The 'Shark Tale' Mafiosi

Posted: Sep 16, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

 Now kids are, as F. Scott Fitzgerald might say, different from you and me. Improbable antics are the stuff of kids' animated films. Kids often see what looks like violence as funny, at least in cartoons. Cars fly off the road, barnyard animals suddenly take wing over a pasture, animals talk and bop each other in the head. To all of this, children laugh and their eyes widen. Yet kids do not think very much about gangsters or the possible ethnicity of gangsters. When Spielberg makes all the bloody sharks in "Shark Tale" gangsters with Italian-American names and slang, one has to wonder what he is up to.

 In "Shark Tale" he has one shark, Lino, praising violence when Lino says of a son, "Your brother Frankie, now he's a killer. He's beautiful. He does what he's supposed to do." And a sense of the colossal brutality of the film is conveyed in a hammerhead shark, Giuseppe the Hammerhead, uttering: "May whoever did this die a thousand deaths. May this stinking, maggot-covered corpse rot in the fiery depths of hell." Aside from the fact that it is unlikely that a "maggot-covered corpse" is going to appear under an ocean, this language is a bit too vivid for young people, no?

 In a March 9, 2004, New York Times article, Spielberg wrote, "We are in a race against time for the conscious mind of the young." He went on to inveigh against "the dangers of stereotyping, the dangers of discrimination, the dangers of racial and religious hatred and vengeful rage."

 Fine, so how do we explain the excesses of "Shark Tale"? Well, there is something a little flafla about Hollywood, though I hope the Hollywoodians will not consider that stereotyping. They commit a lot of excesses that strike me as hypocritical. But let them consider this: Transforming sharks into Italian-American Mafiosi is not amusing, even to the young. It is not entertaining. Spielberg might have made a lot more money if his sharks were, what might we call it, ethnically neutral?

When he finishes apologizing to the shark lovers at PETA, I suggest he give the Columbus Citizens Foundation a call.