Whose Hand Rocks Our Cradle?
Published in Fra Noi, December 2005
By John Mancini
While we have been challenging ethnic defamation in adult entertainment, the media have sneaked past us to assault our children. The propaganda barons of Hollywood and our own mobstars have discovered a new source of revenue in the juvenile market. They are now defining what an "Italian" is to our pre-teenage children. They can do so with impunity because our culture is family-based rather than community-based. Acculturation, such as it is, is left to parents whose knowledge of their Italian heritage usually revolves around food and anecdotes. Children are merely expected to carry on family traditions rather than the community legacy. Consequently, the media find little resistance to portraying Italian culture in stereotypical form to our children.
Shark Tale, the 2005 animated film that featured Italo-mobster fish, established the precedent that children of Italian origin are not a protected group in America. Shark Tale is to children what GoodFellas is to us: a mob movie. In other words, negative images and negative role models that would rightly be withheld from the general pre-teen population are considered appropriate for Italic children. This media prejudice was confirmed this year by the overwhelming silence of Italian American politicians, prominenti, and sixteen million of our brethren. Shark Tale, with little opposition, went on to multiply its pernicious effects in books sold today in schools, in DVD's marketed around the world, on cable, and even in community-sponsored film festivals. It has become an on-going source of profit for DreamWorks, Steven Spieberg, Robert De Niro, Michael Imperioli, Katie Couric and Scholastic Books. Even Coca-Cola, Burger King, Krispy Kreme and General Mills profited from the propaganda.
And, it doesn't stop there. Our children can now purchase a book called Nicky Deuce, written by Sopranos regular Steven Schirripa. Mr. Schirripa is the messiah of a lifestyle aberration known as "the goomba." Nicky Deuce follows a series of adult books with names like The Goomba's Guide to Life and The Goomba's Guide to Love. It is Schirripa's dream to codify and promote his way of life to the rest of us: men should never help clean up after meals, women should master the art of fellatio, petty theft is okay, enjoy Italian cuisine until you burst, etc. Needless to say, most adults treat his books as gag gifts.
Nicky Deuce is Schirripa's nostalgic peon to his old neighborhood and a call to 12-year olds to shed their assimilated ways for the way of the goomba. As Virgil was Dante's guide to the Inferno, Schirripa casts himself as Uncle Frankie, the grand master for Nicky's street education. Soon, Nicky is sneaking into movies, passing counterfeit money and practicing his "fugheddaboutit" on schoolteachers. [By the way, Schirripa's mother was Jewish and her father was a made-man in Murder Inc. Nevertheless, Schirripa has earned an impressive living as an "Italian." There probably will never be a Hymie Deuce or a "mensch" movement in our lifetime.]
So, our children can now purchase Shark Tale and Nicky Deuce at their local bookstore. Schirripa has a wild idea to parlay Nicky Deuce into a movie or Saturday morning television animation. Anything goes when the Italic image is for sale. Even Disney takes liberties with our children. While the black stereotypes of the Disney classic Song of the South are no longer available to the public, Disney's Lady and the Tramp, a 1950's animation, continues to feature the "I breaka you face" buffoonery of Tony's Restaurant staff. In addition, a new stage show on the Disney cruise ship includes an evil character named Franco di Fortunato. It parallels the evil Italian, Cavaldi, in the recent movie and soon-to-be DVD, The Brothers Grimm.
The pattern of Hollywood's manipulation of our children is all too apparent. In 1985, Steven Spielberg produced The Goonies, a live-action film featuring the Fratelli crime family. (As the cable networks and rental outlets are hungry for product, The Goonies and all these other films are still available for viewing.) This year, a family movie called Racing Stripes cast mobstar Joe "Joey Pants" Pantoliano as an Italic gangster pelican. Even the darling of some Italian American organizations, Tony LoBianco, hams it up for our kids as a Mafia don in his live-action spoof Mafia!, still to be seen on cable and at video stores but rarely on his resume.
According to many couch-based Italian Americans, all of these movies, books and shows can be enjoyed by our children with no ill effect. Our children, like us, have no issues, no problems of self-image, and no need for role models. They are well grounded in their culture (aka "the family") and get plenty of positive reinforcement in real life. Contrary to this view, a number of professional psychologists have documented their opposition to Shark Tale and Nicky Deuce as blatant attacks on vulnerable minds.
Meanwhile, the opposition to Shark Tale and the myriad other media products that target our children has been an embarrassment. Hollywood is now accustomed to seeing a divided community with unresponsive politicians and apathetic prominenti. Except for torpedoing DeNiro's honorary Italian citizenship, the Italian American organizations were unable to rouse the community or get satisfaction from Spielberg, DreamWorks or the media. In fact, DreamWorks has made an additional $10 million on cable deals for Shark Tale. It may live on for decades.
In the matter of Nicky Deuce, it should rightfully be stripped from retail bookshelves, as should any racist literature aimed at children. Such action is not a First Amendment issue. Rather, it is a Protection of Minors issue. Nevertheless, our track record for protecting and nurturing our children is abysmal. As was stated earlier, cultural education is last on the Italian American wish list, although it should be first. "The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world," as the saying goes. It only makes sense that a culture must acculturate future generations if it is to survive.
Unlike the Greeks, Jews, Armenians and other ethno-centric groups, it is not our custom to acculturate our children. These groups know the importance of molding young minds to prepare them to sustain their greater community and to fend off negative images. These groups rarely produce cultural hijackers such as our Mario Puzo, David Chase or Steve Schirripa, men who have had no Italian version of a Greek School or Yeshiva to attend. Their ethnic education was on the street and at the dinner table. To our shame, most Italian American children are still getting their ethnic education the same way. Now, they can add Shark Tale, Nicky Deuce, and Disney to their lesson books.
If we are not willing to fully mobilize against juvenile propaganda then we need to change the way we raise our children. Handing them a scholarship to study accounting at age 18 does not enhance italianita`. As generous as we may think we are, we have literally abandoned our children during their formative years. We continue to leave them open to ridicule, self-doubt and self-hatred. We allow others to raise our children and produce yet another generation of ill-prepared parents. It is unworthy of a people who are the cornerstone of Western Civilization.
(John Mancini is Chairman of the Italic Institute of America and Executive Director of the Aurora Youth Program.)