Goofing around with Italian-American stereotypes is so commonplace that even a cursory glance at pop culture yields any number of Italian caricatures. In Super Mario Brothers the villains are literally called "goombas," which is a straight-up ethnic slur against Italians. The Jersey Shore reduced Mediterranean culture to "gym/tan/laundry." Political grifters like Anthony Scaramucci and Michael Avenatti tweet words like #BASTA and assert a macho, mobster-like conception of Italian-Americanism for all the world to see.
For most of us American-born descendants of the boot country, it's all in good fun. Older generations may declare racism, but none can argue that Italians are an oppressed ethnic group. We haven't been for nearly a century. That's why words like dago, guinea, guido, and wop no longer carry much of a sting. They feel like less of a racial slur than a reminder of our people's successful assimilation into American culture.
But if you want to piss off an Italian-American, there's still one word that hurts: Fredo.
A video surfaced late Monday night on a right-wing YouTube channel showing Chris Cuomo, anchor of CNN's Cuomo Prime Time, boiling in rage after being called the name of the famously tragic brother, portrayed by John Cazale in The Godfather. Brandon Recor, host of the YouTube show "That's the Point with Brandon," told the Washington Post that the video was captured after Cuomo was asked for a photo at a bar in Shelter Island, New York. "Punk ass bitches on the right call me Fredo," Cuomo yells in the grainy cell phone footage. "My name is Chris Cuomo, I'm an anchor on CNN. Fredo is from The Godfather. He was their weak brother. And they use it as an Italian aspersion...It's like the N-word for us."
Of course, plenty of pundits and online entities have already offered their opinion about Cuomo's rant. Sean Hannity supported his rival anchor, tweeting that Cuomo has "nothing to apologize for." As expected, Trump inserted himself into the narrative, writing in a tweet: "I thought Chris was Fredo also. The truth hurts."
It appears the moniker holds special meaning for Cuomo, who's the younger brother of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. For anyone who grew up in an Italian-American family—especially those of us with brothers—it's not hard to imagine what being called Fredo may mean for Cuomo. It's almost tradition to question: which one is Sonny? Which one is Fredo? Which one is Michael? If you were called the "Fredo" of the family growing up, you may spend the rest of your life raging against that comparison.
But to claim that the word "Fredo" is a slur that's even in the same ballpark as the N-word is insane. Cuomo subsequently apologized for his behavior, saying "I should be better than what I oppose" in a tweet, but he made no mention of his outright shameful evocation of the N-word.
Fredo is seen as the sensitive, or as Cuomo says, "weak" brother of The Godfather's Corleone mob family. The second son of Vito Corleone, John Cazale's emotionally-vulnerable, albeit clumsy character is the rightful heir to Vito's seat as Capo of the family, following the death of the eldest brother, Sonny. After Vito's death, however, the role of Godfather falls to Michael, the youngest son.
Of course, there are many reasons why Michael gets the throne. He's power-hungry and Machiavellian; he volunteers to kill a police officer, and, even as a young man, expresses the sort of ice-cold conviction that's required of a criminal overlord. Santino, or Sonny, the oldest son, is a hot-headed, violent, womanizing "enforcer" type. Both Michael and Sonny meet gruesome deaths as a result of their quest for power and dominance. In The Godfather, Sonny is torn to shreds in a hail of machine gun fire after foolishly driving into the trap of a rival mob family, attempting in vain to exact revenge on his sister's abusive husband. He dies as he lived—proud, rage-addled, and stupid. Michael suffers an even more unthinkable fate. After his lust for power leads him to kill quite literally everyone closest to him (including Fredo), he's tortured by remorse for the rest of his days and, in The Godfather Part III, watches his daughter murdered and dies a solitary death.
In the Godfather trilogy, Fredo is one of the few truly pure, benevolent characters of the whole family. He's not perfect—towards the end of his life he begins to spiral into greedy, regretful decisions, becoming a womanizer and addict—but he's the only one who's known for being open with his emotions and avoiding violence. He dances. He's goofy. The women of the family adore him; he's great with kids. Unlike Michael, Fredo is peaceful, spirited, and kindhearted. He makes mistakes throughout the first two movies, first failing to save his father from near assassination and then mistakenly selling Michael out in The Godfather Part II. The latter leads to Michael having him gunned down. Fredo, in the end, is the victim of a vicious criminal upbringing. If you were raised by a mob boss, but unsuited for the criminal life, you'd probably have trouble with a gun, too.
In a time when college students throw Tony Soprano, De Niro from Goodfellas, Joe Pesci in Casino, and Pacino from Scarface all on the same poster on their dorm room wall, being called "Fredo" feels like a compliment. The brutish levels of testosterone that are represented in Italian-American media are humiliating for a culture that's actually known for its refined traditions like craftsmanship, artistry, and style. And what's worse, American estimations of Italian culture usually don't even make any sense, with audiences having now misinterpreted the works of Italian-American cinema for decades. Raging Bull is a sad meditation on the shortcomings of an emotionally repressed, sociopathic woman-abuser, not a flashy sports movie. Goodfellas is a dire cautionary tale about the inhumanity of violence, not a story about cool mobsters who shoot guns. Tony Soprano is an unloved, overgrown manchild with chronic anxiety and depression. And for God's sake, Scarface isn't even Italian.
This is all reminiscent of a great sequence from Harold Ramis's Analyze This. In the film, Billy Crystal, who is the unwilling analyst of Robert De Niro's mob boss character, has a dream that he's living in the world of The Godfather. The dream is a shot-for-shot recreation of the famous sequence in Francis Ford Coppola's film where Vito Corleone is nearly killed in an attempted assassination. Crystal visualizes himself as The Don. And he sees De Niro as Fredo, fumbling with a gun, crying at the apparent death of his father.
Later, Crystal tells De Niro about his dream. De Niro's response? "I was Fredo? I don't think so." But the film goes on to show that, as De Niro's character becomes more open about his emotions, more willing to cry, and more Fredo-like overall, he conquers his anxiety and becomes a confident mob boss after all. Being a Fredo doesn’t sound all that bad.