“Just because we are Italian, it doesn’t mean you have to be a Mafioso.”
So said Manny Alfano, anti-violence chairman of UNICO National Inc., an Italian-American service organization, on Friday.
He shares a common concern with some Italian-Americans who say they believe that Hollywood has exploited and misrepresented their culture for years.
The worst offender, at present: The Sopranos.
The American Italian Defense Association filed a lawsuit on Thursday in Chicago against the makers of the HBO television series, alleging that the program wrongly portrays most Italian-Americans as mobsters.
The series “suggests that criminality is in the blood or in the genes of Italian-Americans and that Italians as early immigrants to this country had little opportunity other than to turn to crime,” the association said in a statement.
Time Warner Entertainment said it is “very proud” of its critically acclaimed show.
“We are hardly alone in our assessment that the show is an extraordinary artistic achievement,” according to a Time Warner Entertainment statement said.
Alfano’s group is working with the American Italian Defense Association to combat stereotypes that they consider an affront to their community. He said the film and television industry began its misguided portrayal of the Italian-American community in the early 1960s, when the series The Untouchables first aired.
The series depicted the U.S. government’s war against mobster Al Capone, who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y, to an immigrant Italian family.
When The Untouchables first began airing, Italian-American organizations worked independently of each other, but now they are coming together and speak as one united voice, Alfano said.
The Italian-American group is not looking to gain any profit from this lawsuit, but hope to gain back their “individual dignity” under Illinois law, the clause in which Time Warner Entertainment Co. is being sued under.
The group wants a moral victory by having a jury declare that the series offends the dignity of Italian-Americans, attorney Enrico Mirabelli told Reuters on Friday.
“There is so much emphasis placed on The Sopranos because of its stands,” Alfano said. “We are for the First Amendment and against censorship. I don’t expect the series to be taken off the air.”
If a jury finds for the plaintiff, the group said it hopes that Hollywood will begin to look for positive traits in their community.
“We can dilute that image if the media has more positive programming and roles,” Alfano said. “But that is someone no one wants to address because that’s what sells.”
He sees the portrayal of Italian-Americans in the media as offensive. The Sopranos, he said, is a “soap opera at its worst,” where most of the characters act violently and cheat on their spouses.
“It goes beyond The Sopranos,” he said. He cited Matt LeBlanc‘s character, Joey, on Friends and the Barone family from Everyone Loves Raymond as terrible Italian-American stereotypes.
“The image we see is that we are buffoons, Mafioso and bimbos, which we are not,” he said.