Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Why does The Sopranos appeal to (some) feminists?

Welcome to the first iteration of Television Tuesday! Every Tuesday, I or another writer will discuss a show we love in a feminist context - why it is or isn't feminist, and if it's not, how I experience it as a feminist. Enjoy!

The Sopranos is one of the most lauded shows in American television history, and with good reason. It’s brilliant literature: well-acted, well-written, with wonderfully developed characters. Every episode is a movie unto itself. But all of the characters (in a show where the sociopath is made sympathetic) openly espouses racist and sexist and (if given the opportunity in a heteronormative world) homophobic views on an episodic basis. Violence against women is a regular hallmark of the show, and POC are regularly slurred.

But the people that I discuss the Sopranos with – my mom and Miranda, one of my college BFFs – are some of the most passionate and dedicated feminists I know. We’re not usually discussing it in a feminist or critical context either – we’re just being regular fans, discussing whom we love, whom we hate, and why the characters do what they do. Why would a show that regularly promulgates views that are inherently antithetical to our closely held beliefs captivate us so?
The Sopranos is a show about flawed and awful people . And there are no characters (besides Meadow, occasionally, and Silvio’s daughter, who objects to the Bada Bing off camera) who show up to counter the sexist and racist things characters do, and many of the violent characters act as Greek choruses to one another – they reinforce their motivations instead.

However, those motivations are not sanctioned by the point of view of the series. Characters of color and women who are subject to mistreatment and violence typically do little to aggravate this behavior. Carmela is clearly a devoted wife who does little to earn Tony’s scorn except put up with it. The woman who cleans Livia’s house is competent and reliable, but Livia insists that she is stealing. When Ralphie kills a stripper, it contributes to his eventual murder. Tony attempts to manipulate a housing project to his own ends, but his attempts are countered vocally and his racism called.

Instead of reinforcing and supporting the ideas that contribute to their sexism and racism through stereotypes and weak and passive characters, the viewer’s sympathy for Carmela or (initially) Meadow’s black and Jewish boyfriend Noah is aroused – while they are not robbed of agency (see below) they do nothing to bring the behavior upon themselves. It’s not satire – it’s the portrayal of flawed and awful actions made by flawed and awful people with prejudice and hate in their heart. The onus is placed firmly on the shoulders of Tony.

David Chase is clearly conscious of the issues of his characters, and he actively endeavors to hold them responsible rather than championing them:
In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air," Sopranos creator David Chase identified "University" as the most heavily misunderstood episode of the series, and his comments indicate a conscious (if not terribly articulate) engagement on his part with progressive visions of social responsibility. Chase asserted that the episode tells "a story about this girl that nobody cared about." His description of her as "expendable" lends itself to a reading of Tracee at the intersection of gender, social class, and sexual stigma, as he situated the episode in the context of the pervasive "violence against women" that happens "every day" in American culture.
This is almost a cliché, but it also stands to mention that I can remember eleven female characters by name off the top of my head. I haven’t watched the show in a couple months, but these characters are well-defined enough that I can recall their full name and multiple storylines in which they are an integral part within five minutes. Another ten are on the tip of my tongue. I’ve never seen an episode that didn’t pass the Bechdel test. There are few long-running dramas that give their female characters such screen time and consider their feelings respectfully.

There are a lot of issues with the Sopranos, and I’m not arguing that it’s a feminist show. POC are often invisible and stereotypes are frequently relied upon. Additionally, any show that regularly features violence against oppressed bodies is problematic – even when that violence is a natural and essential part of the storytelling, even when the characters are held responsible for their actions. They’re telling honest stories, but they’re also honestly racist and sexist stories that are being promulgated.

My conclusions are also based on a very small and white sample size. Three feminists I know of love the Sopranos, and one of them is me. I am sure that a lot of womanists and feminists hate the Sopranos, and have very good reasons for doing so. I'm not saying that all womanists and feminists love the Sopranos and they're not good feminists or womanists are not. I hope they'll chime in and tell me exactly why they hate it in the comments.

However, passionate feminists don’t get into this show for no reason. Few serials do such a well-rounded job of developing female characters and holding even sympathetic characters responsible for the awful things that they do. It may not be feminist, but it's thoughtful and well-rounded enough to transcend its violence and appeal to feminists.

Further reading.


  1. Nice post!

    I started liking the Sopranos a lot more when I started interpreting it from a feminist perspective. I see it as a critique of racist/patriarchal society -- the Soprano clan is a condensed example of such a society, and the show is careful to point out how many people get screwed over by this.

    People of color are disrespected and insulted -- that sucks, and it happens in real life too. Queer people are outcast from their families, beaten up, or even killed for being who they are -- that sucks, and it happens in real life too. Women are beaten up or even killed for no reason, fear leaving their abusers, are held to a high standard of chastity while their partners sleep around, are denied opportunities to do things for themselves -- that sucks, and it happens in real life too.

    So while it's a show about racist, sexist people featuring storylines about racist, sexist things, I don't think it's a racist, sexist show. The viewer is supposed to be horrified by the characters' actions -- and horrified that he/she finds these characters sympathetic despite their unsympathetic actions. But approached from the right perspective, this can remind us that we're in situations like this in real life all the time too -- situations where violence and disrespect are normalized and we unintentionally sympathize with the people committing these acts. In part, The Sopranos reminds us that we're more like the mobsters than we'd like to think.

  2. Thanks for stopping by and expanding on my ideas, Clara! Your ideas are dead on and very astute.

  3. And this is why I could never call myself or be a feminist -

    "Carmela is clearly a devoted wife who does little to earn Tony’s scorn except put up with it."

    Are we watching the same show??!!


  4. Lucy,

    I would like to think that a disagreement over whether or not Carmela "deserves" Tony's scorn or not (or whether she's a devoted wife, or whether he is in fact scornful: you didn't expand exactly on which show you ARE watching) would not be the tipping point over whether or not you called yourself a feminist. It disappoints me to hear you say that you "could never call (yourself) or be a feminist" in reference to something so minute.

    Being a feminist is a question of whether or not you want equality for women - not whether or not you agree with every feminist on every analysis. Let me tell you, I definitely don't - I think that would be impossible - but I am definitely a feminist.

    (I don't even watch the Sopranos, to be quite honest, but I think this one is worth letting go!)

    More to the point, everyone "watches different shows". This phrase is usually used in the context of fandom (eg, someone might be watching the show where Merlin and Arthur are best friends and someone else watching the show where OMG THEY'RE SO IN LOVE) but it's still applicable to a feminist read of the Sopranos. Yes, you are watching different shows! Neither is right.

  5. Feminism is a complicated subject, as I could list a million quotes by feminist leaders i'm sure doesn't represent your brand of feminism. If you think feminism has helped make things more equal between men and women, fine, but from my perspective it hasn't. In fact from my perspective, it's done the complete opposite (eroded respect for women).
    Since I use men (as a lady does), to help achieve my goals (at home, at work), I can't in all conscience refer to myself as a 'feminist', when I've no desire to relinquish any of the many privelages traditional minded gentleman bestow upon me. Things were more equal 50 years ago, and gentleman weren't so rare. You might not, but I blame feminism. This isn't to say that it's all bad, but it's a long way away from being a force for good (and always has been).


  6. Lucy - obviously no one is forced to be a feminist. I simply point out, as you do, that there are lots of feminisms: Christian rightwing feminism to leftwing ecofeminism and everything in between. Of course you can quote feminist leaders I disagree with! They're still feminists and so am I.

    It's saddening to me that you think that feminism is at fault for eroding respect for women. While I think that feminism has become a dirty word over the years, I think there's a lot that has gone into lack of respect for women, including everything from patriarchal views to changing social mores to political situations to fashion. (And perhaps more freedom HAS given us the opportunity to be disrespected in different ways, but it also has made huge steps forward!) I also think that the way women have been treated by men has historically been similar to the way it is now, but people weren't always talking about it. (However, I suspect we may disagree about what constitutes "respect".)

    My point was exactly that feminism is simply the belief that men and women should be equal and that women's issues are important to talk about. You may disagree with the way some branches of feminism have gone about attaining this equality, or you may dislike the reaction that, in your opinion, they have received, but by saying you disagree with feminism you are saying you disagree with women's rights.

    Since I use men (as a lady does), to help achieve my goals (at home, at work), I can't in all conscience refer to myself as a 'feminist', when I've no desire to relinquish any of the many privelages traditional minded gentleman bestow upon me.

    I'm glad that you can identify yourself as privileged in this regard. There are a lot of women in relationships with traditionally-minded men who don't have much to show for it. For that matter, I feel that such privileges are gained because of a set of attitudes that are inherently disrespectful. While we might gain power or even little favors through, for example, exploiting that men view us as sexual objects, or as weaker physically and emotionally than they are, those viewpoints aren't exactly respectful, the way you would think about an equal.

    Things were more equal 50 years ago, and gentleman weren't so rare. You might not, but I blame feminism.

    50 years ago puts the epitome of equality at what, exactly 1960, then?

    Domestic violence was happening in 1960. Rape was happening in 1960. Abortions and teen pregnancy were happening in 1960.

    You know what wasn't happening in 1960? Much in the way of organized talking about these things. In 1960 female doctors, pilots, CEOs were still a huge minority, when they occurred at all. Women couldn't be in the armed forces. Etc.

    Let me relate a story. When my mother was a freshman in college (1971), she was told by a math professor at Cornell that she was the first woman he'd met who was capable of truly thinking critically. She replied in no uncertain terms that she hadn't even been the top of her small graduating class (at an all-girls' high school), many of whom were then attending Harvard and MIT.

    (But that was the 70s...maybe feminism had begun eroding his respect for women...)

    For that matter, I think you've forgotten that feminism has existed since the 1800s and long before. It didn't spring into existence in the 70s or at the magical date of 1960. So during the 1960s, if men were more respectful, it means that their respect for women has little to do with feminism, which had already been around for decades.

    It's a long way away from being a force for good (and always has been).

    No one's forcing you to not use men (though please avoid speaking for all ladies - I think that's squicky), to not take advantage of your privilege, or be a feminist. But next time you vote for a senator with traditional values, think about how you can do that and who you have to thank.

  7. (As a side note:
    Lucy, you have the right to reply to my long-winded post, but this is my last comment on this entry -
    a) we're unlikely to suddenly agree with each other and so must agree to disagree and

    b)more importantly, this is way OTT and as a comment mod I feel wrong arguing the merits of feminism when this post is about The Sopranos.

    ...I do think you maaay be in the wrong blog for your interests tho ;D)


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