The Sopranos: Season 4 Analyzed; Week 8

Men, Women, and Volvos
Talking television.
Nov. 4 2002 10:42 AM

The Sopranos: Season 4 Analyzed; Week 8

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Adriana's wise mama taught her that you can tell a lot about a man by the way he treats a woman. Now, let's see ... Ralphie asks his new girlfriend Valentina to drip molten wax on his cojones and take a cheese grater to his John Thomas. What does this tell us about Ralphie? Jodi asks us how we understand him. Dr. Melfi can't wait to give her diagnosis. She even extends Tony's hour into the next patient's session so she can offer a didactic explanation involving masochism and paraphilia. Her explanation is not entirely satisfying to Tony, who is a bit mystified by this and wants to know if Ralphie can actually have sex with Valentina without having "penisary contact" with her "volvo."

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To say Ralphie is a masochist oversimplifies his diagnostic picture. Throughout the series, there have been suggestions that Ralphie is a homophobe who cannot tolerate his own homoerotic desire, which deeply threatens his sense of himself as a man. Remember that he beat Tracy to a pulp because she challenged his masculinity. Her insult followed on his comment that he wouldn't kiss her because he didn't know where her mouth had been (referring to fellatio with other men). Janice really holds the key to Ralphie's dynamics. She is willing to compromise her Martin Luther-like moral code to kiss and tell when Tony coughs up $3,000. She explains that Ralphie liked for her to wear a strap-on and make him her "bitch." This bit of news relieves Tony because he no longer worries that his joystick has been harbored by the same receptacle as Ralphie's. Now he can make love with Valentina without worrying that his masculinity is compromised in any way. His comment about already having taken Ralph's horse was merely a token nod to the so-called honor among thieves. Ralphie definitely has a paraphilia, but it goes beyond masochism into a realm where the activities that excite him involve his identification with women as the passive partner in the act and a secret gratification of homosexual longings. To tolerate this form of gratification, punishment and pain must be part of the mix.

Tony can't abide Zellman's dalliance with Irina for reasons similar to those regarding Ralphie and Valentina. The intimacy inherent in both men having the same woman is deeply distressing to him, and his beating of Zellman is more than just jealousy. It's an assertion of his masculine superiority in the face of barely conscious homosexual implications.

To answer Jodi's question about Carmela's attraction to Furio, I would suggest that Father Phil was just as sleazy and corrupt as Tony in his own way, so that we should not use Father Phil as an example of a man who is fundamentally different than Tony. Furio also appears to be more sympathetic and a better listener than Tony, but Carmela must know that he is capable of violence in the same way as Tony. She likes that about him, just as she likes Tony's capacity for violence. Why is Furio drawn to Carmela? Because she's the don's wife. This is the oldest story in the book. Freud wrote about it in Totem and Taboo. The sons overthrow the fathers to get the power and the women they want (Oedipus anyone?). The stage is set for a power struggle when Furio's uncle tells him in Naples that the only way to ge the boss's wife is to whack the boss.

Finally, amid all the bad examples of how men treat women, we see one shining star in our midst. Paulie cares for his mother so much that he is willing to break the principal's arm to make sure she is not excluded by the elitist snobs in the retirement center. Like Oedipus, Paulie wants a girl just like the girl that married dear old dad.

Glen

Glen O. Gabbard, M.D., is a professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and author of The Psychology of The Sopranos, inspired by this discussion. Philip A. Ringstrom, Ph.D., Psy.D., is a senior faculty member at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles. Joel Whitebook, Ph.D., is on the faculty of the Columbia Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. Margaret Crastnopol, Ph.D., is on the faculty of the Northwest Center for Psychoanalysis. All are practicing therapists as well.