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Friday, April 15, 2016

April 15, 2016: American Outlaws: The Mafia



[In honor of the 150th anniversary of Butch Cassidy’s birth, in this week’s series I’ll AmericanStudy histories and images of some of our more famous—or infamous—outlaws.]
Three telling stages in the strange evolution of our pop culture obsession with the mob.
1)      The 70s: I’ve written before in this space (almost exactly five years ago!) about The Godfather, both the Puzo novel and the Coppola films. Although as I argue there the novel is significantly more pulpy than the films, both would have to be described as epics, and more exactly as works that treat the world of organized crime as both a serious subject in its own right and a reflection of broader and deeper American issues (immigration, the American Dream, politics, the rise and fall of cities, and more). In the same era, Martin Scorcese’s first feature film, Mean Streets (1973), used the mafia to tell a very similar story, one that (like Coppola’s films) does not downplay the mob’s more criminal and seedy sides yet at the same time (also like them) depicts this as an American story and community worth serious attention and reflection. (And, at least per one prominent book, as a vehicle for understanding Italian American experiences and identities.)
2)      The 90s: The 90s kicked off with another Scorcese film, Goodfellas (1990), that used the mafia in similarly epic and symbolic ways. It ended with the first season of HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007), a hugely influential work that did the same on the small screen. Yet if both of these texts illustrate continuities in our pop culture engagements with the mob, I would point to another 1999 work as an indication that our narratives were nonetheless evolving. The film Analyze This (1999) seems to echo both Goodfellas (since it likewise stars Robert de Niro as a mob boss) and The Sopranos (since it’s about the relationship between that mob boss and his therapist). But that therapist is played by Billy Crystal, and the therapy, like the mafia and everything else in the film, is played for laughs. Mob comedies were actually a trend in the late 90s, including Jane Austen’s Mafia! (1998) and Corky Romano (2001) among others, reflecting a significant new possibility in the uses of mafia stories in our pop culture.
3)      Today: It’s certainly possible for humorous works to engage thoughtfully with complicated issues, and I don’t want to suggest that those comic films were necessarily a step down from the more epic texts (although Jane Austen’s Mafia!, yeah, step down). But here in the second decade of the 21st century, our most famous pop culture engagement with the mafia is unquestionably, frustratingly vapid and awful: the vh1 reality show Mob Wives, which is currently airing episodes in its 6th and final season. Of course Mob Wives represents a direct response to the “real housewives” reality shows that have become one of the genre’s and our culture’s most dominant trends, and has to be contextualized and analyzed through that lens. But at the same time, the show embodies a cultural use of the mafia that is as mundane as Coppola’s and Scorcese’s was epic—and while there’s certainly something to be said for refusing to glorify organized crime, there’s also a great deal to be said against Mob Wives, and where our pop culture obsession with the mob has taken us.
Special post this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other outlaws you’d analyze?

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