Character Versus Caricature: A Fine Line
Character: One of the attributes or features that make up and distinguish an individual.
Caricature: Exaggeration by means of often ludicrous distortion of parts or characteristics.
When Tommy DeVito became the starting QB with the Giants, I was rooting for him. Not just as a fellow New Jerseyan, but as a fellow American of Italian descent. He was doing well and injected a sense of local pride as well as some much needed excitement into the local fan base.
The media loved his live-at-home-chicken-cutlet persona. To those of us in the community, this was nothing new. We have loyalty to our families. We have an incredibly strong work ethic. We do our best to stay humble. We are loud. We have a good time. They made it the mainstay of their coverage.
Then came the national coverage. The parody videos. Trying to explain hand gestures. His agent’s style of dress that looks like he just walked out of central casting. He went from a guy with character, to a caricature.
It is a fine line we walk. We know we have a unique way about ourselves, but we don’t like when people take shots at us. Sometimes it’s hard to know when people are laughing with you or at you.
I think that’s why many of us have a love/hate relationship with movies like GoodFellas and The Godfather as well as television shows like The Sopranos. We love the familiarity of Sunday dinners and hanging out with cousins. We don’t like when everyone assumes we are all “connected” or makes stupid “ginzo” comments.
Much like when Fiorello Laguardia outlawed organ grinders and their monkeys in New York City in 1936, we need to be aware of our cultural perception by the media and the public.
It is interesting when you think about it. At a time when most people are “culturally sensitive” when it comes to just about every race, ethnicity, and background, it seems the Italian heritage is the last great bastion for so-called humorous stereotypes.
How does a stereotype become a stereotype?
Like most people, I heard all kinds of stereotypes growing up. Irish drunks. Hispanic drug dealers. And of course Italian mafia members. Eliminating stereotypes is practically a cottage industry these days. Eventually, they have just about all gone away. Except one.
Back in 2022, a Politico reporter used a Middletown Board of Education member’s last name as a typical play on words. The BOE member’s name was Frank Capone. I’ll give you one guess the approach he took.
Not long ago an organization tried to smooth things over after ignoring Columbus Day/Italian Heritage Month by sharing all they love about the Italian culture. The punchline? A reference to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Now, substitute that with Speedy Gonzalez. Think that would’ve gone unnoticed? I doubt it.
So what do we do?
It’s a hard issue for us to handle. Our usual collective response is to let stupidity roll off our backs like water on a duck’s back. We aren’t afraid to have a loud laugh. After all, our ancestors faced far worse when they first arrived in America.
I wish I had a good answer, but I don’t. My recommendation is to call out inappropriate comments when you hear them. Tell that individual why their comments aren’t appropriate. Ask how it would sound with another race or ethnicity substituted. Yes, you probably will get an eyeroll. But if we don’t start calling it out for what it is – ignorant stupidity – we will forever be relegated to the mobster in the movies, instead of the neurologist.