Toxic Masculinity in The Sopranos

In the pilot episode of The Sopranos, protagonist Tony Soprano tells his therapist about a dream in which his penis falls off and gets carried away by a bird. Crude imagery aside, this dream pulls strongly from our cultural conception of a man’s masculinity as being tied up with his potency. Even though, in the rest of the episode, Tony does not lose his, ahem, “manhood,” he is deeply afraid that he is losing his grasp on his family. It is painful to him that he cannot by himself maintain and provide for the family he heads. To Tony Soprano, asking for help is weakness. This makes it all the more galling for Tony to find himself in a psychiatrist’s office, being written a prescription for Prozac. Here too he has failed to live up to his masculine ideal of strength, independence, and emotional stoicism.

Soprano waxes nostalgic to several other characters about the “good old days” of masculinity. He denigrates the lack of loyalty, his own emotional weakness, and the changing dynamics of both his personal and mob families. Bringing his nephew to a classic church, he opines that no one builds them like they used to. In truth, the past he is nostalgic for is a fictional, prelapsarian ideal: people have always been turncoats for police, had emotional problems, and had unstable families. It is only through his rosy retrospective glasses that Tony sees this period as beautiful and unsullied.

Like the protagonist of The Sopranos’s contemporary movie Fight Club, Tony is facing the changing world and his changing place in it, and he doesn’t like what he sees. Likewise, both of these men are already strong men in the eyes of society. Fight Club’s protagonist has a successful job and living situation, and is able to act on the physically and sexually agressive impulses that society deems “normal;” Soprano, in addition to heading his own family, heads a major crime family, indulges his sexual impulses, and is shown behaving brutally towards a debtor who couldn’t pay. However, in both these cases, these men find that it is not enough for them; they don’t have enough power.

This is the damaging culture of toxic masculinity: it places unreasonable or impossible expectations on men, punishes those who fail to live up to it, and does not satisfy those that do manage to meet its requirements. It requires men to give up their vulnerability, dependence on others, and emotional understanding of themselves. In short, it requires them to give up their humanity.

Tony Soprano finds much-needed relief in his sessions with a therapist. Despite his protests that he “can’t talk to psychiatrists,” his ability to open up gives him instant relief in his life. The therapist remarks upon this, pointing out that the Prozac hadn’t had enough time to take effect yet. Even the simple act of vulnerable connection with another human being is enough to provide the relief that toxic masculinity could not.