Along with most mafia-related media, The Sopranos has long been pigeonholed as a TV show for bros. There’s an insidious gender essentialism that accompanies this line of thinking, though — some men claim women can’t understand mob stories, many straight women refer to the show as being about “white men killing each other” and many more shrug it off as the male equivalent of Sex and the City or Gossip Girl. But, all this heterosexism and flattened nuance ignores the obvious truth: The Sopranos belongs to the gays now.
Though it stopped airing in 2007, the New Jersey slice-of-life crime saga has steadily garnered more fans over the years, including an increasingly noticeable contingency of queer and trans viewers (the likes of which I — a gender non-conforming dyke as well as a longtime fan who watched it five times during the pandemic — could have never expected). And while some of these Gays of Gabagool have been fans since the beginning, it seems many of them have only discovered it recently, via word of mouth.
Last year, as the pandemic raged on, I started seeing op-eds on The Sopranos from peers at queer publications and personal essays looking at characters from it through a trans lens. I bore witness to an endless stream of queer Sopranos shitposts, and I took part in them myself. I even got a handful of queer friends into the show, going so far as to make a gimmick account on Twitter where I set a video of Tony Soprano crying to all the songs that make me think about my ex-girlfriends. It was queer culture at its finest.
When I think about all the conversations I’ve been able to have with other queer and trans viewers about the themes of the series or its standout moments, I feel as happy as Tony with a family of ducks in his pool. But this new reality raises questions: How did a show about violent straight men become so popular with queer and trans people, especially given the racism, misogyny and homophobia it shows? And, more pressingly, why now? I mean, it certainly isn’t the Vito storyline.
Always with the Drama!!!
The Sopranos is an incredible work of turn-of-the-century Americana, but part of its queer appeal is how camp it is. A sincere theatricality and absurd excess that manifests itself in both fashion and sensibility, camp has always been close to queerness, and The Sopranos serves it hard. Yes, the show gained attention for its portrayal of grim mob violence, but this was often the bait with which series creator David Chase lured viewers into observing the petty dramatics and farcical dilemmas of the people living this outdated way of life.
Camp is on full display in the famous episode where Tony heckles his Uncle Junior for “going south of the border,” and the old man, furious at his lover Bobbi for revealing he likes to eat pussy, slams a banana cream pie into her face. Or in the emotional climax of The Sopranos’ second season when Tony gets food poisoning that inspires a series of bizarre dreams — intermittently punctuated by explosive diarrhea — through which he realizes one of his closest friends is a snitch that must be dealt with.
EJ Dickson, senior culture writer at Rolling Stone, says that on top of the huge crush she’s always had on The Sopranos’ hottest femme Adriana La Cerva, there’s a certain operatic quality to it that resonates with her and other queer people. “Tony’s mother Livia is such a good example of that theatricality,” she tells me. “That character is so overdrawn it might as well be a Catskills standup routine. But everything from the kitchen design to Furio’s shirts to Tony singing ‘Dirty Work’ in his car is high camp.”
And though Tony’s unpleasable mother is the most acknowledged drama queen on the show, everyone else is just as prone to melting down over the mundane while simultaneously living in substantial comfort. A lot of lip service is said about the laws, betrayals and killings of its mafioso characters, but most conflicts in the show are often melodramatic arguments related to petty egos and juvenile posturing, like when New York mobster Johnny Sack wants to have a man killed for making fun of his wife’s weight (which is, if I might add, king shit).
There’s a deep irony to Tony’s constant lamentation on how the strong silent type is a thing of the past, while he constantly explodes with frustration over everyday inconveniences, bemoaning his dissatisfaction with everyone around him. Crafting high drama out of the mundane is where the show excels, like a gabagool-induced panic attack.
Gender, Italian Style
The most surface-level queer appeal of The Sopranos is the way its characters express themselves through style, but also in that style’s uniformity. The mob wives all have big hair, patterned blouses and French-tip nails that gaudily show off their wealth and the comfort in which they live. Tony’s wife Carmela leads them all as an icon of Jersey style, with her sequined outfits, deep V-cut sweaters and permanent gold crucifix positioning her at the apex of mafia MILF fashion. Meanwhile, Adriana La Cerva is always donning crop tops, jumpsuits or animal print — it feels like the stylistic blueprint of so many high femme tops I’ve dated.
The men also communicate who they are through their presentation. Always slicking their hair back and strutting around in loose-fitting tracksuits and polos, they present themselves as everymen. The only time they don something well-fitting is when they wear a suit — a symbol of the respect and power of their position.
Even if they don’t realize it themselves, every man and woman on The Sopranos is performing gender at such a high level that the show smacks of the stuff. And because many queer people live outside the confines of traditional gender roles, we’re more used to recognizing that all of us are performing gender, whether we know it or not.
But the genderedness of The Sopranos goes beyond the loudness of the presentation — it also comes across in the rigidity of their roles. Far from being just a show about masculinity, The Sopranos rigorously examines the interior worlds of both genders and their respective dissatisfaction with the expectations that come with these roles. It’s just that for the men in the show, that dissatisfaction usually leads to them lashing out with violence and bigotry.
Critic and horror author Gretchen Felker-Martin says that rather than being into the show in spite of its characters’ small-mindedness, queers may be attracted to it because of it. “By virtue of its characters being so preoccupied with the overlap between their insecurities and prejudices, The Sopranos spends a lot of time in spaces adjacent to queerness and otherness,” she tells me. “These men are so insecure about things like homosexuality, but at the same time, many of them are much more image-conscious and effete than mainstream men of different social classes — the manicures, the obsession with clothes, the hair, the jewelry, the cologne. There’s a lot of shared territory between this branch of 1990s/2000s Italian-American ultra-macho culture and gay men’s club culture of the same period.”
Freelance critic Sam Bodrojan argues that The Sopranos, more than any other contemporary work, understands the social tracts of performing gender in accepted society. “It gets what cis people mean when they say ‘act like a man,’ and what they think they mean, then interrogates that on its own terms,” they say.
Perhaps people who describe The Sopranos as a show simply about a bunch of violent white men killing each other miss the larger points because their societal placement never forces them to consider it. Through Tony and Carmela, the show explores how people can feel trapped by gender roles and why they might want to escape them, even if its characters can’t bring themselves to. These roles provide safety, comfort and stability, and the show understands that venturing outside of them — as many queer and trans people do — comes with a lot of risk. But, as The Sopranos shows us, staying confined within them can be just as painful.
I have sympathy for the characters of this world, immoral and sociopathic as they may be. If I felt trapped by pre-constructed gender roles I was assigned at birth, I’d be depressed, too. (I mean, I am depressed, but not for that reason!)
The hook of the show that makes it so much more interesting than other mob stories is that it’s about a mafioso going to therapy. While novel on its face, this plot device opens up multiple avenues through which the show explores its characters’ neuroses and fears. It navigates bonds with family, both chosen and biological, and how each can fall apart over the buildup of microaggressions. It explores Tony’s vulnerability — both his yearning for it and rejection of it — and does so compassionately, despite his villainous tendencies.
Dickson argues that The Sopranos’ core narrative explores a dilemma that isn’t too far off from many queer peoples’ experience. “The show is all about this one man’s internal struggle between his inherent nature and how he was brought up,” she explains. “There’s something to be said for how much queer people relate to that push and pull between your true self and society’s expectations of you.”
Between December 2019 and April 2021, I rewatched The Sopranos in its entirety five times (I did this on my own — my girlfriend held no interest in it). As previously mentioned, I’d post about it on social media incessantly. Much like Tony befriending a race horse or his nephew Chrissy shooting a bakery worker in the foot, my Sopranos posting was, in essence, an act of depression. Writing and other forms of creative expression had become difficult, every therapist I’d reached out to was booked up and my friends were far away and struggling just as much as me.
I was looking for an avenue of expression through which I could begin to feel something familiar again, as opposed to the nothingness that came with each day stuck inside. I did find some of that, realizing more and more that my sympathy for the messy Sicilian twink that is Chris Moltisanti was in seeing him as a mix of my anger-prone Sicilian father and my occasionally chaotic self. But even better, what I found was other gays to chat with about my favorite mobsters. Psychoanalysis is sewn into the very fibers of The Sopranos, and while it can’t replace actual therapy, having other queers who could understand my positional feelings on its subject matter was therapeutic in its own way.
“It’s kind of a canvas on which anyone can project their own issues with identity, family and the incredible burden of other people’s expectations,” says Dickson.
Coming in at the End
In the show’s pilot, Tony begins his first therapy session by bemoaning his lot in life, particularly where he stands in the history of this “thing of ours” (that’s the mafia’s code word for, well, “the mafia”). “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor,” he tells his therapist, the incredibly layered Dr. Melfi. “I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”
But writer and gay porn performer Ty Mitchell says “coming in at the end” might be exactly why The Sopranos has become so beloved in queer circles now. “We’ve definitely reached some threshold of distance from that era [in which the show originally aired] to where we can mine it for what we missed,” he says. “I think with that distance we’ve also been able to watch The Sopranos on our own time and alongside our own critical voices, instead of being subject to the mainstream conversations that took place around it when it was airing.”
Writer and Kicking and Screaming podcast host Vanessa Guerrero expressed a similar sentiment, saying that with the passage of time, we’ve been able to distance the show from its previous image of being “just for dudes.” “A lot of us had slotted it into that mental space of ‘Well, all the worst dudes I know wouldn’t stop talking at me about this show, so it’s probably no better than Boondock Saints and Top Gear,’” she says. “But we did that without realizing we were writing off incredible character examinations that absolutely resonate with us as queer people.”
As things go, I recently started my sixth rewatch of the show, this time with my girlfriend. She’s mostly enjoying it, though she thinks all the men and women look too alike for her to tell them apart. When I asked what finally got her to change her tune and give the mob drama a shot, she said, “Seemed like you were having a mental breakdown about something, and I thought it might make you happy.”
Well, she wasn’t wrong.