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Stereotypes bite back

Stock ethnic characters still appeal in Hollywood, but critics argue that they color a child's perceptions.

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In a scene from "Shark Tale," the latest animated film from Dreamworks, a line of sharks waits to pay respects to the "codfather" of the reef, Don Lino. The great white fish, voiced by Robert De Niro, has just lost his two sons. Later, as Italian music plays in the background, the Don and various underlings exchange lines that could be lifted from any Mafia film all the way back to 1931's "Little Caesar."

"May whoever did this die a thousand deaths," says Giuseppe, a hammerhead. The filmmakers have said that the film is a comedic sendup of the old Italian mobster movies. But some Italian-Americans are not amused. A national organization is protesting the film's "tired cliché of Italians as mobsters."

"It's negative stereotyping at its worst," says Lawrence Auriana, president of the New York-based Columbus Citizens Foundation, who saw the film at last month's Toronto Film Festival. "The sharks all have Italian names. They use Italian expressions and they are violent, criminal, and racist."

Concerns over ethnic and gender stereotypes in the media surface regularly, but some argue that they take on an added urgency when the audience is children. Young viewers, they say, aren't sophisticated enough to discern the stereotypes for what they are.

Warming to his theme, Mr. Auriana says he is surprised that the movie is produced by Dreamworks partner Stephen Spielberg. Auriana notes that the filmmaker once declared, "We are in a race against time for the conscious minds of young people and need to teach them the dangers of stereotyping."

Dreamworks spokesman Andy Spahn says the studio is proud of the final product and makes no excuses.


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