In the HBO series The Sopranos, Tony and his friends use “prosthetic memories” to anchor their ethnic and criminal identities. Prosthetic memories were theorised by Alison Landsberg in her book Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. She argues that prosthetic memories are memories acquired through the mass media and do not come from a person’s lived experience in any sense (Landsberg 20). In this article, I will outline how The Sopranos television show and its characters interact with prosthetic memories. Extending Christopher Kocela’s work on The Sopranos and white ethnicities, I will show how characters use prosthetic memories to define their ethnicity while the show itself knowingly plays with this to provide comedic and critical commentary about the influence of gangster stereotypes.
According to Landsberg, prosthetic memories are powerful memories of historical events or narratives that an individual was not present for. They are typically formed at the "interface between a personal and historical narrative about the past at an experiential site such as a movie theatre or museum" (2). It is at such a moment that a person can suture themselves into a larger history. Consequently, these memories do not just enhance an individual’s apprehension of a historical event. Rather, they create a deeply felt personal memory of a past event through which they did not live (Landsberg 4). Prosthetic memories are largely made available through the technologies of mass culture such as film, television and experiential places like museums. Their accessibility helps to differentiate them from other cultural strategies for passing on memories to future generations. Other strategies have typically been rooted in the cultural or racial status of an individual (Landsberg 22). In addition, Landsberg asserts that the successfulness of mnemotechnic rituals like the Jewish Passover Seder is dependent on ethnicity (26). Similarly, Walter Benn Michaels concludes that these rituals can only be effective if the individual has “some prior assumption of identity between you and them and this assumption is often racial” (680).
Contrastingly, the perpetuation of prosthetic memories through mass media makes them widely accessible across racial lines. According to Landsberg, they are not “naturally- ethnically, racially or biologically- one’s intended inheritance” (26). Prosthetic memories introduce the possibility that memories can be acquired by anyone. The technologies of mass culture make these memories portable and as such, challenges the assumption that memory is “in anyway essential or organically grounded or the private property of a specific ethnic or racial group” (27). In The Sopranos, most characters are third or fourth generation Italian immigrants. Much like for many ‘real’ Italian migrants, time has severed familial connections to their homeland (see Landsberg 49-55). Landsberg suggests that immigrants initially became Americanised in order to escape persecution and being labelled as “other” (51). This meant that ethnically exclusive mnemotechnic rituals were not preserved for subsequent generations of immigrants. In order to sustain an ethnic identity, immigrants (and the characters in The Sopranos) have been forced to turn to more accessible tools like prosthetic memories.
Christopher Kocela’s analysis of Italian-Americanness in The Sopranos, argues that characters maintain an Italian American ethnicity while still racially identifying as white. According to Colin Webster “white ethnicity” can be best exemplified through the long tradition of European immigration to America (295). With the influx of immigrants, there was a codification of the idea that “some whites are ‘whiter’ than others” (Webster 297). European working-class immigrants struggled to be afforded the same white “privileges” and membership to the white race. Instead, they were defined as being members of “other” white ethnicities. Roediger argued that such a denial of whiteness pushed European immigrants to insist on their own whiteness by defining themselves against other ethnic minorities like African Americans (8). Between 1890 and 1945, eventual assimilation saw white ethnicities become “fully white” (Roediger 8). Webster argues that: “In this sense, whiteness is nearly always salvageable in a way that black, Mexican, Asian, and Native American ethnicity is not (sic)” (Webster 297). In a similar vein, Kocela suggests that the assimilated characters in The Sopranos benefit from their white racial status while still maintaining an Italian ethnicity. This celebration of ethnic difference by Tony and his friends can serve as a smokescreen for the silent maintenance of whiteness (Kocela 14). Kocela suggests that the show critiques these types of responses that characters have to their ethnicity, stating that "we do not learn from The Sopranos the language of ethnic sons deprived of their Italian godfathers, but the language of racial misrecognition spoken by sons whose lost white fathers were never really their own" (16).
Kocela’s article provides a useful discussion about the relationship that characters in The Sopranos have with their ethnicity. This article extends this discussion by showing how prosthetic memories and characters’ understanding of mass media are a crucial element in how such ethnic identities are formed. This will lead to a discussion about how The Sopranos comments on and treats these adopted stereotypes.
“What do poor Italian-immigrants have to do with you?”: How Characters Interact with Prosthetic Memories
Characters in The Sopranos heavily rely upon stereotypes from gangster films to perform their version of Italian Americanness. A reliance on prosthetic memories from such films leads to the manifestation of violence being intertwined with the characters’ ethnic identities. Brian Faucette has discussed the inherent link between violence and gangster films from the 1930s-60s. He claims that “it was violence that enabled the upward mobility of these figures” (76). It is almost impossible to separate violence from the gangster films referenced in The Sopranos. As such, violence becomes part of the ritualistic ways prosthetic memories are created. This is evident in the pilot episode of The Sopranos when Christopher performs his first hit (kill). In the scene, he shoots rival gang member, Emil, in the back of the head at Satriales Pork Store. Before the hit, the pair are standing close together in front of a pinboard collage of “classic” Italian movie gangsters. As they both walk away in opposite directions the camera pulls out diagonally to follow Christopher. Throughout the duration of the shot, the collage is always placed behind Christopher. Finally, when the pan stops, Christopher is positioned in the foreground, with the collage behind him to the right. The placement of the collage gives it a front row seat to the ensuing murder while serving as a kind of script for it. It is not enough for Christopher to simply kill Emil, rather it is important that it is done in the presence of his idols in order to ensure his enhanced identification with them. Moreover, for Christopher, being an Italian American gangster and violence are inseparable. He must perform acts of extreme violence in order to suture himself into a larger, stereotypical narrative, that equates Italian-Americanness with the mafia. Through Landsberg’s theory, it is possible to see the intertwined relationship between performances of Italian-Americanness and violence. To enact their version of Italian-Americanism, characters follow the script of masculine-violence inherent to gangster films.
As well as tools to perform Italian American identities, prosthetic memories can be used by characters to deny their whiteness. Kocela argues that Tony can deny or affirm his whiteness, depending on the situation. According to Kocela, Tony’s economic success is intrinsically linked to his racial status as a white man (16). However, this is not a view shared by characters in the show. In the episode From Where to Eternity Dr. Melfi asks Tony how he justifies his criminal lifestyle:
Tony: When America opened the floodgates and let all us Italians in, what do you think they were doing it for? ... The Carnegies and the Rockefellers, they needed worker bees and there we were. But some of us didn't want to swarm around their hive and lose who we were. We wanted to stay Italian and preserve the things that meant something to us: honor, and family, and loyalty. ... Now we weren't educated like the Americans, but we had the balls to take what we wanted. And those other fucks, the J.P. Morgans, they were crooks and killers too, but that was the business, right? The American way.
Dr. Melfi: That might all be true. But what do poor Italian immigrants have to do with you and what happens every morning when you step out of bed?
Kocela describes Tony’s response as a “textbook recitation of the two-family myth of Italian-American identity in which criminal activities are justified in a need to resist assimilation” (28). It is evident that for Tony, being Italian American is defined by being ethnically different. To admit that whiteness contributes to his economic success would undermine the justification he gives for his criminal lifestyle and his self-perceived status as an Italian American. Despite this, Melfi’s statement rings true. The experience of “poor Italian immigrants” does not affect Tony’s daily lifestyle. Characters in The Sopranos do not face the same oppression and discrimination as first-generation migrants (Kocela 28). After decades of assimilation, Tony and his friends turn to the narratives of discrimination and ethnic difference present in gangster films. This is exemplified through Tony’s identification with Vito Corleone from The Godfather. Vito exemplifies Tony’s notion of Italian Americanism. He was a poor immigrant that turned to criminality to protect the Italian-American community and their way of life. Vito is also connected to Italy in a way that Tony admires. When Paulie asks Tony what his favourite scene from The Godfather is he responds with:
Don Ciccio’s Villa, when Vito goes back to Sicily, the crickets, the great old house. Maybe it’s because I’m going over there, ya know?
Gangster films and representations of Italian-Americanness often deliberately differentiate Italian families from “regular” white people (D’Acierno 566). According to D’Acierno, gangster narratives often involve two types of Italian families, one that has been left powerless by its assimilation to American culture and another that has resisted this through organised crime (D’Acierno 567). Tony and his friends tap into these narratives in their attempt to create prosthetic memories that differentiate their ethnicity and ultimately draw attention away from the whiteness which silently benefits them.
The “inauthenticity” of these prosthetic memories is probably most pronounced in the episode Commendatori when Tony, Christopher and Paulie visit Italy. The trip shatters the expectations that the characters had of their homeland and sheds light on some of their delusions about what it means to be Italian. Paulie expects to love Italy and be greeted with open arms by the locals. Unfortunately, he dislikes it all because it is too foreign for him. At the banquet, Paulie finds the authentic Italian octopus uneatable and instead orders “spaghetti and gravy.” He is also unable to use the bathrooms because he is so used to American toilets. When at a local café he tries to initiate conversation with some local men using broken Italian. Even though they hear him, the group ignores him. Despite all this Paulie, pretends that it was a great trip:
Big Pussy: So how was it?
Paulie: Fabulous, I felt right at home… I feel sorry for anyone who hasn’t been … especially any Italian.
The prosthetic memories that defined these characters’ perceptions of Italy are based on the American media’s portrayal of Italy. Commendatori thus exposes the differences between what is “authentically Italian” and the prosthetic memories about Italy generated by American gangster films. By the end of the episode it has become clear that these “inauthentic” prosthetic memories have forged an entirely different, hybrid ethnic identity.
“Louis Brasi sleeps with the fishes”: How The Sopranos Treats Prosthetic Memories
Intertextuality is an important way through which the audience can understand how The Sopranos treats prosthetic memories. The prosthetic memories generated by characters in The Sopranos are heavily based on stereotypes of Italian Americans. Papaleo states that the Italian stereotype is “composed of overreactions: after bowing, smiling and being funny, the Italian loses control” (93). Mafia films are crucial in defining the identity of Tony and his friends, and David Pattie suggests that they are a “symbolic framework within which Tony, Paulie, Christopher and Silvio attempt to find meaning and justification for their lives” (137). In a similar way, the audience is invited to use these same films as a frame for watching The Sopranos itself. Mafia stereotypes are one of the dominant ways that depict Italian Americans on screen. According to Larke-Walsh, this has perpetuated the belief that crime and Italian-Americanness are synonymous with each other (226). The show is obsessively referential and relies on the viewer’s knowledge of these films for much of its effect. Pattie describes how such use of intertextuality can be explained: "[there are] two ways of looking at self-referential programs: one in which readings of other media texts can be contained first of all within the film or program in which they occur; and a more covert type of referential work, which relies almost exclusively on the audience’s detailed, constantly-updated cultural intelligence" (137).
The Sopranos operates on both levels as references that are simultaneously textual and meta-textual. This is evident through the way the show treats The Godfather films. They are by far the most frequently mentioned ones (Golden 95). According to Chris Messenger, the central link between the two is the acknowledgement that “America itself has been totally colonised by The Godfather” (Messenger 95). The Godfather is an urtext that frames how audiences are invited to view the show. As such, The Sopranos invites the viewer to use the Godfather as a lens to uncover extra layers of meaning.
For example, The Sopranos uses the misguided ways in which its characters have taken on stereotypes from The Godfather as a source of humour. The series plays on the fact that characters will allow prosthetic memories derived from gangster films to dictate their behaviour. In the pilot episode, Christopher calls “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero to help him dispose of a body. Christopher informs Pussy that it’s his plan to leave the body at a garbage stop to be discovered by the rival Czechoslovakians. Christopher hoped this would emulate the “Luca Brasi situation” from The Godfather and intimidate the Czechoslovakians. When he explains this to Pussy, they have the following exchange.
Pussy: The Kolar uncle is gonna find a kid dead on one of his bins and get on our fuckin’ business… no way!
Christopher: Louis Brasi sleeps with the fishes.
Pussy: Luca Brasi… Luca! There are differences Christopher… okay… from the Luca Brasi situation and this. Look, the Kolar’s know a kid is dead, it hardens their position... plus now the cops are lookin’ for a fuckin’ murderer!
To members of the audience who are familiar with The Godfather, it immediately becomes clear that Christopher is comically misguided. In the Godfather, Luca Brasi was murdered because he was caught trying to infiltrate a powerful rival organisation. Fish wrapped in his bullet-proof vest were then sent back to the Corleones in order to notify them that their plan had been foiled (“Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”). The “Luca Brasi situation” was a calculated and strategic move whereas Christopher’s situation amounts to a seemingly random, unauthorised killing. This sequence in The Sopranos uses this comparison for comedic effect and plays on the stereotype that all Italian Americans are mafioso and that all mafia behaviour is interchangeable. The symbolic language of the “Luca Brasi” scene is contrasted with explicit shots of a slumped, lifeless body. These shots are a source of macabre humour. The audience is invited to laugh at the contrast between the subtle, thoughtful nature of the Luca Brasi situation and the brash violence of Christopher’s own predicament. Through this comedic situation, The Sopranos critiques Christopher’s aspiration to be a godfather-esque gangster by showing his incompetence. Christopher’s misreading of the situation is further emphasised by his mistakenly referring to Luca Brasi as “Louis”. After Pussy says: “There are differences… from the Luca Brasi situation and this”, the dialogue pauses and the scene cuts to an immediate close up of Emil’s body falling to the side. This illustrates that part of the joke is that characters are willing to allow prosthetic memories derived from gangster films to dictate their behaviour, no matter how inappropriate. Therefore, Christopher is willing to refer to a scene from the Godfather that fails to account for the context of a situation without even consulting the knowledge of Big Pussy. This leads to a larger critique of the ways in which films like The Godfather are presented as a script for all Italian Americans to follow.
Nevertheless, The Sopranos still has a role in perpetuating these same stereotypes. Tomasulo has argued that "despite its use of postclassical generic, narrative aesthetic devices, and its creation by an Italian American, The Sopranos relies heavily on demeaning tropes of ethnicity, class, sexuality and gender" (206).
This results in a perpetuation of negative stereotypes about working class Italian Americans that affirm old Hollywood clichés. While The Sopranos has tried to transcend this through complex characterisation, irony and universalisation, Tomasulo asserts that most audiences “take The Sopranos as straight - that is a raw unvarnished anthropology of Americans of Italian descent” (206). The origin of characters’ anti-social personalities seems to stem directly from their ethnicity and their being Italian appears to constitute an explanation for their behaviour.
In his article Kocela discusses the complicated relationship that characters have with their white ethnicity. Through an application of Landsberg’s theory it is possible to understand how these ethnicities are initially formed and how they continue to circulate. In response to assimilation, characters in The Sopranos have turned to mass media to generate prosthetic memories of their ethnic heritage. These memories generally originate in classic gangster films. They are used by characters in The Sopranos to deny their whiteness and justify their criminality. The Sopranos itself comments on the complex ways that characters interpret gangster film stereotypes for both comedic and critical commentary. In the epilogue of her book, Landsberg asks: “How can we be sure the politics inspired by prosthetic memories are progressive and ethical?” Prosthetic memories generated by gangster texts are almost inherently problematic. Scholars have criticised the hyper-aggressive masculinity and regressive gender roles that are rampant throughout the genre (Larke-Walsh 226). For Tony and his friends, these problematic gender politics have helped justify their criminal lifestyle and valorised violence as part of ethnic performance. Similarly, these stereotypes are not always circulated critically and are at times perpetuated for audience enjoyment.
I would like to express my gratitude to Dr. Michelle Phillipov for providing constructive feedback on earlier drafts.
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