Is "The Sopranos" a chick show?

Why an ultraviolent drama about a New Jersey mafioso paints a more nuanced portrait of women than anything you'll find on Lifetime.

Published March 7, 2004 12:10AM (EST)

If you've caught one of the breath-stealing trailers for the fifth season of "The Sopranos," which premieres Sunday night, you may have noticed that it's pretty heavy on the women: Carmela opening the door to her emptied house; a pack of cross-armed broads in a parking lot looking like some angry beauty technicians caught on the set of "West Side Story"; and the tag line "Hell Hath No Fury ... Like the Family." Forget Lifetime, forget soap opera, forget even the recently departed "Sex and the City." This is real women's television.

"'Sex and the City' was about gay men; 'The Sopranos' is about straight women," says Regina Barreca, a professor of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut and editor of a collection of essays called "A Sitdown With the Sopranos."

Yes, underneath all the big paunches and bare breasts of HBO's mob drama lies a woman's heart. It belongs to Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco), and when we last saw it, it was beating with so much fury, frustration and desire that it looked like it was close to breaking. "I am here! I have things to say!" she howled painfully at her husband in last season's final episode. He may not be listening, Carm, but we are.

"The Sopranos'" official centerpiece is New Jersey mafia bear Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini). He is surrounded by people who want nothing more than to bust his balls: his wife and kids, his late great mother, his sometimes-therapist, the gang of murdering extortionists who call him boss. The conceit, of course, is that these are all different kinds of families, people to whom Tony is bound by love, duty or trust. The domestic spheres of family, home, vulnerability and sentiment have always been tied to notions of femininity -- contrasting with the professional, political, scientific and athletic schools that bring us things like cop shows, "Star Trek" and professional wrestling. At "The Sopranos'" expensively swaddled premiere on Tuesday night, while hundreds of guests waited for the Radio City Music Hall lights to go down and the synthesized drumbeat of the show's theme song to begin, "Sopranos" creator David Chase thanked HBO, with whom he has "felt a partnership." He praised his colleagues for being "so supportive." He got positively misty about how good it was that the premiere "was bringing us all together again." Blame his touchy-feely speech on the expressive mob aesthetic or Chase's interest in psychotherapy, but you'd be hard-pressed to catch Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen talking about supportive partnerships that bring people together. (Never mind that the episodes that followed featured Tony watching "The Prince of Tides" and quoting Dr. Phil.)

They also reminded us where last season left off: After her crush on her husband's henchman Furio ended with Furio leaving town in a bid for self-preservation, Carmela broke down in tears to her friend Rosalie Aprile, tangled with her daughter, Meadow, threatened to shoot Tony's former mistress, and -- in four hellishly intense scenes -- finally threw her husband out of their home. "The Sopranos" is not a show that goes in for "very special episodes" about abortion or bulimia. But through Carmela, it has tackled some women's issues that may be even more uncomfortable: the trade-offs between fidelity and cold cash, Catholic guilt over divorce, stifled professional and sexual desires, a biting jealousy that threatens to overtake her happiness for a daughter on the brink of a much happier life than she will ever know. These are not female experiences addressed by Hallmark Cards -- or by most popular drama.

Next month, Open Court Press will publish an academic book called "The Sopranos and Philosophy: I Kill Therefore I Am," which includes an essay by Lisa Cassidy, an assistant professor of philosophy at Ramapo College of New Jersey, called "Is Carmela Soprano a Feminist? Carmela's Care Ethics." Cassidy said by e-mail that the answer to the question posed by her essay is a resounding no. "Feminists want to challenge the power structures that keep women subservient," she says. "Carmela (until the very end of the last season, at least) was content to cooperate and benefit from a marriage that was demeaning to her. But just because Carmela isn't a feminist doesn't mean that she represents the hyper-masculine, Mafioso culture either."

Rather, Cassidy argues, Carmela uses a philosophical orientation called "Care Ethics," advanced by scholars like Carol Gilligan. According to Cassidy, Care Ethics refers to people who "understand moral problems as stemming from conflicting responsibilities -- responsibilities to care for yourself and responsibilities to care for your loved ones." Carmela spent previous seasons willing to sacrifice herself in order to make her marriage to a cheating husband work, but at the end of last season, says Cassidy, Carmela threw her thinking about responsibility into reverse: In separating from Tony, "she reasoned that this was the best way to take care of her entire family; she saves herself and her children from emotional harm by ending a disastrous marriage."

The conflagration that ended -- or at least temporarily halted -- the Soprano marriage was unexpected after a season in which the male-driven drama of the plot had climaxed with the beheading and dismemberment of Ralphie Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano).

"That they ended a mob program on a domestic note last season was very daring," says Barreca, who added that the upcoming season's trailers have left her expecting more in the same vein. "Phrases like 'turf war' and 'going to the mattresses' are going to have a new meaning here," she continues.

But, argues Barreca, the emphasis on the domestic doesn't break with "The Sopranos'" history; it merely reinforces what has been bubbling under the gory surface ever since Season 1: "They are drawing on what they established with [Tony's late mother] Livia and [Tony's sister] Janice and Meadow. There are all these mothers and daughters -- you've always had Tony surrounded by the feminine."

Most specifically, Carmela's breakdown -- and breakout -- of last season recalled issues that have been in play since a Season 3 episode, "Second Opinion," in which Carmela sees a psychiatrist who urges her to stop taking her husband's "blood money," to take her children and end her marriage. "You can never say that you haven't been told," the doctor says ominously. Back in 2001, Carmela wrapped herself in a duvet and sulked, but chose to stay with Tony. "The shrink had told her that she was not just an enabler, but an accomplice, and this was her chance to get out," says Lawrence Konner, who wrote the episode. "She's wrapped up on the couch in the end because she knows she didn't do what she should have. She recommitted to the contract she had with Tony: I will be your accomplice, but I get stuff for it." In this case, the stuff was a little more of her husband's blood money donated to Meadow's Ivy League college, Columbia.

"Lots of men didn't like that episode because it was a chick flick," says Konner, who, as a former staff writer for "Family" and the co-screenwriter of last year's "Mona Lisa Smile," has written plenty about chicks. "I heard it from men," he says. "'It was too soft, no hookers, nobody got killed. Who gives a shit about the dean of a college?'"

But women liked it -- a lot. And it sowed the seeds for much of what has since transpired on the show. It was just that Ivy League education that Carmela finds herself paying for, before her separation at the end of Season 4, as Meadow moves silkily out of her teenage petulance and into her life as a well-educated young woman with a worldly boyfriend and a mild interest in social justice. Carmela is unable to get comfortably situated in her daughter's new life. When she offers, in the penultimate Season 4 episode, to cook something for a dinner party at her daughter's apartment, Meadow replies, "I'm doing everything myself." When Carmela worries about the apartment door being propped open, her daughter's boyfriend proclaims, "I'll protect her, don't worry." Over dinner, the young students patronize Carmela in a conversation about "Billy Budd" and the literary critic Leslie Fiedler, whom Carmela incorrectly assumes is a woman. If her own daughter doesn't need her to cook, protect her, or help her with her schoolwork, what is Carmela Soprano good for, anyway?

Carmela is so clearly discomfited by her daughter's self-sufficiency, romantic life, and poise, that Meadow actually calls her on it. Over their traditional mother-daughter tea at the Plaza, she shouts, "Are you jealous? ... You're the one who wanted me to go to an Ivy League school! ... Maybe I should go to Montclair State and drop out like you did." Later, in bed, an unusually concerned but typically clueless Tony tries to comfort his wife by telling her, "[Meadow] is a smart, beautiful, independent woman you created. Isn't that what you dreamed about?"

"Yes," Carmela replies, like an unhappy and unconvinced robot.

"What we've got there is the envy of one generation for the next," says Barreca. That envy, she says, works in poetic counterpoint to the envy of the show's male mafia generation for its predecessors. "With Tony, there is a nostalgia for his father's way of life. The good old days [of La Cosa Nostra] are gone. Men are losing their hold on power; the women are gaining it." But to see that inappropriate maternal envy played out is jarring and compelling, "precisely because it is so taboo and unspoken," says Barreca.

Meadow also got to throw some confused anger right back at her mother at the end of last season, as a daughter whose surprisingly advanced understanding of what was happening between her parents conflicted with her heartbreak at seeing it go down. While she mopes around the house in her underwear and hugs her father desperately when he announces he's moving out, Meadow also screams at Carmela, "Jesus, how could you eat shit from him for all these years?" Meadow is a female "Sopranos" viewer: horrified that Carmela has taken so much for so long, but furious at her for actually putting a stop to it.

It's that bewildering contradiction of feeling that makes the family dynamics of the show so real, what sucks us into Tony and Carmela's knotty tangle of a relationship. "You know what I don't understand?" Carmela screams at Tony after learning of his affair with a one-legged Russian. "What does she have that I don't have?" He replies that he can talk to his mistress. "What about the thousands of other pigs you had your dick in?" she shoots back. "Were you best friends with all of them too, you fucking hypocrite?" He tells her she knew what she was getting into when she married him and chides Carmela for "acting all surprised and miffed when there are other women on the side." She says he tries to buy her off with rings and beach houses. He sneers, "Yeah, 'cause what you really want is a little Hyundai and a simple gold heart on a chain."

They're both right. Families are so brain-bendingly difficult to portray -- let alone navigate in real life -- because there is rarely clarity. One of the pleasures of the Mafia genre that provides the backbone of "The Sopranos" is that it is usually clear-cut, structured, male. There are rules and hierarchies; there is good, there is bad; and then you shoot the guy. But Tony Soprano, who weeks before had killed Ralphie with his bare hands, cannot bring himself to hit his wife, even after she has quite literally invited him to. "Did you want to hit me, Tony? Go ahead!" she snarls early in the episode. And then later, in the pool room, she taunts him with more: "Can I tell you something, Tony?" she says, turning toward him with a miserable glint in her eye. "For the last year, I have been dreaming, and fantasizing, and in love with Furio." She is provoking a murderer, pricking his most explosive core. But he can't do it. He charges her; grabs her, even. But his fist plunges through the wall of his own house, a full foot from his wife's face.

The conflict we see playing over Tony's face after he pulls his fist out of the chipped plaster -- conflict that we never see when he's giving orders to kill a guy -- makes the real domesticity of this drama resonate. It's messy and there are no answers. "Part of the lure of the show is that it unearths some uncomfortable stories from the abundantly comfortable suburbs," said Cassidy. "Carmela appeals because we recognize ourselves in her, even if we personally will never hide assault rifles before an impending FBI raid."

For viewers, the giant gray area that is the Soprano marriage is distressingly problematic: Who the hell are we supposed to be rooting for?

"I will be heartbroken if they don't end up together," says Barreca, whose most recent book is called "I'm With Stupid: One Man. One Woman. 10,000 Years of Misunderstanding Between the Sexes Cleared Right Up." "I don't care if she's saying she doesn't want him anymore, I don't care who he's slept with. That was about appetite and power, and she was in a powerful position in that relationship with Furio. It's really hard to tell who's calling the shots with them, which is what makes it so perfect."

Perhaps it is the tense power seesaw between Tony and Carmela that makes them vibrate like tuning forks when they are in the same room; or maybe it's just some great chemistry between Gandolfini and Falco. Either way, every scene they have together feels intimate and familiar. Barreca agrees: "Those scenes were like listening to your parents fight, when you're both horrified and compelled to keep listening. I couldn't believe that she was willing to go as far as she was. I wanted to put my fingers in my ears and rock back and forth. I didn't feel a sense of feminist triumph."

So it may not be empowering. But it is engrossing, and confusing, and genuine. And who said that good female narrative has to be empowering, anyway? Better that it be smart and give us something complicated to chew on. "That's why the show is such a treat," says Barreca. "You get so tired of being served the dishes you've helped to prepare. It's so good when someone makes you something you've never tried before."

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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