, and do book tie-ins through Simon & Schuster” (Holstein).

Viacom is a vertically integrated corporation; it owns multiple (if not all) stages of production for many of its products. This allows for the corporation to control costs within the production line, and diversify its market holdings. The diversification of commodities made ultimately makes it a stronger corporation; if one market experiences turbulence, for example, Viacom can rely on other subsidiary companies to generate profits for the parent company. Diversification also allows for commodities to cross-promote products sold within the Viacom corporate family for little to no cost—this is referred to as synergy.

The Jersey Shore cast is one small implement in its global toolbox used to promote or advertise other commodities; the synergistic promotion of Just Dance 3 and Jersey Shore is one example of this:

It should come as no surprise, either, that Snooki’s book, A Shore Thing, was published by Gallery Books, a subsidiary Simon & Schuster—Viacom’s book publishing company.

Notably, though, Viacom won’t be sponsoring DJ Pauly D in his up and coming music career—mostly because the corporation isn’t in the business of recording and distributing that kind of music. True: Pauly is coming out with his own show that will air on MTV, but it appears as though his music will distribute through 50 Cent’s record company G-Unit (owned by Warner Music Group, which was just recently sold from Time Warner to Access Industries). There is also word that DJ Pauly D will have his own brand of headphones—we’ll see if they end up being part of the Beats brand by Dr. Dre. Only time will tell how Viacom chooses to capitalize on Pauly D beyond his MTV show.

If history is a predictor, though, Viacom will find a way. The company prides itself on producing commodities inspired by up-and-coming cultural trends—it thrives on capitalizing on the culture of “cool.”

How could we have predicted the rise of Jersey Shore? Why would Viacom/MTV so readily adopted the show?

In many ways Jersey Shore was predictable—its just a recycling of MTV hits from the 2000s. The bodies, the partying, the overindulgent consumption of crap could have been portrayed by any ethnic group. So why does Jersey Shore pick on Italian-Americans?

The Sopranos vs. Jersey Shore

The Sopranos (1999-2007) made a lot of money for Time Warner, and it had taken a different approach to the Italian theme—reminiscent of The Godfather, The Sopranos portrayed the Italian-American mafia as a crumbling institution.

But 2007 also saw the end of economic stability in the United States. The stock market crash of 2007/2008 was redolent of the Great Depression for many Americans, and—just as it was in the 1930s and 70s—by 2009 the Italian motif/theme was popular again in the media.

Within Jersey Shore, representations of Italian-Americans today are not too different from representations of Italians of the 1930s and 40s. Italian identity is used to distance characters who desire economic or social status from Anglo audiences—the Italians are greedy, violent, overindulgent, promiscuous, and morally reprehensible. It’s understandable to identify with their desires, but socially unacceptable (for adults) to mimic their behavior.

Jersey Shore doesn’t exist today because it is new; rather, Viacom/MTV produces Jersey Shore because the corporation knows that it will make money. Just as a cover band attracts audiences by playing songs everyone already likes, Viacom makes money by repackaging stories everyone has already grown to love.

 
Sources hyperlinked and embedded where appropriate.

Ancillary Sources:

Holstein, William J. “MTV, Meet 60 Minutes.” U.S. News & World Report 127.11 (1999): 44. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Nov. 2011.

Roberts, Johnnie L. “World Tour.” Newsweek 145.23 (2005): 34-35. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Nov. 2011.

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The Rise of Individualism and Materialism: The Modern Mafioso

By Iris Bull

American culture in the 1920s and 1970s concerned itself with the desires of the individual, but each era promoted individualism in characteristically different ways.

Individualism in the 1920s represented a lashing out against a restrictive society, an assertive form of self-expression, and a glorying in the absence of self-control or social controls. The dominant meaning of individualism was that of autonomy, or independence. By the 1970s, society has lost its constraining power and individualism becomes a matter of self0absorption and the quest for self-development. The dominant meaning of individualism is that of uniqueness, or cultivation of the inner self (Thomson, 30).

Visually, compare 1920s cabaret clubs to 1970s disco clubs; both illustrate two different expressions of individualism.

With this in mind, the popularity of Little Caesar (1931) can be understood as an artifact from society’s focus on self-expression and the absence of self-control. This is particularly incredible when we remember that during this era film studios were tasked with self-regulating their movies.

How were major studios able to capitalize on a cultural movement that carried with it negative moral implications?

In part, Little Caesar successfully birthed the gangster film genre for two reasons: first, the film individuated the mafioso/Italian away from mainstream society; second, audiences could readily identify with Rico’s desire for wealth and power.

The ethnically identifiable, stereotypical criminal in gangster films was distanced from mainstream audiences by his ethnic identity; the propagation of ethnic stereotypes was particularly effective during an age where eugenics and Social Darwinism were popularly believed. This distance allowed audiences to enjoy and appreciate gangster films, while providing them with justification for not being influenced by the film. So long as an audience member wasn’t Italian or Italian-American, he/she wasn’t in danger of identifying with criminal characters (Cavallero, 53). Certainly, other ethnic groups are represented in gangster films—specifically, the Irish, rural whites, and Jewish—but more often than others Italians receive the brunt of the stereotyping (Silver, 57). The idea around who could be a criminal was implicit, but very present in gangster films around this time; and, it manifest in other ways;

The ‘little’ of the title [of Little Caesar] is also central to an understanding of the gangster genre. It is ironic in Little Caesar because it points out the contrast between the tragic figure’s aspiration and the possibilities of the situation. …The two central gangster figures of the 1930s, Robinson and James Cagney, are extremely short. Consciously or unconsciously this emphasized the affinity between the cocky gangster and the ‘little’ man in the audience who identified with the gangster on the screen and was, at the same time, told to shun him (Silver, 49).

The short Italian stereotype was present in other genres, as well:

In essence, this form of stereotyping carried the genre of gangster films because it didn’t alienate a group of people that had any real influence over the movie industry. As this blog progresses, we’ll see this happen in other industries as well!

Gangster movies were also easy to market to large audiences; these films exploited the audience’s idea of individualism and desire for upward social mobility. On the surface, gangster films seem to glorify criminal behavior and civil disobedience, which resonated with the desires of audiences in the 1930s (what with the Great Depression, and all). By the end of most gangster films, however, the film’s narrative has penalized the gangster for railing against the capitalist system, and breaking the rule of law. Boiled down, gangster films establish that a gangster:

These messages were intended to suppress public dissent against capitalism, which, for studios, would ultimately trump over any concern for how the gangster narrative conforms to conservative protestant values.

So what happened in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s?

After the start of WWII Italians had to take a backseat as villains in popular films.

It was Mussolini, not the Italian people, the Hollywood directors averred, who forced the nation into an unholy alliance with Hitler. The real enemy was fascism, and for most Italians, siting in their outdoor cafes, sipping their morning espresso, this political concept was over their heads (Fyne, 99).

Culturally, it was a different era. Even in the wake of WWII, individualism had no place; instead, Americans clung to collectivist ideas around family and identity. As a consequence, the gangster genre was less culturally significant; the messages just didn’t resonate as well in cultural conversations.

Economically, movie studios didn’t quite have the right amount of incentive to push the genre. The national economy was the best it had ever been during the 40s and 50s, so there was little incentive for the American people to rise up against corporate institutions. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s when this would begin to change.

The Godfather (1972)

There’s no quick way to summarize the political, social, and economic circumstances surrounding the creation of The Godfather, but sufficed to say the American economy was still weathering a period of extreme economic volatility brought on by the 1960s. Collectivist attitudes were quickly associated with socialism, and socialism was just as quickly demonized by wealthy pubic figures.

Individualism had made a comeback, as did public dissent against America’s capitalistic system.

The public was primed for a story around money, corruption, power and control. The 1960s was rife with public killings and  assassinations, and the exposure of underground crime syndicates with the testimony of Joseph Valachi (Dick, 135). The ’60s were also a tumultuous and political period for Paramount Pictures, which experienced both economic decline and the formation of a new executive board. Chairman of Gulf + Western Charles G. Bluhdorn’s addition to the executive board of Paramount Pictures in 1966 marked a change in Paramount’s business strategy around filmmaking: the movie-making executives became more interested in making money through movies than actually making movies (Dick, 100). Bluhdorn’s arrival to Paramount at the studio’s poorest hour resulted in a happy accident that would give rise to one of the most influential gangster movies ever made. In 1970, Gulf + Western freed Paramount’s film production headquarters from studio real estate in preparation to sell it, and inadvertently allowed fellow executives Peter Bart and Robert Evans more creative control over movie production (Dick, 122). In the years following this decision, Bart and Evans would take many creative risks with the production studio; the first of which was:

Unlike gangster films in decades past that played on the desire for upward social mobility, The Godfather was “a musing on the dynamics of a free, unfettered market.” The Mafia has ascended to the upper class, and the criminality now revolves around business relationships (which inevitably become tied to ethnic identity). The film portrays economic interests as a dominate force over public markets, and disparages liaisons of the State as corrupt puppets for Mafia control. The capitalist system, rather than inhibiting upward social mobility of mobsters, infiltrates the Mafia; capitalism institutionalizes the criminal organization.

Francis Coppola, director of The Godfather, intentionally crafted the narrative around economics; he wrote in 1972:

I feel that the Mafia is an incredible metaphor for this country. Both the Mafia and America have roots in Europe. America is a European phenomenon. Basically, both the Mafia and America feel that they are benevolent organizations. Both the Mafia and America have their hands stained with blood from what it is necessary to do to protect their power and interests. Both are totally capitalistic phenomena and basically have a profit motive. (Lourdeaux, 186)

Coppola’s narrative, though, intrinsically linked Italian ethnicity to the Mafia, just as other directors before him. He disparaged Italians in a new way by creating a more complex stereotype of Italian identity, and by drafting characters with amiable intentions;

Filmgoers clearly liked the beleaguered Michael…they savored the justifiable violence of a man defending his family and achieving success in a brutal business world (Lourdeaux, 186)

While ethnically Italian-American, Coppola was ultimately chosen by Bart to work on the film because his knowledge of the Mafia was from secondary sources (Dick, 135). Coppola crafted a contemporary stereotype for the film by integrating his ethnic experiences with the stereotype audiences expected. The mafioso is materialistic, wealthy, familial, violent, and unsettled:

Italian-American directors filtered out the facts of social history and well-known church symbols in order to look all-American, and of course to sell more tickets. …[the Mafia gangsters] who have strode across American screens for decades mostly reflect the desires of WASP movie audiences (Lourdeaux, 9-10).

The mafioso demonstrates that, ultimately, within a capitalist institution money cannot buy him happiness.

Warner Bros. would take this theme to a new level with the production of Goodfellas (1990), a film that would go on to share 27 cast members with television hit show The Sopranos (1999) (produced by HBO, which shares parent company Time Warner with Warner Bros.).

Ancillary Sources:

  • Cavallero, J J. “Gangsters, Fessos, Tricksters, and Sopranos: the Historical Roots of Italian American Stereotype Anxiety.” The Journal of Popular Film and Television : Jpf & T. 32.2 (2004): 50-63. Print.
  • Dick, Bernard F. Engulfed: The Death of Paramount Pictures and the Birth of Corporate Hollywood. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. Print.
  • Fyne, Robert. The Hollywood Propaganda of World War Ii. Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press, 1994. Print.
  • Lourdeaux, Lee. Italian and Irish Filmmakers in America: Ford, Capra, Coppola, and Scorsese. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990. Print.
  • Silver, Alain, and James Ursini. The Gangster Film Reader. Pompton Plains, N.J: Limelight, 2007. Print.
  • Thomson, Irene T. In Conflict No Longer: Self and Society in Contemporary America. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. Print.
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Gangster Films: “*@#% Being Poor”

by Iris Bull

During the Great Depression, Hollywood was tasked with tirelessly presenting escapist fantasies. Films were structured to “…[focus] on the endless possibilities for individual success;” scapegoat individuals for their own “social dislocation;” and, “keep alive the myth and wonderful fantasy of a mobile and classless society…”

What does this have to do with Italians? 

Deconstructing the Italian fantasy begins with dissecting some of the first images of Italians and Italian-Americans in mass media—those on the silver screen. These films would lay the framework for porting racist stereotypes of Italians to other media, and equivocating criminality with a minority ethnic group.

Many scholars assert that Little Caesar (1931), a First National Pictures film, was the first widely successful gangster-themed “talkie” ever produced.

Little Caesar tells the romantic story of Italian-American men rising through the ranks of organized crime, and inevitable falling from grace. Based on a novel by W.R. Burnett, the film was a life raft to Hollywood studios during the Great Depression, and it’s fiscal success ultimately encouraged the production of some 50 gang-themed films in 1931 (Bergman, 3).

Audiences in the 1930s were attracted to Hollywood gangsters (regardless of whether or not they died in the film) because they created their own opportunities for upward social mobility; gangsters pursued the essence of the American dream. In this way, the gangster film presents reality from an anti-capitalist perspective: that the American dream is a farce, and that the working class could only experience extravagance was through criminal activity.


Achieving (legitimate) upward social mobility for working class Italian and Italian-American communities for decades after the start of the 20th century was a struggle. Upon arrival in America, most Italians were faced with racist attitudes, and the presence of Italian bodies on movie screens further distanced them from other ethnic communities.

For Italians and Italian Americans, the 1930s were a time characterized by the rise of Italian American heroes and the continued denigration of Italians at large.

Although socially conservative groups were morally opposed to explicit displays of violence, the denigration of Italians wasn’t of their concern. The time Italians spent on the silver screen inextricably stigmatized them ethnic communities; pejorative stereotypes cast them as criminals, mafiosi or otherwise incompatible with American society (Bergman, 4). That isn’t to say that there is one definable stereotype that defines Italian identity during this time period; rather, Italian identity was used as a placeholder for other ethnic groups to explore socially-nebulous ideas.

In Hollywood films, these societal prejudices toward Italians became an effective tool that allowed filmmakers and audience members to distance themselves from the subversive challenges that films such as Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1930) posed to the myths of the Protestant Success Ethic and the American Dream.


Here, Tony’s moral and ethical dilemma appears to tear him into two people: an Italian and an American. His Italian identity has been exposed vis-à-vis criminal behavior, but his American sense of self longs to be saved. Without taking into account Rico’s reaction to Tony’s “defection” to America’s flagship moral institution, this scene contributes to the villainization of Italian identity within American ideology. The economic effects of this were considerable; outside of Hollywood the malformation of Italian identity opened the doors to labor exploitation for Italians.

Italians,  “toiled at humble jobs for pitifully low wages and lived in crowded, unhealthy tenements.” Within a society that generally accepted pointed ideas of Social Darwinism and Eugenics, ethnic stereotyping helped capitalist businessmen establish and maintain an inexpensive and responsive labor force during clashes with labor unions (LaGumina, 14). Economically, this ensured that social society would accepted the exploitation of Italians as an acceptable means to control business costs.

Mamma Mia!

This all provides a context for understanding the role of Italian identity in contemporary media. After the beginning of WWII, Italians and Italian-Americans rarely assumed the role of Hollywood villain; that was to be taken up by Germans and the Nazis. In the years leading up to The Godfather (1971) American society experienced significant social and economic change that would affect the focus of that film’s reception. This structure exists in the background of all media industry; and, through the “study of ownership and control, political economists [can] analyze relations of power and confirm a class system and structural inequalities.” In dissecting who sits to gain from the continued stereotyping of Italian identity, its possible to reveal the social and political importance of film, and how it synergistically relates to other media companies.

Sources

  • Bergman, Andrew. We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films. New York: New York University Press, 1971. Print.
  • Cavallero, J J. “Gangsters, Fessos, Tricksters, and Sopranos: the Historical Roots of Italian American Stereotype Anxiety.” The Journal of Popular Film and Television : Jpf & T. 32.2 (2004): 50-63. Print.
  • LaGumina, Salvatore J. Wop: A Documentary History of Anti-Italian Discrimination in the United States. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books; distributed by Quick Fox Inc., New York, 1973. Print.
  • “Little Caesar (1931).” IMDb: The Internet Movie Database. IMDb.com-Amazon.com,1990-2011. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0021079/&gt;.
  • Lourdeaux, Lee. Italian and Irish Filmmakers in America: Ford, Capra, Coppola, and Scorsese. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990. Print.
  • Wasko, Janet. “Critiquing Hollywood: The Political Economy of Motion Pictures.” A Concise Handbook of Movie Industry Economics. Ed. Moul, Charles C. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.
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