The role of women and family in The Sopranos

Tony is not the only character that defies typical conventions of the genre in The Sopranos. The role of women in traditional conventions of the genre is stereotypical of weak, powerless women. Yet The Sopranos portrays women in a powerful way, one of which influences Tony directly, affecting his decisions, emotions and the Mafia itself. In Francis Ford Coppola’s, the Godfather part III (1990), Kay sums up her fear of Corleone by declaring: “I don’t hate you Michael. I dread you.” She of course has good reason for her ‘dread’ as by the end of the movie, their daughter Mary takes a bullet for her Dad. We see this abuse of women also in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’ when Karen is forced into a witness protection program with her husband Henry, since divorce for a mob wife is, to quote Michael, “un-acceptable”. Fast forward to The Soprano’s, and women like Carmela Soprano, Livia, Janice and even Meadow show far

more influence.

First and foremost is Tony’s mother, Livia. Livia was the woman who in Tony’s eyes turned his father into a “squeekin’ little gerbil” before he died.Her significance can be found in her persistence not to give up in achieving what she wants, despite how stubborn and awkward she can be. Often women can be overlooked in a male dominated gangster scene, especially a mother, and she makes sure this does not happen.

Another dominant woman close to Tony is his wife Carmela. Although she often looks the other way at his frequent wrongdoings, she doesn’t permit any kind of threat to her home, her children or her status as a woman. Nor is Carmela easily affected by personality. For instance, when the very religious Carmela confronts her confessor Father Phil about his manipulative behaviour (for toying with her affections). She is not afraid of confrontation, taking pride in the safeguarding of her family and all those close to her. This also opens a new door to a new female audience. No longer is it simply gun-shots, power and violence, (typical conventions of the genre) that may appeal to men, women can now relate to her desire to protect her family, and her need to be listened to and considered an equal to Tony in the family home.

Meadow, Tony’s princess daughter, is also someone who can be tough with Tony. Her relationship with a half-African-American, half-Jewish man whom Tony insists on calling “sambo” and “buckwheat”, clearly threatens Tony. This demonstrates how strong women in The Sopranos are directly affecting narrative storylines and Tony’s own behavior. It also shows how Tony is only human, as he himself can feel threatened by people and be emotionally affected, especially on issues to do with his family. Furthermore there is an instance where one of Meadow’s friends had recently been given a car for his Birthday. The friend’s father owes Tony Soprano money after he lost it gambling. In order to pay Tony back the father of his daughter’s friend takes his son’s car and gives it to Tony, who then stupidly gives the car to his daughter. Tony’s daughter realizes what has happened and disowns her Father. This causes tension and anger amongst the Soprano family. The episode shows not only how the gangster lifestyle affects your materialistic wealth, but its impact on family/personal life, and in particular Meadow’s impact on the show despite her gender and age.

And the strongest female is outside the family. No one has such a direct effect upon the show than Tony’s psychiatrist, Dr Jennifer Melfi. She contributes to not only the shows’ sense of menace, but also the series’ moral dimension. Dr Melfi got more than she bargained for when she took on Tony, as he is hardly the conventional client. The real crisis in their relationship came when Dr Melfi began to finally realise her patient was not just another neurotic sufferer but also a brutal criminal and murderer. It is something her ex-husband warns her about when he says (and this is personally my favourite quote), “Finally, you’re going to get beyond psychological cheery moral relativism. Finally, you’re going to get to good and evil, and he is evil.” It is the same kind of dilemma that in one form or other faces the audience. No matter how appealing Tony is, there is a moral dimension to his actions that cannot be ignored. He and his mob colleagues are portrayed as the victims of circumstance, because the stories are told from their point of view, and that all other ‘normal’ avenues to the top and unavailable to them. During a campus tour with his daughter, Tony stumbles across a mafia informer in the witness protection program and brutally attacks him. Tony’s very human vulnerabilities cannot change the fact that he is also a killer, and ultimately some sort of judgment has to be made about him.

It is also important to note that on prime time, women get to use uncensored swear words, for example when Janice soprano states, “this cunt is going to be sorry she ever fucked with me”. It breaks at once convention of ladylike behavior, and shows that The Soprano’s not only breaks gangster genre conventions, but those of the stereotypical women to.

The double play on ‘family’ which is crucial to the Mafia, makes sure that women will be cast in further violent movies and TV shows which otherwise might see all the lead roles played by men. Compared to other related genres, like war, westerns and action films, whilst their violence is comparable, the female demographics are completely different. Steven Spielberg’s, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998) completely blocks women’s access to any part of the screen, even the smallest corner. Yet in mafia films women have always enjoyed relatively high profiles, since a mafia boss no matter how violent their day has been, returns to home at the end of the day, expecting to find the pasta and chianti on the table.

This identification of the stay at home wife delimits their range of movement as they can directly affect main characters and storylines, whilst not fully losing touch of their ‘housewife’ stereotype.


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