Carmela Soprano, Antiheroine

What lingers of Carmela's legacy once the last pan of baked ziti from the freezer has been eaten?

How do I write something new about a character who became an icon almost as soon as she appeared, now 16 years ago? Why, 16 years after her first appearance and 8 after her last, does Carmela Soprano still matter?

It’s because I can’t write about any of these Antiheroines without addressing Carmela as their progenitor. Carmela was the first, sui generis: Carmela the grande dame, Carmela the Madonna to a thousand Bada Bing! whores, Carmela the martyr, Carmela who drips with blood diamonds. Carmela who tells us outright, “I’m not a feminist, I’m not saying fifty-fifty. But jeez.” When The Sopranos ended, we knew Carmela as an icon, but we couldn’t know the length of her legacy, how she would eventually become not just an icon but an archetype, a blueprint for the way in which an antihero’s wife could be his equal in narrative complexity, if not in centrality. Now, with the benefit of perspective, Carmela Soprano earns her notoriety as the first antifeminist antiheroine, as under-appreciated in our critical discourse as she was in her own home.

Let’s back up. The consensus among episodic TV critics I respect, like Alan Sepinwall and Todd VanDerWerff, seems to be that, more or less beginning with The Sopranos, TV got great when movies got shitty and viewers started looking for greater depth of character, quality of storytelling, and moral complexity from the small screen. According to Sepinwall in his TV-nerd Bible The Revolution Was Televised, where once a TV hero “could have the faintest hint of an edge, but only if we were reminded early and often that he was ultimately pure of heart,” with the dawn of Tony Soprano, we newly found a “relatable sociopath” in the protagonist’s role. By Sepinwall’s definition, the antihero protagonist, male in 11 of the 12 series (big ups, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) discussed in The Revolution, is “a deeply flawed character who, in an earlier age, would have been the villain, but instead was portrayed with such shading, depth, and empathy that we began rooting for him despite ourselves.”

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I can’t totally disagree with this thesis, but in posing an ongoing feminist critique of TV, I have to re-angle it: TV has actually only ever been as good as its female characters. Sure, testosterone-driven antiheroes like Tony thrill us, excite our subsumed ids, and serve as a sort of psychic carnival to spike our adrenaline while we’re strapped in safely. But we spend so much time talking about Tony Soprano that we’ve almost missed the point of how great TV got, beginning with Carmela, when it bothered to give women something to think, say, and do. We can’t ignore that, just as our media culture has venerated the Great White Male TV Antihero and the Great White Male TV Creator, so have we venerated the Great White Male TV Critic, and this has limited, injuriously, our popular interpretation of landmark shows like The Sopranos. Sepinwall and VanDerWerff are smart but wrong. TV has only ever been as good as its women characters, and Carmela was the first of the greats.

Even before Weeds, Mad Men, Orange Is The New Black, Scandal and Homeland blew up TV’s possibilities for women as protagonists, The Sopranos’ most audience-building, controversy-inspiring, flame-fanning moments occurred in concert with, yet often at the expense of, its women characters: Adriana gunned down in the woods in “Long Term Parking,” Tracee the stripper beaten to death by Ralph Cifaretto in the parking lot, Dr. Melfi raped in a parking garage, Carmela fielding the fateful phone call from Tony’s ex-goomar Irina. It seems no coincidence that Carmela, the only woman to end the series both alive and still in a relationship with Tony, is never seen in a parking lot.

Like a prism of dark light, Carmela fractures and multiplies outward within The Sopranos: into Meadow, her daughter, into Adriana, her negative relief, and into her cursed in-laws Janis and Livia. She is essential not only to Tony’s central narrative, but to every woman’s rotation around Tony’s sun, and for this reason, in their excellent critical analysis of Carmela, “What Has Carmela Ever Done for Feminism? Carmela Soprano and The Post-Feminist Dilemma,” scholars Janet McCabe and Kim Akass argue powerfully for Carmela’s own “narrative supremacy.”

It might be easy to see an antiheroine like Carmela primarily as Tony’s wife, vital as a complement, but relegated to a position outside the show’s main hierarchy, powerless within its professional establishment or financial structure. But it’s Tony himself who says “Carm, you aren’t just in my life. You are my life.” There is no Tony without Carmela. His force is impotent without her counterforce. Yes, Tony is the subject of The Sopranos, and the concept of motherhood its object—but between Tony’s own mother, Livia, who dies after the second season, Carmela, the mother of his children, and Melfi, the “bland, generic woman” (Melfi’s words) upon whom he projects his feelings for these other two mothers, it’s certainly Carmela who’s endowed with the most daily power to influence him, even as often as that influence fails.

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Moreover, every notable woman in the series, except Adriana, rendered infertile when her uterus was punctured during an abortion, Meadow, who’s ostensibly too young to procreate, and the goomars, is a mother: Melfi, Livia, Janice, Rosalie Aprile, Charmaine Bucco, and obviously Carmela. The paradigm of corrupted motherhood tessellates across the entire landscape of The Sopranos, beginning with a guy who goes to therapy in order to deal with the fact that his mother never really loved him. Or she loved him, maybe, but only in the most unavoidable, bare-minimum way. The point is Livia’s love for Tony was not unconditional, and if there were conditions under which she might have dispensed it more freely, Tony never found them.

Instead, Tony’s lot was to search for them over and over again in a maddening string of dark-eyed, manipulative women, Livia self-tessellating—and even the love of blonde Carmela, for all her affectionateness, comes with many material conditions. The entire show originates back to Livia’s mysterious maternal, original sin—her ambivalence, or even hatred, toward her children. In other words, Carmela spends her whole life trying, and failing, to correct Tony’s maternal deficiency, making her from the start both centrally important to the story and pitifully ineffectual within it.

Like Tony, Carmela herself is, of course, “a deeply flawed character” who could have been a villain were she not “portrayed with such shading, depth, and empathy” that part of us couldn’t help but root for her. Just as The Sopranos’ audience reveled in Tony’s lack of compunction in feeding his vices (cigars, liquor, money, food, crime, dark-eyed, manipulative women), so did we delight in living vicariously through Carmela’s (clothes, nails, jewelry, money, tchotchkes, dangerous men). It’s so lascivious, so delicious, to feast our eyes upon Carmela’s flawless French manicure, her beautiful home, her simplicity of ambition, knowing so graphically how it all was paid for. As a working mother myself, I deeply envy her leisure, however ill-begotten, to go out to lunch with Gab, hit the sales with Ro, and talk on the phone all day as she makes a gorgeous, complicated dinner for her family and someone else cleans her house.


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McCabe and Akass articulate the sick pleasure of watching Carmela:

As “pop-culture babies,” we acknowledge that ideal femininity is a scripted cultural performance but yet are utterly beguiled by it at the same time; we get it as a representation that endorses dominant structures of power while deliberately (even to the point of forgetting what we know) taking pleasure in consuming it. Caught in this paradox is Carmela….Her will-to-empowerment comes not from critiquing such an image of female accomplishment and normalcy, from resisting the representation (of which she embodies), but from being granted legitimacy in and through approved representational forms that are culturally sanctioned and generically privileged.

In her essay “The Loneliest Soprano,” Emily Nussbaum proposes another reason we might envy Carmela, though wrongheadedly: “Carmela may appear to be a loyal wife, but that’s just surface. At once a spiritual seeker and a spoiled parasite, she’s the woman who chose to walk back into the darkness and try to negotiate a better deal.”

None of this to reduce the value of domestic or caretaking work, but rather to elevate Carmela’s complexity: here is a woman leading the life of a pampered pet, who wanted nothing more than a loving husband, healthy children, and security in a beautiful home, and who, even at the moments where it might have appeared she’d fulfilled at least most of those aspirations, still looked around and wondered “Is this all there is?” If that isn’t “the problem that has no name,” I don’t know what is. Despite herself, Carmela almost made it to feminism’s second wave at the turn of the millennium: like one’s period, better late than never, Carm.

As with Tony, it’s in therapy that we finally tap into exactly what darkness it is that Carmela walks over and over again back into, and what it is she’s trying to negotiate within it. First we see Carmela in conversation with Dr. Melfi, but both with and without Tony, but Melfi’s hands are tied in really helping Carmela, and Carmela, in turn, can never fully trust Melfi to hear her objectively. In the episode “Second Opinion,” though, Carmela gets the candor she couldn’t rely on from Melfi from a male therapist, Dr. Krakower. Nussbaum writes:

She’s missing the point, [Krakower] tells her. Her husband is a “depressed criminal” and she’s his accomplice. She needs to leave, take the children (“or what’s left of them”), and stop living off Tony’s “blood money.”

Then he adds, “One thing you can never say, that you haven’t been told.”

Shaken, Carmela stutters, “I see.” And then she goes home and shakes Tony down for a $50,000 donation to Meadow’s college, Columbia: the price of her continuing blindness.

Until this moment, it’s so tempting to appropriate Carmela’s tragedy for feminism’s traffic, as it was with Sylvia Plath. Before she is faced plainly with the truth and we see her turn away from it just as plainly, we might have absolved Carmela as a victim of her circumstances, unaware, unintelligent. But we know Carmela is aware. We know she is intelligent. And we know she consents. In this moment, with her hands on the blood money Krakower won’t accept, Carmela the antiheroine is born, prefiguring all who follow her.

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Beyond The Sopranos, in her legacy Carmela has become the Eve or Mary, the origin story, for all the other antiheroic wives, her blood money the bite of the same apple later presented to Betty Draper, to Skyler White, to Claire Underwood and Elizabeth Jennings—all women who walked into darkness and negotiated a deal. The force/counterforce of Tony and Carmela’s tumultuous union has become an archetype: Don Draper has a secret and Betty’s jealousy exposes him. Walter White makes more money than he can account for, so number-minded Skyler, having long abandoned her own authorial dreams, builds him a car wash. There is a man with an evil dream, and a woman who both superficially disapproves of and materially benefits from his realization of it.

We can’t forget the significance of how often viewers hated Carmela, Betty, and Skyler while simultaneously lionizing their husbands. The cultural conversation loved to scorn Carmela’s well-coiffed hypocrisy. Fat Betty served that icy bitch right. Skyler smoked while she was pregnant, and isn’t she starting to look kind of Botoxy? Through Carmela, and through our ensuing years of perspective on her failures and shortcomings, we recall the grinding work it took for our public discourse to be able to revel in Claire Underwood’s ruthless ambition or Carrie Mathison’s brilliant mania. Carmela was never a soldier on feminism’s frontlines, but she might have been a casualty of its progress. Carmela’s importance, and Betty’s, and Skyler’s, is exactly proportional to how despised she was: her significance is the size of the voices that sought to discredit her. How we loved to watch her build beauty atop horror, as equally we loved to condemn her for it.

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