Monday, April 27, 2009

Woke Up This Morning, Got Myself a Gun: Examining Ethnicity, Class, and Gender as Related to Family on The Sopranos.- Bonnie Bryant's Honors Project

The Soprano family, photographed by Annie Leibowitz

For my honors project for this class, I decided to expand upon the “Media in the Family” assignment we posted on the discussion board earlier in the semester. I chose HBO’s The Sopranos.

The Sopranos is an HBO drama that aired from 1999 to 2007. It is about protagonist Tony Soprano and how he balances his life as the patriarch of his family as well as being the boss of the Dimeo crime family. While watching the show, I realized that it had so much to do with our Sociology of Family class. Many of the things we discussed in class were depicted on the show, things such as the myth of the idealized family, and the intersection between ethnicity, class, and gender.

The Idealized Family:
We discussed the myth of the idealized family in class this semester. Although The Sopranos is a television show, its characters are far more multidimensional than many characters depicted on TV. There are no heroes or villains here: just normal people who happen to be mobsters.
The characters on the show still believe in the stereotypical 1950’s family: during one heated discussion at the dinner table, Tony proclaims that “in [this house], it’s 1954!” Unfortunately for Tony, it is nowhere near 1954 (not that things were perfect in 1954, either).
The characters get most of their ideas about Italian-American identity from the mass media. They frequently quote The Godfather and Goodfellas, and opine about the “good old days.” There were never the “good old days” as portrayed in these films, however: Tony saw his mafia-affiliated father go through much of the same troubles that he is going through as a grown man.

These three themes intersect throughout the series: they affect how each character acts and responds to others. Although Tony’s wife Carmela and her high school friend Charmaine are both Italian-American females, Carmela treats Charmaine differently because she is of a lower socioeconomic status. Examples such as this are seen multiple times in every episode.

Gender stereotypes are strictly stratified on The Sopranos. In theory, women are expected to be faithful and submissive. However, the women in Tony’s life have full emotional control over him. His dysfunctional mother has an inexplicably strong hold on him, Carmela runs the household, and his daughter Meadow has him wrapped around her finger. Tony’s female therapist, Dr. Melfi, acts as a blank slate onto which Tony can project his feelings. The virgin/whore dichotomy is displayed on this show: Meadow and Carmela would be the good “virgins,” while the women who work at the strip club Tony manages would be the “whores.” Of course, no one can fit into such ridiculously rigid categories, and the show does an excellent job of showing the complexities of all the characters, despite the rigid gender roles prescribed by the culture.
Men on The Sopranos must be very masculine and try not to lose face. The biggest insult would be to be called a woman or a fanook, slang for homosexual. Their masculinity is tied to their cultural identity, and if they lose their masculinity, they bring shame to themselves and their families. The men prove their masculinity by being violent, sexist, and homophobic. Crying or showing emotion is unheard of. However, there is a strong brotherly love between the men in the mafia crew, who see one another as an extended family.

Class is also important on this show. The highest level of education that Tony and his crew have achieved is usually merely a high-school diploma. However, they are all middle to upper-middle class. Tony lives in a large McMansion and the Sopranos all have expensive material goods. This money was not gained through legitimate means, however: it was gained by murder and extortion. Tony and Carmela do not seem to care: if they can have a nice life, it does not matter where the money came from.

Ethnicity is extremely important on this show. Being Italian-American is part of the character’s identities and a cornerstone of their livelihoods. However, by being in the mafia, they perpetuate negative stereotypes about Italian-Americans who have no ties to organized crime.

Perhaps the most prominent theme in The Sopranos is family. Family, both biological and mafia-related, means respect, honor, and loyalty. I think that this is something we can all relate to even though none of us (I hope) are members of the mafia.

This video, from season one, is when Tony's uncle Junior becomes acting boss of the Dimeo crime family. Even though Uncle Junior tried to kill Tony, Tony still respects him and remains loyal to his uncle and his crime family through thick and thin. As you can see in the clip, the undercover FBI agent posing as the waiter is taking pictures of all the mafia members to identify who is who now that the hierarchy has changed.

This video, from season six, portrays several themes in the show. Johnny Sacrimoni is in jail, held without bail, awaiting trial for numerous mafia-related crimes. His daughter Allegra is getting married, and he requests to be allowed to attend the wedding. The wedding itself is a typical American tradition, and portrays that the vicious mafia men on the show are also husbands and fathers.
While Tony enters the church, he has a panic attack. (Incidentally, he has just gotten out of the hospital after being shot by his Alzheimers-afflicted Uncle Junior, who is no longer the boss because of his mental state).
In the last part of the video, Allegra and her new husband are leaving the catering hall while the wedding guests and her family happily look on. The Federal Marshals who escorted John to the wedding handcuff him in front of the crowd and drag him out. He begins to cry. One of his men, Phil Leotardo, speaks about how he no longer view John as a man, because he cried like a woman. This shows how strict the gender roles are: the man cannot even cry at his own daughter's wedding.

This video shows the entire evolution of the series in nine minutes. (In case you don't want to watch all 86 episodes like I did!)


1. Have you ever watched The Sopranos? If so, do you think that my observations of the show are correct? Why or why not?

2. If you watched the first two videos, what are your thoughts on the themes portrayed?

Thanks for reading this, and I hope you enjoyed it! Please comment with your thoughts!

Bonnie Bryant


  1. I've never watched the show, but I feel that the videos and synopsis above are very good clips that portray gender specific roles and how stereotypes play into society. I definitely think that the gender roles displayed in the Sopranos is extremely relevant to everyday life. Many people feel that if a man cries they are sensitive, and that it makes them not "manly." I agree with you, Bonnie, in saying that the gender roles are so specified and unnecessary because in many cases it doesn't let men in specific act how they feel they should.

  2. Though I have never really watched the sopranos, I find this observation extremely fascinating. I know how popular the show has been in years past and because of the way in which the people in the show are portrayed I think it is interesting how popular it is. People tend to search for characters that they can identify with, the fact that the people are portraying such gender specific roles just adds on my previous knowledge that these ideals are unfortunately still prevalent in our society.

  3. This is a really interesting blog and I would love to read some more comments/thoughts from our class community! Thanks Bonnie -- I am really enjoying this entry!


  4. I did find gender stereotypes present in the clips, but some of the stereotypes of women on TV weren't present in the show. First of all, most of the women in the clips wouldn't be on most televisions shows because they weren't ridiculously skinny. It also seemed that they were able to be more dominant and aggressive than women in most shows. The way the men were unable to show emotion was very stereotypical. In the 9 minute Sopranos, it seemed that many of the men had "panic attacks". I think this may be because that's the only way they were able to convey emotion that was acceptable to other mafia members.