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Monday, May 07, 2007

The Sopranos' Critique of the American Man

Last night's episode (see Salon for a great recap) was fittingly named Walk Like a Man, and it got me trying to solidify the growing feeling I've had all season that Chase et al. have something really important--and not so good-- to say about American masculinity.

Perhaps I got that distinct impression for the first time last season when the ailing, newly-existential Tony decided to prove he was still tough. He did so by picking a fight with his innocent bodyguard, beating the crap out of him, later staring at himself grimly in the mirror while coughing up blood, and finally throwing money at the poor guy by way of apology. In terms of the world within which Tony moves, he had proved his manliness. But in the grander scheme of things, his actions were so pathetic, bullying, and small that it was embarassing to us viewers. All this talk about being a real man and providing for others--and this is what it boiled down to? Schoolyard behavior. Incidentally, I suspect Chase had our fearless leader's efforts in the Middle East in mind as he sketched out that incident.

Then of course, there was the miserable plotline with poor outed Vito--even as Tony realized that Vito's sexuality had little bearing on his "manliness" (his earning capability and contribution to the family) Phil Leotardo was so disturbed by his cousin's being gay that he brought a large gang of thugs to Vito's hotel room and beat him to death. It was a scene eerily reminiscent of "honor killings" in Pakistan and Iraq, where family members murder rape victims and sexually active women to restore honor and dignity to the family. How different is violent American homophobia from the fundamentalist Islamic views on sexuality that we so decry? And what does "honor" mean in this case, when it's honorable for five men to gang up on one?

This season, the message has been even more explicit. Tony's cruel insistence that his brother-in-law "pop his cherry" by killing someone for the first time was the kick-off. But the apex was surely Phil Leotardo shouting angrily at the black-lipstick wearing, deviant Vito junior--all of ten years old-- commanding him to "BE A FUCKING MAN" after he himself had murdered the boy's father and caused his delinquency. The scene was so miserable and futile it was perversely funny.

Sure, we laughed at the notion that angry exhortations and a five minute talk could cure the kid. But just when we expected the more human Tony to take a different tack with the boy, our tragically imperfect "hero" came in and did the exact same thing. Less sociopathically, perhaps, but the message was the same: Man up, no explanation required. The irony was that neither Tony nor Phil was "man enough" to do the truly gentlemanly, gallant thing, which would be to give Vito's widow the money she needed to move her child away from town, away from trouble.

Finally, in last night's episode, Christopher's sobriety leads the other fellas to doubt his masculinity. Tony chides him for drinking non-alcoholic beer. When Christopher reminds Tony that because T has been to a shrink he understands the human condition and Christopher's "disease", Tony is embarassed. He counters with a nasty remark about how alcoholism isn't really a disease. But he's uncomfortable because he knows what Chris says is true. As swvl pointed out to me in one of our many late Sunday night Sopranos analyses, Chris and Tony are the most human characters on the show, the least in control of the rigid manliness required by their job. But instead of bonding over their shared emotions, Tony distances himself from his nephew. For them to relate over weaknesses would be to truly admit those weaknesses--and on some level would prevent Tony from being able to continue being a "good" boss, at least as is required by mob standards.

Later in "terapy," Tony tells Melfi through clenched teeth that his coming there is all a "jack off," (I think he did the same thing in a previous season), before breaking down in tears about his love and concern for his son. He denies his emotions and feels them violently in rapid succession--of course he hates his feelings, because they are an obstacle on the road to being a perfect man. And yet his suppression of them is impossible. His anger simmers.

Christopher's feeling of abandonment and betrayal, the humiliation he feels when he talks lovingly, drunkenly and sentimentally about his daughter and gets his "balls broken" by Paulie and all the guys, is another tipping point. They have rejected his expression of emotion, and he leaves. We think he is going to turn State's perhaps, abandon the code of masculinity that has abandoned him, but instead he lets the shit flow downhill by shooting a poor shmuck because the guy wouldn't listen when Chris "poured his fucking heart out." Again, the perils of being forced to conceal one's emotions. Again, the taking out of violent impulses on those who are helpless. Similarly, Tony's son AJ's participation in the beating of a deadbeat gambler are a clear result of dad's refusal to contend with his son's depression.

People talk a lot about the absence of father figures on the show, and the importance of father son relationships. I take that theme further and say that whether intended or not, the show eviscerates the entire conceit of father-son relationships as they are constructed by our patriarchal society. Emotionless, competitive relationships between men are a formula for disaster, says Chase, and the ruthless social world of the mob is a microcosm for our nation, our world. Just look at George Bushes Sr. and Jr to understand the damage of constructions of manliness and violence on the world's landscape.

Not a single male character on the show lives up to the men above him, or teaches the men below him without permanently damaging them. In my mind, what Chase is trying to say, is that there is no such thing as "real man" in their and our world, because our conception of manhood is inherently flawed.


  1. Anonymous2:53 PM

    "It was a scene eerily reminiscent of "honor killings" in Pakistan and Iraq, where family members murder rape victims and sexually active women to restore honor and dignity to the family. How different is violent American homophobia from the fundamentalist Islamic views on sexuality that we so decry?"

    1. It isn't codified under and justified by law
    2. Homosexuals aren't routinely murdered in the United States, while "honor killings" in Pakistan are, relatively speaking, common
    3. The general public in America does not believe that the murder or beating of homosexuals is the "right" thing to do
    4. Where honor killings are handed out as punishment by the family or by the tribe - in other words by those directly in power - attacks on homosexuals in the U.S. are generally performed by the citizenry, and are generally prosecuted by the government.
    5. Whatever prejudice against homosexuals there is in the United States does not penetrate society so deeply that effectively half the population is reduced to second class citizens, both by law and custom

    I think maybe you overshot on this one.

  2. in what language does "eerily reminiscent of" equal "exactly the same as"?

    I think you overshot on this one, anon ;)

  3. Anonymous3:12 PM

    I wasn't commenting on "eerily reminiscent" - I was commenting on "how different is American homophobia from fundamentalist islamic" views of women, etc. My thought? Different enough that they probably shouldn't be compared so casually.

    And "eerily reminiscent" is pretty close to saying, at the very least, "in the same boat as", or even "nearly the same as". In English.

  4. You misquoted me by leaving out the term "violent" and changed the whole context of my statement. That was very churlish behavior of you, Mr. Anonymous, but alas! so very much in keeping with your refusal to identify yourself throughout thousands of years of history. How are you so prolific?

  5. Anonymous10:31 AM

    Heh. "Anonymous" through the ages.

    I don't know how to identify myself - I'm not a "Google" member - and that's the only option that would let me post.

    Anyway, I did leave out "violent". I don't see how that changes anything, though. You are comparing the behavior of "violent American homophobia" to "fundamentalist Islamic views". Inherent in making the comparison is the underlying assumption that the two subjects have some sort of fundamental similarity. If they don't, why make the comparison? My original post, therefore, was an attempt to say that there isn't any fundamental similarity to the two, and pointing out the ways in which they materially differ.

    The passage I quoted has an "attend to the beam in our own eye before attending to the mote in another's" feel to it. I see that as phony, and frankly, a little cowardly. You seem to imply that, since homophobia exists in America - or, if you prefer, violent homophobia - any criticism of fundamentalist Islamic views on sexuality by Americans is somehow tainted and hypocritical. I'm saying that I don't see that at all, and attempting to explain why.



  6. Tip to the disingenuous: click on "other" and type in a name. Oh, but you knew that already.

  7. And F-e: spot-on analysis of the ep.

  8. You wrote:

    "It was a scene eerily reminiscent of "honor killings" in Pakistan and Iraq, where family members murder rape victims and sexually active women to restore honor and dignity to the family."

    What was "It"?

    "It" was "...Phil Leotardo was so disturbed by his cousin's being gay that he brought a large gang of thugs to Vito's hotel room and beat him to death."

    The "It" was "a scene eerily reminiscent of..."

    What does "...eerily reminiscent of..." mean?

    Calls to mind? Similar to? Alike? The same as?


    Different as night and day?

    You were seeking equivalence and shared ground between the mafia and islam.

    The resolution of the Matthew Shepard case reflects our societal attitude toward homosexuality. Not Leotardo (Re-tardo. The writer is mocking Phil). These clowns do not form a microcosm of American. The show does not hold a mirror to our society.

    But the show does explore the adage "be careful what you wish for..."

    You rhetorically ask:

    "How different is violent American homophobia from the fundamentalist Islamic views on sexuality that we so decry? And what does "honor" mean in this case, when it's honorable for five men to gang up on one?"

    Anonymous was right. There is very little common ground shared by the mafia mentality, which operates outside the law, and islamic madness which is prescribed by the Koran and codified into sharia law.

    As far as "ganging up" goes, well, that's the basis of power. There is nothing gentlemanly about power. It emanates from the knowledge and belief that one party can dominate the other. The fear that one party can and will overwhelm the other, and that the domination ends in death.

    There's no Marquis of Queensbury rules in the power game. That's all about fighting a "fair fight", a fight where it's not clear which contestant will triumph. A "fair fight" is an oxymoron in the power world.

    As the mob boys prove whenever they can, they will kill anyone who is a rival or a threat whenever a moment of weakness surfaces, like Tony finishing off Christopher after the car accident brought him close to death.

    As was said later in the show, the air-bag contributed to his injury. Hitting him in the chest -- heart -- and causing internal bleeding that became evident when blood ran from his mouth.

    In other words, a flaw in the system. The air-bag is supposed to save the person. Instead, it was shown to have contributed to his injury. Thus, the air-bag was not exactly the safety device its creators had in mind.

    When Tony saw the red blood of Christopher's heart in his mouth, he knew he'd already heard and now seen enough to seize the moment to kill Christopher with no fear of legal complications.

  9. Anonymous1:37 AM

    They don't just represent the mafia. It's a metaphor.

    They also represent the sort of ugliness of America. Big, ugly houses, no self awareness, immigrants and criminals who complain about immigration and keeping "those people" out.

    The Mafia is the hook, because it's more entertaining than watching a show about a bunch of middle class yutzes doing nothing, but it's a meditation on American culture and the sureal aspect of it all. And yes, a dissection of masculinity is definitely a part of that.

    If you don't see the social critique, you're not watching closely enough.

  10. Anonymous11:23 AM

    This is the first thing that came up when I googled a picture of an "American man". I don't watch the Sopranos, but this telling fact is the basis on which I'm posting.

    Posting blogs like these might seem progressive at the time, but keep in mind that people around the world read these blogs and use them to rationalize dangerous anti-American views. Like posters before me pointed out, you're comparing a foreign society's chronic human rights abuses to actions in the united states that are condemned and heavily prosecuted. Even more telling that this mobster is a completely fictional character.

    No, not everyone living in America is going to be happy all the time. Your negative feelings are a reality, but this societal problem is not. And unfortunately, another reality is Americans facing unjustified harassment in just about every county they visit, because fictional societal problems like these are trumpeted and magnified around the world to the extent that history's most benevolent superpower is demonized and hated.

    I had a great time at this year's gay pride events in San Francisco. The last time Ahmadinejad visited the US, when asked about the systematic death sentences of homosexuals in his county, his only answer was that Iran does not have homosexuals.
    I think I prefer America.