When I was in college, my friends referred to any lounge-lizard type with too much chest hair showing and too many gold chains as a "Guido" -- as in, "Look out! Guido approaching at three o'clock! Scatter!" This was during an era when sensitivities ran so high that an on-campus party entitled "Jamaica Me Crazy" was canceled because it was deemed to be offensive to Jamaicans. But no one ever blinked twice at insensitive characterizations of Italian-American men as lounge-lizards or mobsters.
I have to admit to finding the Guido thing kind of funny. Despite walking around my entire life with an Italian surname, I am not even remotely touchy about Italian-American ethnic stereotypes. Maybe I should be. Maybe I am missing something. Maybe as a non-Catholic who is only a quarter Italian, I am too removed from the Italian-American community to appreciate the damage that such stereotypes may cause. But from where I sit, being of Italian descent simply does not seem like a liability in this culture today and therefore I don't have the same visceral negative reaction to jokes or stereotypes about Italians as I do to jokes and stereotypes about other groups.
Sure, my grandfather has stories about having been ineligible to join a college fraternity during the 1920s because of his ethnicity or not being allowed to date the WASPy girl for whom he pined. After he joined the State Department, someone once made a patronizing comment to him in a meeting that he should "keep a rein on his hot Italian temper." But, even for him back in the day, his birth did not pose a barrier to his advancement in society to nearly the degree that being a woman, or being black, or being Jewish might have. Nor did his ethnicity ever inspire the hatred that was and is directed towards women and blacks and Jews. And for me and my father, our Italian last name has had absolutely no bearing on our ability to be integrated into whatever group we have wished to join, be it a particular school or law firm or any club or social group. I have never come across anyone who actually believes that all Italians are mobsters, whereas I have met plenty of people who believe that women are flighty, that Jews are grasping and that blacks are lazy.
I bring this all up because the new season of "The Sopranos" has started and I am a big fan (although I don't actually get HBO and I've only watched the first two seasons on DVD). In the past, however, a number of Italian-American individuals and organizations have vehemently criticized this show as promoting negative images of Italian-American culture. "[All the characters] act like Joey Buttafuoco. It's a travesty," says Camille Paglia. "It is a debased characterization of Italians."
As I have explained, I am not especially sensitive about how Italians are characterized but also I don't really see the negativity in the show. Not everyone in "The Sopranos" acts like Joey Buttafuoco. The show has plenty of Italian-American doctors, and priests, and law enforcement officials and people of all stripes. Besides, Joey Buttafuoco was a real guy. (For those of you who don't recall he was the be-chained autobody shop owner whose teenaged lover, Amy Fisher, shot his wife in a famous case in the early '90s.) He may not be representative of the Italian-American community but he is a type of guy who actually exists, and I don't see anything wrong with building a show around that particular type of guy and his community. Do we really have to pretend that all Italian-Americans are upper-middle class people who are nothing like Joey Buttafuoco?
I am also not offended by the fact that the Tony Soprano character is a mobster. I might feel differently if the show implied that all Italians are mobsters or if I sensed that Italians faced a real societal prejudice in this regard. But that's not the case. Mob life is useful to the show because it is inherently dramatic and makes a good foil to the larger point of the show about the process of integration into white bread American life. As the product of people who have made the transition from a vibrant ethnicity to a more subdued bourgeois approach to life, I thoroughly enjoy watching Tony Soprano wrestle with the contradictions of ordering a mob hit while touring New England colleges with his daughter. If that makes me the Italian version of an oreo, so be it.
(What is the Italian version of an oreo anyway? A white bread prosciutto sandwich? No that's white on the outside, Italian on the inside. I need something that's the other way around. Maybe prosciutto wrapped around white bread? But why would anyone wrap prosciutto around white bread? Ugh-- having trouble with this metaphor.)