Friday, March 4, 2011

The Lament of a Guido

The Funny Parts includes a chapter on blackface routines. This is undoubtedly a sensitive subject and, in writing about blackface caricatures, I couldn't help but consider the harm caused by the unfriendly portrayal of groups in films.

I have personally been affected by ethnic stereotypes. I live in a town where Italians are few and far between. When The Sopranos was at its peak of popularity, I had people calling me "Tony Soprano" or telling me to "fuggedaboutit." They thought they were having harmless fun, but I was made uncomfortable by the comments. I did not like that I, as an Italian-American, was being associated with Mafia stereotypes. I am not the only person stung by Italian stereotypes. The MTV reality show Jersey Shore was recently protested by Italian-American advocacy groups for its negative portrayal of Italian-Americans and the repeated use of the ethnic slur "Guido." Last week, I was sitting in the waiting room of a doctor's office while an episode of Jersey Shore was being loudly broadcast on a flat-screen television mounted on the wall beside me. As the cast was engaged in one of their ridiculously overheated arguments, a black woman sitting across from me kept giggling. Eventually, she turned to a companion and said, "They are so Italian."

The racist portrayal of German soldiers in Inglourious Basterds (2009) is vicious, calculated and unapologetic. Hollywood filmmakers have felt for a long time that Nazi war crimes grant them boundless license to denigrate the German people. I grew up in a quiet suburb during the sixties. My family was the only Italian family in a predominantly German neighborhood. At the time, movies inundated me with horribly evil German characters. These films made me paranoid of my neighbors. I lived in terror of the lanky Mr. Vesely. His grim expression, ramrod posture and measured steps convinced me that he was a former SS officer. What was to stop him from acting like Rolf in The Sound of Music and turning my family in to an underground remnant of the Third Reich? How did I know he wasn't going to join forces with the Otto Preminger-looking Mr. Hoffmann to install a line of barbed wire around my home? If Steve McQueen couldn't jump a barbed wire fence using a Triumph TR6 Trophy Bird motorcycle, I doubt that I could jump the fence with my Schwinn Racer.

No one is safe from negative stereotyping. I was active in a fathers’ rights organization a few years ago. We were trying to get the message out that fathers are competent and loving parents and they deserve equal standing with mothers in child custody cases. Meanwhile, CBS television, with its line-up of "dumb dad" sitcoms, was sending out the message that fathers were bad parents. Ray Romano tries to make dinner for the family and he sets the kitchen on fire. That may have been a funny scene in 1955, but we live today in a nation where we are segregated into competing political factions. No one can afford to have one of their own depicted in a degrading way on prime time television.

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