Sunday, November 22, 2009

Family. Redefined. Mafia Masculinity in "The Sopranos" Film (TV) Review

While I understand The Sopranos is not technically a film, I felt the display of masculinity was pretty unique. I watched the show religiously while in high school but only from the third or so season on. I feel this series was misunderstood, it wasn’t just an hour of hitmen killing people every week (only every so often), but rather a look at the duality if the mobster identity. So, I decided to pick and episode from the first season that I’d never seen before. For those who are not familiar with the show, The Sopranos is about an Italian mafia family. The show is pretty much centered around Tony Soprano, who is the boss of a New Jersey crime family, a husband and father of two children. While Tony, at first glance, is the stereotypical figure of Italian-American mob hyper-masculinity, he is more complex than he appears. Typically we see sociopathic mob figures in movies like Goodfellas or even The Godfather. However, Tony struggles with maintaining his tough, authoritative masculinity and his responsibilities as a father and the guilt for the things his “business” requires him to do.

The episode I chose to watch was called “Down Neck”. Tony’s son Anthony is required by his school to be evaluated for ADD after getting caught stealing and drinking wine with some friends in the chapel at his school. This causes Tony to wonder if his son is taking after him and sparks flashbacks of his childhood and how his own father influenced him. This particular episode displayed the father/son relationship and the masks of masculinity really well, so I focused on those themes.

The “mask” or “cover” is a very prominent theme in The Sopranos, as is the “box”. The mafia itself only succeeds when the appearance of crime is non-existent. The money they extort is laundered through legit businesses and so one. The importance of knowing this is because the “business” is a metaphor for the men’s masculinity within it. They all put on their gangster masculine masks in front of each other and their “business associates”, but one almost can’t imagine the mafia without also thinking of the word family. These men are also husbands and fathers, which complicate their roles as mobsters and vice-versa. The business is another “box” that cages these men’s masculinity. Tony is caught in the box, the “act-like-a-man” box. Tony teeters back and forth on the line between father and gangster. His definition of masculinity is very much based on the mafia culture glorifying brutality and crime, but his definition of father is not. Tony wants to be a positive influence on his son’s life which means no part of the mafia. However the question in his mind is how can he be a good father if he does such bad things? Can a father positively influence his child if he isn’t a role model?

A key character in the series and specifically this episode is Tony’s therapist. This is the only relationship where he is completely honest. Tony decided to see her because he has an issue with anxiety and depression. His therapist also happens to be a woman, likely a deliberate choice due to the stigma placed on any Italian man who shows weakness. This was confirmed in a scene where Tony’s mother is told by her grandson that Tony sees a psychiatrist and says it’s just a place for people to complain about their mothers (once again another box). His therapist also represents, in my opinion, the feminist voice of reason. Tony’s therapy sessions are the most important scenes in this episode as this is where he removes the veil of his masculinity. The relationship with his therapist is contrasted in one scene where he asks his fellow gangsters who are shooting pool in the back room of the strip club they own how they explain their mafia involvement to their kids. Despite where the conversation was held, the men all share their stories and have a real moment of bonding about the plight of providing for their family by crime while also trying to protect them from the same outcome.

After discussing his son’s actions with teachers and his wife, Tony tells his therapist what happened. At first he just says “if there is a problem, we’ll just deal with it”, however he goes on to say he feels responsible for his son’s actions whether it be genetic or otherwise. Tony starts to have flashbacks of himself as a child watching his father, the local loan shark, violently beat a man in front of the whole neighborhood. An important element is that all of Tony’s memories of his father were those of Tony watching him from afar. His father doesn’t interact with him in any of the flashbacks. When asked how he felt about him, once again Tony immediately puts on the masculine mask and says “I’m glad he wasn’t a fag” (clearly homosexuality is not part of his masculine ideal), but also admits he didn’t want his father to do that to him. Here we see how Tony’s concept of masculinity is having power and how power is gained through fear, threat, and violence. They start to discuss how Tony came to understand that his father was in the mafia and how Tony feels about revealing or confirming his son’s vision him as a mobster.

Later, Tony has to change a flat tire while taking a ride with son. For the first time, Tony confronts his son and asks him what he knows and how he feels about him and the “work” he does. It was interesting that the only time Tony felt comfortable talking about this sensitive subject was while performing the stereotypical masculine task of fixing a tire. The tire change (much like the pool playing at the strip club) offered Tony a chance to appear masculine to his son while simultaneously bonding and opening up to him.

In a climactic scene, while discussing his flashbacks of his father, Tony tells his therapist he was proud of his father because he had the respect of the neighborhood. His therapist asks if he thinks his son feels the same way about him and Tony says “Probably, and I’m glad if he’s proud of me, but that’s the bind I’m in because I don’t want him to be like me.” He argues with her saying there isn’t anything he can do because it’s in the blood. “You’re born to this shit, you what you are” he says. Tony’s view is so clearly essentialist. However, his therapist responds with “within that there’s a range of choices, predispositions are just that, predispositions. It’s not written in stone; don’t you think human have free will?”Tony’s therapist has pretty much reworded the theory of breaking out of the “box”.

Tony knows that a father’s involvement in his child’s life is important but it also is important that the involvement is positive. Finally Tony realizes that he may do what his father did but that they aren’t the same people. He can communicate to his son what he wants for him even though he may not be able to change his own image entirely. Even though Tony doesn’t just abandon his mob life to raise and upstanding son, by the end of the episode he feels more confident in his ability to raise a son with a bright future. Tony disciplines his son for the school incident by banning television and video games instead of by violence as his own father would have. To make sure his son knows he loves him, the episode ends with the two of them making ice cream sundaes.

No comments: