Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Crime Family Values

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.

So what?

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.

Annamaria Alfieri 


  1. Interesting thoughts. It appears to be a human nature trait to attribute qualities to people because of their geographic or ethnic backgrounds... many people assume southern women are all empty brains, like the many characters Spring Byington played. Or, on the other hand, dark, avenging villainesses, like many other stage characters. Or that blacks are lower on the IQ scale, or pretty/handsome people empty heads! I won't even touch the concept of Germans for those dark decades in our history - I saw German boys hauled around Norfolk during WW 2 on Navy prison trucks, and assumed they were monsters! We were taught to think that way! Back to one of my favorite sayings, " You can't tell a book by its cover..." Thelma Straw in Manhattan

    1. T, I agree there are many stereotypes and writers still use some of the ones you mention.

  2. Loved Tony Soprano, the Corleones (except Carlo who wasn't), Dets. Aurelio Zen in Venice, Nic Costa in Rome, Joe Pesci in 'Goodfellas', Victor Mature as an Italian stoolie in 'Kiss of Death'. You're right! Those cops and gangsters were GOOD PEOPLE. Outgoing, approachable! You could have a spirited conversation with them (if it didn't end with one to the back of your head).
    Bob K.

    1. Bob, right you are. No surprise. My favorite use off Italian culture to make a villain interesting is Hannibal Lecter: he is not Italian himself, but what makes him three dimensional is how sophisticated and cultured he is. He can draw the panorama of Florence from the Piazzale Michelangelo from memory and when he eats his victims liver, he does it with some fava beans and a good bottle of Chianti. He is fabulous. I want to meet him. But without the cannibal!/ Serial killer part! Inventing him was an act of genius!