- courtesy HBO
- Is Tony Soprano a stand-in for our dads?
During the first week of isolation, I decided now was as good a time as any to finally watch The Sopranos. Then something strange happened. My social media feeds were overflowing with others doing the same thing—all Chicago-based millennials who were diving into the world of Tony Soprano and Dr. Melfi and the Bada Bing! for the very first time. It’s a prestige show often cited as the greatest of all time, a road map for all prestige dramas and other beloved series since. And its last episode aired 13 years ago. We’ve had plenty of time to catch up, so why now? I Google chatted with my friend and Reader contributor KT Hawbaker, who also is watching fresh, about the appeal of the series, its importance to feminism, and our mob-movie-loving midwestern dads.Brianna Wellen: It feels like everyone I know is currently watching The Sopranos for the first time. Why did you decide to finally take the plunge?
KT Hawbaker: It feels like something I *have* to watch. I am currently reading Emily Nussbaum's book I Like to Watch, and she's constantly referencing certain moments or tropes from this show. And, if Emily blesses it, I am on board.
BW: All hail the queen!
KH: I have a deep, almost creepy love for her work. Why are you watching?
BW: I feel like our reasons for not watching until now were very similar: I was worried it was going to be too misogynistic and too problematic in the way all television from the late 90s/early 2000s was problematic. But still people always were telling me I needed to watch it. When I ran out of episodes of The Real Housewives and realized I would soon be running out of even more shows, I thought, why not give it a try? Little did I know that every millennial on my social media would be doing the same thing!
KH: You know, I am kinda viewing it like I viewed the Bible during my gig as an English major. Did I read it for spiritual reasons? No, but I knew in order to understand Western literature and art I had to understand the stories there.
BW: Exactly! I think in that way the show feels strangely modern. It took much of the television that we know and love today a while to catch up to some of the stranger uses of dreamworlds, music, and mix of dark humor and emotional devastation.
KH: Yes! I was so pleasantly surprised by the moments of surrealism.
BW: And for all the sexism that exists in the world of the show, they manage to create some very complex female characters.
KH: They do! C A R M E L A! The show feels like it was created by a feminist man. Follow me into this dark trench: David Chase [creator of The Sopranos] really dislikes Tony Soprano and creates a man toppled by his own hellllla toxic masculinity. The audience is supposed to be repulsed.
BW: Oooooo, and learning from that trajectory, Matthew Weiner [writer and producer on The Sopranos and creator of Mad Men] did the same thing with Don Draper. They are a coalition designed to expose toxic masculinity at its most harmful.
KH: Yes! TOTALLY. I think this show remains worthwhile because of how our conversations around masculinity have changed.
BW: And especially in our current moment of mental health enlightenment, I was surprised that the idea of dealing with that concept in therapy was such a prominent part of the show. Sure, there's A LOT WRONG with the Tony-Dr. Melfi relationship. But to introduce a somewhat taboo means of dealing with violent outbursts and the like also feels ahead of its time in a lot of ways.
KH: It really does. I also think about how this show is peak Boomer. They are still relatively young parents of teens, they are the target audience. My dad has literally made the same comment about Gary Cooper.
BW: Of course we both have friends who have watched and loved this for a long time. But why do you think in general it's appealing to folks around our age now? Other than too much time on our hands?
KH: I have a few reasons! Bear with me. One: It's about a type of whiteness that still views itself the "other." Like, Tony Soprano SO resists the "melting pot" vision of culture, even as his Italian-ness becomes less and less marginalized.
BW: Some of the more cringeworthy moments definitely come from his bigotry and the idea that it's OK if he has these prejudices because of his cultural history.
KH: I think in that respect, it drops a pin on the moment when Italian and Irish immigrants become part of the white mainstream. The 20th century ENDS. We see that in Meadow and Tony Jr.
BW: It's interesting how instilled it is even in Carmela who is in so many respects the "good parent."
KH: It's true. This makes her character incredibly self-aware. I was also really surprised by how genuine her faith is. OK, and then: For me, personally, this show really lets me indulge in the tragedy of our parents' generation. That probably sounds super pathological.
BW: It feels like a glimpse into our parents' psyche in so many ways.
KH: Oh yeah. It's impossible to escape. Especially with the therapy scenes. We get to dig deep into the violent, codependent masculinity that often defines men of that generation. It feels akin to the Boomers who say, "My parents spanked me, and I wound up just fine." I can't help but TOTALLY project.
BW: I don't know how to say this without sounding terrible, but it also is sort of a reminder of a simpler time. It's pre-9/11. We're following all rich families. It was a television show that defined a generation before an oversaturation of content. But the first couple seasons were weirdly calming in a way. Maybe I was reverting back to being ten years old when it first aired and my first memories of the show being referenced. We're all reverting to childhood in these times in a way.
KH: YES. We're going towards what is safe and certain—in this case, a show from our childhood that people ASSURE us will be good.
BW: And I can't be happier to report that IT IS IN FACT GOOD.
KH: IT IS FANTASTIC. It also low-key feels like school.
BW: It does feel like school! But the fun classes! When it all clicked and you realized what you should be doing for the rest of your life. Which, in our case, is thinking way too much about pop culture. For fun!
KH: HELLLLL YEAAAAH. Which is totally why I think we need to treat this program as a feminist artifact. (This is where people fight me.) But, I think if we're invested in understanding and rebuilding different forms of manhood and masculinity, The Sopranos is a good place to begin. Chase is definitely NOT Team Tony. I have direct exposure to the bruised, domineering masculinity that comes with a profound sense of entitlement. And it all comes from having problematic fathers of their own.
BW: That's what's also interesting about [Tony’s son] A.J. Seeing the way the toxic masculinity is directly inherited and learned.
KH: He seems like such a tragic character. BUT that's also what's so great about this show—the kid characters are SO complicated. Another thing I am thinking about: The gangster film is such an interesting genre in American cinema. In college, I wrote a paper on why The Godfather is a western—it's a masterpiece because it's a distillation of the most prominent cinematic values at that time. A recap of tropes and stories and ideas. The Sopranos does the same thing for everything that comes after The Godfather.
BW: It's also very meta and is very aware of the tropes introduced by the genre while doubling down on them in a lot of ways.
KH: And the fun part is: My dad saw The Godfather for the first time with his dad; he then got me the trilogy when I was in high school.
BW: Omg, me too! Such a midwest dad thing. Plus my family is *Italian.*
KH: My dad grew up internationally—Grandpa was a CIA man—and so his identity was "American" wherever he went, regardless of what our family's ethnic heritage was. I think when my dad returned to the States as a grown-up, he kinda hungered for a sense of heritage, history, identity. Which is what made these narratives extra alluring. Immigrant stories like these are distinctly American. There's a fantasy there.
BW: I know we could talk about this for hours (and probably will IRL), but to wrap things up, what's the tweet? What's the short thing you would say to someone our age wondering if they should get into this now?
KH: Wanna understand the rise of Donald Trump? Understand Tony Soprano.
BW: Oh wow. Though I would argue that Tony Soprano would have at least known how to quickly move medical equipment. But WHAT DO I KNOW.
KH: HAH! ZING! I actually cackled!
BW: YES! Then my job here is done. v