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Camille Paglia Gets
in Tony Soprano’s Face

Early in November, the Kelly Writers House and the National Italian-American Foundation joined with Penn’s Center for Italian Studies to present the annual Gay Talese Lecture Series. The topic was “Tony Soprano, the Media and Popular Culture.” Moderated by Dr. A. Kenneth Ciongoli C’64 GrM’74, whose books include Beyond the Godfather, the lecture panelists were Dr. Camille Paglia, professor of humanities at the University of the Arts and author of Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, and USA Today columnist Richard Benedetto.

Illustration by Jason Farris

During the discussion in Logan Hall, Paglia repeatedly voiced her contempt for “the whole Tony Soprano way of presenting Italian-American men.”

What follows is pure Paglia:

“My personal opinion is that the haute-bourgeoisie in New York and the critics who praise [The Sopranos] so much have a tremendous problem in their own city—with race. They are extremely segregated; they’re full of liberal notions about multiculturalism, Affirmative Action, but the actual life of the bourgeoisie—those people in the media—is completely white, completely. Go to any party in New York, it is all white. So I think there’s a heavy guilt trip that they have—and the whole thing about The Sopranos is a cryptic version of dealing with race issues in this country. They could never authentically, directly deal with African Americans in the way that they’ve dealt with The Sopranos.

“The fact that it shows that Italian Americans are literally the last group that people are free to libel means that all Italian Americans have to start banding together and realizing that’s why this is so pernicious—because the educational system in America at the public-school level and the college level has moved away from the Western tradition. Italian Americans are far too complacent in thinking, ‘Oh, who cares about The Sopranos; we’ve got Michelangelo, we have da Vinci, we have Botticelli.’ You think that’s being taught? It isn’t! People don’t even recognize any of these names anymore. The canon that used to be taught in schools—that descends from Mediterranean culture, from Greece through Italy down through the Middle Ages and to the rebirth of Greco-Roman humanism and so on with the Renaissance—that is gone, in terms of the culture as a whole. And as a consequence, the only thing that’s left is this constant replay of those libelous images of Italian Americans on The Sopranos.

“Now—I am a libertarian, I’m a free speech militant; I don’t want to stop The Sopranos, that’s not my issue at all. Anyone can say anything, no matter how offensive, but there has to be a counter-voice and there has to be a counter-protest. There was a bandwagon effect by the media; it went on and on and on, where it was the chic and hip thing to say that The Sopranos was the most authentic piece of realism about working-class life since 1950s cinema, or something like that. And that is ridiculous, absurd. Italians shouldn’t put up with it anymore —we should be mad as hell.”

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