The lack of Aphrodite in “The Sopranos”

The Sopranos was a series directed by David Chase about a fictional character named Tony Soprano played by James Gandolfini.  In the show, Tony is the head of the New Jersey crime family.  His position should make him Zeus, the boss and in control but the series shows that Tony is really a broken Zeus.   In the first episode, he suddenly passes out while bar-b-quing making a dramatic explosion which leads him to go to the hospital for a series of tests (19:00-19:45).  This event also coincides with the loss of the ducks that will be discussed later in the paper.  When the tests conclude that nothing is physically wrong with Tony, he secretly begins therapy to attempt to end the panic attacks and regain control in his life.

For Tony, therapy is complicated.  He doesn’t see himself as needing therapy and he is resistant to the idea of therapy.  “They said it was a panic attack ’cause the blood work and neurological work came back negative. And they sent me here” (2:55-3:05). He is reluctant to seek therapy not only because in his line of work, therapy can be seen as a betrayal of confidence within the organization but also because he sees therapy as a crutch for weak minded people.  He thinks that talking about feelings makes him unmanly.  For a man that not only wants to but needs to represent Zeus, being weak and unmanly is unacceptable and leads to self-loathing. Therapy is not the cure for Tony, he needs Aphrodite to give him control and ease his sadness.  Even though he is Zeus and he has a Hera, he needs Aphrodite, especially in his business where he makes his money off of thievery, the selling of sex and pleasure, and gambling.  These trades need Aphrodite to balance the brutality, without beauty, a strip club is an ugly, sad place.  Without something beautiful to protect, violence is also ugly and only for the gain of power.  Tony is desperately seeking to have some beauty, something to protect, something to civilize his rage but as he seeks for his Aphrodite, he becomes more and more depressed with the frustration that he will not ever attain her.

Tony is diagnosed with depression; rage turned inward, and begins the combination of Prozac and therapy.  Even though the show spans several years, for this paper, the focus will be primarily the first episode.  The first episode is crucial to any television series because it is when the audience first “meets” the characters.  Traditionally, mafia shows focus on the men, the mobsters, but “The Sopranos” also includes a strong female presence.  However, as strong as the female presence is in the show, the lack of Aphrodite is just as strong.

In the series, Tony is surrounded by women: his wife, mother, daughter, sisters, strippers, girlfriends, and therapist.   With all of the women that appear in the series over the years, Aphrodite does try to make an appearance but she is always just out of reach for Tony. After discussing some of the women in the show, I will use four points about the nature of Aphrodite that Dr. Paris makes in her book “Pagan Grace” to show that while Tony’s profession does not lend itself to happiness and well-being, it seems that Tony’s biggest problem is the lack of Aphrodite in his life.  Dr. Paris explains in detail in writing how the loss of Aphrodite leads to depression but I liked this quote from class.  “She is the smile personified” (Paris lecture). Aphrodite is connected to civilization, flowers, and of course, sex and its purpose.  By showing how these four elements are represented, depression, civilized nature, flowers, and sex in the episode, I plan to show Aphrodite is not only absent but it is made a point of the show to demonstrate her absence.

Lots of women but no Aphrodites

After opening credits, the series begins with a shot of a naked female statue in the therapist’s office.  She is metal, hard and cold, not in the least bit sexual and Tony appears uncomfortable. Next, the first female in the series is Dr. Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco; Tony’s therapist enters the scene.  She is attractive but she is not Aphrodisiac, more Athenian.  She is wearing a tan pantsuit and puts her glasses on to show she is in therapist mode. She keeps her arms and legs crossed while they speak, further distancing herself from Tony and Aphrodite (1:40-3:50).  Of the important women in Tony’s life, Dr. Melfi is the closest to Aphrodite.  He does experience a longing for her but she rebuffs his attentions.  Even in her personal life, Dr. Melfi struggles in the realm of Aphrodite. She is not in touch with the Aphrodite inside herself; she is always in the realm of the mind.  She needs Aphrodite as much as Tony.

The second and third women are Tony’s daughter and wife, respectively.  In a scene at the Soprano home, Tony is excited about a family of ducks that made their home in the family pool.  This is one place Tony shows real joy but it is a break from his archetype, he walks into the pool wearing his robe, the reaction from the others shows how it is out of his character (5:15-6:04).  It seems to make them uncomfortable.  Also, as we see by the end of the episode, the ducks, just like Aphrodite are impermanent.  As they walk into the house, his daughter and wife want things from him.  His daughter, Meadow Soprano, played by Jamie Spiegler, informs him that she and her friend are late for school.  Next, after a brief exchange to his young son, we meet Tony’s wife, Carmela, played by Edie Falco.  Together, Tony and Carmela make an excellent representation of Zeus and Hera.  In the first shot we get of Carmela with Tony, her body posture is tense, almost aggressive.  She talks to him about familial, social obligations and makes a cutting remark about his extramarital affairs that is so subtle, it can almost be overlooked  (6:50-7:16) but later in the episode, the extramarital affairs and loss of love is shown very clearly when Tony is in the hospital for tests (20:25-21:45).  In many of the scenes with Carmela in this episode her priest is also in the scene (18:30-18:40).  Carmela while not unfaithful like Tony has an unnaturally close relationship with her young, attractive priest that Tony insinuates may be seen as inappropriate.  She wears fine clothes and jewelry but she is fierce in her ability to protect her position as Hera.  She protects her family but is not loving toward her husband.  When she hears a noise outside, she does not cower or look for help from the priest who is at her house watching movies, she grabs a large gun and walks outside to confront the cause of the noise, the daughter, Meadow (25:00-25:21).

In this first episode Meadow’s character is still not clearly defined because she is still figuring out her own place in the world.  She is young and she battles with her mother for independence.  Later in the series, we see Meadow try to find herself by trying on a variety of archetypes.  She eventually becomes a college student interested first in pediatric medicine, then finally law. Eventually, in the series she does bring Tony some glimpse of the goddess and mild joy but in the first episode, she is moody and causes tension within the family.

The last and most dynamic woman to be introduced in the episode is Livia, Tony’s elderly mother.  Dr. Melfi says that Tony describes her as a helpless old lady but also as a larger than life character.  While she is Tony’s mother, there is nothing of Demeter in Livia and definitely an absence of Aphrodite.  Her house is old fashioned, Tony has to knock several times before we hear the half fearful, half angry response from inside and she unlocks the locks to allow Tony entrance to his childhood home. She tries to feed him and when he refuses, she gives him food anyway.  The conflict between Tony and his mother arises that he wants to have her move to a retirement community and she doesn’t want anything to do with it.  She is completely resistant to any kind of change and shows major signs of depression herself.  Her house is dark and stuffy.  All the windows and doors are closed and locked.  Her hair is disheveled, her robe is misbuttoned, and she is wearing worn, old styled slippers.  She seems to be a Hestia figure but she is losing her capabilities for living in her own home.  She rejects change and has an extreme fear of the outside world (14:46-18:30).  Now to contradict the picture of helpless, fearful old woman, we learn that Livia also embodies another archetype.  She reveals herself as one of the puppet masters of the mafia family.  To most, she seems like just another elderly woman but it is her cunning that makes things happen within the family.  Her cunning and position are only introduced in this episode but it is already clear to the audience that while she appears to be a Hestia, she is actually Athena in disguise.  While she can no longer manage to make herself a meal without a catastrophe, she is able to plot and scheme all the way to trying to have her own son murdered.   She is a major player and skillful manipulator.  If any person in the series would benefit from Aphrodite, it would be Livia.  It would go against everything she is to have Aphrodite in her life – she is the complete opposite and absence of Aphrodite.  In fact, the archetype that Livia fits is that of the anti-Aphrodite, she is angry, loveless, depressed, and cruel.

The important women in Tony’s life are lacking Aphrodite but even the setting lacks the goddess.  Tony works out of two places, an Italian meat market/deli and a strip club, The Bada Bing.  In this episode there is a scene where the guys are having an informal type meeting in the club.  It is bright outside and not busy in the club.  The men are seated at a small table drinking; they are not in the same room as the dancers.  They have a view of the dancers but they are turned away from them, they don’t notice them.  When the waitress does come by with drinks, she is seen as an interruption and nuisance.  For Tony and his crew, these women are not beautiful or even worth looking at; they are simply another form of income.  The women are topless and dancing but their movements seem somewhat mechanic and out of tune with the music, like they are bored or drugged.  Also, they are not really attractive but all this doesn’t matter because no one in the room is looking at any of the dancers anyway.  Even in a place where the goal is to arouse men, the focus is not on the beauty or sexual attractiveness, it is about profit. This is a place of commerce, not beauty or grace.

The Unattainable Aphrodites

Aphrodite does attempt to enter the show.  In episode twelve, we get a glimpse of hope for happiness for Tony.  His life seems like it is adjusting with the therapy.  Tony has encounters with a beautiful, Aphrodisiac woman named Isabella.  In the episode, we learn that she is visiting from Italy and staying with the neighbors.  She is graceful and attractive and Tony enjoys her company.  The problem with this Aphrodite is that she turns out to not be real; she only existed in Tony’s mind.   Dr. Melfi and Tony conclude that Isabella is the result of the need to alter Tony’s medication.  It is interesting that Aphrodite appears here as not only fictional but a result of anti-depression medication. She is beautiful and graceful and just like a flower, impermanent.

Another brush Tony has in the series is Adriana, is Tony’s nephew, Christopher’s, fiancé.  She is completely unattainable to Tony because of her relationship to his nephew.  In episode fifty-seven, Tony talks about his desire to be with the young, pretty Adriana to Dr. Melfi.  In the end, Tony recognizes that his desires can’t be acted on as it would destroy his relationship with his nephew and wouldn’t actually be possible.  In the end, it is just like Isabella, the Aphrodisiac experience only exists in the mind.  For a twist, Tony and Adriana end up in a car accident under questionable circumstances.  The nephew and other members of the crew believe there may have been a sexual encounter and Tony has to deal with fallout from an unrequited encounter with Aphrodite, the closest he ever comes to the elusive goddess.

Depression and the lack of Aphrodite

Tony suffers from depression; he is a broken Zeus.  His world is filled with ugliness and violence. He lacks beauty, civilized nature, and love.  Through the series, Tony battles depression and the fallout from being a mob boss with the perceived weakness of having a mental illness.  Even though Tony is depicted in scenarios where he enjoys being extremely violent and cruel (10:50-11:00); in reality the audience is made to have sympathy for him. The lack of Aphrodite, the lack of beauty and civilization causes Tony to continue to pursue the goddess but he never seems to reach her. This frustration causes him to have more and more sadness and self-pity.

Aphrodite, the civilizer

The world in which Tony lives is untamed.  It is crude and uncivilized.  Men settle conflicts with force and laws are regularly broken, not only as a rule of business but just in everyday situations.  When Aphrodite is present, she must be protected.  In order for Aphrodite to be protected, we must have rules and we must follow those rules.  Tony is quick to anger; he uses violence to resolve issues in most situations.  He is fierce and dangerous; he is arguably an Ares outside of the family setting.  Ares seduces Aphrodite and protects her but Tony is an Ares without an Aphrodite to protect.  Instead of being civilized and living in a way to protect the beauty of the world, Tony and his crew cause violence and destruction in almost every episode.

The Garden State

It is interesting that the setting for the show is New Jersey, the Garden State.  Gardens are cultivated and organized.  They are the safe version of Aphrodite.  This combines the beauty and impermanence of flowers with the civilizing nature of Aphrodite.  This is not Tony’s New Jersey.  Tony’s New Jersey is not safe, it is not civilized, and it is not beautiful; it is hard and gritty.  His New Jersey is introduced in the opening credits of the series.

The show starts with the view from inside the car.  The car is crossing the bridge into city.  Everything is hard and industrial.  The scenery is old, dirty and dilapidated.  Tony is driving the car.  He is smoking a cigar and we see the progression from the New Jersey turnpike to Tony’s home.  “The New Jersey Turnpike, at least the northern part, is an adventure. Its abstract expressionist shapes, strange lines and angles, concentration of various transport, kinetic energy and tumult, wildlife and history, the things you see from it, its concrete and iron and rubber, its noise and smells and speed, make it a thing of gritty beauty.” (HBO)  This is a good description for Tony’s New Jersey.  It is also most certainly a place that lacks Aphrodite.  It lacks her beauty, it lacks her grace, and it lacks her civilizing nature (0:00-1:39).

Sex in Sopranos

The last important connection with the series and Aphrodite’s absence is with the representation of sex in the series.  As I have previously discussed, Tony works out of a strip club.  The women are treated as objects for sexual gratification but none of them are in any way Aphrodite.  The sexual acts with the strippers are for commerce, they aren’t joyful, graceful, and certainly are not portrayed as beautiful or loving.  The characters do not contain Aphrodite so neither does their sex.  Carmela, Hera, has sexual obligations to Tony but that is not aphrodisiac, it is more out of duty than love or passion.  When we see Tony in sexual encounters outside the marriage they are usually more violent than beautiful.  Every woman he dates is psychologically damaged and depressed.  The women all lack Aphrodite and end up doing Tony more damage than good, leaving him more depressed and further from the goddess.

This wraps up Tony’s sad state through the series, there is no love, no beauty, no grace, no compassion, no tenderness; basically no Aphrodite for Tony.  While telling the story of a New Jersey crime boss we also learn what it means to lose a goddess.  Her absence is felt through the entire series.  The audience, while maybe unable to verbalize it as such root for the violent, sad man to have some Aphrodite in his life; an ease to his suffering.  Tony can’t attain his goal of attaining Aphrodite, if Aphrodite appeared, things would be righted and there wouldn’t be a show.  The only way the story could continue would be for the goddess to keep alluding Tony.  As Tony would say, there is no happy ending for a mob boss.

Works Cited

Paris, Ginette. “Aphrodite, Ares, and Athena.” First Session. Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpentaria, Ca. 4 Jan. 2015. Lecture.

Paris, Ginette. Pagan Meditations: The Worlds of Aphrodite, Artemis, and Hestia. Dallas, Tex.: Spring Publications, 1986. Print.

The Sopranos. Perf. James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, and Lorraine Bracco. HBO Home Video, 2001. DVD.

Page, Jeffrey. “The Sopranos.” HBO: Homepage. HBO. Web. 24 Mar. 2015. <http://www.hbo.com/the-sopranos#/&gt;.

 

 

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