I have written on this subject elsewhere in the past few years. My doing so did not make much of a dent in the most common American stereotype. And it’s unlikely that I will succeed this time. But I feel compelled to try.
Too often the American crime novelist, casting about for an identity for his latest villain, takes the easy way out and makes him Italian. Such writers raise my hackles in the process.
Even otherwise stellar writers, some my own blogmates and former denizens of these precincts, do so regularly. None of their good guys, hardly ever even a victim is Italian, but for some, almost invariably, their violent sleazeballs have Italian surnames that go with first names like Vinnie and Rocco. One even had his protagonist think of the criminal in the story as a “goomba.” This from a good and serious writer who, I am certain, would never dream of having his hero think the N-word about a criminal. That would be racist.
I imagine, for such writers, when the first thought about a criminal comes to mind, the Italian stereotype rushes into his or her mind and then runs down the arms and out the fingers without any conscious evaluation.
We Americans all know: criminals are Italian.
Well, yes. A few actually are.
The actor Paul Sorvino once remarked in an interview that according to FBI records, at the peak of their numbers, there were about two thousand Italian-American organized criminals in the United States. That would have been in the 30’s or the 50’s.
Given that there are, as of the 2010 census, 17,250,211 Americans who claim to be of Italian descent, 2000 criminals (if there are still that number) 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.
At this point in my ethnic group’s history, we can boast (or lament) far, far greater representation among Supreme Court Justices, college professors, medical researchers, artists, musicians, and airline pilots than among organized criminals. Hell, we are probably over-represented among novelists and screenwriters.
Why is she so focused on this, you may be asking? You see despite the facts, if you are Italian-American—or even “worse” like me, Sicilian-American and born in New Jersey, there are vast numbers of people who are willing to assume that you are “connected.” Perfect strangers, on hearing about my heritage, assume that I must have relatives who are criminals, and that I most likely have shady events even my own past. Complete strangers in Alaska or Indiana, within approximately thirty seconds of finding out about my background, have said the word “mafia.”
Why is this stereotype so persistent?
Simply because people see the evidence in the movies or on television and in the crime novels written by my colleagues in the biz.
But why, by now, hasn’t some other ethnic group taken over as the criminals of choice?
I would say it’s authorial kneejerk writing. And a touch of laziness.
We all know we have to make our characters, especially on the screens—large and small—seem real. Three-dimensional. Interesting and believable. Not merely evil doing stick figures.
In movies about non-Italian criminals, the bad guys are almost always one-dimensional. I once saw a movie about English organized criminals—The Krays. Ugly! The dastardly brothers 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. I imagine that the screenwriters 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 stereotype perpetuation but then succumbed to on Netflix) What made that crime family so much more interesting than the Krays? 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. People find it a whole lot easier to believe Italian families will stick together no matter what. I think 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 villains with mothers who worry about them and nephews who will never desert them.
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 the word “family,” we long for kin who will love us no matter how much they may disapprove of what we do. We all need people we can depend on to stand by us, whose loyalty is based on blood, not behavior. Looking for three-dimensional villains, fiction writers for screen and page take the easy path to making their characters “real.” When they want an evildoer to also seem like a real person, with parents and siblings who care about him, they make him Italian.
Some writers find more creative ways to round out the heinous among their imaginary friends. My favorite use of Italian culture to make a villain interesting is Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal 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 victim’s liver, he does it with some fava beans and a good bottle of Chianti. He is fabulous. You would want to know him if it weren’t for the serial killer/cannibal part! Inventing him was an act of genius!
So my writer friends, next time you invent a villain, do it the hard way. By going beyond stereotypes, you may create a villain for the ages.