Monday, October 12, 2009

Tony Soprano—Defining Italian Americans and Preserving the Mob Mentality

By Jack Weingart

By defining time periods and shaping people’s ideologies, it is without a doubt that popular culture has vast affects on society. In many ways, popular culture determines what people know and how they view the world that they live in. As a result, “our images and understandings of immigrants, of subcultures, and of the human nature of diverse peoples are heavily influenced by what we receive through that culture” (Beck 2000:25). While many immigrant groups initially experience a period of prejudices and stereotypes in the minds of their hosts, they are regularly able to divert from those images and capable of defying such notions. This does not hold true for Italian Americans, however, who have been continuously identified and associated with organized crime and the Mob. As Bernard Beck explains, the mob-image of Italian Americans “has become a staple of the American commercial culture and folk consciousness. Through the dissemination of American ideas in movies and popular culture, Italians have come to stand for organized criminality all over the world” (Beck 2000:24).

The Sopranos, which began in 1998 on the Home Box Office, is perhaps the latest instalment of this never ending storyline of the Italian gangster world. For six seasons, viewers were allowed into the life, mind, and family of Tony Soprano—the mob boss of the DiMeo crime family. Soprano is your stereotypical mob man; residing in New Jersey, killing off who ever threatens his family or business, and a practicing Roman Catholic dealing with the anxiety, guilt, and insecurities that come along with the job. In terms of popular beliefs, Soprano defines the stereotypical Italian American and preserves the Mob mentality that delineates this subculture.

While they have grown and prospered as an American group, gaining success, respectability, and familiarity, Italian Americans are still not free from the taint of the Mob. As Beck explains, “the fate of diverse subgroups in our society depends on the roles assigned to them in such popular dramas, and those roles are assigned in accordance with the needs of plot construction more than the needs of accuracy” (Beck 2000:25). In other words, the media hegemonically constructs stereotypical images of subgroups, Italian Americans in this case, in order to preserve and reinvent story lines. Media consumers form ideologies that are contingent upon these repetitive images and portrayals. Consequently, “the efforts of actual Italian American people and organizations to adjust their terms of image and identity are limited by the refusal of the public-as-movie-audience to abandon their beloved, cherished mafia image” (Beck 2000:25).

The Sopranos’ depiction of society is just as alarming as the stereotypical portrayals Italian Americans endure. Based on the show’s plot, content, and themes, The Sopranos basically tells viewers that “America is in an existential crisis; that faith and ethics have fallen by the wayside not only in practice but in theory as well; that we ignore death at the same time as we are obsessively anxious about it; and that God is a delusion” (Reinhartz 2009:397) While some argue that the program is merely entertainment, it is hard to claim that the show’s messages do not have any effect on viewers’ psyche.

As sociologist Stuart Hall points out, the danger of ideologies is that they “work most effectively when we are not aware that how we formulate and construct a statement about the world is underpinned by ideological premises” (2000:272). In other words, many viewers do not realize that what they are watching and digesting subconsciously shapes how they see the world and others. In the case of The Sopranos, and in many other instances in the entertainment industry, the media seems to naturalise and promote images and ideologies that are not entirely accurate. As a result, subcultures like Italian Americans continue to face age-old stereotypes and prejudices in a seemingly natural and requisite way because it is simply believed to be ‘just the way things are.’

Works Cited

Beck, Bernard. “The Myth That Would Not Die: The Sopranos, Mafia Movies, and Italians in America.” Multicultural Perspectives 2.2 (2000). 08 Oct. >.

Hall, Stuart. “Racist Ideologies and the Media.” Media Studies: A Reader. Eds. P. Marris and S. Thornham. 2nd Edition. New York: New York University Press, 2000. Ch22, 271-282.

Reinhartz, Adele. “‘Who Am I? Where Am I Going?’: Life, Death, and Religion in The Sopranos.” Small Screen Big Picture: Television and Lived Religion. Ed. Diane Winston. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2009. 373-400.

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