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Issue 3.1 - Feminist Television Studies: The Case of HBO - Fall 2004

The Ghost of Gary Cooper: Masculinity, Homosocial Bonding, and The Sopranos
Katherine Hyunmi Lee

When Soprano consigliere Silvio Dante complains that his daughter Heather protests his ownership of the Bada Bing! strip club on the grounds that it "objectifies women," we know that there has been a seismic shift in the sexual landscape of the gangster narrative ("Down Neck," episode 7). Indeed, a number of scholars argue that The Sopranos reinvents a traditionally male-dominated and misogynistic gangster genre through its acknowledgement of feminism's impact on contemporary culture. Kim Akass and Janet McCabe argue that the "female narrative authority" of mob boss Tony Soprano's wife, Carmela, and therapist, Jennifer Melfi, consistently disrupts Tony's desire to identify himself through the mafia's masculinist codes: His "options are circumscribed by a morality defined by civilizing women," and he is caught between the conflicting realms of the male mafia family that he rules and the feminized domestic where he is (at best) second in command (Akass and McCabe 150). Cindy Donatelli and Sharon Alward contend that the show's integration of soap opera techniques functions as a "feminist metatext" that subverts generic expectations of the male characters and the audience. The Sopranos thus signifies a "wholesale collapse of [the] masculinity" embodied by earlier gangsters, such as The Godfather's Michael Corleone (Donatelli and Alward 65, 71). In other words, this is not your father's gangster narrative: It's your mother's.

Yet while The Sopranos clearly highlights women's roles in gangster life and incorporates traditionally feminized generic elements, these tactics yield feminist readings only if one is willing to collapse distinctions between female, feminine, and feminist, or to reductively view masculinity and femininity as existing purely in opposition to one another. The Sopranos' deployment of soap opera narrative practices does often "deny [the male characters] the dignity of a full-length Mafia movie," displacing the masculinist gravitas characteristic of The Godfather trilogy, but does not automatically compel or promote feminist interpretations or modes of viewing (65). Moreover, although women characters prompt Tony to reassess his conduct and engage in what might be called feminized behaviors, their influence also reinforces his criminality and chauvinism, rendering their "female narrative authority" problematic and distinctly not feminist (Carmela's power within the domestic sphere is, after all, predicated on Tony's professional success).[1]

I argue that feminism informs The Sopranos on a more profound thematic level, namely through its depictions of the social constructed-ness of femininity and masculinity, and the conflicts, negotiations, performances, and power imbalances that these social constructions generate. As vexed as perceptions of manhood might be for The Sopranos' men vis-á-vis women, then, they are no less complicated when the men are by themselves. In fact, the show undermines the male characters' tautological "old school" view that "men are men and women are women" by revealing how the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in masculinity manifest themselves in the characters' psychic processes, actions, and relations to one another. At the same time, the show asks us to reconsider our own seemingly more "progressive" investments in configurations and representations of gender. Thus, on a metatextual level, as Lisa Johnson also argues in this issue in her analysis of femininity and sexuality, The Sopranos consistently demonstrates that the nature of gender is anything but natural.

The Sopranos' view of masculinity is clearly informed by the poststructuralist feminist definition as the almost-but-not-quite, an ideal that seems attainable yet is always out of reach. Like a ghost, masculinity is a persistent recurrence in one's consciousness that mediates past and present, characterized by Judith Kegan Gardiner as "a nostalgic formation, always missing, lost, or about to be lost, its ideal form located in a past that advances with each generation in order to recede just beyond its grasp" (Gardiner 10). From the outset of the series, Tony expresses a sense of loss, telling Jennifer during their first session, "I came in at the end. The best is over," and later specifically relates this malaise to masculinity:

What ever happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn't in touch with his feelings, he just did what he had to do. See, what they didn't know, was once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings, they'd never shut him up. And then it'd be dysfunction this, and dysfunction that, and dysfunction ah va fungool ("The Sopranos," episode 1).

Tony's rant reveals much about his conceptions of masculinity: He reveres the stoic, autonomous, and assuredly heterosexual male ideal embodied by Gary Cooper, and associates the disappearance of the masculine ideal with a decline in national values ("That was an American"), replaced instead by a culture that fetishizes victimhood and implicitly has become more feminized.[2]

Yet at the same time he expresses these beliefs, he also intuits the distance between these masculine ideals and the real: When Tony evokes Cooper he is referring to the actor's performances of fictional characters, the most famous being Will Kane from the 1952 film High Noon. (Kane, by the way, appears in Tony's dream in season 5's "The Test Dream," in which Tony's high school coach tells him that he has not lived up to his potential.) For Tony to cite Cooper/Kane as an identificatory model, he has to repress or ignore the rather glaring differences between them. In High Noon, Kane is a man of the law, a former marshal willing to act alone; Tony, of course, is a captain in the mob (though he sometimes refers to himself as a "captain of industry") who suffers panic attacks. Furthermore, Tony admits that even Cooper's film persona as the "strong, silent type" paid a psychic price as such, insofar as he had to almost pathologically suppress himself ("they'd never shut him up") in order to do "what he had to do." In the end, however, Tony cannot come to grips with his intuition—the demands of his profession and his own personal desires require, in fact, that he does not—so rather than acknowledge the gap between his ideal and reality, he becomes angry and inarticulately ends his rant with an obscenity, thus temporarily putting an end to his increasing anxiety.[3]

Further complicating and informing Tony's negotiation of various models of masculinity is the extensive homosocial bonding that his profession requires. In fact, the psychic and professional conflicts that drive The Sopranos' narrative often stem from homosocial rather than heterosocial relationships. Yet rather than signify a "wholesale collapse of masculinity," these agonistic relationships, as Eve Sedgwick explains in her influential Between Men, can strengthen heterosexist, patriarchal masculinity. At the same time, Judith Halberstam notes that the fact that men experience these anxieties and require reassurances at all demonstrates that masculinity is simultaneously an overdetermined and incomplete identity category rather than a "natural" state of being:

While normative masculinity depicts itself quite simply as real masculinity, it simultaneously exhibits some anxiety about the status of its own realness: male masculinity as an identity seems to demand authentication: Am I real? Is my masculinity real? The fact that male masculinities of all kinds seem to require recognition of some kind also has the counterintuitive effect of marking their instability and their distance from the real. (Halberstam 353).

Male bonding can thus facilitate identification and assuage anxieties by reifying and authenticating unstable and unreal heterosexist masculine ideals. But such bonding can also facilitate disidentification: When these ideals are not authenticated or when conflicting ideals meet, the constitutively unstable nature of masculinity and the impossibility of total identification become visible. While The Sopranos does little to reconfigure the reciprocal relationship between male bonding and patriarchal structures, it does feature men who bond to mitigate their anxieties and to ameliorate the incommensurability they feel with masculine ideals that never actually existed, ideals that consistently "haunt" them; in other words, they bond because they are not really sure what constitutes a man in the first place.

This dynamic of identification and alienation catalyzed by masculine ideals and homosocial bonding is clearly illustrated in "Boca." "Boca" features two principal story lines, one of which is a self-contained narrative, the other, a continuation of the first season's overall arc. The former focuses on Meadow's soccer coach, Don Hauser, whom the characters praise for his coaching prowess until his various treacheries are revealed: First, he plans to leave Verbum Dei High School for a position at the University of Rhode Island, and, more significantly, he has been having an affair with the team's star, Ally Vandermeed. The second story line features the increasing estrangement between Tony and his uncle, Junior. Junior goes on vacation to Boca Raton with long-standing mistress Bobbi Sanfillipo, who praises his oral sex techniques. Although Junior warns her to keep their sex life a secret, the information circulates through a network of women, and eventually to Tony via Carmela. After Tony taunts Junior with the information, Junior contemplates having his nephew "clipped."

As with so many episodes, the plot of "Boca" moves deftly between Tony's professional and personal obligations, but woven among these two story lines is a sustained examination of homosocial bonding as a means of negotiating various configurations of masculinity. The episode initially situates Tony, Silvio, Artie Bucco, Junior, and Coach Hauser along a continuum of often competing constructions of masculinity informed by various institutions, representations, and traditions. At one end is Hauser, who seemingly personifies a late twentieth-century / early twenty-first-century "enlightened" heterosexual white man. A tough competitor and strategist, Hauser nevertheless coaches girls' soccer in part because he wants to coach his daughter. He is clean-cut, preppily attired, and owns a golden retriever to boot. At the other end are Tony and Silvio, who are equally dedicated fathers (and much wealthier than Hauser), but also engage in masculine excess: The former enthusiastically cheers for Meadow, but by default—when Carmela exclaims, "Look at you, Tony, at girls' soccer," he replies, "What do you want from me? My only son's a couch potato"—and the latter becomes disproportionately angry at a soccer referee ("You blow that whistle one more time, I'm gonna stick it up your fuckin' ass!"). As the episode proceeds, however, these distinctions become increasingly blurred: In spite of his ideal bourgeois male veneer, Hauser is a predator who exploits his position of authority and manipulates a teenage girl both sexually and emotionally. Artie, Tony, and Silvio, on the other hand, repress their initial impulse to murder Hauser and turn him over to authorities.

The scenes that feature homosocial bonding depict a dialectical movement through which men define and gauge their masculinities with one another. Early in "Boca," Artie, Silvio, Tony, and Hauser celebrate at the Bada Bing! after a soccer victory. Tony and Silvio offer the coach a "freebie" with one of the dancers, which Hauser politely declines. This "gift" calls to mind Sedgwick's notion of "erotic triangles," whereby women mediate men's rivalries and attachments with one another. Sedgwick, following Claude Lévi-Strauss and Gayle Rubin, argues that "patriarchal heterosexuality can best be discussed in terms of one or another form of the traffic in women: It is the use of women as exchangeable, perhaps symbolic, property for the primary purpose of cementing the bonds of men with men" (Sedgwick 26). Offering the dancer as Coach Hauser's reward is Tony and Silvio's gesture of friendship, intended to initiate Hauser into their specifically homosocial and heterosexist circle (after all, had Hauser been a woman, would they have invited her back to the Bing!?).

At this point in the episode, Hauser's refusal signifies his position as an upstanding man, but after the characters find out about the affair with Ally, the scene retrospectively establishes Hauser as an outsider whose actions follow a different objectionable schema altogether. Rather than implicitly endorse Tony and Silvio's methods of bonding with Hauser, the episode asks us to engage in the same ethical debate as the characters: Artie asks his wife, Charmaine, "You tell me—who's worse, Tony Soprano or that child-molesting fuck?" and indeed, if Hauser's sheepish reaction to the stripper calls attention to Tony and Silvio's blatantly heterosexist values, then Hauser's status as a child-molester asks us to rethink our own investment in masculine ideals informed by a kinder, gentler, suburban bourgeois whiteness. When examined within the context of the episode as a whole, this bonding scene illustrates both how masculinity comes to be defined through relations between men, and how wide the distance is between our ideals and the real.

Conversely, the storyline featuring Junior illustrates Sedgwick's contention that relations between men structure their relations with women, and vividly displays how "ghostly" ideals inform both. In Boca Raton, Junior orders Bobbi to keep the details about their sex life private and she asks why:

Junior: Because they think if you'll suck pussy, you'll suck anything.
Bobbi: Oh, you're kidding.
Junior: It's a sign of weakness. And possibly a sign that you're a fanook.
Bobbi: A fag? That's ridiculous. How would the two even translate?
Junior: What're you gonna do? I don't make the rules.

Junior's allusion to a vague "they" and his admission that he does not "make the rules" signifies his adherence to heterosexist masculine codes (or in this case, the appearance of his adherence), even though their origins are unknown to him and do not really make sense.[4] Indeed, as Bobbi's incredulity makes clear, these "rules" seem highly illogical: Junior is fearful of being perceived as less powerful, or even gay, for performing a heterosexual act. Yet, the very fact that this is a "rule" signifies its status as a time-honored and socially sanctioned convention. As Roger Lancaster points out, this convention is also culturally specific—"in Anglo-American culture, orality defines the homosexual"—and mapped onto real practices, regardless of who the practioners are (Lancaster 43). Contradictory though these rules may seem, Junior simply accepts them; like Tony in his discussion of Cooper with Melfi, Junior has to ignore or elide the inconsistent nature of heterosexual masculinity in order to identify himself as a powerful man.

The Sopranos video still And, of course, Junior's fears come to fruition. During the last homosocial bonding scene in "Boca," Junior, his consigliere Mikey Palmice, Tony, and Silvio play a round of golf. The beginning and end of this scene features a close-up of a golf ball being hit, a visual reference to the practice of "busting one's balls," that is, asserting superiority by denigrating another's masculinity, and what ensues is a masculine anxiety fest of sorts, a game of one-upmanship in which Tony and Junior attempt to define themselves by attacking one another [clip from "Boca," 37:06-39:06]. Tony playfully though annoyingly interrupts Mikey's swing and Junior humiliates Tony on several fronts. He sides with his consigliere over his nephew and then refers to an incident from Tony's adolescence in which Tony's athletic performance fell short—"If you'd a shut up during that game with Mountain Lakes you wouldn't have missed that fuckin' fly ball"—which effectively links Tony's past inadequacies as an athlete (and by extension, as a man) to the present day. Junior also intimates that Tony's personal failure is familial ("I was ashamed to face my friends"), and that Tony is Junior's inadequate representative.

The Sopranos video still Tony retaliates by employing various slang terms associated with oral sex as a means of informing Junior that he knows his uncle's secret without explicitly saying so; the terms also insult the act of oral sex itself and Junior for performing it. As Tony sings "South of the border, down Mexico way," he taunts Junior by holding his golf club like a phallus, visually establishing his superior masculinity. He also associates Junior's manhood with his Italian heritage, implying that Junior is not only not a "real" man, he's not a "real Italian" man: "I thought you were a baccala man, Uncle June. What're you doin' eatin' sushi?" Junior's allusion to Tony's therapy, which at this point in the series, is still a secret—"At least I can deal with my own problems"—is also couched in terms of masculine superiority and autonomy.

The grand irony here is that Tony disparages Junior for engaging in a sexual act that he too practices; earlier in the episode, Carmela rightfully calls Tony a hypocrite when he laughs at the news about his uncle. More seriously, Tony's baiting triggers grave repercussions: Junior eventually attempts (and fails) to have Tony assassinated, and Tony retaliates by ordering Mikey Palmice's death. In a subsequent episode, at the nadir of his relationship with his uncle, Tony remembers this leisurely golf-game-gone-bad as the catalyst: "Uncle June and I, we had our problems with the business. But I never should've razzed him about eating pussy. This whole war could've been averted" ("I Dream of Jeanie Cusimano," episode 13). Thus what began as verbal riposte ends in a war between two mafia crews and two generations of Soprano men in an attempt to uphold an ideal that no one actually follows: The injunction against performing oral sex. This riposte also ends in heartbreak: As a final punctuation to its depiction of the distance between the ideal and the real, "Boca" pays homage to the 1931 film The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney as Tom Powers, the ultimate gangster. In the film, Tom viciously shoves a grapefruit into his girlfriend Kitty's face; in "Boca," Junior shoves a lemon meringue pie in Bobbi's face to break up with her. But while Tom is unremorseful and immediately finds a new girlfriend, a tearful Junior walks dazed into the dark street.

What "Boca" demonstrates, then, is that while homosocial bonding helps men define themselves in relation to one another, they are ultimately and collectively defined by unattainable or contradictory heterosexist ideals that are ephemeral in nature but yield real consequences, costs, and benefits, for men and women.[5] And in the end, this is what helps make The Sopranos a feminist metatext—its willingness to show the continual interplay of and disjunctures between reality and fantasy that inform the characters' notions of who they are, to engage in that same interplay with us, and to comfort, terrify, and shock us with the realization that when we see ourselves in the characters, sometimes we are barely recognizable.


Many thanks to Lisa Johnson of Coastal Carolina University and Jackie McGrath of College of DuPage for their comments and advice.

Works Cited

Akass, Kim and Janet McCabe. "Beyond the Bada Bing!: Negotiating Female Narrative Authority in The Sopranos." In Lavery, This Thing of Ours , 146–61.

"Boca." Episode 9 of The Sopranos. Written by Jason Cahill, Robin Green, and Mitchell Burgess. Directed by Andy Wolk. HBO. Transcript.

Donatelli, Cindy and Sharon Alward. "'I Dread You'?: Married to the Mob in The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos." In Lavery, This Thing of Ours , 60–71.

Gardiner, Judith Kegan. Introduction. Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory: New Directions. Edited by Gardiner, 1–29. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Halberstam, Judith. "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Men, Women, and Masculinity." In Gardner, Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory, 344–67.

Heidkamp, Bernie. "Just When Men Thought They Were Out . . ." PopPolitics, July 13, 2000.

Lancaster, Roger. "Subject Honor, Object Shame." In The Masculinity Studies Reader, edited by Rachel Adams and David Savran, 41–68. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

Lavery, David, ed. This Thing of Ours: Investigating The Sopranos. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Sedgwick, Eve. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

The Sopranos. Created by David Chase. HBO. 1999–.

Walker, Joseph. "'Cunnilingus and Psychiatry Have Brought Us to This': Livia and the Logic of False Hoods in the First Season of The Sopranos." In Lavery, This Thing of Ours, 109–21.


1. In addition, women characters in The Sopranos are also more than capable of engaging in brutal behavior, as evidenced by Livia and Janice Soprano, whose mercenary tactics show that women could succeed in the mafia as well as men. If, repeating Akass and McCabe, Tony's "options are circumscribed by a morality defined by civilizing women," then women such as Carmela, Jennifer, and Janice are circumscribed by the mafia's status as a misogynistic and socially transgressive institution. [Return to text]

2. Bernie Heidkamp presents an extended discussion of the "crisis of masculinity" as a post–World War II phenomenon in his discussion of The Sopranos, "Just When Men Thought They Were Out . . . "
http:www.poppolitics.com/articles/2000-07-13-bigmen.shtml. [Return to text]

3. While Cooper/Kane is Tony's personal ideal, his other identificatory model is the Rat Pack, a group that exemplifies how masculinity becomes reinforced through homosocial bonding. While Tony and his peers ostensibly have more in common with Frank, Sammy, and Dean, this model ultimately proves as alienating as Cooper/Kane, as depicted in "The Rat Pack" (episode 54). The title's dual meaning alludes to the Rat Pack portrait that Tony is given by colleague Tony Massarone, who is also an FBI informant, and thus signifies the distance between the ideal incarnated by the original Rat Pack and the current mob, which is corrupted by disloyalty. Also, Soprano invests his desire to maintain homosocial bonds in his cousin, Tony Blundetto, who is released from prison in the episode. But Blundetto tells Soprano that he has ambitions of becoming a massage therapist instead, thwarting Soprano's plans. At the end of the episode, Soprano throws away the painting. [Return to text.]

4. If Tony's nostalgia hearkens back to his father's era, Junior, who actually is from that generation, turns out to be equally haunted by masculine ideals. We find out in a later episode that, like Tony, Junior conflates masculine with national ideals, as his identificatory model is John F. Kennedy. When Tony asks him about Kennedy's stance on organized crime, Junior dismissively replies, "That was the brother" ("Second Opinion," episode 33). He even chooses an oncologist with the same name, with almost fatal effects. He, too, seems to emulate the "Rat Pack" era, fantasizing about Angie Dickinson in "I Dream of Jeanie Cusimano" (episode 13). [Return to text.]

5. As Joseph Walker points out, contra Akass and McCabe, Tony's drunken declaration to Carmela at the end of "Boca"—"I didn't hurt nobody"—is only partially true. While Tony does not hurt Hauser, he essentially causes Junior and Bobbi's painful breakup. See Walker, "'Cunnilingus and Psychiatry Have Brought Us to This.'" [Return to text.]


Excerpt of Transcript for "Boca" (Episode 9): 37:06–39:06

[Close up of ball being hit off the tee.]

Tony: You shanked it, Sil.

Silvio: I still got the coach on my mind.

Tony: We got fresh air, we got sunshine, we got a beautiful day. Forgot about that shit. Thank God for golf some days.

Mikey: I'm trying to concentrate here.

Tony: So did you get any golf in while you were in Boca, Uncle June?

Mikey: Fuckin' manners, please.

Tony [to Junior]: So you play Manatee, or what's that other one?

Junior: Will you let the man tee off? You yap worse than six barbers. If you'd a shut up during that game with Mountain Lakes you wouldn't have missed that fuckin' fly ball. I was ashamed to face my friends.

[Mikey tees off.]

Silvio: Good, Mikey. Better.

Mikey: What do you mean, better?

Silvio: Well, you know, better.

[Junior tees off.]

Mikey: Whoa, Junior!

Tony: Whoa, Junior, what. Uncle June's in the muff. Oh, did I say muff? I meant rough.

Mikey [to Junior]: Good shot.

Tony: What's that smell? Did you guys go to a sushi bar?

Junior: What the fuck's he talkin' about?

Tony: I thought you were a baccala man, Uncle June. What're you doin' eating' sushi?

Junior: You fuckin' run off at the mouth, you know that?

Tony [singing]: South of the border, down Mexico way.

Junior: Hey, listen my friend. At least I can deal with my own problems. Unlike some I know.

Tony: What's that supposed to mean?

Junior: Take it however you want. Don't bullshoot with me.

Silvio: Hey, hey, guys, guys. Are we here to play golf or what? Come on.

Tony [singing]: South of the border where the tuna fish play.

[Tony tees off]

[Close up of ball being hit off the tee.]

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