“Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong, silent type?” —Tony Soprano
Being stranded in a foreign country during the pandemic was not exactly how I imagined spending half of 2020.
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But there I found myself, in search of something, anything, familiar. Messaging old loved ones, receiving little to no response, ghosted by the scattered and hollowed out remains of my failed relationships, alone, near destitute, I found myself like many others: binge-watching old TV shows, trying desperately to reclaim some nostalgia for a not-so-distant, happier past.
The powerlessness of being locked down for days, weeks and eventually months on end quickly gave way to serious bouts of existential dread, which I only managed to temporarily mitigate by transposing myself into the fictional world of an organized crime family from New Jersey.
I coped, in large measure, by returning to David Chase’s iconic HBO crime drama, The Sopranos, rediscovering some of the series’ subtle but nevertheless prescient references to progressive ideas on gender and sexuality, race and inequity. These undercurrents may not seem readily apparent given its reputation as one of television’s most violent and vulgar series ever, but nonetheless are like soft ricotta cream cheese encased in a hard cannoli shell.
When seen through the prism of 2020 — a world considerably different from the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the show first aired — it would seem that the womanizing misogyny of Tony and his pack of violent gangsters is a tone deaf addendum to today’s hyper-sensitive media culture.
While the show was very much a cultural product of post-9/11, Bush-era America, it also aged surprisingly well, bereft of references that would confuse or befuddle younger audiences. The show has even spawned some popular meme accounts such as @millennialsopranos, which provides up-to-date fan fictional annotations and political commentary on current events connected to popular scenes from the show, written by and for millennials and younger audiences.
Years before #MeToo and the long overdue reckoning with abuse and accountability in Hollywood, The Sopranos played a pivotal role in helping America confront its own contradictions. The show portrayed a crime figurehead and mobster, Tony Soprano (played by the late James Gandolfini), with redeeming and reconciling qualities as he attempts to humanize his increasingly grotesque behavior.
Tony’s relationship to his therapist, Dr. Melfi (played by Lorraine Braco), is interrupted only at the end of the series. Her own psychiatrist concludes that by virtue of counseling Tony, Dr. Melfi is only aiding his sociopathic behaviour and thus empowering him to become a better liar and more deviant criminal.
The impossibility of reforming Tony bears some resemblance to the crisis plaguing museums and toxic philanthropy today, where a culture of bullying and exploitation belies programming of socially- and politically-engaged art. Much in the same way that Dr. Melfi eventually found it impossible to reform Tony through therapy, many staff members in the world’s leading museums are coming to terms with the fact that they are funded and propped up by board members with connections to arms industries and other highly problematic and extractive industries, making reform nearly impossible — despite often grandiose exhibitions and statements proclamating otherwise.
In a recent tell-all published by a former staff editor at the New Museum, Dana Kopel, she goes into astonishing detail about how her and her colleagues’ efforts to unionize the institution ended up exposing the hypocrisy contained within it. Kopel recalls how her efforts to unionize the New Museum coincided with an exhibition by Hans Haacke, known for his legendary works of institutional critique, including “Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Board of Trustees” (1974), a project that attempted to connect Guggenheim’s board members and their real estate interests, as well as his own efforts to unionize artists in the 1960s. However, according to Kopel, the New Museum instrumentalized socially- and politically-engaged art in an effort to conceal its own internal toxicity, much in the same way Tony did with Dr. Melfi. “Behind the New Museum’s veneer of social justice was rampant exploitation,” Kopel explained.
The Sopranos would go on to predict some of the most polarizing hypocrisies in America today, the show masterfully interweaving references to exploitation around gender, sexuality, feminism, and race.
When Vito Spatafore, Sr. (played by Joseph R. Gannascoli), is outed as a closeted homosexual by the rival New York crime family, Tony, upon learning this, realizes that if he were to accept Vito’s queerness, he would face ridicule from rival Mafia factions, and thus be perceived as weak — a fatal mistake in any criminal enterprise, let alone one as steeped in what is seen as tradition, family values, and Catholicism as the Italian-American mafia.
However, in a session with Dr. Melfi, in between homophobic rants, Tony admits ambivalence about Vito’s sexual orientation. And, surprisingly, he eventually accepts it: “Something inside of me says God bless, a salute, who gives a shit,” he admits. “I don’t give a shit what two consenting adults do behind closed doors.”
While much of the show focuses on Tony and his henchmen desiring for the world to be like it was in the 1950s (“Whatever happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type.”), they often struggle with a United States entirely different from the one they grew up in.
Yet, in David Chase’s world, we see time and again that things do not have an absolute value. Everything is relative, including ideology.
This rings true in the way the show deconstructs hegemonic masculinity. At first glance, it may seem difficult to untangle the blatant womanizing of the tough guy characters as they frequent one of the show’s essential hangouts, the Bada-Bing, a strip-club owned by Tony in Lodi. However, the messy, unlikable misogyny can, at crucial points, give way to a kind of fragility, upended by strong female leads and feminist ideas percolating from the most unlikely of places.
After Tony whacks one of his closest associates, “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, for snitching to the Feds, his widow, Angie Bonpensiero, is forced to work at a supermarket to make ends meet. However, David Chase carefully reconstructs and resurrects her character from a sorry mob-widow into a powerful female entrepreneur, owner of a successful auto body shop, thus inserting subtle feminist undertones into the male-dominated world of car mechanics and the Mafia.
Sociopaths and gangsters aside, the show contains many other subtle subtexts on progrsssive issues that, I think, contribute to its longevity and continued success. While some may argue the show is irredeemable because of how it encoded strong stereotypes including a madonna-whore complex, inexcusable violence and misogyny that is difficult to overlook, part of the series’ complexity — whether about gender or sexuality — remains crucial to understanding how and why America has evolved (and devolved) the way it has. The show continues to offer an unparalleled window into the psyche of the nation—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Adding to this reading, many of the cast members stand committed to social justice issues and have used their platform as actresses and actors in a popular series to further calls for equality. The actor Michael Imperioli, who played my all-time favourite character on the show, Christopher Moltisanti, frequently uses his Instagram page to advocate for trans rights and women’s right to choose.
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By using his platform to spread progressive messages to a fan base that may otherwise be in a MAGA silo, Imperioli deconstructs the chauvinistic stereotype of the old-fashioned, macho gangster, likely confusing — and ideally educating — some of his staunchest Republican fans.
With David Chase set to release a prequel to the Sopranos later this month, entitled The Many Saints of Newark, expectations are running high that the film will contain many of the dazzlingly complex and paradoxical commentaries that made the original such a superb television serial. As an important document of American culture, The Sopranos deserves every bit of rereading and revisiting it gets, especially, I might suggest, as a way of mitigating pandemic-induced angst.
At its core, The Sopranos is a redemption story that constantly positions Tony as trying to escape his own depression in search of happiness. While it buttresses a world of patriarchal masculinity in an attempt to reveal its own hypocritical nature, I found myself returning to the series during the pandemic in order to mitigate my own apathy as an art world adjacent. Looking at myself in the mirror, locked down, in search of meaning and questioning my own participation in an art world that had, in many respects, become increasingly and more insidiously toxic: I found myself pivoting towards the show as an escape valve, perhaps for no deeper reason than to understand the velocity of what the world was, and what it had become. Lost in culture’s microcosm, I realized then that the art world contained many of the same contradictions as this lowly fictionalized crime family from New Jersey. Ma fanculo, I always knew I didn’t have the makings of a varsity athlete.
Thank you to Darius Sabbaghzadeh for the invaluable suggestions in the making of this essay. A true Sopranos Stan and OG of North Jersey.