WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The other day, Lawrence Auriana, the president of Columbus Citizens Foundation, an Italian-American heritage organization, objected to the invidious stereotyping of Italian-Americans in Steven Spielberg's animated film, "Shark Tale." I wonder when Spielberg is going to reply. Auriana's points were well made and compelling. Surely if People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) complained of Spielberg's treatment of sharks in this movie, he would be a Vesuvius of apologies.
America, a country where in generations past ethnic stereotypes abounded along with ethnic slurs, has become very touchy about such practices. In the past, stereotypes and slurs were not always meant as offenses. Some were meant as friendly jokes. I grew up in the ethnic bouillabaisse of Chicago, and I recall many ethnics as well as blacks and whites jokingly addressing each other in terms we now consider deeply offensive. Frankly, I think we have gone a bit overboard. Yet that is where things stand, my fellow Yanks.
Still there seem to remain a few groups one can stereotype and slur with impunity -- for instance, religious fundamentalists, Roman Catholics and Italian-Americans. As Italian-Americans are usually Catholics, they get hit twice.
The president of the Columbus Citizens Foundation has good reason to be sore. If Spielberg's film emphasized Italians' contributions to Western culture from the Roman Empire on down through the Renaissance, to modern engineering, science, the arts, and lest us not forget, such staples of American cuisine as pizza and pasta, who would object? But Spielberg's "Shark Tale" is fixated on the Mafia as an Italian enterprise, with no mention of the occasional German, Jew or Irishman, who made their contributions to organized crime in America.
Moreover, "Shark Tale" is addressed to a children's audience and so it not only crosses the line with its stereotyping, but it contains violence and brutal language that only a Hollywood aesthete would find acceptable.