The actor Paul Sorvino once remarked in an interview that according to FBI records there were about two thousand Italian-American organized criminals in the United States. Given that there are 17,250,211 Americans who claim to be of Italian descent, that is .0000116% of the ethnic group’s population. Sorvino quipped that he had met more than two thousand Italian-American actors who were making a living playing mobsters in the movies and on TV.
Despite the facts, if you are Italian-American—or even “worse” Sicilian-American and born in New Jersey, there are vast numbers of people who are willing to assume that your relatives, if not you yourself are criminals. Complete strangers in Alaska or Indiana, within approximately thirty seconds of finding out about my background, have said the word “mafia.”
They see the evidence in the movies or on television.
I could grouse and show my upset at this prejudice against me, but instead I will tell you why I think screen and mystery writers, especially ones who are not of Italian descent, perpetuate the myth that most really bad guys are Italian.
They want to make their characters, especially on the screens—large and small—interesting and believable, easier to watch than just pure evil doers.
There are organized criminals of every ethnic persuasion. Sometimes, movies are made about groups other than Italians. For reasons I cannot fathom, the bad guys in those films are almost always one dimensional. I once saw a movie about English organized criminals—The Krays. It was ugly! The main characters were cold and nasty, through and through. They had no life but crime and vile behavior. In fact, the story was so all-of-a-piece that no matter how much the movie’s makers revved up the tension, they could not make their film interesting. All I can imagine is that the screen writers could not think of way to portray the Krays as bad AND human.
Consider, instead, The Sopranos. (A show, by the way, that I began by rejecting as more myth perpetuation but then succumbed to on Netflix) What made that crime family so much more interesting than the Kray brothers? It was the relationships between the family members. An extreme example: Uncle Junior has tried to kill Tony Soprano, but when Uncle J is diagnosed with cancer, Tony goes with him to the doctor. It is a nephew’s duty, and criminal though he may be, Tony does it. And we believe it.
In American culture, I think we long for families that accept us as we are. A lot of people believe this to be true of Italians. Perhaps this nearly universal assumption explains why fiction writers choose the bad guys they do. They want ones who are more than just criminal. They want ones with mothers who worry about them and nephews who will never desert them. This may also explain the popularity of the Addams Family and The Osbournes.
In our post-Freudian world, where parents are to blame for their adult children's every unhappiness and 87.6% of the time the word “dysfunctional” is followed by “family,” we long for families who will love us, no matter how much they may dislike our behavior. We all need people we know will stand by us no matter what. Fiction writers for screen and page know we like stories about that. They cut their bad guys to fit our needs.