how the women of ‘the sopranos’ navigated a world not meant for them to thrive
'The Sopranos' was a work of art that understood the messy, unlikeable truth of women in this insular world.
Gender dynamics, domestic abuse, the Madonna-whore complex, and the complicit woman’s reconciliation between financial comfort and moral ruin: David Chase’s masterful constellation of psychopaths and gangsters may have seemed centred on violence and masculinity, but there's a completeness and a complexity to The Sopranos’s female stories which is often overlooked.
Launching in 1999, and focusing on an Italian-American crime family out in the far reaches of suburban New Jersey, a decent summary of the character’s attitudes towards women could be said to occur in an episode from the show’s first series, when Tony Soprano’s teenage daughter Meadow whines, “It’s the 90s. Parents talk about sex with their kids,” and Tony succinctly corrects her by pointing out the window and shouting “Out there it’s the 90s. In this house, it’s 1954."
He’s not far wrong. In the cosseted universe of well-to-do New Jersey housewives and their criminal husbands, family values remain staunchly in the past. These men have the run of the world, while its women cook baked ziti and buy Jimmy Choos. However, in the stories of female characters fighting for their own scraps of power, the nuance of The Sopranos’s women is palpable: extending from major figures like Tony’s therapist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), to minor characters like Svetlana, the cousin of Tony’s mistress.
Even the most ostensibly disposable women are memorable and present a blunt depiction of Tony and co.’s backwards sexual politics. These are apparent in a seemingly never-ending string of mistresses known as cumares, or ‘goomahs’. For Tony, these include the Eastern European model Irina and the stubborn-minded, impossibly sad Gloria Trillo (Annabella Sciorra). Each is distinctive and thoughtfully sketched, with their own private lives and backstories. Even the slew of strippers who work at the Bada Bing strip club -- a key hangout for Tony’s crew -- are given their own subtle attention, whether through internecine co-worker arguments or various entanglements with dangerous made men.
Those men of The Sopranos may be womanisers and misogynists, but the tone of its filmmaking at Bada Bing keeps a cool distance. Tony and company are mainly seen there in the daylight hours, when any nocturnal establishment is inclined to look shabby, further de-glamourising its depiction. As strippers prepare for their nightly dances and bare breasts bounce in the background of countless shots, the result transforms objectification into the purely mundane, subverting the perceived machismo of hanging out in a strip club: these are just women doing their jobs.
In one of the most memorably disturbing episodes in the show (University), Tracee (Ariel Kelly) an innocent young stripper with her teeth in braces ends up on the wrong side of the psychotic Ralphie (Joe Pantoliano) and the results are lethal. However frowned upon his actions are, mafia code does not allow a made man to be hurt for such a minor infraction as hurting a ‘goomah’, and life continues at the strip club more or less as before, with a new stripper hired to replace Tracee. In the same episode, this plotline runs directly parallel to Meadow Soprano’s first sexual experiences with her boyfriend at college. These two women in the orbit of the mafia are both barely 20 and exploring their sexuality, but because of the rigidly-defined categories prescribed to them by men -- the innocent and the whore -- their treatment and safety is radically different. It only heightens the horror of the episode, the female character-driven subplots giving psychological insight and context to a side of the Cosa Nostra we never got to see in The Godfather and the like.
For complicit women and mob wives in The Sopranos, their monied lifestyles are built on a constant negotiation for power and stability. If Tony is sent to prison, met with violence, or abruptly vanishes, Carmela must have a secret stash of money that cannot be taken by authorities or anyone else. She also responds to her husband’s numerous infidelities with a desire for real estate or diamonds. She’s a canny mob wife who wields her considerable influence in an iron fist/velvet glove manner; all with a firm sense of propriety. But she also cannot hide her bitterness; her power is only by a matter of degrees, totally dependent on her husband’s continuing influence in the criminal underworld. Carmela carries a deep vein of Catholic guilt for her complicity: the audience are left to wonder how much Carmela knows as the series continues and people close to her begin to disappear or die, with the most nauseating betrayals remaining mostly unspoken.
While The Sopranos systematically deconstructs romantic ideas about tough-guy chivalry or old-fashioned values -- as with the domestic abuse regularly visited on Adriana by her long-term boyfriend Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) -- it also displays what happens when some of the women are left cruelly bereft by the New Jersey crime family. One of these is Angie Bonpensiero, the wife of one of Tony’s soldiers ‘Big Pussy’. After her husband vanishes, she takes regular support money from Tony, but when she tries to ask for more, he deems her undeserving. Carmela later spots her old friend working in a supermarket and sneaks away before an awkward encounter ensues. Somewhat surprisingly, that’s not the end of the line for Angie. The fact that David Chase and his various directors continue to focus on characters like Angie -- giving the viewer a sense of her inner life beyond the perspective of the chauvinist male characters -- is notable. She ends up getting a foothold in her husband’s former auto-body shop, makes a huge success of it, and becomes an enviably accomplished businesswoman, to the horror of her former mob wife friends.
In one memorable scene, Angie’s former friend Rosalie stares out into the middle distance and takes a drag of her cigarette as she talks to Carmela. “She was one of us. But now it’s like she’s one of them.” The ‘them’ is unambiguous: she means their hustling criminal men, the ones who conquer, dominate, and pay for everything. In many ways, Angie is a sympathetic figure and a survivor, but Rosalie does not mean it as a compliment. The men of The Sopranos may be sexists, but the women often tacitly support those own internalised views, holding those who attempt to establish their own independence in disregard.
By contemporary standards -- with female-centred shows such as Orange Is the New Black, GLOW and others reaping huge amounts of praise for their nuanced portrayal of women -- The Sopranos may seem old-fashioned/macho by default. In fact it presents a deeply subversive depiction of men, and by extension, how women end up hurt by remaining in their lives. Throughout the show’s run, the writers and directors of the explore something more complicated than female empowerment; instead, The Sopranos’s women navigate their roles in a world not meant for them to thrive.
A long time before TV and film would be examined through a blunt 'is this feminist?' framework, The Sopranos was a work of art that understood the messy, unlikeable truth of women in this insular world. That truth is rarely, if ever, empowering. But even at their most self-defeating or amoral, these women are allowed to be many paradoxical things. Their characterisations and the depth of writing allows them to be both maternal and fearsome, bafflingly remote yet empathetic. Perhaps the greatest compliment The Sopranos pays to its women characters is that they are never neatly categorised as the men of the show would so love for them to be.