When Nicholas Berrettini wanted to watch The Sopranos as a teenager, his father said no. “My dad was offended by it. He felt it perpetuated stereotypes toward American Italians,” he says. Now Berrettini, who just graduated with a degree in Italian studies from the College of Liberal and Professional Studies, wants to see how much media can influence our opinions—especially in an age of streaming and binge-watching.
After catching up on The Sopranos in college, he had gone on to watch The Wire, and then Gomorra and Romanzo Criminale, two Italian polizieschi, or crime dramas. He was seeing common threads, some expected, but some which surprised him.
“They were all set in a homosocial, super-masculine crime environment,” he says. “They all dress really well. And there always seems to be one gay character just inserted in, who is illustrated as lesser in some sort of way.”
Berrettini wrote his senior honors thesis on conceptualization of Italian masculinity in polizieschi, finding an arc of ideas on masculine Italian identity from fascism to Berlusconism, and discussing the effect of the “hypermasculinity” depicted in the shows.
Silvio Berlusconi served as Prime Minister of Italy for a total of nine years in the 1990s and 2000s; Berrettini uses Berlusconism to refer to the lifestyle seen in the series. “It’s an interesting concept because it’s at odds with itself,” he says. “It’s definitely a conservative, male identity in that men are expected to fulfil particular social rules. However, there’s a lot of attention placed on how a man looks: self-tanning, plastic surgery—a lot of plastic surgery.” The men are also very well dressed, including so many leather jackets that the English title of Berrettini’s thesis is “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Leather Jackets,” a take-off from the popular novel The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
He traces this idea of uniform dress back to fascism in Italy. In 1915, Giovanni Papini, an Italian journalist, writer, and philosopher, set out what it meant to be a man and what a man should do in his book Maschilità. “It’s extremely rigid,” Berrettini says. “I used this for context because these are similar very rigid environments in crime. Fascism itself was a successful organized crime organization.”
Although he wrote about the Italian shows, he’s intrigued by similarities with the American shows. He remembers the popularity of The Sopranos: “Everyone was talking about how much like a roller coaster and how exhilarating watching that show was.”
“It’s long been said that violence sells,” he says. “People have this weird Schadenfreudeism.” He also believes the fraternity represented in the groups is appealing to young men. “It’s appealing to me. It’s a really safe group of friends who are really committed to each other. People report feeling more isolated with social media—I think it’s also effective in that way.”
Inspired by contact hypotheses, Berrettini wants to learn more about the effect television shows could have on viewers. The original contact hypothesis is credited to Gordon W. Allport in the 1950s and states that under certain conditions, interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice. In 2015 a group at MIT took this to a parasocial setting, exploring whether representations on screen can affect a viewer’s attitude toward a particular social group. The study found that watching shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Six Feet Under was successful in eliminating prejudice among viewers.
“I thought well, if it’s eliminating prejudice, why couldn’t it increase prejudice?” asks Berrettini. “Gomorrah is on Netflix and you can watch the whole thing in two days. And you’re exposed to so much input all at once, that you can’t really unpack it when you’re binge-watching – it just becomes internalized.”
He believes there should be empirical studies to determine if media can negatively affect prejudices, with interdisciplinary work done among the humanities, arts, and sciences. “We have so many more tools now and such a great scientific understanding,” he says. “We can really use that to supplement our more cultural hypotheses. I think any kind of art should not be censored, but we do need to understand better what’s happening to people who are watching.”
Berrettini’s thesis received the award of excellence in Italian studies, and he was also named a Dean’s Scholar for his research and his pursuit of global and local opportunities in support of his love of Italian language and culture, from study abroad and teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in Bologna, Italy, to serving as Community Manager at Italiani a Philly, an organization helping Italians who are coming to Philadelphia. He’ll now be pursuing his M.A. at Middlebury College through an intensive program in Italian on the cinema, media, and communications track, spending six weeks in California, then an academic year in Florence.