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.