In mob stories, the power structure is almost invariable patriarchal. Men rule the Family and also their own family. In The Godfather trilogy, women are confined to the roles of whores or madonnas. Either, they are sex objects for men to use and abuse, or else they are long suffering mothers who must cook, clean and look after the children, the heirs to the throne. Vito Corleone’s wife fulfils the madonna role. Her only power is unintentional – Michael refuses to have his brother Fredo killed until their mother is dead.
Michael’s wife does not come from the usual Italian stock and does not adhere strictly to the role expected of her by the Family. She divorces Michael, but still returns to him by the final part of the trilogy. Of all the women in The Godfather films, only Connie flexes any real muscle of will. By Part III she is influencing Michael’s decisions and pressing for retribution against the Family’s enemies. Her brother comments on her attitude, suggesting their foes should be more afraid of her than of him.
In Goodfellas, the madonna/whore equation is in full effect. The character played by Lorraine Bracco (who now plays Dr Jennifer Melfi in The Sopranos) comes from outside the Italian tradition and shows some initial spirit. But once she marries Ray Liotta’s character, she is quickly subsumed into the role of mob wife and mother. Mafia stories on film, television and in other media have almost without exception replicated this patriarchal power structure.
On the surface, The Sopranos follows this same structure. At the beginning of Season One, Jackie Aprile is acting boss and all his captains are men. When Jackie dies, Junior becomes the new acting boss – although it is actually Tony who is in control. Tony finally taking the mantle of acting boss after Junior is indicted on federal charges at the end of Season One. Judging by outward appearances, The Sopranos has a patriarchal power structure.
But a small scratch below the surface reveals women as the power behind the throne. Time and again characters comment on the hold mothers have their children in The Sopranos. The scariest mother of them all has to be Livia Soprano. In flashback she is seen threatening to poke young Tony’s eyes out with the fork. She also threatens to smother her own children than shift to Nevada. She constantly talks about infanticide, such as news reports of mothers throwing their babies out of skyscraper windows.
Ostensibly, Livia fulfilled the role of mob wife, bearing Johnny Boy Soprano’s children and raising them. In reality, she controlled her husband. Tony says Livia worn his father down until he was a squeaking little gerbil. She drove away her two daughters, Janice and Barbara. She estranged Carmela from her mother, as Carmela’s mother reveals at Livia’s wake in Season Three.
Only Tony remained to look after his mother in her elder years, tied to her by guilt. He cannot admit hating his own mother, even though he undoubtedly does. He cannot recall a single warm, loving experience involving his mother. Such is Tony’s need for a mother substitute that he becomes infatuated with his therapist. Later, he has an elaborate fantasy about Isabella, a loving, caring mother. He even imagines himself as a baby being nursed by Isabella.
Livia’s power is not just over her own children. Junior goes to her for guidance when he becomes acting boss. He defers to her in making decisions and is led into arranging the attempted hit on his nephew. Livia carefully tells Junior exactly the information necessary to gull him into action on her behalf. She manipulates him while simultaneously maintaining plausible deniability – even to herself. When the hit on Tony goes wrong, she fakes a stroke and senility to escape his wrath. She constantly belittles everyone around her and badmouths those who are not present.
Her daughter Janice is cut from the same cloth. She is a frustrated mother, whose son Hal now lives in Canada. Janice ran away from New Jersey to escape her mother’s power. Janice embraced hippy new age ideals and feminism, but still uses the same ploys as her mother to manipulate and control the men in her life. Janice goads and bullies Tony until she gets her way about Livia’s house. She gets engaged to Richie Aprile and controls him like a puppet. Janice nags him about his lack of power. She allows him to hold a loaded pistol to her head while they have sex, but renders Richie impotent by saying he should be boss.
Just like her mother, she carefully feeds him information about Tony designed to nudge him into whacking her brother. Janice holds all the power, with Richie reduced to the role of worker bee collecting money and goods for the queen bee. Finally, when Richie fights back and punches her in the face, Janice gets a gun and shoots him in the chest. Had she stopped there, you might believe it was an act of self defence by an abused woman. Instead she pauses, takes careful aim and then shots Richie in the head – even though he had already suffered fatal injuries. This was murder, the ultimate act of control.
By comparison, Carmela is more content playing out the role of mob wife. She keeps herself at arm’s length from Tony’s criminal activities. Instead, she uses her power to get what she wants from Tony. Carmela bullies Tony into a getting a vasectomy, then changes her mind. She nags Tony about his mistress until he finally dumps Irina. Carmela controls what happens inside the family home. She even acknowledges the power of motherhood in a conversation with Livia, admitting that she uses it to get what she wants.
Carmela’s daughter Meadow is a matriarch in the making. She knows what she wants and manipulates her parents and others to get it. Facing severe punishment after a teenage party at her grandmother’s house gets out of hand, Meadow suggests her own penance – the loss of her credit card for a fortnight! Upset when she learns a friend is being used for sex by their soccer coach, Meadow lets slip about the relationship to her parents. When your father is Tony Soprano, such a revelation can only lead to one thing.
Meadow immediately berates herself for telling them what’s going on – exactly as her grandmother does after carefully planting information. Even the pilot episode, Meadow is flexing her power. Carmela cancels a skiing trip after catching her daughter trying to sneak out at night. Meadow responds by denigrating and refusing to take part in a traditional mother and daughter trip to New York.
The ultimate example of matriarchal power is Annalisa, who appears in Season Two when Tony visits Italy on business. He finds himself negotiating with a woman boss, a totally alien concept. She explains that all her brothers have been murdered in gang wars and all the other men who could take charge are in prison, thanks to a government campaign against organised crime.
Annalisa says Italian men are in love with their mothers, so they are used to taking orders from women. This realisation enables her to run the Family, as well as her own family. Annalisa uses both sides of the madonna/whore equation to her own advantage. She runs her Family like a mother, but comes on to Tony sexually when they are negotiating business terms. Despite this, she is a loving, caring mother who looks after her children and her senile father.
The Sopranos’ use of powerful matriarchal characters reflects its setting in a post-feminist society. It also goes some way to explaining why the series is so popular with women. The two greatest antecedents to The Sopranos are The Godfather trilogy and Goodfellas. Both of these are nostalgia pieces, set decades before they were made, and both are movies by men, for men, about men. The Sopranos is of its own time, set at the dawn of the new millennium.
The role of women in society has changed and this is reflected in the crucial roles played by women in the show. The programme would be so much less believable if all the women were still content to play the role of submissive wife, mother or whore. Despite what Tony Soprano may want to believe, it’s not 1954 anywhere anymore. Matriarchy rules, okay?