Italic Institute of America

             

- SHARK TALE - Overview, Argument, & Position Summary

  Currently in production at DreamWorks Pictures, and scheduled for release in October, 2004, Shark Tale is a computer-animated, children's film that, as DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg crows with unabashed pride, will be an amalgam of "...everything from The Untouchables to Some Like It Hot to all three Godfather films." The story's venue is a fictitious undersea world populated by anthropomorphic fish - not unlike Disney's Little Mermaid (1989), but with an exceptionally sordid twist.  Like a perverse kiddie morality play, Shark Tale relates the unhappy results of one unlucky sea creature's involvement with the under-the-sea underworld. As viewed in the DreamWorks promos, the maritime mobsters take the form of cartoon sharks.  And yes, with names like Don Lino and Don Brizzi, they are given unmistakably Italian American identities.  For added 'authenticity', DreamWorks has lined up Robert De Niro, Michael Imperoli, Martin Scorsese, and others who have shamelessly built their personal wealth and fame on the prostrated back of Italic culture, to do the voice-overs.

  It could and has been argued that The Sopranos, Goodfellas, or anything else in the interminable procession of movies and TV show in which Italian American characters are relentlessly portrayed as deviates and criminals, were devised for adult consumption. And though we're more than prepared to confidently argue much to the contrary, adults, we are told, are supposed to be able to distinguish reality from fiction, But Shark Tale is targeted squarely at children. And that's where we really must draw the line.

  As announced in our October, 2003 news release Why Doesn't Steven Spielberg Respect Our Children? - The Italic Institute of America has launched a campaign with the aim of preventing the release of Shark Tale as currently scripted (see summation of our position below).  As expected, our initial statement prompted the following (typical) responses from Spielberg fans and other defenders of the film. Our replies appear in italics.

  "Isn't your objection to Shark Tale just another example of political correctness?"

  Among the most insidious aspects of the scripting of Shark Tale, no less than in all other cases on the ponderously long list of demeaning portrayals of Italians and Italian Americans by the various entertainment media, is the unabashed and readily demonstrable double standard practiced by Hollywood in the way it deals with ethnicity and race.  It's long become the practice of taking pains to avoid the depictions of harmful stereotypes...and indeed to actively participate in the promotion of positive images for some, apparently carefully selected  racial/ethnic groups...particularly in an animated vehicle intended for juveniles.  We've seen, for instance,  An American Tail (1986) and Fieval Goes West (1991), Spielberg creations featuring the adventures of a heroic Jewish mouse, Disney's Mulan (1998), the story of a courageous Chinese girl, and Disney's Pocahontas (1995), which runs roughshod over historical fact to fulfill its primary mission of depicting Native American culture in a favorable manner.  Fine. It's better than depicting any ethnic or racial group in an unfavorable manner. But once again, we're left wondering why this much-hailed, enlightened sensitivity suddenly evaporates when the subject deals with Italians.

  It's all the more ironic, then, when we're (predictably) accused of promoting "political correctness" by voicing our objections to Shark Tale . In reality, Italian Americans, being Euro-ethnics (and widely perceived to be Catholic and socially conservative to boot) have never been afforded politically correct status by the academic and intellectual elite who created the concept...not that we'd seek or accept that dubious honor. We've only asked for fair treatment, not special or preferential treatment. And if we were preferentially treated, Shark Tale wouldn't be in production in its current form. 

  Nor would we have been forced to endure of scores of other movies, not to mention TV shows, plays, advertisements, and novels over the decades in which Italian American characters are categorically portrayed as criminals, uncouth slobs, and other assorted sociopaths by virtue of ethnicity  Italic Institute of America: "Image Research Project: Italian Culture on Film" (1928 - 2002)

  Unlike other ethnic or racial groups who do enjoy vigilant protection under the shield of political correctness, the validity of our objections to offensive images is continually challenged or assaulted (often, curiously enough, by active promoters of political correctness themselves). 

  "It's only a movie"(variations: "It's only entertainment" and "lighten up")

  Those who chant the "it's only a movie" mantra (a chant directed almost exclusively, by the way, at offended Italians), or who doubt that pop culture's pro forma debasement of the Italian American image is leeching into real life are either inexcusably ignorant of, or attempting to deliberately deny (for whatever motive), the immense power of mass media. 

  No reasonably intelligent person should be naive enough to believe that a constant theme hammered out regularly and consistently in mass media format does not influence people's thoughts and perceptions. Joseph Goebbels understood that. And corporate America does, too, spending millions for a few seconds of airtime to promote its products.

  Study after study has shown that children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable in absorbing media images and transposing them to reality.  That's why, from an Italian American perspective, the emergence of Shark Tale is particularly alarming.  Especially in consideration of the 2002 Center for Media and Public Affairs study entitled "TV's Impact on Ethnic Images" which finds that more than any other racial or ethnic category, fictional Italian characters are rated as most typical of their real-life counterparts by both Italian and non-Italian high school students.  Similarly, new polls cited in the October 12th, 2003 edition of Parade Magazine indicate that 78% of teens "associate Italians with blue collar jobs or the mob".

  The validity of our concerns should be obvious at the most cursory glance, but since our detractors are either incapable or unwilling to make the distinction, let's briefly transpose Shark Tale to other ethnic or racial contexts (strictly for illustrative purposes, of course, we are NOT promoting or endorsing these stereotypes). It would never be permitted to happen, of course, but imagine that someone was undaunted enough to create an animated film - targeted for children, mind you- that featured villainous and corrupt Jewish financiers, bomb-planting Islamic terrorists, African American welfare queens, or Hispanic drug dealers. Take your pick.  Suddenly, what was "only a movie" most assuredly would be condemned as an intolerable vehicle for anti Semitism or racism. 

"   Are you trying to deny the existence of the Mafia?"

  Of course not.  But the role it has played in Italic history and culture as fostered by Hollywood is perversely out of proportion to reality.  Italians, keep in mind, have historically played leading and indispensable roles in the advancement of every aspect of civilization, and the organized crime component shrivels to insignificance when weighed against three millennia of positive Italic contributions to humanity.  This is supported by the fact that the majority of "Mafia" movies depict wholly fictitious characters and events Italic Institute of America: "Image Research Project: Italian Culture on Film" (1928 - 2002).  If Hollywood limited itself to depicting only real life episodes, the Mafia movie inventory would not be nearly so lengthy.

  Yet, popular culture's fixation with the "Mafia," relentlessly enforced by films like Shark Tale , has created a situation , distorted from all reality, that virtually equates an Italian surname with organized crime or other anti-social behavior.  This is good news for scriptwriters, since they need only assign names like "Guido" or "Vinny" to a character and can be confident that their audiences will expect some sort of crude or brutal behavior, even if it has nothing at all to do with crime.  

F   For instance, one of the characters in the hit musical (and film) "Little Shop of Horrors" a woman-beater and sadist, is given the name of " Orin Scrivello " by writer Howard Ashman.  There is no reference to organized crime (or even to Italians) in the plot.  Ashman could have just as easily named this brute "Orin Smith" or "Orin Finklestein", since there was absolutely nothing essential to the story that required an Italian surname...other than providing a well-conditioned public with something they've come to expect.

  Similarly, in the 1994 20th Century Fox remake of   "Miracle on 34th Street" , and again for no plausible reason, the devious, alcoholic sham Santa Claus character (whose ethnicity was left unidentified in the original version) is given the name " Tony Falacchi ".   Once again, there was absolutely utterly no reason to identify this character as an Italian American...other than the fact that he was devious and morally corrupt. More perfidious examples can be viewed at http://www.stereotypethis.com

  Among the spillovers into real life where the "suspicion by ethnicity" theme is a matter of record are innuendoes faced by Italian American political candidates.  Journalist Sam Donaldson, let's not forget, once remarked with utter impunity on national TV that it was the obligation of the press to investigate the backgrounds of Italian American candidates for ties to organized crime based on no stronger evidence than simple ethnicity.  Please note that we are not hearing Donaldson apply this obligation to presidential candidates Carol Mosely Braun or Joe Lieberman in context to stereotypes associated with their particular race or ethnicity.

  A few years after Donaldson's remark, during a City Council contract-awarding session, Chicago Alderman Larry Bloom stated that one way of assuring honesty in the process was to make sure the job didn't go to someone "whose name ends in a vowel."  For the record, Alderman Bloom himself was later convicted of public corruption during a government sting operation!

  In Maine not too long ago, Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Baldacci was targeted with demeaning radio ads by opponent John Carter in which a New Jersey-accented voice-over attacked Baldacci while peppering up the script with terms like "badda-bing", "fugettaboudit" and other phrases popularized by the Sopranos series in an attempt to draw the already familiar association between dubious ethics and an Italian surname.

  Organized crime is a reality.  In most American cities, the "Italian" version of organized crime was inherited from foundations established by earlier Anglo and Irish gangs and shared by Jewish counterparts.   Today, there are Israeli, Russian, and Chinese "Mafias", whose activities are every bit as notorious, and often surpass in viciousness, those attributed to the long-fading Italian version.  Yet, the albatross of criminality continues to be hung exclusively around the Italic neck.   

  "How can you criticize a movie that hasn't even been released?"

  The same way that the B'nai B'rith and other Jewish organizations can criticize or object to Mel Gibson's " The Passion ", which they believe depicts Jews in an unfavorable manner. Except Jewish concerns, unlike ours, have not been roundly dismissed as 'political correctness',  unjustifiable 'hypersensitivity', or a cry for 'censorship". 

  Further, the question would only be valid if we were discussing the film's technical or artistic quality, or some similar esoteric aspect that must be viewed before fair judgement can be made.  We need only refer to DreamWorks' own promos to know what's coming in terms of ethnic depictions.  See http://www.sharktale.com

  Note to viewers: DreamWorks has since changed their website after the Institute began protesting Shark Tale back in October. The plot and character names have been removed. However, visit the International Movie Data Base site (www.imdb.com)and type in "Shark Tale". The cast and character names, as well as the cartoon's plot, are on full display.

  "If Shark Tale is so offensive, why are Italian American actors participating in its production?"   Two points. In psychological, academic and other circles, there's a popular term called "self-fulfilling prophecy." It refers to the internalization of negative images within individuals which they absorb from others or society at large.  In short, many Italian Americans have been fed so much negative garbage about their heritage via Hollywood that they themselves have come to accept the images as valid and accurate depictions. 

  We've also observed that most Italian Americans who participate in the promotion of or have willingly accepted the mobster/crude slob imagery are usually the ones who have the weakest grasp of authentic Italic heritage.

  We wish our second point could be in regard to complaints we've heard from Italian American actors who, due to ethic typecast, are forced to take mobster roles if they want to work.  But in this case, it can't.  De Niro and the rest of the crew are not starving young actors crawling up the ladder.   Their long-established fame is such that they can pick, chose, or even dictate their parts.  So secondly, we can only state that some people simply have no problems strip-mining their heritage for big bucks. Our view of our "Hollywood brethren" can be viewed at http://www.italic.org/mediaWatch/sucker.htm

  Other cartoons have featured Italian American mobsters. Why pick on Shark Tale?   There have indeed been precedents, the most notorious instance being the regularly featured mob gang headed by "Fat Tony" (voice-over by Joe Montegna ) on the immensely popular The Simpsons cartoon series. Apologists point out that the "no holds barred" nature of the show makes room for satirical depictions of several racial or ethnic groups.  Their argument is weakened by the fact that the show's writers take obvious pains to avoid heavy handed characterizations of all groups but Italian Americans.   The several African American characters that are featured, for instance, are racially distinguished only by skin color. Another character, a decadent clown, is supposedly Jewish, while a convenience store owner is depicted as Pakastani. Yet these and others are virtually unaccompanied by voice overs or mannerisms which evoke offensive or heavy handed stereotypes, revealing that the writers of the show are not nearly as bold and daring as they'd like us to believe. It's another example of the double standard, and in this matter The Simpsons gets no pass of approval from us.   But if anything can be said in mitigation, it's that the appearance of Fat Tony and his gang is limited to only occasional episodes.  In Shark Tale , the propagation of the Italian American mobster image to juvenile audiences is the fundamental and central theme.   "Why are you activists always concentrating on the negative? Wouldn't your time be better spent focusing on the positive aspects of Italic Heritage?"- (variation "Get a life")   We only wish. A perusal of this website is enough to demonstrate our commitment to "focusing on the positive".   Trouble is, every modicum of progress we make is repeatedly neutralized or counterpointed by the infinitely much more powerful influences of the entertainment media. Hundreds of kids may attend our Aurora classes, but millions of kids will see Shark Tale , both here and across the globe.    Believe us, we don't enjoy engaging in issues like this.  Give us some relief from the incessant diet of anti-Italian imagery from popular culture that continually undermines our efforts, and we'll focus exclusively on "the positive".  We promise. SUMMARY OF OUR POSITION

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