Masculinity, Motherhood, and American Moxie – Elizabeth Grace Matthew

When New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano finds himself in the office of psychologist Jennifer Melfi in the pilot episode of The Sopranos (1999), she asks him a number of questions. About his family, his work, and the panic attack that landed him, against his inclination, in psychotherapy. 

He asks her only one: “What ever happened to Gary Cooper?” 

Contrasting what he perceives as the self-indulgent emotionalism of therapy with the stoicism epitomized by Cooper’s roles in Westerns and war films, Tony persists, “Now that was an American.” 

As the six-season series begins, Tony, barely 40, is reaching the heights of his career as boss of a Family, well aware that he has arrived personally even as both the mafia and the country face decline. At any given time, several “friends of ours” are failing to adhere to “omerta” (the mafia code of silence) and are instead feeding information to the FBI in exchange for immunity and other spoils. Relatedly, both within and outside Tony’s underworld, reliable men have become hard to find. 

What Ever Happened to Gary Cooper?

Tony’s late father, Johnny, was an absentee tough guy who gave Tony’s dog away to his mistress’ son. His uncle, Junior, is an insecure petulant who tries to kill his nephew out of jealousy. His fledgling heir apparent, Christopher, is a self-aggrandizing drug addict. Old guard mafiosos released from prison attempt to undermine Tony’s reign, hoping to perpetuate an insular and belligerent way of doing business that is no longer workable. Finally, the youngest mafiosos at the turn of the millennium are by turns ungovernable, lazy, insouciant, and stupid. Tony’s own son, Anthony Junior (AJ) is all of the above, having inherited all of his father’s egotism without developing any of his strength. 

From this bleak vantage point, Tony’s idealization of Gary Cooper’s all-American movie roles, to which he pays continued homage throughout the series, is best understood as an expression of confusion, dismay, and self-loathing in the face of a nascent crisis of masculinity. Twenty-five years later, this same subject dominates both educated discourse and lived reality.

With boys falling behind in school and young men floundering in life, concern about America’s men, and our dismal prospects as a nation if we do not fix what ails them, has rightly reached a fever pitch. 

On the left, educators and others fret over so-called “toxic masculinity,” liberally defined as a near-ubiquitous and endemic socialization into misogyny, homophobia, and lesser treatment of women, that rely on violence or the threat of violence for both domination and self-justification. They worry, that is, over the continued cultural influence of real-life men more or less like the fictional Tony and his mafia compatriots. 

Meanwhile, in the center and on the right, traditional parents and others express concern over a devolution of childhood independence, academic standards, and behavioral expectations that is often decried as males’ “feminization,” but is more accurately understood as a universal infantilization that disproportionately impacts boys and men. 

A quarter century ago, when these problems of American masculinity were evident but not yet as ubiquitous or prominent in public discourse, The Sopranos offered some prescient—and, as yet, wholly unheeded—insights into how we began to foster so much malaise and malevolence among our young men. 

The New Toxic Masculinity

Who and what is to blame for American males’ decline, according to the show?

First, there are twenty-first-century American men, like Tony, who want to have their cannoli and eat it, too. For many baby boomers of various backgrounds, the capacity to retain the distinctive fumes of an ethnic identity that no longer delimits or demands anything of them while also accessing the full spoils of American wealth and decadence is too tempting to resist. 

So, they don’t resist it. 

At one point in season four, Tony takes his teenage son, AJ, for a ride around blighted parts of Newark. He stops in front of St. Elzear’s, the Catholic church in whose literal and figurative shadow he spent his early childhood. The father waxes nostalgic about how, back when the neighborhood was “a hundred percent Italian” his grandfather, a stonemason, came over from Avelino and helped to build this beautiful building. Italians from all over the area, Tony tells AJ, still travel here on Sundays to worship. “Then how come we never do?” AJ asks.

Tony offers no reply. Perhaps in part because any true response would involve explaining to his son that his visits to Newark’s roughest neighborhoods involve housing fraud, making him complicit in the crime-ridden reality that he blames on predominantly Black residents.

Tony exemplifies the combination of misplaced pride and bombastic self-deception that leads away from any coherent, prosocial iteration of traditionally old-world manhood, and also from any new-world, American version of the same. 

In a statement simultaneously exculpatory and damning, Melfi declares that Tony is, “in spite of everything, a very conventional man.” Still, for him, the proximate problem of floundering manhood is a self-consciously ethnic one. His identity is rooted in an urban Italian-Americanism that was beginning to break up and suburbanize even during his own 1960s childhood. Options have now proliferated for Italian Americans but in Tony’s mind, the question of how he makes a living is still primarily an issue of Italian-American identity. Is he a valiant soldier in a pre-modern social order sanctified by its origination in the “poverty of the mezzojiorno, where all higher authority was corrupt,” or a common criminal reaping the material spoils of continued affiliation with la cosa nostra? Tony’s specific problems are indeed unique to him: most people (including most Italian-descended people) are not and never were involved in organized crime.

Instead of killing her son outright, Carmela does so on the installment plan by ensuring that he is unfit to live a life worthy of the name. 

But, for The Sopranos writ large, the question of how to negotiate between self-actualization and assimilation in a newly integrated world with common expectations and standards for the culturally, linguistically, and culinarily distinct descendants of once-separate groups draws its narrative power from its multiracial, multiethnic universality. It is an issue of American identity. Specifically, American male identity. 

After all, it is no coincidence that the most reliable “soldier” in the Soprano family under the age of about 55, is 30-something Furio Giunta, who is not Italian American at all, but Italian, having been brought over from Italy. 

Unlike Tony and his fellow New Jersey natives, Furio is not plagued by questions about who he is or why he makes a living through violence and criminality. Because unlike Tony, Furio actually is a “soldier.” 

Unburdened by liberty, a true member of a pre-modern social order in which his fate was sealed before birth, Furio is psychologically free. Whereas Tony cannot help feeling at least passing empathy for the strippers whom the proper execution of his business interests requires treating like so much refuse (after all, he has a daughter their age, and caste doesn’t work in the new world quite like it does in the old one), Furio can deftly smash one woman’s cheek in with a baseball bat in a given moment, and then treat other women with a gentleness and courtesy literally foreign to his American compatriots the next. He sees no conflict therein because, for him, there isn’t one.

Thus, The Sopranos makes poignantly and abundantly clear that Tony’s problem is not really whether his once-other world will merge with the wider American story, but that it has already done so—and by his own hand. Neither the mafia nor the nation is profiting as a result because the men within the mafia are much the same as the men outside it: whiny, excuse-mongering, and underachieving. 

Beginning with Tony. 

Depressive inclinations notwithstanding, Tony is “larger than life,” a generational leader with an outsized capacity to influence reality at will. He comes to power so young, while building a seemingly conventional upper-middle-class life, because he is uncommonly smart and exerts tremendous initiative. Tony is also far more comfortable and capable, and more interested and interesting, outside the parochial confines of his own world than anyone else he knows—and far more so than his wife or his oldest friends. We see this time and again through his interactions with his daughter’s Ivy League classmates and business associates of various backgrounds.

Yet, with all these gifts and talents at his disposal, Tony chooses to spend his energy reminding himself that he’s a “soldier,” allegedly without agency in his choices. He lands in Melfi’s office because there is a cognitive dissonance between his interior reality—in which he knows full well he’s no Southern Italian peasant fighting corrupt authority, but a “crook from New Jersey” who took the easy way out—and the fatalistic lie he has to curate for himself in order to cope. 

In America, Tony, like all of us, ultimately bears the burden of his own self-determination. He wishes he didn’t know this, because then life would be as simple for him as it appears to be for Furio. 

Or, better yet, for the all-American Gary Cooper, whose all-American mother presumably never tried to have him killed. 

The New Devouring Motherhood

Who are the second group of people to blame for American men’s malaise, according to The Sopranos? Psychotherapy’s oldest scapegoats, and ultimately the weightiest influencers of both men and nations: mothers. 

Throughout the series, two different women—Livia, Tony’s mother, and Carmela, his wife—are studied and found deeply wanting as mothers of men. 

Livia is a narcissistic, borderline personality who colludes in a plot to have her son killed because she is angry that he placed her in the area’s most luxurious retirement home. The show’s original villain, and the alleged source of her son’s depression and panic attacks, she epitomizes the ancient “devouring mother” archetype in which children exist only as an extension of the mother, who deeply resents their developing affection or loyalty for anything or anyone else. 

Livia belittles Tony incessantly because she takes his embrace of any idea, habit, or joy that stretches beyond the limits of her fatalistic insularity as a personal affront. Her only pleasure is in being revered, and she is hostile to anyone or anything that challenges her conviction about life, which is that “it’s all a big nothing.” All, that is, except her own solipsistic anxieties and fears, and her insistence that everyone and everything else revolve around them. 

To have grown up in 1990s America with great-grandparents who came from the old world—as I, like Tony’s children, did—is to know many lightweight versions of Livia Soprano (and with the benefit of generational distance to see their endemic limitations). 

No, my Italian American grandmother never tried to kill my father. On the contrary, she adored him—and me. But, when babysitting me, she frequently closed her eyes, made the sign of the cross, and intoned a fervent request: “Please, holy Mary, mother of God, take me now.” This typically occurred in response to my preschool misbehavior, which she apparently took personally. At four, I understood that this had something to do with her being old—which was, in my ethnic-descended family, synonymous with “old world.” No one my mother’s age, I knew, would ever express a desire to die because a young child was being disobedient. 

After all, modern American mothers are too reasonable for the kind of operatic psychodrama that can, years later, bring a physically strong and mentally tough man like Tony literally to his knees. They are better acquainted with children’s psychology, focused on the future rather than the past, and more concerned about their sons’ holistic well-being than about their own emotional needs. 

Or, at least, so it would seem at first glance.

Carmela, Tony’s wife and AJ’s mother, is in many ways Livia’s opposite. Whereas Livia expects her son to live for her, catering to her comforts and whims while demanding nothing from her, Carmela appears to live for her son, catering to his comforts and whims while demanding nothing from him. 

When AJ gets expelled from high school for breaking into a teacher’s office and stealing a test, Tony panics over his son’s downward trajectory and initiates meetings with military academies. But Carmela doesn’t want to send AJ away. She refers to the 16-year-old as “still a child” in an expression of maternal concern that seems markedly different from Livia’s. She ostensibly wants to preserve rather than destroy her son. 

Carmela routinely accepts the teenage AJ’s surliness and arrogance toward her and others. She intervenes for him when he gets into further academic and behavioral trouble at school (even to the point of alleging, in a predominantly Italian community no less, the cringe-worthy excuse of anti-Italian discrimination) rather than letting him suffer the consequences of his own actions. And, far from requiring that he adhere to basic standards of politeness, decency, and industry as a condition of residing in her home, she issues only the needy, pathetic request that he “involve [her] in [his] life a little.” 

At bottom, Carmela’s iteration of devouring motherhood is just as self-centered, and just as destructive, as Livia’s. Instead of killing her son outright, she does so on the installment plan by ensuring that he is unfit to live a life worthy of the name. 

Carmela centers AJ’s erstwhile place in her heart and home as “a child” over the place to which he should aspire in the wider world as a man—in this way if no other like his father, who fights for life with every fiber of his being because (morally insupportable methods for doing so aside) he takes responsibility for others. 

When Tony mourns the obsolescence of Gary Cooper, he is lamenting the lack of moral clarity and self-control that he, despite all his cynicism, rightly idealizes as “American.”

To be living and raising sons a quarter century after The Sopranos premiered, as I am, is to recognize that Carmela’s version of maternal vampirism—catering to one’s own emotions by putting faux-egalitarian, emotive closeness with one’s children ahead of the authoritative shepherding of their broader development—now dominates our culture’s orientation to child-rearing. Today, it is common to accept the false notion, codified as “gentle parenting,” that it is wise for parents to respond first and foremost to children’s feelings rather than to their behaviors. 

As a result, we now cultivate rampant immaturity and fragility among our young men, whose lack of biological markers for adulthood and comparative physical invulnerability make them less resilient than young women in the face of infantilization. Today, ever more American men resemble AJ, and ever fewer resemble Tony.

Is there a third and better option? Can we help young males find a path beholden to neither toxic masculinity nor aimless extended adolescence? 

The Sopranos offers no grounds for optimism. In the end, Tony is dead, and AJ is something far less than fully alive. But it does offer a hint about what we might try.

When Tony mourns the obsolescence of Gary Cooper, he is lamenting the lack of moral clarity and self-control that he, despite all his cynicism, rightly idealizes as “American.” And when he glories in the majesty of St. Elzear’s, he is really grieving the patient upward mobility exemplified by his grandfather, who valorized honest work for modest rewards. 

For Tony, Gary Cooper remains a symbol of American idealism and specifically “WASP,” nonethnic American folklore, just like St. Elzear’s remains a symbol of the uniquely immigrant work ethic. Thus, he can claim sufficient distance from each to profess disingenuous bewilderment about where these admirable touchstones have gone. 

Because what really happened to Gary Cooper is that Tony failed to emulate him, and Carmela failed to raise him. Not because Cooper was white and Protestant, while they are arguably neither. And not because the virtues Cooper represents are old-fashioned. 

It’s because the paths of least resistance—in this case, so-called toxic masculinity and the devouring motherhood that overcorrects for it—are always easier than those of delayed gratification and self-determination. 

Today, as AJ becomes more of an American male prototype than not, maybe it’s long past time that we stop asking “What happened to Gary Cooper?” and instead reinvent him in our racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse image—with Tony’s perception of his values intact. 

The Sopranos earned its place as arguably the iconic all-American story in part because it presciently showed that the responsibility attendant to freedom really does belong to us all, no matter where we came from. 

We continue to believe otherwise at American men’s—and, therefore, at the whole nation’s—deepening peril. 

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