General Overview of Legitimacy in The Sopranos
The excerpt below explains the complicated position of Tony Soprano:
The cultural myths Americans hold concerning success and what it means to live comfortably in an American suburb are continuing themes in the television series The Sopranos (1999–2007). These concerns are not uniquely middle-class, but do carry middle-class markers that permeate American culture. The media uses a caricature of “the suburb” time and time again. The suburbs are where families are raised, from where white-collar workers commute, and where the Everyman/woman aspires to live. Although family life may be variously portrayed on television, Tony Soprano’s border crossing into his show’s suburban landscape plays out many of the concerns associated with the middle class. These concerns are necessarily exaggerated for the mafia genre: The “normal” suburban patriarch does not engage in murder, theft, or bribery on a daily basis. Tony Soprano’s vices in conflict with his continual efforts to support his family’s lifestyle make him a contradiction that complicates audience identification. He is both the Everyman and the scoundrel. Because he is the main character, audiences will most likely look to him for their reflection, but they will also define themselves against him. Tony is not squeaky clean, and his gangster persona can never be legitimated under proper middle-class values. Even his legitimate operations are tainted by his criminal background and considered unworthy of proper middle-class professions. If Tony had stayed in the old working-class neighborhood where he grew up, he would not be considered an outsider; his roots are in that neighborhood. The nouveau riche element of his move up to the middle-class neighborhood serves as a marker that he somehow does not belong there and will have to kill to stay there, to afford his family’s lifestyle. Additionally, Tony is a man brought down by gender anxieties; specifically, he is burdened by women in the series. There is an antifeminist undercurrent pervading the show that follows contemporary anxieties men have about the apparent downfall of male authority. The women in the show range from assertive to disposable, but from the perspective of Tony, the show’s patriarch, viewers can watch how The Sopranos portrays cultural anxieties about class and gender.
Toscano, Aaron A. “Tony Soprano as the American Everyman and Scoundrel: How The Sopranos (re)Presents Contemporary Middle-Class Anxieties.” The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 47, No. 3, 2014: 451-452.
Italian American Identity
The Sopranos comments on identity, specifically, Italian-American identity. The characters rarely claim to be “Italian-American”; instead, they usually just claim to be Italian. However, there’s a problem because the characters know very little about Italy but have absorbed the Italian-American culture of New Jersey and New York, which are themselves communities or subcultures and not representative of some mythic Italian-American identity. Before viewing media re/presentations of assumed, fixed Italian/Italian-American identities, consider theories of identity from a cultural studies perspective:
- Barker & Jane tell us “Self-identity” refers to “the conceptions we hold about ourselves and our emotional identification with those self-descriptions” (p. 260).
- Additionally, sociologist Anthony Giddens (1991) explains “Self-identity is not a distinctive trait, or even a collection of, traits, possessed by the individual. It is the self as reflexively understood by the person in terms of her or his biography” (p. 53).
One’s identity is assembled not from immutable truths about what is or isn’t authentic, such as an Italian-American true identity; instead, “the unified narrative of the self is something we acquire over time through entry into the symbolic order of language and culture” (Barker & Jane, p. 267). Although we are immersed in culture, influenced by a variety of people and communities, one assembles an identity from the cultural menu available. Rarely can one pick and choose identity markers
In a very funny episode called “Commendatori” (Season 2, episode 4), Tony and a couple street capos go to Italy for business–exporting stolen cars. Christopher and Paulie pretty much do or want to do what they would in the United States. In fact, Christopher gets high the whole time and barely leaves his room. He ends up getting his girlfriend a Fendi bag from the Newark International Airport’s duty free shop. Below is a clip of Paulie’s expectations:
- The crew arrives in Napoli
- Paulie in Napoli–“Can I just get some macaroni and gravy?”
- Bathroom Issues (keep watching the above video for the next scene)
At the end of the episode, Tony arrives home to Carmella, who’s not completely thrilled he’s home. Andrea Bocelli’s “Con te partiro'” plays in the background. If we have time, I’ll put the episode on at 48:50.
In another episode called “Christopher” (Season 4, episode 3), the crew deals with the controversy surrounding Columbus Day and how it’s viewed by indigenous peoples. The crew hears about a Columbus Day protest planned by an indigenous group. Furio, the only ‘actual’ person from Italy adds an internal perspective at the end of this clip:
Tony, the man of the house, takes insults to Columbus as an egregious act. Eventually, though, Tony ends the episode with a different view of Columbus
- In this house, Christopher Columbus is a hero. End of story!
- Women’s League Columbus Day Lunch
- Paulie laments the decline of Italian culture at the coffee shop
- Columbus’s Statue gets protested
- Tony is fed up with the Columbus worship (jump to 2:20 or 3:30)
Christopher Columbus might be a major figure for Italian Americans, but it’s complicated. Setting aside Columbus’s ushering in genocide of indigenous peoples of the Americas, Columbus, from Genoa, might have more of a connection for Spain. Columbus, technically from the Republic of Genoa, is said to have spoken Ligurian, which is probably closer to French than Florentine. Here are some other complications for Columbus being claimed by Italian Americans as an identity marker:
- Columbus’s two children came from his Portuguese wife and Castilian (Spain) mistress
- The Spanish monarchs funded his trip, which set off from Palos de la Frontera, Spain
- Spanish is way more prevalent a language in Latin America today than Italian
- Columbus’s remains rest in Seville, Spain; they were in the Dominican Republic and then Cuba before being brought back to Seville…never made it to Italy.
The above discussion demonstrates the futility in solidifying THE immutable, perfect Italian-American identity. Additionally, this identity derives, in part, from an assumed historical context where Christopher Columbus represents Italy, yet he never lived nor worked for an Italian state. Modern Italy did not exist until 1870; after that, a campaign to establish Italian (historically Florentine) as the official language began. Tony and his crew assume some mythic ideal of an identity. Their trip to Italy shows they’re Americans, which isn’t a monolithic identity, but it’s a more accurate label for this group that speaks next to no Italian and is mostly happy with their home.