Tony Soprano: A Different Kind of Monster

By: Jackson Montalbano


Photo by Kaysha
Licensed through Creative Commons

Note: Many videos available through the links in this post are explicit (language, sex, violence, etc…you’ve seen the show).

At the beginning of the semester, Gina introduced our class to horror by assigning Cohen’s Monster Culture, an excerpt in which Cohen offers seven theses that describe how monsters generally behave and how they’re shaped by our culture. In our discussions, we have constantly referred back to Cohen’s theses and have applied them to nearly every monster that we’ve encountered. In fact, every monster thus far has seemed to embody at least one of Cohen’s theses. Yet, none of the monsters that we’ve studied have embodied Cohen’s sixth and most intriguing thesis, which states that fear of the monster is really a kind of desire. Essentially, with this thesis, Cohen suggests that a monster who associates with forbidden practices actually attracts the audience as opposed to scaring them off. As our experience indicates, monsters who fulfill this thesis are relatively uncommon. Accordingly, I’d like to present a monster who perfectly embodies Cohen’s sixth thesis: Tony Soprano.

For those of you who don’t know, Tony Soprano, as portrayed by the late actor James Gandolfini, is the lead character of the critically acclaimed TV show, The Sopranos. In the show, Tony is the boss of a fictional crime family in New Jersey. The series showcases Tony’s life and the difficulties he faces as he tries to balance his crime life with his family life. Although he possesses no supernatural powers, Tony is clearly a monster, considering he engages in monstrous behavior. Specifically, as a mob boss, Tony steals, murders, and womanizes uncontrollably. In fact, Tony murders his own family member (and my favorite character), Christopher Moltisanti, after Christopher relapses into drug use and nearly kills them both in a car crash. On the surface, such ruthlessness makes Tony an appalling figure that scares the audience away.

However, despite his immoral behavior, Tony always remained a desirable character throughout the show’s run. Indeed, I, like nearly all viewers, continuously found myself rooting for Tony. Whenever the FBI threatened his way of life, I sat at the edge of my couch hoping Tony would escape unscathed. Likewise, whenever Tony’s wife, Carmela, grew suspicious of his philandering, I hoped that he wouldn’t get caught. In essence, I, along with the rest of the audience, rooted for the monster to win. Although this attraction was puzzling at the time, it’s now clear that Tony’s attractiveness undoubtedly stems from his adherence to Cohen’s sixth thesis. In accordance with Cohen’s thesis, Tony partakes in many forbidden practices, including organized crime, womanizing, and gambling, that attract the audience to him. Specifically, Tony’s engagement in these practices allows the audience to experience the thrills associated with them without actually suffering the consequences. And by providing this thrill, the audience naturally looks upon Tony with favor.

However, Cohen’s thesis doesn’t fully capture Tony’s appeal. Many monster engage in forbidden practices but few actually attract the audience to the extent that Tony does. What separates Tony from other monsters is his complexity. Unlike monsters who are portrayed as pure evil, David Chase, the show’s creator, portrays Tony as a complex character with both admirable and abhorrent qualities. In particular, throughout the show’s six seasons, Tony regularly visits a psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, and divulges his inner most feelings to her. For example, Tony repeatedly expresses concern about his son’s mental well-being. By seeing Tony’s more sensitive side, the audience begins to view him not as a monster, but as just another flawed human being.

In sum, Tony’s attractiveness can be attributed to his engagement in forbidden practices (i.e. his adherence to Cohen’s sixth thesis) and his complexity as a character. At the time of the show’s inception, such desirable monsters were nearly nonexistent on television. Yet, after The Sopranos became a staple on HBO, many similar characters begin to sprout up across television. In fact, two of television’s most recent great characters, Mad Men’s Don Draper and Breaking Bad’s Walter White, mimic Tony’s attractiveness. The prevalence of such characters today speaks to the revolutionary effects of Tony Soprano. Not only did he captivate audiences while on air, but he continues to influence television six years after his curtain call. With such greatness, Tony Soprano has forever reserved a spot on television’s Mount Rushmore.


8 thoughts on “Tony Soprano: A Different Kind of Monster

  1. I’ve actually never seen The Sopranos, but you made a great case for the sixth thesis to apply to Tony Soprano. You also mentioned some other characters who could embody this, Dexter also comes to my mind as another example. I wonder if this only applies to human monsters? Maybe humans only desire to be different but still humans and not something entirely different.

  2. My first major paper and my Slenderman first pass both discussed the sixth thesis but I think you are correct that none of the monsters fully embody the entire thesis as well as Tony. I feel that there are many TV shows these days feature “monsters” engaging in forbidden practices and still manage to win over the hearts of the audience but I am not sure if they were modeled after Tony Soprano. I do not think he was the first character in television and movie history to behave in this manner.

  3. I’ve never watched The Sopranos, but I have heard of the show. I think you did a really good job with explaining Tony’s character too. I do agree with what you said: because people are allowed to see a sensitive side of Tony, and not just his monstrous side, it allows people to be more attracted to him or drawn to him which also makes people want to root for him even when he is in the wrong. I think this happens in a lot in television/movies/ etc.

  4. From the few examples you give of monsters that are desirable, I realized that they are all men. In fact, when trying to think of a desirable woman monster, none come to mind. Do you think there is a reason why men typically seem more desirable than engaging in illicit activities than women? I’m wondering if Cohen’s last thesis has any support or explanation for this phenomenon.

  5. I have never seen The Sopranos, but you did a good job of explaining Tony’s character and how he embodies the six thesis so thank you. I have seen Mad Men, however, and I totally understand what you mean when the viewer is drawn to liking the main character, even though his actions may be illegal or inappropriate. In an episode of Mad Men, they showed Don Draper cheating on his wife. Although this is a despicable act, I couldn’t bring myself to hate him. I found myself liking him more and more. This seems to similar for you with Tony Soprano. Like Olivia said, I wonder if this appeal would be the same if Don Draper or Tony Soprano was a woman.

  6. I really loved this statement. I completely agree that the monster is really a kind of desire. I think a large part of this theory stems from the Psychological Theory of the ID, ego and superego. The super ego is the feeling that people have so many repressed feelings that society does not allow us to actually act on. I loved Tony Soprano and the entire Soprano series. Great Post!

  7. I completely agree that Tony Soprano fits the monster of desire thesis laid out by Cohen. While I have only seen a few episodes of the television series, as you said in your post, Walter White from “Breaking Bad” shares the same aspect of being a despicable human being, yet adored by fans. What I think is especially interesting is that a change in perspective (ex. from law-enforcement) could not only decrease our admiration for the character , but could even lead to us being horrified by them. One of the few things that stops me from hating Walter White is knowledge of his intentions. While the saying goes “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”, it can honestly change how you feel about a character drastically

  8. I’ve actually never watched The Sopranos or really even know anything about it other than it has to do with mobs. Tony Soprano sounds like a real monster (killing his own family member??) and the way you describe him seems to really fit Cohen’s sixth thesis. I totally agree with what you said about Walter White. I watched Breaking Bad and found myself hoping he wouldn’t get caught every time he got close to getting caught. He did so many horrible things (like letting Jesse’s girlfriend die), but he was still so loved by the audience. It’s amazing how that can be. But after reading this post, I feel like I should watch The Sopranos now.

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