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An Offer You Can’t Refuse
The Mafia, specifically referencing the Italian-American organized crime syndicate, and their lifestyle had dazzled audiences since the 1930s in early cinema. These gangsters were talked about in the news, started to appear in movies, lend its influence to Noir that’s lasts to this day. In 1972 The Godfather came out and has become some of America’s most treasured iconography, winning 18 various awards such as an Oscar and a Golden Globe. The secrecy, the brutality, the riches and the swagger of the characters are appealing to audiences. The ideology to the gangster isn’t restricted to the Italian-American culture but its influence can be seen in representations of African-American gangs and other organized criminal groups; this will be discussed further in this essay. Dozens of popular media starring the gangster also include hits like: Goodfella’s, Boardwalk Empire, Grand Theft Auto, The Sopranos, and Public Enemies.
It Feels Good to be Bad
In a society where crime is to be abhorred, why do audiences love the media’s portrayal of gangsters and all their heinous acts? Let’s look at two elements: fantasy and taboo. The fantasy refers to the idea of being the center of the world and everything is at your command, a relatable albeit unrealistic dream that the gangster embodies. The taboo refers to their crimes, how audiences find themselves fascinated by observing the actions that are so strictly forbidden. Keep in mind a typical formula in the mafia narrative used in literature and cinema: man starts as a disrespected minority but rises to power and money through illicit activity, after things start to turn the gangster either dies (Boardwalk Empire, Public Enemies) is forced to return to being a powerless everyday man (Goodfella’s, turning off GTA), or some combination (The Soprano’s, The Godfather).
The mafia embodies a fantasy that almost everyone can relate to, the fantasy of control. Imagine being a gangster: you live like a king, you snap your finger, and your demands are fulfilled, your seemingly untouchable by the law; you control your own life. Control is the keyword here, audiences relate to wanting some form of control over their lives and when that illusion is broken, for example when someone cuts in front of you in line, the response is anger. Gangsters are the fantasy that no one would dare cut in front of you; things go your way because of your power, respect, influence, and riches. Perhaps what is more important that that they embody a relatable fantasy is how much audiences respond to the tragedy when the gangster loses power. As best said by British psychologist Adam Phillips: “We wouldn’t think of anything as a tragedy if we did not have a deeply ingrained sense of order already there to be affronted.” When the gangsters make it to the top just to be forced back to the bottom of society, it feels like a wrong has been done, regardless at the fact that the characters where criminals. F. Manson writes in his book American Gangster Cinema: From “Little Caesar” to “Pulp Fiction” about what the gangster can symbolize outside of the fantasy: “film uses gangster society as a symbol for the loss of control…” In a world where audiences are told that they are the masters of their own destiny, the gangster and their fall is a reminder that it’s simply not true. Everyone one, no matter how in control they seem, can be returned to a state of powerlessness again.
As an example of this take The Family, which was both novel, originally titled Malavita, and movie starring Robert De Nero . In this story a family is forced to relocate to France when the father, who was once a powerful New York City gangster, is forced into witness protection. In their new town the family tries to regain some form of control in their lives but in the end fails and is forced to relocate once more. While the audience doesn’t see the rise of our gangster per say, the idea of control, the loss, and desire for it is still prevalent. We can relate to the father, who just wants his kitchen sink to run clean water instead of brown water but finds that no one will help until he forces them. Audiences not only relate but also find that they can cheer for the ex-hit man when he takes control and resolves his water problem.
Taboo by definition means: prohibited by social custom, and it is easy to see how the Mafia is taboo: murder, robbery, extortion, prison breaks, drug dealing, their rap sheet is long. What is interesting about something that is taboo? Kennedy Clinkscale and Emil Rapp in their video essay "Why Do We Love Gangsters," offer this explanation; “Something taboo is untouchable, and there is a fascination with things that cannot be touched. Subjects like sex and violence are taboo, but the fact that they cannot be touched gives them a level of power. If you refuse to touch something, then you have to be, at some level, obsessed with it. If that thing didn’t matter to you, then you wouldn’t care if you touched it.” Like a teenager, there is something about knowing you’re not allowed to do something that makes it more compelling to do. There is a big difference between simple teenaged rebellion and participating in organized crime. While most would avoid any contact with organized crime, reading a book or watching a movie provides a way to indulge ourselves without the consequences.
Let’s use The Family again, as an example of taboos. At the beginning of the movie, the mother of the mob family goes to a market to get groceries on their first day in a new town. Not knowing that she understood French, the locals in the market gossip at the fact that she is American and thus her food choices are disgusting. She is the wife of a mafia man and it angers her to have to accept such poor treatment, so she blows the store up using gas and matches. Especially in contemporary times, blowing a building up is incredibly taboo due to the association with terrorist attacks. Yet, the scene is played off quite humorously and the audience feels a sense of enjoyment at the mother’s revenge. There are many scenes where the audience finds themselves reveling in the violence; this is common in all gangster media. The taboo is tantalizing.
Criminals are people too.
Outside of embracing human fantasy and taboo—mafia stories contain lessons in how and why crime can be rationalized and sympathized with. To understand why anyone could argue that the gangster isn’t bad the real-world history should be understood. The Mafia originated in Sicily and due to the island’s geographical location faced being colonized by several different powers. Many of the dominating countries were abusive to the original population: “the Mafia began as a way of life: a way to protect one's family and loved ones from the injustice of the government." These families gain influence in their communities and when governments fail they take over. Jumping ahead to the 1800-1900s, immigrants entered America to find more injustice and the mafia found reason to form overseas. Why should the underprivileged care if they are breaking the law? The history explains how sympathetic the reasons to becoming a criminal can be. “The gangster’s business-like garb… marked their rise from destitute pasts to wealth, and positioned them as a model of the new American ideal for the urban working class” is what Laura Besmears, an art historian, wrote in her essay "Honorable Style in Dishonorable Times" where she focuses on the image of the gangster and its impact on Western culture. She makes the point; “…all famous mobsters started out as a common-men, usually from blue-collar impoverished childhoods yet become kings." Real-world gangsters were regarded in positive light, Charles ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd’s full title included “Robin Hood of the Cookson Hills” and Al Capone was known to have opened several soup kitchens during the great depression for unemployed citizens.
Storytellers, taking inspirations from the real world, aim to make their badass gangsters sympathetic. Popular lines from fictional gangsters include: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster," “I don’t wanna be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me,” and “You don’t make up for you sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home.” The previous example, The Family, does this as well: “I won't spare myself. I'll tell the story without trying to make myself look good. But in this chapter I'll do the opposite and demonstrate to you that if you take a closer look, I'm a good guy. I'll prove it to you in 10 points…” The point to these lines are to make their crimes less senseless and horrific. They are men who grew not knowing anything else, they encourage change in their communities, they know they’re bad but have a code which makes them honorable which makes them sympathetic and their actions rationalized. A.W. Eaton’s book Robust Immoralist makes the interesting point about liking bad-guy characters: “What does this say about me and the many other lovers of rough heroes? Perhaps that we have a dark side that these works elicit. Or maybe that we have especially flexible and expansive imaginations that allow us to put ourselves in the shoes of others whose ethical views differ starkly from our own.” Rather than saying that we are immoral because we like immoral characters, I think it shows how having more morally grey characters are more accessible to audiences because the average person isn’t purely good or evil. This logic applies to our real lives that totally evil and perfectly good don’t exist and that’s what makes everyone human. When a character is presented as a human it is easy to sympathize with them, and rationalize their actions.
Don’t Stereotype Me
So while tales of gangsters show how far our ability to relate to other humans can go, the media’s portrayal of these character tropes can be damaging through perpetuating racial stereotyping. These narratives also glamourize crime and desensitize violence, but we will discuss this more in the psycho-killer section. The identity of the gangster is directly connected to their ethnicity, most being Italian-American, but this also applies to groups such as African-American gangs. While it is true that many gangs are racially segregated, the portrayal of them in media can encourage negative stereotyping. According to real-world statistics, 74% of adult Americans in 2003 believed that majority of Italian-Americans have connections to organized crimes, yet “The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that less than .0025 percent of the 26 million Americans of Italian descent are involved in organized crime.” Some of these negative stereotypes include: Italian-Americans being violent, dishonest, uneducated and overweight due to over eating. Having descended from Sicilians, I find myself sharing the same mixed feelings as many of my peers towards these depictions. “Though pop culture’s fascination with the Mafia has undeniably fueled certain negative stereotypes about Italian-Americans, acclaimed works like The Godfather, Goldfields, and The Sopranos have also given many Italian-Americans a sense of shared identity and experience” But this shared identity isn’t one that was chosen and decided by us within that community.
African-American gangsters are portrayed similarly in media and results in similar stereotyping. In fact, Italian-American gangsters are often directly referenced in rap/hip-hop songs, such as Wu-Gambino by Raekwon, artist Yo Gotti gets his name from mob boss Jon Gotti and popular artists Jay Z, Lil Wayne, and Kanye West name drop specific famous gangsters in their music. Movie posters featuring African-American gangs style themselves like a Mafia film.
Another problem about these stereotypes, such as being violent and dishonest, is that it is being applied to minority communities in an on-going social climate of racial tensions. The popular Fox show Empire is often compared to the The Sopranos, not only in style but in concerns of how the shows portray the ethnicity of the characters. Eric Diggins on National Public Radio Inc. argues in his article "Does Fox’s ‘Empire’ Break or Bolster Black Stereotypes" that “Exploring a character's humanity sidesteps a lot of pitfalls of stereotyping," says Hunt, a professor of sociology who co-authors the Bunche Center's annual report on TV and film diversity… This is something I also saw way back when HBO's The Sopranos was popular. Some Italian-American groups complained about the glorification of yet another Italian mobster figure, and they had a point. But the humanization of Tony Soprano and his family also helped move the characters beyond stereotypes to tell a broader story.” While I can agree, tropes and stereotypes can be used to discuss a deeper theme in a story, I do think it should not be handled with nonchalance. Claiming that the intent of the stereotypes use wasn’t supposed to offend doesn’t make it inoffensive—especially when handling the sensitive topic of race.
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