By Dan Pellegrino
December 22, 2009
It seems the cultural significance of being Italian is on the rise right now. Not only is MTV's Jersey Shore gaining headlines for the exploitation of self-proclaimed "guidos" and "guidettes", but also Rob Marshall's Nine hits theaters with a scantily clad Fergie belting out demands for audiences to "Be Italian." As an Italian-American myself, I wonder what it means to be Italian in today's pop culture.
First and foremost, it means we have ties to the mob. I can assure you that not every family whose last name ends in a vowel has ties to a group of mobsters. Sure, there may still be some un-PC things going down in the world of hit men, but I assure you that it isn't happening as much as our screens would lead us to believe. From The Godfather ($134 million domestic) to The Sopranos, Italians are often seen shooting guns, taking hostages and eating pasta without regret. Why would our culture want to further these stereotypes? Easy. Storytelling.
Setting a story among the mob world has an enormous number of benefits. First and foremost, it presents almost every character with inner-conflict. Someone who is born into one of the "big" families must decide whether to follow in their family's footsteps, or make their own path. The basic moral dilemma is instantly apparent to the audience at hand. Furthermore, outsiders are forced to weigh the good and bad of being in a relationship with one of the family members (think Edie Falco on The Sopranos). Conflict. Conflict. Conflict. Mob connections make for a great storytelling tool, instantly recognizable.
In television and film, Italians also explore what I'd like to coin, the "I-is" dialect of speech. Recently, the HBO miniseries John Adams found acclaim based on the extraordinary writing and production value. Many scholars enjoyed the strong sense of language that the piece had to offer. Adults spoke like adults. Every bit of dialogue seemed carefully constructed, even poetic. This isn't always the case for primarily Italian-set works.
Take a look at the Italian-American themed pieces on your boobtube. Characters are either speaking in broken English or saying something along the lines of "I-is", "We's", or my personal favorite, "You's gonna aks me a question?." Sure, this sense of language is hilarious when Joe Pesci is trying to defend himself against a confused Fred Gwynne in My Cousin Vinny ($52 million domestic), but it also leads viewers to believe that we can't construct a proper sentence. One of the greatest scenes in My Cousin Vinny is when Mona Lisa Vito, played by Marisa Tomei, rattles off the specific wheel alignment of a Buick. The character surprises the audience so much by her sense of knowledge, that one can't help but laugh. It also didn't hurt that Marisa Tomei is beautiful and completely stole every scene she was in, but I digress. Italians be's speakin' better soon, we's hope.
By and large, the culture always seems to have a great sense of family in the movies. This seems true of various ethnic groups. People relate to My Big Fat Greek Wedding ($241 million domestic) because it could have easily been re-titled My Big Fat Italian Wedding. Italians are often seen at a table filled with sausage and peppers, pasta and garlic bread, but it isn't about the food. Every time you see Tony Soprano breaking bread at a table, you see family and friends in tow. It's the sense of "when you're in, you're in." Viewers saw this firsthand in the popular Bravo franchise, Real Housewives of New Jersey.