Lecture confronts cinematic Italian-American caricatures

Francis Ford Coppola’s acclaimed mob drama “The Godfather” is one of many iconic films that enforce hyper-exaggerated stereotypes of Italian-Americans. Courtesy of Komers Real via flickr

With last week’s release of the live-action “Lady and the Tramp” alongside the launch of Disney’s new streaming service, Disney+, Disney fans can now witness the iconic spaghetti date from the original 1955 movie come to life. But this beloved scene, widely considered one of the most romantic moments in Disney cinematic history, is ridden with ethnic stereotyping of Italian-Americans. The chefs who prepare the spaghetti and meatballs for Lady and Tramp are an example of the caricatured Italian immigrants seen in countless movies and TV shows, including the cherished Disney classic.

Assistant Professor of Italian Studies Sole Anatrone delved into these stereotypes and their political and social history in film on Wednesday, Nov. 13 during a lecture to students in the Italian department titled “Italy and Its Migrations: Fresh Off the Boat and Onto the Screen.” The evening mainly focused on the relationship between Italian emigration and film. Anatrone’s talk provided a glimpse into a course she will teach next semester with similar themes. The class will look at fiction, letters, poetry and other works that capture these stories of Italian migration, especially into the United States.

Many of the quintessentially Italian-American cinematic pieces that Anatrone presented to the students were instantly recognizable—“The Godfather,” “The Sopranos”—while others, such as “L’emigrante,” were lesser-known. The wide array of media Anatrone discussed points to how pervasive Italian-American stereotyping is throughout our culture. In an email correspondence, she described the significance of these filmic depictions: “One of the most enduring stereotypes of the Italian immigrant… is a caricature of an undereducated, shabbily dressed person with a thick accent and a hyper-focus on food and family. This figure is typically accompanied by some kind of music that evokes folkloric traditions and harkens back to early decades of the last century.” The Italian chefs from “Lady and the Tramp,” with their heavy accents, their focus on food and their singing and dancing, are just one example of cinematic figures that align with this caricature.

Anatrone showed many clips from movies that came out during the 20th century, such as “Saturday Night Fever.” However, to present a more recent example of the over-the-top Italian character, she began the lecture with a scene from the sitcom “The Mindy Project.” The episode the clip was taken from, titled “Mindy and Nanny,” originally aired in October of 2015. The video showed an interaction between the title character, Mindy Lahiri, and her mother-in-law, Annette Castellano. With her obsession with food, Italian accent and prosciutto hanging from the ceilings, Castellano exemplifies the media’s Italian-American archetype. She represents what Anatrone deemed, “[T]he Italian immigrant who cannot lose her accent or redirect her loyalties away from Italy even a century after emigrating.”

These stereotypes that we see on the screen continue to impact public perception of Italian-Americans. It is so easy to take what we see on TV or in a movie and assume it reflects reality, especially since many of the works featuring these characters are instantly familiar for a broad audience. “By…repeating the association of particular groups with certain behaviors or appearances, film and television helps to condition our expectations of those groups off the screen,” Anatrone commented.

As a student taking Elementary Italian with no previous knowledge of the language, I was interested in seeing how the lecture related to what I was learning in class. Genuine Italian culture, which my class has been exploring, often conflicts with what we see on the screen. Because Italy contains such a sheer variety of cultures that differ across regions, the diversity of Italian life doesn’t fit into the narrow food-loving, family-focused stereotype that film and other works of fiction have forged.

When asked about the overall message she hopes students take from her lecture and from her course when it begins in the spring, Anatrone reflected, “[F]ocusing on representations of Italian immigrants allows us to trace the persistence of these cultural stereotypes over more than a century and consequently take a critical (not necessarily negative), but thoughtful approach to our position as spectators and as global citizens.” Although the representations of Italian characters, especially immigrants, can be inaccurate and restrictive, we can still enjoy these movies; the adorable moment when Lady and Tramp share spaghetti will continue to be one of Disney’s iconic scenes. Yet it is still important to acknowledge the nuanced history behind these exaggerated, limiting depictions of nationalities in film.

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