By: Jackson Montalbano
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.