Stereotypes of Italian Americans in Film and Television

Why Italians are too often viewed as mobsters, peasants and thugs

'Jersey Shore' stars Jenni 'JWoww' Farley and Nicole 'Snooki' Polizzi
'Jersey Shore' stars Jenni 'JWoww' Farley and Nicole 'Snooki' Polizzi attend Build Series to discuss their new show 'Moms With Attitude' at AOL HQ on Sept. 14, 2016 in New York City. Photo by Steve Zak Photography/FilmMagic

Italian Americans may be European in ancestry, but they were not always treated as "white" in the United States, as the pervasive stereotypes about them demonstrate. Not only did Italian immigrants to America face employment discrimination in their adopted homeland, they also faced violence by whites who viewed them as “different.” Because of their once marginalized status in this country, ethnic stereotypes of Italians persist in film and television.

On the big and small screen, alike, Italian Americans are all too often portrayed as mobsters, thugs and peasants hawking spaghetti sauce. While Italian Americans have made great strides in U.S. society, their characterization in popular culture remains stereotypical and troublesome.


Fewer than .0025 percent of Italian Americans are involved in organized crime, according to the Italian American News website. But one would be hard-pressed to know that from watching Hollywood television shows and movies, where just about every Italian family has mob ties. In addition to films such as “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas,” “Casino” and “Donnie Brasco,” television shows such as “The Sopranos,” “Growing Up Gotti” and “Mob Wives” have perpetuated the idea that Italian Americans and organized crime go hand-in-hand. While many of these films and shows have won critical praise, they do little to complicate the image Italian Americans have in popular culture.

Food-Making Peasants

Italian cuisine is among the most popular in the United States. Accordingly, a number of television commercials depict Italians and Italian Americans flipping pizzas, stirring tomato sauce and squashing grapes. In many of these commercials, Italian Americans are portrayed as heavily accented, robust peasants.

The Italian American News website describes how a Ragu commercial features “several elderly, overweight Italian American women in house dresses [who] are so delighted with Ragu’s meat sauce that they turn somersaults and play leapfrog in a meadow.” An undue amount of food ads portray Italian women as “elderly, overweight housewives and grandmothers wearing black dresses, housecoats or aprons,” the site reports.

“Jersey Shore”

When MTV reality series “Jersey Shore” debuted, it became a pop culture sensation. Viewers of all ages and ethnic backgrounds faithfully tuned in to watch the group of mostly Italian American friends hit the bar scene, work out at the gym, tan and do laundry. But prominent Italian-Americans protested that the bouffant-haired stars of the show—self-described Guidos and Guidettes—were spreading negative stereotypes about Italians.

Joy Behar, co-host of ABC’s “The View,” said that “Jersey Shore” did not represent her culture. “I do have a master’s degree, so a person like me is rather annoyed with a show like that because I went to college, you know, to better myself, and then these idiots come out and make Italians look bad,” she said. “It’s awful. They should go to Firenze and Rome and Milano and see what Italians really did in this world.

It’s irritating.”

Bigoted Thugs

Anyone familiar with Spike Lee’s films knows that he has persistently depicted Italian Americans as dangerous, racist thugs from New York City’s working class. Italian Americans such as these can be found in a number of Spike Lee films, most notably “Jungle Fever,” “Do The Right Thing” and “Summer of Sam.” When Lee criticized "Django Unchained" director Quentin Tarantino for turning slavery into a spaghetti Western, Italian groups called him a hypocrite because of the thread of anti-Italian bias that runs through his films, they said.

“When it comes to Italian Americans, Spike Lee has never done the right thing,” said Andre DiMino, president of the Italian American One Voice Coalition. “One wonders if Spike Lee is indeed a racist who hates Italians and why he harbors a grudge.”

One Voice voted Lee into its Hall of Shame because of his portrayals of Italian Americans. In particular, the group criticized “Summer of Sam” because the movie “descends into a panoply of negative character portrayals, with Italian Americans as mobsters, drug dealers, drug addicts, racists, deviants, buffoons, bimbos, and sex-crazed fiends.”

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Your Citation
Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Stereotypes of Italian Americans in Film and Television." ThoughtCo, Sep. 18, 2016, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2016, September 18). Stereotypes of Italian Americans in Film and Television. Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Stereotypes of Italian Americans in Film and Television." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2018).