Why We’ll Never Have a Female Tony Soprano

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
June 27 2013 5:56 PM

Why We’ll Never Have a Female Tony Soprano

171633171
The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, where James Gandolfini was memorialized on Thursday

Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images

On the occasion of James Gandolfini's memorial service in New York on Thursday, the Atlantic asks a question that's popped up repeatedly in the pop culture conversation since antiheroes started to dominate prestige television: Where, Akash Nikolas wants to know, is the female Tony Soprano?

It's an understandable query, particularly if you care about having more great female characters on television and more good roles, particularly for the middle-aged actresses who are so often wasted by the movies. But I wonder if we might be better off accepting that antiheroism is a specific way of exploring hypermasculinity and masculinity gone toxic. The tension of an antihero comes from an audience rooting for a character against our better judgment, and again and again, the things that have lured us in have been masculine-coded traits. We're drawn to Tony Soprano's pride, his sense of responsibility for his family and his friends, and his capacity for violence. Walter White's initial grab for his dignity after years of meekness was exciting, until he convinced himself that his superior intelligence gave him the right to dominate his wife, poison a kid, and kill anyone who stood in his path. Don Draper's dominant seducer persona made retro sexual politics look decidedly delicious. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men have all been about testing the limits of our tolerance for those traits and examining the extent to which competence and cool convince us to turn a blind eye to these characters' bad acts.

Advertisement

There really isn't an equivalent framework available for women, who get penalized rather than rewarded for displaying masculine traits like aggression, physical force, ambition, or selfishness. Efforts to create female antiheroes with masculine qualities like Damages' Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) have failed because those characters are initially seen as evil rather than admirable. And trying to make antiheroism work in a distinctly feminine way, by giving heroines characteristics like weakness, indecisiveness, or self-absorption, as has been the case with Girls, doesn't quite land either. Shows with difficult female heroines have to travel in a different direction than shows about difficult men do, dismantling distaste for their female characters and building sympathy for them, rather than moving toward a moral revelation about how we've fooled ourselves by worshiping that man.

So instead of female antiheroism, maybe what we need is television storytelling that deals with our preconceived ideas about femininity in the same way that antihero dramas have served and challenged our understanding of what it means to be an American man. Rather than trying to fit women into a trope that serves men best, we'd be better off to build our own.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes about culture and television for Slate’s “XX Factor” blog. She also contributes to ThinkProgress and theatlantic.com.

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

How Canada’s Shooting Tragedies Have Shaped Its Gun Control Politics

Where Ebola Lives Between Outbreaks

Gunman Killed Inside Canadian Parliament; Soldier Shot at National Monument Dies

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Paul Farmer: Up to 90 Percent of Ebola Patients Should Survive

Is he right?

Science

“I’m Not a Scientist” Is No Excuse

Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea 

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 22 2014 6:30 PM The Tragedies That Have Shaped Canada's Gun Politics
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 4:10 PM Skinny Mark Wahlberg Goes for an Oscar: The First Trailer for The Gambler
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.