How not to talk about Mafia

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One of the most frequent questions I’m asked when I say I’m from Sicily is “Do you know anyone in the Mafia?”

I’ve always wondered what type of answer people expect to hear when asking questions like this.

Option 1: “Yes, man! Mafia people are so cool, just like in The Godfather!”
Option 2: “Yes, I do. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to kill you”
Option 3: “Mafia? What Mafia?!” *disappears in a puff of smoke*

I tried to use all three options in different occasions (without the puff of smoke, unfortunately), but from the look on people’s faces I could tell they were not really satisfied with the answer. Soz!

I don’t usually give a lot of thought to silly questions like this – I just become very patronising and think you’re an idiot, that’s all – but what really bothers me is when people refer to Mafia as something cool and glamorous, as if they were talking about a very exclusive circle of VIP.

Even worse, I find it outrageous when the word ‘Mafia’ is used as a marketing tool to sell more products and give your brand that ‘added value’ that only guns and violence can offer.

The Lady Mafia effect

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine who runs a fashion blog in Italy received a request for a sponsored post from a new Italian brand called Lady Mafia. The email subject line was something like “Naughty and beautiful  Sarah Nile and Veronica Ciardi in promo ad for Lady Mafia!” The press release described a new line of clothing inspired by an homonymous comic book and  endorsed by two Big Brother celebrities “in perfect Godfather style”, they wrote.

Here’s the ‘perfect Godfather style’ bullshit in all its splendor.

Now THIS is the type of things that makes me really angry; celebration of violence, objectification of women and glamourisation of Mafia, all in one go. (Not to mention the junky-TV celeb endorsement, but that’s a whole different story…).

This might not sound like a big deal to people who’ve only heard about Mafia from the movies, but when you live in a country where this is an economic and political reality, when your heroes growing up were the people who lost their lives in the fight against the Mafia, this glorification of a Mafia-style way of life for marketing purposes is somehow disturbing.

My friend’s reply to that email was spot on and I decided to quote her response as an example of best practice. Feel free to copy-paste this message if you’re ever contacted by Lady Mafia

Hi there,

Following up from your email, I kindly ask you to stop sending me any material related to your brand.

Your ‘Godfather-style’ promotional hook,  the attempt to make Mafia sound like a cool and stylish cultural phenomenon and even the name of your brand deeply offend me as a woman and as a Sicilian.

Don’t even get me started on the female body  image portrayed by your brand.

Mafia is not a fashion trend. The picture of an over-sexualised woman with a gun in her pants is not a clever teaser. It’s just stupid.

Don’t even bother sending me another email.

Lady Mafia has been harshly attacked in the past by anti-Mafia organisation Libera, who have asked for the comic book to be discontinued. I personally don’t think censorship would be the answer to the problem, and I don’t think people should ever stop taking the piss about Mafia and playing with the ridiculous stereotypes that go with it.
But when the stereotypes turn into glamorous figures and the word Mafia loses its negative connotation, people have the right (and duty) to say something about it. Here are a few words to refresh our memory of what Mafia actually is.

“The Mafia is oppression, arrogance, greed, self-enrichment, power and hegemony above and against all others. It is not an abstract concept, or a state of mind, or a literary term… It is a criminal organization regulated by unwritten but iron and inexorable rules… The myth of a courageous and generous ‘man of honor’ must be destroyed, because a mafioso is just the opposite.”

— Cesare Terranova, Italian Magistrate murdered in 1979

Or, in the words of Peppino Impastato – political activist killed by the Mafia in 1978 – “La Mafia è una montagna di merda” (“Mafia is a pile of shit”).

4 thoughts on “How not to talk about Mafia

  1. While I was in Sicily, I never asked about the Mafia, because the neighborhood my grandparents settled in in America and where my Dad grew up had the Italian-American Mafia. And you didn’t really talk about them. Everyone knew someone, though.

    Now, back to Sicily. We had gone to a cafe in Giardini Naxos, and I was chatting with the nice waiter-manager. I told him my grandmother was from Sicily. He asked me from where…I told the truth. “Corleone.” He actually stepped back and gasped. And sent over a tray of complimentary almond liqueurs. This was the only time we had experienced this in Sicily. And it seemed to be due to that one word.

    I think the reason why Americans, especially Italian-Americans, are so blase about the Mafia is because the Italian-American Mafia was so relatively benevolent and embedded itself in legitimate businesses; and when the feds and the FBI started going after the Families under the RICO Act of 1970, they were pretty ruthless about taking them down (and their leaders are still being jailed – there always seems to be a federal trial going on). Also, there are so, so many competing crime gangs here – the Crips and Bloods, the Dominicans, the Russian and Ukrainian mobs. The Mob is relatively benign compared with some of these groups.

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