TV Criticism: 036:065
February 28, 2014
Gender Roles, Stereotypes and The Sopranos
The Sopranos is an American television series that revolves around a New Jersey based mafia family, and its leader Tony Soprano. Tony is the “Boss” of the Soprano crime family, and the show depicts the struggles that go along with being the head of a criminal organization while also raising a family. Although the show is centered on an atypical American lifestyle, its characters still reinforce typical gender roles that have existed in our society for decades. The men don’t hold average American jobs, but their values and behaviors are similar to preconceived notions our society holds about how men should act, and the same can be said about the women on the show.
Tony and his crew are gangsters. They take what they want, when they want, and have no issues with resorting to brutal violence if need be. By no means is this typical male representation, but if you look past the gangster lifestyle these characters live, you can see that they do in fact represent what our society deems typical of the male gender role. In many key aspects of American culture, male identity is related to professional workplace, along with politics, economics, and academia (Mittel p. 330). Males in our culture are expected to be stoic, fearless, and to provide for their family. Our culture is very critical of males that do not fit these criteria. Men that show emotion are weak, men that show fear are ridiculed, and a man that can’t provide for his family is considered a disgrace. The Sopranos reinforces all of these stereotypes throughout the show. In the first episode of the first season, we find Tony Soprano in a psychiatrist’s office undergoing therapy. As the season goes along Tony seems to be making progress in his therapy, but the only problem is that talking about your feelings is a major violation of mafia code, and is considered to be weak. It is such a major violation that when his mother and uncle get word that he is sharing his feelings with a therapist; they attempt a hit on his life. Most families wouldn’t have a member whacked for seeing a therapist, but this is just an example of how men are perceived when they show emotion, which is viewed as weak.
In our culture today, weak men are out casted in society and are not seen as “real men.” This is reinforced in The Sopranos, and most especially in season 6. The Sopranos episode, “Mr. & Mrs. John Sacrimoni Request,” the character Vito, a capo in Tony’s crew, is spotted dancing with a man in a gay bar by two associates. Word quickly spreads around that Vito is in fact a homosexual, and this is seen as a major violation of mafia code. Tony’s crew is horrified and disturbed by this revelation and they immediately call for his head. Tony is initially skeptical of everyone’s reaction, and rationalizes it by reminding them that Vito is a very good earner, and has kids to look after, but still ends up ordering a hit on him. This is another example that reinforces how our society interprets men who are homosexual. Because of Vito’s sexuality, he was perceived as weak, emotional, and unfit to provide for his family. What’s even more interesting is the dialogue that takes place about Vito between Tony and his therapist. Tony says that, “I find it disgusting. Men kissin' men, holdin' hands in the street,” but then goes on to say that, “Although, that, the lesbian thing with the, uh, Jennifer Beals, it's not bad.” This is a prime example of how our society handles homosexuality and the gender roles associated with it. Its ok for women to engage in it, but for men to do so is a whole other issue, at least that’s the way its represented in media. The Sopranos routinely reinforces that men should play their role, which is to be stoic, strong and able to provide.
The women in The Sopranos are also reinforcing gender role stereotypes by the way they are portrayed in the show. While the men can be found hanging out at the strip club or pork store, the women go shopping, meet at book club, join committees for school or the community etc. Even though The Sopranos reinforces these gender role stereotypes, it can also be argued that the show challenges them as well. Most television shows depict women as solely responsible for maintaining their homes, caring for their children and other domestic duties (Mittell p.332). The Soprano’s women challenge these typical roles in a couple ways. One example is Tony’s wife, Carmela. Carmela reinforces some gender roles seeing that she is a stay at home mom and commonly seen doing housework, but where she challenges these roles is when she stands up to Tony without fear. In The Sopranos episode, “The Weight” Carmela challenges Tony about financial concerns and convinces him to speak with her cousin about establishing financial security in case anything were to happen to him. This is not typical of women on television, because normally women don’t have any input on finances, which is typically left up to the husband. Her endeavor to be an individual and to exist outside the home definitely challenges typical gender roles expected from women. Carmela is also not afraid of confrontation. She shows this side of her when she confronts AJ’s advisor Mr. Wegler in The Sopranos episode, “Sentimental Education” about his calculating behavior with her. She tells him to “watch his step” which is another example of Carmela showing that she is not afraid to stand up for herself. The women on The Sopranos provide a new window into watching the show for female viewers. It demonstrates that the show is more than just men being violent and having power, and it allows women to be able to relate to Carmela protecting her family and her relentless desire to be listened to and considered an equal by her husband Tony (Henley, Ben).
The Sopranos is widely considered a landmark series in American television because of its unique view into the challenges of the mafia lifestyle embedded with raising a family. The shows characters at times challenge gender role expectations, but for the most part the series reinforces many of these stereotypes that have existed in American culture for decades.
Henley, Ben. "Benhenleysmith's Blog." Benhenleysmiths Blog. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://benhenleysmith.wordpress.com/how-the-sopranos-uses-the-gangster-genre/>.
Mittell, Jason. Television and American Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.