Zootopia, che cozz?

Mr_big When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: institutional racism and crude Italian-American stereotypes.

I had gone to see Zootopia with my kids. B/B+. Pretty cute, but not Disney’s best. It’s mildly funny, in usual kid picture way – some jokes for the kids (a sloth caught speeding), some meant to be lobbed over their heads at the parents (Breaking Bad references). My kids loved it, but for God’s sake, despite hearing all relevant aesthetic arguments they still love Garfield the Movie, so no one should ever take their opinion as any reflection of a movie’s merit.

HOWEVER. I am here neither to sing its praises nor bemoan its shortcomings qua entertainment. I am here to write of its morality. It means to be taken very seriously as a message to the audience of the evils institutional racism. Not as self-serious as Crash, but maybe only a few frames shy.

Briefly, in the city of Zootopia, all animals have shed their species’ genetic destiny to become the animal they wish to be. We follow bunny protagonist, Judy Hopps, as she defies expectations that she farm. She becomes the first bunny cop. Both explicitly and implicitly, though, the characters clearly have not shed their beliefs that anatomy is destiny – exhibiting their damaging prejudices against other species and groups of species (e.g., foxes are seen as sly, prey distrust predators).

It’s a much more clever and subtle message movie than Crash, actually. (Not that that’s difficult. And not that any movie, even children’s movies, need be a message movie.) It has a very nuanced understanding of the ways bias keeps an animal down in the world. The species do not, with one glaring exception which will be discussed below, strictly correspond to any one human ethnic group or race. There are, though, moments, experienced by the animals that recall human biases – one animal is complimented for being “articulate.”

Enter the arctic shrews. In this insightful movie about racism and bias, the filmmakers suddenly saw fit to pull out EVERY SINGLE ITALIAN-AMERICAN STEREOTYPE POSSIBLE. And unlike any other species in the movie that I can recall, these are the only species that are correlated to a specific ethnic group. Not played for any understanding whatsoever of course. Just for laffs!

Big hair with tons of product? Check. Murderous mafia criminality? Check. Over-sentimentality about family? Check. Charming moral ambiguity? Check. Criminal but doting father and willfully oblivious daughter? Check. Rat pack (ha) music? Check. Penchant for cannoli? Check. Not heavily burdened with intellect? Check. A boss with subordinates bound by loyalty ahead of any other virtue? Check.

Mr. Big, you see, is supposed to be Don Corleone. Which is funny, or something. You know, for kids!

I felt bad and somewhat guilty, leaving the movie theater. My kids are half-Jewish, half-Italian. (I contribute the Jewish.) My oldest is aware of the Holocaust in general terms, and has been teased with a few anti-Semitic comments. He overheard my husband and I talking to each other about how off-putting we found those scenes. Until that moment, as far as I know, he had never known that his half-Italian-ness was something anyone would mock.

His slump down and glance away from us is something that all the careful parental talks afterward can never erase from my heart. Thank you for raising awareness, Zootopia.

 

Elizabeth Picciuto

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.

34 Comments

  1. Could it be that Italians have, at least comparatively, been subject to less oppression as a result of their ethnicity than other groups, Jewish people in particular? And thus it seems less harmful to send up their stereotypes?

    And was that a shockingly ignorant thing to say? Is there more of a history of oppression than I am aware?

      

    • Well. Certainly less than Jews. But you know. There’s a reason Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Alan Alda, David Chase, etc. etc. changed their names. There was a lot of prejudice, especially perhaps 1900-1950. As depicted directly in It’s a Wonderful Life. Garlic-eaters, dagos, wops, etc. I always thought it was an under-written factor in Sinatra’s success that he (a) kept his name, and (b) flaunted his I-A accent in his singing.

      The KKK and other assholes were never too fond of Catholics.

      You may also recall a certain incident when we were together in which my husband was asked directly if he were “connected” to the mafia. That is neither the first nor last time that has happened to him. (For the record, he is a business analyst with a software development company. His father was a mailman.) And those are only the times when people addressed it with us directly.

      And finally. Ahem. I have said to my husband before that I notice prejudice against Italian-Americans in only two settings. Very slightly in academia. And quite noticeably in medicine. When I had a Jewish name, doctors simply spoke to me in a much more straightforward, data-driven way. With an Italian name, doctors are much more likely to be patronizing, use emotion-driven language, assume I don’t know what I’m talking about. Obviously, this is hard to study with BLINDED TRIALS, but I’m convinced of it.

      Well, people often hear my husband is Italian and say something silly like, “Oh he must be SUCH a good cook,” or something. But I don’t really count that.

        

    • Well. Certainly less than Jews. But you know. There’s a reason Dean Martin, Toney Bennett, Alan Alda, David Chase, etc. etc. changed their names. There was a lot of prejudice, especially perhaps 1900-1950. As depicted directly in It’s a Wonderful Life. Garlic-eaters, dagos, wops, etc. I always thought it was an under-written factor in Sinatra’s success that he (a) kept his name, and (b) flaunted his I-A accent in his singing.

      The KKK and other assholes were never too fond of Catholics.

      You may also recall a certain incident when we were together in which my husband was asked directly if he were “connected” to the mafia. That is neither the first nor last time that has happened to him. (For the record, he is a business analyst with a software development company. His father was a mailman.) And those are only the times when people addressed it with us directly.

      And finally. Ahem. I have said to my husband before that I notice prejudice against Italian-Americans in only two settings. Very slightly in academia. And quite noticeably in medicine. When I had a Jewish name, doctors simply spoke to me in a much more straightforward, data-driven way. With an Italian name, doctors are much more likely to be patronizing, use emotion-driven language, assume I don’t know what I’m talking about. Obviously, this is hard to study with BLINDED TRIALS, but I’m convinced of it.

      Well, people often hear my husband is Italian and say something silly like, “Oh he must be SUCH a good cook,” or something. But I don’t really count that.

        

      • FWIW, I’m pretty sure there’s a more significant history of prejudice than I’m aware. I am not Italian, as you are aware. My husband knows more about it than I do. It’s striking how much more insulated I-A communities STILL are in NJ and in LI generations after their arrival compared to other ethnic groups. My husband (who, by the way, is very much anti-ethnic pride for philosophical reasons) thought this book was a VERY interesting read on I-As, if anyone is interested. http://www.amazon.com/Blood-My-Dilemma-Italian-Americans-Series/dp/1550711016 I didn’t read. Maybe I should.

          

        • It’s gonna be funny to see how people react to a “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” movie with 2016 sensibilities.

            

        • Heh… over on OT I was just talking about some of the unique ways we Italian-Americans are positioned in the white American world.

          At the risk of further stereotyping, I think there is a certain devil-may-care attitude prevalent in Italian-American culture. The oppression Italian-Americans has faced does not approach that experienced by Blacks, Jews, and a number of other groups. But it does set them apart from, say, the English and other groups whose history in the country goes farther back and/or who could more easily assimilate. And yet, I don’t know that there has even been much of an outcry about such blatantly stereotypical representations in the media. Hell, most Italian-Americans look rather fondly on movies like the Godfather trilogy (or the first two at least) and shows like “The Sopranos” because, hey, people like us were on the screen! And if they sometimes got us wrong, fuck them!

          Of course, it is easier to assume this posture when the oppression is largely historical.

            

          • It helps that Godfather, Goodfellas, Sopranos were all really good. If they were crappy it might be another story. If someone were to make YET ANOTHER mob movie now, even a good one, I’m rolling my eyes.

            And I am seriously put off by Jersey Shore. Not so much by the people in it. But by, “Let’s turn on the cameras and laugh as people behave as their stereotypes.” I’m just not okay with it.

            I do understand other groups (yes, including the one to which I belong) have been more oppressed. It just doesn’t seem okay to me to laugh at people on that basis. You are not laughing at them in their power, after all. You are laughing at their lack of education, among other issues. And other people believe the stereotypes.

            For the record: I grew up in a town that was maybe 50% Italian, 30% Jewish, 20% other, mostly Irish. I basically thought Italians were the dominant ethnic group in the country and was unaware of most of the stereotypes until I went to college. Didn’t every town have a yearly San Gennaro festival?

              

          • Also, which post? I want to read what you said.

              

          • The St Patrick’s Day post. I’ve debated writing some long, nonsensical post about how Italian-Americans (or at least those in the NYC metro area) inhabit a different sphere of whiteness than other subgroups of white Americans. That comment dabbles in my theory.

            I do agree that the quality of that work matters.

            The Jersey Shore was interesting in part because not everyone on the show was actually Italian. A mark in its favor is that it was called “The Jersey Shore” and not “I is for I-talian”. When it came on, a number of people I knew thought, “My god… this must be fake.” “No,” I said. “That is really what Seaside Heights is like. That’s not what ALL of the Jersey Shore is like nor what all New Jerseyians are like nor all Italians… but, yea, that is Seaside, man!” So it occupied a bit of a weird space in that even those of us seemingly targeted by the laughing took a certain, “Yea, I’ve been there,” approach to it.

            I don’t know why it seems to be “okay” to represent Italians in this way. Maybe, as I alluded to above, because Italians themselves haven’t voiced much objection and there is no one outside the group who sees fit to take up the cause?

            I don’t feel held back by Italian stereotypes. Then again, I can “pass”… I have a Polish last name, Irish first name, and don’t look phenotypically Italian.

            My grandma did warn me that “the rebels” would hate my “Italian Catholic blood” when I mentioned applying to Duke. So there definitely was a greater sense of oppression among older generations.

              

          • Funny. My husband’s name is Vinny. Seriously. Italian on both sides back 10,000 years. He’s from New Jersey. Russell, would you agree he’s pretty phenotypical? Although you know, he’s not culturally stereotypical. He makes people on Downton Abbey seem overly emotionally demonstrative.

            Just texted him to ask if being I-A held him back in life. He said no, although his economic class did. (He was first in his family to get a college degree, then he got a PhD.) But, fwiw, he added, “I don’t see how [the fact that Italian-Americans get by okay] makes it inoffensive. Nothing has to actually happen for it to be wrong. I think making light of the most horrifying aspect or stereotype of being Italian is thoughtless. And I’m sure that 75 years ago, plenty of people were held back because of it.”

            Now that I come to think of it, perhaps his economic class, which did hold him back, is in fact directly attributable to those attitudes.

              

          • I think offense taken by a group is not such a great guide, though. Internalization and all that.

            My husband further adds, when I asked what he thought about a stereotyped portrayal of, say WASPS, he said, “as alcoholics who ignore their children and work in banks? I think that would be offensive.”

            I’m with him on this. I guess we’re alone. THANK GOD I FOUND HIM TO MARRY ME. I just think targeting other ethnic groups is more offensive.

              

          • I would agree with your husband’s sentiment. When I see that stuff played for laughs, it annoys me. Stuff like “The Sopranos” doesn’t bother me because it doesn’t necessarily feel stereotypical as much as it is seeking to represent a certain slice of life. Was “The Wire” offensive because it included Black drug dealers and users? I ask that genuinely… I didn’t pay strict attention to the series or the response it garnered.

            Re-reading my comments, I see how it might seem I’m giving these things a pass. I don’t mean to be. I’m offering some gut-level conjecture about why things seem to be different vis a vis Italian-Americans/Italian stereotypes as opposed to justifying them or arguing against the offense they cause.

              

      • There was some nasty stuff in the late 19th and early 20th century, including violence, especially in the South, but it’s been a while.

        When I was a kid, I was teasingly called “The Wop” by friends, and occasionally worse by kids who didn’t particularly like me (impossible to fathom, I know!), because everyone knew I had an Italian mother.

        It was actually much worse for her growing up in Nashville in the 60s. She was teased a lot, and came to have very mixed feelings about being Italian, and at one point in my childhood she tried very hard to distance herself from her Italianness, if you will, including plastic surgery.

        She’s over that now, though. She’s got Italian stuff everywhere.

          

        • Interesting. We live in a place with zero Italians. I mean none. People often don’t know Picciuto is an Italian name, and usually assume it’s Hispanic. I was wondering that meant that no one would even know to have any prejudice against us, like, “Oh, you’re Danish. Well, then.” I’m sorry your mom had such a rough go of it.

          My mother-in-law had such the opposite upbringing. It was SO insular. She barely spoke to anyone non-Italian until she was middle-aged.

            

          • The South was, even in my youth, a lot like insular Italian-American communities: it was all about “who you kin to?” or “what’s your last name?”

              

          • “who you kin to?” or “what’s your last name?”

            In the small WI town I grew up in, people would ask such questions, mostly just to avoid accidentally sleeping with a cousin.

              

          • See, there’s one difference: where I’m from, no one really tried to avoid sleeping with a cousin.

            (Sorry, now I’m playing in stereotypes.)

              

          • I’ve been to the Bada Bing! In real life it is called Satin Dolls and is non-nude (because of NJ laws surrounding alcohol and nudity). It’s about 15 minutes from where I grew up.

            Does that make me more or less stereotypical?

              

  2. The Italian shrew bit was strange. I get the plot device of a small crime boss called Mr. Big, but the Italian Mafioso aspect fell flat, and of course, my son didn’t get it, so the humor was aimed at me.

    Oh well, enjoyed the movie otherwise.

      

  3. “It’s a much more clever and subtle message movie than Crash, actually.”

    This is a superfluous statement. It is a conceptual impossibility for any movie anywhere to deliver a message with less subtlety and cleverness than Crash.

      

  4. Confession: I loved this movie, more than I’ve loved an animated film in a long time. (Toy Story II, maybe?)

    Anyway, I took it specifically as a parody of The Godfather, which had very little to do with the reality of Italians or even Italian gangsters until the Mafia adopted it as a welcome bit of mythology and began to copy it. (E.g. Coppola invented the term Godfather as a Mafioso term of respect, and now it’s in general use. (Oddly, LeCarre did the same with “mole” to mean highly-placed double agent.) ) So when some shrews make a weasel an offer he can’t refuse (i.e. money), to me it’s referring to a film stereotype, not an ethnic one.

      

    • I remember reading — in a LeCarre interview, I think — that intelligence community people have told him that a lot of his terminology was adopted by spy-folk. I’ve always found that amusing.

        

    • Something similar came up with a How I Met Your Mother episode that parodied kung-fu movies; people complained they were trafficking in Asian stereotypes, or doing “yellowface”, because some of the characters were dressed as “wise old kung-fu masters” or whatever (I’ve never seen the show, so I am going on what I read at the time).

        

  5. Italian here, born and raised, writing directly from the Motherland (20 km from Milan)…that was a movie reference and nothing more. Plus, mafia stereotypes itself and is in NO WAY a representation of Italy so there’s no point in feeling offended, ’cause they mocked a criminal organization that has killed mercilessly and still keeps south Italy from really prospering, not the whole italian population.

      

  6. Thank you for an insightful article about the stereotyping of an ethnic group that is still considered
    by many to be acceptable. What disturbed me most was that this film was suppose to be about racial tolerance. Just because a group didn’t experience the same discrimination as others or faced it years ago does not make the disparagement okay. Btw, I am of Italian and Irish American background. I’ve experienced very little negativity re my Irish background. Since my last name is not blatantly ethnic, I pass. Many times people have said negative things about italians to me not knowing my ethnicity. When I’ve informed them, instead of apologizing these people get very defensive and begin lecturing me. Some even think they are complimenting me by saying that I’m not like “them”. I’ve lost friendships when I refused to agree with their ignorant opinions. My own sister in law rejected and has mistreated myself and my now late mom using the excuse that we are ignorant italians. I really believe that the media is responsible. If the entertainment industry can be sensitive to other groups, why do they not extend that same respect to an ethnic group that has contributed just as much as any other group?

      

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