Italians are often portrayed—in both films and TV series—with a very specific set of stereotypical characteristics. These traits and behaviors are often false, unflattering, and offensive.
From language barriers to eating habits, Italians are much more than they are given credit for. Here are some of the most common Italian stereotypes featured in movies and TV shows that are overplayed.
Full disclosure: I am, myself, Italian! The views expressed in this opinion piece are solely my own and don't necessarily reflect the positions of the wider whatNerd team.
1. Italians Only Speak Italian
But English wasn't taught in school—at least, when I was still in school—and American TV programs were dubbed in local languages. We simply weren't exposed to English regularly enough to pick it up.
Now, everything is different. The younger generations generally have good command of English, and many not-so-young Italians have gone abroad to study and further our careers internationally.
Furthermore, Italy borders many countries, and we aren't isolated from said countries. We can understand French, Spanish, German, and we're used to hearing languages from the eastern side of Europe.
Yet, in movies and TV shows, Italians are often portrayed as monolingual—and while that's often done for exaggerated purpose, it's still unfair.
Take the case of Joe Tribbiani's granny. She doesn't speak any English! (Actually, she doesn't speak proper Italian either. "Quando uccidere qualche persone" translates to "When to kill some persons?")
Italians are often not given a proper voice on screen, not even in their own language. It's enough for them to "look Italian." Is it lazy casting? Unintentional misrepresentation? Or worse?
The majority of these portrayals come from American television. This phenomenon might be more excusable if there weren't any Italians in the US, but they happen to constitute 5.1% of the population. There are at least 16 million Italians living there. What's up with that?
2. Italian Men Are Either Mechanics, Chefs, or Mobsters
In films and TV shows, the Italian is never a professor, writer, doctor, or lawyer. We're all mechanics, chefs, or mobsters.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with being a mechanic or a chef. But that last one? A felony! The fact that it's still used as a punchline is problematic. I don't want to be a downer, but being associated with the likes of Vito Corleone isn't as amusing as you think.
Why? Because the Mafia is a real thing. It shaped our history and it's still part of our society. Most Italians are victims of the Mafia, not perpetrators. Maybe it's time to leave the guns and embrace the cannoli.
3. Italians Speak With Their Hands
We totally do, I'll give you that. Do you know why, though? Our sign language isn't taught in schools; it's ingrained in our communication.
It started with the occupation of the country by foreign powers like France and Austria. During those times, we had to develop a way to communicate more effectively while protecting our privacy.
Our hand gestures are an additional layer of speech. It enhances the sentences with visual and intuitive meaning. It's much less funny and much more poetic than we are given credit for in media.
4. Italian Men Are All Casanovas
Italian men are sleazy, unreliable, philanderous, unfaithful, and always looking to have fun above all else. After decades of essentialization, this stereotype is now cranked up to the max in reality TV.
The truth behind it is that Italians value interpersonal, romantic relationships. We've been taught that finding a romantic partner is important, so if an Italian likes you, you will notice. We're generally not afraid to show our intentions.
But this doesn't mean our intentions are bad. Italian men are just people, and by now we should know that everyone is different. Some of them might fit the stereotype, but that's more to do with the individual's character and education than their nationality.
5. Italian Women Are Dumb, Explicit, and Openly Available
Italian women aren't homogeneous. We don't share a hive mind, and we have our own personalities and our own individual ways. But if there's one thing we do share, it's this: we despise this stereotype!
It can translate into unpleasant social situations because this stereotype has made Italian women appear "more available" by proxy. Potential partners feel entitled to approach us and rejections are taken as teasing.
My nonna moved to Australia in the late 1950s. To this day, she still complains about how men treated her back then simply due to her nationality. Nearly 70 years later, many Italian women around the world still experience the same. Magari anche basta, no?
6. Italians Are Touchy and Inappropriate
Italians are often portrayed as unable to have a conversation without being inappropriately touchy. Truth is, just like many other populations, we're affectionate when greeting each other.
We kiss cheeks, shake hands, and hug. It's nothing more than a cultural custom, which can be appreciated or not—but either way, it doesn't mean Italians are oblivious to personal space.
We know how to be polite and we know how important it is to learn from different cultures and habits. We may be more openly affectionate with people who understand us or share similar backgrounds, but it's not like our nationality compels us to touch strangers for no reason.
7. Italians Are Loud
Okay, fine, we can be loud when we talk. Certain cultures may be more animated, enthuasiastic, passionate when they speak—and Italians as a whole may fall on the louder end of that spectrum.
But, as explained in the previous point, Italians also know this about themselves and they know when to adjust.
Let's put it this way: when we feel comfortable and when we're having a good time, we can be quite the loud bunch, but we're also respectful and know when to be quiet when the situation requires it.
8. Italians All Drive Vespas
Not all Italians drive Vespas. Why would we? Italy is a big country and we have cars. We also walk, take the bus, and ride bikes.
The Vespa used to be a cheap and common mode of transportation for young adults. The film Roman Holiday (1953) popularized the concept on a much wider, global scale. Then, in the 1970s, the Vespa represented freedom—one's ability to gain independence from their family and move out.
Now, Vespas are much more expensive than they used to be. In fact, a big portion of the Italian population can't even afford one. Instead of us all having Vespas, what we now have is a deep economic crisis!
9. Italians Only Know How to Make Pizza
We created pizza. We love it, we respect it, and we crave it when abroad. That said, Italian cuisine is one of the most diverse culinary traditions in the whole world. There's more to it than just pizza.
Many don't know that Italy is home to several different cultures that merged together throughout the centuries. From the North to the South, from the East to the West, we all have traditional dishes inspired by local ingredients—dishes that have nothing to do with pizza.
Pizza became so popular worldwide not because it's the only thing we cook, but because it's something anyone can cook.
10. Italians All Look and Act the Same
Just like every other physical stereotype, this one is plain ridiculous. There are over 60 million of us in Italy alone, with many more around the globe. We have a diverse range of traits and personalities.
Situated in the heart of Europe, Italy has hosted many different populations over millenia. They all looked different, and obviously so do we.
We aren't all brothers and sisters of Arthur Fonzarelli. We are real people and not a greasy, leathery, chain-wearing joke.