A whip-smart meditation on the power of ethnic myth, in this instance the one that supposes that to be an Italian American is by definition to walk among the dons and the goombahs.
The Mafia, some say, is fading away. But “if the mob indeed is dying, American popular culture tells a different story,” writes cultural critic De Stefano: Thanks to The Sopranos, organized crime has been restored in the popular imagination to its proper role as heart and hearth of italianità. So culturally accurate is the show, De Stefano allows, that it may not be possible to correct that perception; even as the mobsters surrounding Tony Soprano take their cultural cues from earlier Mob classics—particularly The Godfather, the touchstone of it all—there are few pop-culture pieces that do not echo The Sopranos, few that depict Italian Americans as being, well, just plain folks without conniving, murderous streaks to wrestle with. De Stefano writes elegantly of self-discoveries: As a bearded radical (à la Al Pacino’s Serpico, one imagines) just beginning to be aware of being gay, he was still thrilled by Don Corleone, only to wonder later whether there weren’t more to the story. He examines the rise of the mobster in popular culture, tracing its origin to the 1930 film The Doorway to Hell (and not, as many histories do, to the following year’s Little Caesar), and follows its course through the thick stereotypes of the Untouchables era, to the pensive doings of Martin Scorsese’s rebel gangsters and, finally, to David Chase’s current depictions, which have anti-defamation groups at a constant boil. Should they be so bothered? De Stefano is sympathetic, but he wonders whether an unlinking from the mob and all its symbolism might not mean “the end of the Italian American as a protagonist in American popular culture.”
What’s worse, to be seen in a negative light—or to not be seen at all? A good question, and a very good source for those who like to scratch below the surface.