October 25, 2012Vol. 43, Issue 2

From The Nanny to The Sopranos: Stereotypes, Ethnicity, and American Television

Communication design professor and Italy native Chiara Ferrari was sitting in a television criticism class at the University of Arizona in her first semester of graduate school when the class began a discussion of Fran Drescher’s portrayal of a Jewish American princess on The Nanny.

Chiara Ferrari

Chiara Ferrari

Something didn’t sound right to Ferrari—she had watched the show in Italy many times and was certain Fran Drescher was an Italian American. “Since when is Fran Drescher Jewish?” she asked, to which the class laughed. 

“To me, she was an Italian American,” says Ferrari.

This moment of realization spurred Ferrari’s master’s thesis, PhD dissertation, and her latest book, Since When is Fran Drescher Jewish?, all of which focus on the idea that television portrays ethnicity through stereotypes and how stereotypes are adapted depending on the country they are broadcasted in.

“I was interested in seeing what happens to American television when it gets exported abroad,” says Ferrari. “I understand now that Drescher is perfectly Jewish, but the fact is that no one knows what a Jewish American princess is in Italy.”

Her research began as a six-page paper, which later turned into a 20-page paper on The Nanny and how it is translated in Italy. This turned into her master’s thesis, “The Nanny in Italy: Language, Nationalism and Cultural Identity,” which was strong enough to present at a conference.

When she presented her paper at the Southwest Popular Culture Association (PCA), she won the award for best student paper. “That gave me some confidence, and made me realize that it was something worth pursuing.”

Ferrari was accepted to UCLA in the Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media. She wanted to see if she could find an overall argument that could apply to television series other than The Nanny. At the time, global television wasn’t as explored as it is today, and there were not a lot of papers with topics similar to hers. She had a lot of research work cut out for her.

“The idea was there, but it needed to become a bigger idea that was supported by academic research,” she says. “What I needed to find was at least two other television series that needed to be domesticated for an Italian audience.”

The Sopranos was a perfect candidate and presented different issues for adaptation than The Nanny. Since the characters on the show are Italian Americans, Ferrari found that an Italian audience could get close to the show. She wanted to know the problems faced by dubbing practitioners when the audience might be too close to the characters portrayed. In The Sopranos, it wasn’t so much a case of domesticating characters like it was with The Nanny, but rather a case of sensitivity.

After some research, Ferrari learned that Italian dubbing studios were required to erase the word “mafia” from the show. The director of dubbing told her that the Mafia is a national wound in Italy.

“Nowhere in the Italian version of The Sopranos will you hear the word ‘mafia,’ ” says Ferrari. “That was very surprising.”

The Simpsons was the third show Ferrari studied. She found that it was not only popular around the world because of its global appeal (they make fun of every ethnicity), but also because the show could be easily adapted to a country’s local environment.

The Simpsons is successful abroad not only for its global reach but also for the possibilities it offers for re-contextualization and localization in foreign markets,” she says.

Ferrari spoke with the television dubbing practitioners, television interpreters, and translators responsible for bringing The Nanny, The Sopranos, and The Simpsons to Italy. She learned how much creativity also went into the dubbing process.

“The idea of a Jewish American princess was very foreign to an Italian audience,” says Ferrari. “Therefore, they looked to find an adaptation that would domesticate the character.”

All three of these shows are the focus of Since When is Fran Drescher Jewish? Since the publication of the book in 2011, Ferrari finds her research interests are changing. Her minor as an undergraduate in Italy was film studies, and she is re-opening that research with a new perspective.

“I think it is time to look at my country now that I have a privileged position and I can see it as both an insider and an outsider,” she says.

Ferrari has earned a global perspective over the years to qualify her as an outsider to Italy. After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Università degli Studi di Genova in Italy, Ferrari moved to Mexico.

“Mexico opened a whole new world to me. It made me realize I could live in a foreign country, and that helped me to make the decision to get my master’s in the United States,” she says. “It’s a major decision to move so far away from home, but it’s a decision I was clear about.”

Ferrari has received many grants and awards and has been published many times, including two books, Beyond Monopoly: Globalization and Contemporary Italian Media and Since When is Fran Drescher Jewish?

Now as a professor at CSU, Chico, her current research focuses on a number of topics that are recurrent in contemporary Italian film and society—the representation of domestic terrorism and the representation of Southern Italy, for example. Last summer, Ferrari was awarded a CSU Summer Scholar Grant that allowed her to travel to Italy and participate in a seminar on cinema in Rome.

“We covered everything from audiences to the idea of cinema for memory, gender representation, location and architecture, history, and archival research—using the cinema of Rome as a case study,” says Ferrari. “It was a very, very intellectually stimulating experience.”

Even though her research is shifting from global television to national and international cinema, she still incorporates her research into the classroom. World Cinema allows her to explore the research she is just beginning, while Globalizing Film & Video allows her to incorporate her book.

Ferrari’s curiosity is what has driven her career, and she encourages that same inquisitiveness in her students.

“I’m a curious person. I like to explore things; I like to read. Every time a colleague mentions something I don’t know, I go look it up,” says Ferrari. “And you never know what you’re going to find.”

—Cassandra Jones, Public Affairs and Publications