In the pilot episode of The Sopranos, mob captain Tony Soprano and his teenage daughter Meadow sit in an old, empty church. Tony marvels at the place—its grandeur, its history—and tries to get his daughter to do the same. “Your great-grandfather and his brother Frank—they built this place. Stone and marble workers,” he says with pride. Meadow is skeptical—just the two of them? “No,” Tony explains. “They were two guys on a crew of, you know, laborers. They didn’t design it, but they knew how to build it. Go out now and find me two guys that can put decent grout around your bathtub.”
In the past there were men, and these men could build things. Tony and his villainous crew are—what, exactly? A mishmash of movie gangsters? Hard to say. Ask the therapist. As much as anything, The Sopranos is about the fall of masculinity.
Tony and his crew idealize the manly virtues: loyalty, stoicism, and problem solving through brute force. Their favorite hang-outs—the pork store and the strip club—are shrines to the sacred, macho sins of gluttony and lust. The whole manly institution implodes spectacularly over six seasons.
Loyalty? Tony’s best friend, Big Pussy, becomes a rat, so Tony kills him. When Tony falls into a coma after being shot by his demented Uncle Junior, his crew is far busier jockeying for money and position than praying for his recovery. Tony loves his troubled nephew and henchman Chris like a son, he says, but when Chris is injured in a car accident, Tony suffocates him rather than call for an ambulance. When Tony’s old friend and advisor Hesh tries to collect a $200,000 loan, Tony taunts him with antisemitic insults (“Don’t be shy, Shylock.”) As much as these guys man-hug each other, it’s hard to locate any real trust. Loyalty requires affection, and a belief in a greater good. Or even a smaller good. But instead these men are guided by vengeance—the worst line in the mancode.
The characters are afraid, but not paranoid—because inevitably they are all on somebody’s to-whack list. They call themselves soldiers, and soldiers—the realest of real men—are supposed to swallow fear. But you can’t just swallow fear, or sadness, without getting sick. This is why Tony sees a psychiatrist. But discussing feelings is a violation of the code so severe that his mother and Uncle Junior try to have him killed. An inability to fix his emotions on his own makes Tony hate himself more; he beats himself for being weak. He gets it from all angles.
Slinking into a shrink’s office is a big, flashing no-no, but the world of the Sopranos is saturated with landmines of vulnerability. In the first season, Junior has a crisis because word gets out that he performs cunnilingus. As he explains to his girlfriend, “They think if you suck pussy you’ll suck anything. It’s a sign of weakness, and possibly a sign that you’re a fanook.”
Clearly, any value system that bans cunnilingus does not have a good shot at being naturally selected. Even hyper-masculine hip-hop celebrates the act in song. It doesn’t matter that a taboo on eating snatch is as ludicrous as a taboo against eating quiche. Junior, even as a capo emeritus, so fears emasculation-by-ridicule that he lets it poison the one sweet relationship he has. Then, as though trying to take back all the oral pleasure he’s given away, he ends up smashing a cream pie in his lover’s face; trying to be a man turns him into a clown.
The mobsters’ homophobia climaxes when Vito, one of Tony’s “best earners,” is exposed as gay. The fact that Vito was a cold-blooded mob killer wasn’t enough. His sexuality trumped all that. Hey—these are dudes who live in fear of cunnilingus.
The reaction to Vito’s homosexuality is truly phobic—irrational terror sprouting as hate. Tony has moments of compassion, but not enough to restrain him from ordering a hit on Vito. When that hit doesn’t happen, Phil Leotardo, Tony’s rival and cousin to Vito’s wife, ends up supervising Vito’s fatal beating and sodomization by pool cue. It’s a horrific glimpse into the broken gears of the masculinity machine.
Vito’s surviving son responds to his father’s murder by Gothing up and causing trouble at school. Eventually, as a rebuttal to ridicule from his classmates, he takes a dump in the gym shower. His quasi-uncle Phil sits down with him and explains that his “family’s had enough shame.” Phil commands Vito Jr. to “be the kind of man [your mother] needs—strong, masculine.” This coming from the man who murdered his father! (A side lesson of The Sopranos: watch that uncle!) Tony gives a version of the same speech: “You’re the man of the house now. Start fuckin’ acting like it!” This is a typical moment of Sopranos disconnect. Tony and Phil like talking about what it means to be a man, but their handbooks are dangerously out-of-date.
Perceptions of strength and weakness are reversed. What they view as mighty and manly—driving huge SUV’s, solving arguments with muscle, having affairs—are actually signs of uncertainty and self-doubt. Their signifiers for weakness—owning up to feelings of sadness and fear, committing to a sexual relationship, being open to compromise—require confidence. These TV mobsters may be more entertainingly severe than most real men, but their standards are familiar.
Tony’s grandfather was part of a crew that could build a church. But those stone and masonry skills have faded from the world. Like he said—try and find someone today who knows how to properly grout a tub. The humility required to be on a building crew is also in short supply—Where’s the glory? Who wants to live on an honest day’s pay?
The Sopranos shows how we have embraced the worst parts of what it means to be a man and jettisoned the most useful. Tony has a crew, sure, just like in the old days, but this crew has built nothing. It’s all pretend, a bunch of no-show jobs. This is the jarring realization as the show ends. There is nothing to marvel at. Not only is there nothing left, there was nothing to begin with. There is no real friendship. There is no solid marriage. There is no decent father. There is no esplanade. There is no church.
In the end, the show is a funeral service for our messed-up brand of masculinity. This is why the program is ultimately optimistic. Clearly, this way didn’t work. Let’s move on and try something else.