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A Non-Porn Controversy: Is “Don Jon” Insulting to Italian-Americans?

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Don JonJoseph Gordon-Levitt’s new movie “Don Jon,” which he wrote, directed, and stars in as a porn-addicted New Jersey party boy, has received mixed reviews. While the movie has notched a respectable Tomatometer score of 81 percent, the critics who have slammed it- myself included- have mostly complained about the film’s over-the-top caricature of New Jersey Italian-Americans.

And it’s not only critics who feel that way. A group called the Italian American One Voice Coalition has issued a statement criticizing the film for its “stereotyping and denigrating Italian Americans and Jews.” And as press releases from ethnic-identity politics pressure groups go, the IAOVC’s statement actually provides some impressively  trenchant and well-written film criticism:

 In “Don Jon,” Director-Actor Levitt plays Jon Martello, a stupid, pornography-addicted, t-shirt wearing “Jersey Shore” clone whose day consists of the stereotypical ritual of “gym, tan laundry.” He appears in the movie with his equally stupid father, Jon Sr., played by Tony Danza, infamous for his lifelong portrayals of stupid, buffoonish Italian characters, attired in the usual tight white t-shirts. In one infamously racist scene, the whole family is displayed acting buffoonish at a table during a spaghetti dinner.

I mean, the Parents Television Council never gets to the point like that, do they?

The release goes on to suggest that Gordon-Levitt “needs an intervention and should go into serious therapy for his ethnic denigration of Italian Americans,” and requests that concerned citizens comment on the Facebook pages of the film and its production and distribution companies.

Traditionally, Italian-American groups have been critical of movies and TV shows – from “The Godfather” films to The Sopranos- for stereotyping Italian-American characters as members of the Mafia. But that was before Jersey Shore, and the rise of reality television shows – including Shahs of Sunset, Basketball Wives, and Princesses of Long Island- dedicated to showcasing the basest stereotypes of certain ethnic groups.

“The Godfather” and The Sopranos, at least, had the excuse of being classic, world-class works of art. “Don Jon” is just a few normally likable and talented actors (and Tony Danza too) for some reason doing atrocious New Jersey accents, in telling a story that requires neither the accents nor the Garden State setting.

Another concerned party took offense at “Don Jon”: critic Odie Henderson, an African-American New Jersey native who offered an hilariously vituperative review of the film on RogerEbert.com: 

 When I meet people, one of the first things they say to me is “you’re from New Jersey? You don’t have an accent!” This is untrue; I do have a Jersey accent, of which I am very proud. What I do not have is the movie version, which is an ovah da top Bwooklyn accent squooshed togedda with an even moah ovah da top Staten Eyelen accent. Granted, your standard issue Jersey accent sounds something like that hybrid, but not to the extremes movies and television take it. Outside of the Boston accent, no other accent gets more overplayed than New Jersey’s. It’s enough to make Bruce Springsteen cry.

Almost everyone in “Don Jon” tawks as if he or she were raised in the middle of the Verrazano Bridge by amateur stand-up comedians.

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  • Dom

    I agree with One Voice. I wouldn’t mind if there some balance but every time Italians are depicted its always a horrendous stereotype. We Italians even gawk at the images Hollywood spews out of us with the rest of America. It’s just way to over the top.

  • http://stereotypethis.com Bill Dal Cerro

    10-2-13

    Dear Mr. Silver: First, thanks for responding to the IAOVC’s–as you state–very well-written release. Most reporters never get beyond their first smirk, and ignore Italian Americans. We are the only group of Americans who actually have to clear a hurdle the size of the former Berlin Wall to even prove that our concerns are valid.

    Secondly, no offense, but the very question you raise is inherently offensive: If these gross stereotypes were not offensive, why discuss them? Answer: Because everyone knows they are. You do, at least. The rest of the mainstream media, again, ignores us.

    Thirdly, we don’t agree the “Godfather” and “Sopranos” are great art. The first is a better-than-average gangster flick; the second, a foul-mouthed self-parody. Indeed,
    we would argue that whatever ‘quality’ there is to each show is what makes them both so pernicious and disgusting. Both shows made Italian mob stereotypes acceptable.

    Take a look at the educational website http://www.stereotypethis.com. In particular,
    scroll to “Hollywood vs. Joe Truth.” You will examples of institutionalized defamation.

    The only way for films like “Don Jon” to stop being made is for actors like Tony Danza (and De Niro and Palminteri and Stallone and Pacino and every two-bit actor on
    “The Sopranos”) to stop whoring their culture for money..or, worse, for “art” (the term they always use to cover themselves). Ditto our national Italian American organizations, who care more about taking photo ops with these subliterate Quislings than in advancing our culture. When someone insults your mother—i.e., Italian culture—you don’t then turn around and invite the slob to your dinner table. You bar your doors.

    Thank you.

    Bill Dal Cerro
    Educator and Author (“Bebop, Swing and Bella Musica: Italian Americans in Jazz”)
    Chicago

  • Peter Firenze

    Agree with the posters above. Italian Americans have contributed so much to America (random example – IA’s were one of the highest, if not highest, per capita volunteers for every war since their arrival in the US) and for the media to only habitually present this inane stereotype is nothing less than societally approved hate speech. Levitt should be ashamed of himself profiting from such a base and defamatory exposition. And Danza? Where is your pride? What an insult to the great Italian American people of this country. Shame.