On the 16th of January 2023, Messina Denaro – widely regarded as the boss of all bosses within the Italian Mafia – was arrested. This prompted worldwide media interest, with articles from overseas newspapers detailing Messina Denaro’s lifestyle and crimes. This was not my father. The title is clickbait, but it does provide an example of how easy it is for the romanticisation of the Mafia (like the daily routine of a Mafia first daughter) to be eye-catching and interesting. More appealing, perhaps, than articles describing the terrible reality of organised crime. This phenomenon is incredibly widespread, and incredibly dangerous.
Mafia bosses – especially Italian and often Russian – with sleek black hair and deep, entrancing, dark eyes are romanticised on virtually any media platform. In 2020 the movie “365 days”, in which the main love interest is brooding Mafia boss Massimo, made headlines. Admittedly, not because its plot dealt with organised crime but because of its sex scenes. However, the fact that crime can so easily be romanticised as a “dangerous, dark and mysterious” trope is scary to say the least. The hashtag “Mafia boss” on Wattpad, a website that allows users to post their own stories/fanfics, has more than 1.2k adherents. Some of the most common hashtags associated with this are “Mafia princess”, “bad boy” and “guns”. When searching “Mafia” on Google, the first suggestions are Mafia game, Mafia movie, and Mafia boss. It has even been discovered that Messina Denaro himself had The Godfather posters in his apartment. Messina Denaro romanticised his own criminal involvement. Clearly, this is a widespread phenomenon. However, why is it so dangerous?
According to James Finckenauher, professor at Rutgers University and author of “Mafia and organised crime: a beginner’s guide”, the phenomenon began in the 20s in the US due to Prohibition. Small criminal groups controlled underground alcohol sales and became wide-scale international organisations. In a time of repression forced by authorities they were seen as triumphant, well-off figures who mocked the oppressive political system.
In his book La increíble hazaña de ser mexicano, author Heriberto Yépez wrote that the key to the making of a criminal was an authoritarian environment, repression and constant criticism from a young age. Lack of areas to excel in due to this upbringing encourage one to seek respect and excellence in criminal activity. For the US working class the mafiosi became a sort of role model for success in an environment that otherwise repressed them. Books like Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, first published in 1969, fed this fascination until the glamorous image of the Mafia became embedded in pop culture. But in reality, mafiosi profit from human trafficking, murder, extortion, fraud, and other terrible crimes. Glamorisation creates numbness to the harsh reality of these crimes.
Last July an innocent handyman from Naples, Antimo Imperatore, was murdered by the Camorra1 while walking out of a client’s house. Anti-mafia magistrates, lawyers or policemen receive death threats whenever they try to oppose mafia rackets. Overt romanticisation or the creation of stereotypes regarding these criminals can also increase the hatred against the cultures most closely associated with the mafia. For example, in 1891 11 Italian-Americans were lynched in New Orleans due to rising anti-Italian sentiment in the US due to fear of organised crime. Or again, anti-Slavic rhetoric often focuses on the mafia-style corruption often associated with Slavic countries. Obviously, these stereotypes do have a historical basis, but can not be generalised.
That being said, it is really hard to detach oneself from such widely-held stereotypes. I chose to talk about the glamorisation of the mafia, but it can also be hard to detach oneself from other societally embedded prejudices regarding anything from gender and sexuality to race and culture. However, while stereotypes can not be entirely erased, the case study of the mafia teaches us that they can be challenged. Rather than chastising yourself for the stereotypes you carry with you and moving on, spend some time researching and understanding the topics that you make assumptions about.
For example, in a study on the implications of media portrayals of crime and the criminalisation of the African American man M. B. Oliver, a Penn State professor, found that repetitive exposure to images of black men as criminals made the American public more likely to internalise this stereotype. Maybe you think it is indeed true that African American men are more prone to criminal activity than white American men? Look up the statistics, read about the implications of racial profiling and socioeconomic backgrounds. Or again, there are people who do not believe that bisexuality exists. Do you think that this is true? Look up the scientific studies backing its existence. Finally, you think people from criminal organisation-ridden countries are all corrupt? Look up how criminal organisations work and their effects on the public. Stereotypes are a form of misinformation, and information and data is so easily accessible nowadays that a simple Google search can help re-educate our prejudice.
Image Credit: Fan D CC BY 2.0 via Flickr