“The Sopranos” for Women Is Just … “The Sopranos”

Carmela Soprano has more feminism under one of her acrylic nails than the entire cast of "Sex and the City"

January 14, 2021 6:00 am
Carmela Soprano, played by Edie Falco, on "The Sopranos"
Carmela Soprano, played by Edie Falco, on "The Sopranos"
Getty Images

Earlier this week — somewhere between an insurrection and finding out that Armie Hammer is potentially a cannibal — HBO Max announced a reboot of Sex & the City, among other classic shows. Twitter was ablaze in takes: What would the show be without Samantha? Was it possible or even necessary to reboot the no-doubt-radical-for-its-time, but oft-problematic series for modern day? But as is the case whenever any sort of stereotypically feminized programming hits the trending column, someone, somehow, managed to make it about The Sopranos. This time it was writer Hadley Freeman, who went viral for a tweet proclaiming: “I find it fascinating that Sex and the City — a show about a bunch of white women making jokes and shagging — is considered embarrassingly retro and borderline offensive, but The Sopranos — a show about a bunch of white men killing each other — is considered an untouchable classic.” 

I’ve seen every single episode of SATC, and I’ve seen The Sopranos in its entirety three times with a cursory rewatch a fourth time when my sister was watching. Let’s get this out of the way first: The Sopranos is a better show. As a millennial woman and an Italian, I’m in a demographic where I can speak to the values of both. First of all, SATC was more than a show about women shagging and making jokes; it was no doubt remarkable for its openness about sex and pleasure, and we owe a lot to it. That being said, it was excruciatingly white, there were episodes with open transphobia and anti-Semitism, the list goes on. 

On the other hand, calling The Sopranos a show about a bunch of white men killing each other is a take so reductive it makes me want to put my brain in rice like a wet phone. The Sopranos is — and remains — one of the most nuanced and honest portrayals of masculinity, of Italian culture, of mental illness and of family dynamics possibly ever. There’s AJ’s suicide attempt and Carmela’s cancer scare; there’s abuse and violence and an honest depiction of how these toxic behaviors so often become inextricable from love and passion especially under the oppressive dynamic of old-school Italian and Catholic norms. Its depictions of Tony Soprano — a bastion of toxic machismo and arrogance — going to therapy for panic attacks and depression were every bit as radical as any blowjob joke on SATC. That’s not to say Tony and his crew aren’t really fucking problematic in their own right; their dialogue is rife with bigotry and norms that likely wouldn’t pass through a writers room these days. But the difference between those moments on SATC and The Sopranos is that on The Sopranos we’re never asked to see these characters as anything else but deeply, deeply flawed. And sure, there’s a culture of worship around these characters, same as there is on SATC, but there’s a cartoonish malignancy to the bigotry of SATC where we’re never really called on to grapple with or even consider the harm these characters perpetuate in the same way we are in The Sopranos. That’s still evident today in how society thinks about the harms of white women who brunch.

Hadley’s take is just a drop in the sea of white women who are for some reason voraciously horny to rebuke any charge of frivolity in women’s media with an attack on The Sopranos, which they see as the bastion of masculine banality and virility for some reason. This is not the first time we’ve been plagued with the “girls don’t like The Sopranos” discourse; if you do a terms and connectors search on Twitter for any permutation of “sopranos for women” or “xyz is the sopranos for girls” you will be met with hundreds of inane tweets about shows that are, for some reason, like The Sopranos but, you know, for us girl brains. 

Here’s the thing: “The Sopranos for women” is just … The Sopranos.

It’s not just The Sopranos that gets this treatment. It’s the Scorsese catalogue, or any gangster movie, really: white feminist Twitter simply never tires of saying these movies and shows lack female representation. But here’s the thing: that’s just categorically untrue. Karen Hill in Goodfellas, Ginger in Casino, Kay and Connie in The Godfather, and of course, Carmela, Adriana and Meadow in The Sopranos — are they not … women? Of course they are. (I don’t even remember who I was subtweeting at this point, but back in October I tweeted that Carmela Soprano had more feminism under one of her acrylic nails than the entire cast of SATC had, and I stand by that.) But some women have adopted such a morphed version of girlboss feminism and internalized misogyny that they are writing off entire genres of entertainment simply because the women featured don’t fit the mold of womanhood they deem acceptable. 

I grew up with a lot of Carmela Sopranos in my life; I grew up around some Mirandas and some Charlottes, too. They all had their feminism triumphs and their flaws in their own right. But if I’m being honest, the Carmelas in my life taught me more about defining my self worth and really grappling with the harmful culture that designates a woman’s worth by a measure completely not her own. And I understand that for some women, that’s not the case — and that’s fine! But it doesn’t warrant completely writing off an entire show as macho and without depth.

Plenty of women love The Sopranos because it’s a great fucking show and it always will be, and plenty of women love SATC because it remains groundbreaking in many ways, and that’s totally valid. Lots of women love both! If you’re looking for more women, Sopranos or Goodfellas, consider that perhaps the issue is that you are looking for a kind of woman who doesn’t exist in that world. Because if all you see in The Sopranos is white guys killing each other, in truth that says more about your rigid ideals about feminism and masculinity than it does about the show itself. 

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