In the television series, The Sopranos, food acted as a semiotic representation of love, sex
Names of Italian dishes flew as freely as their bullets; pasta “
From the first episode, Sopranos intertwines food and sexuality. The role of women and food in
Prior to analyzing the specific episodes, I want to provide an overview of semiotics, so you can understand how we will be evaluating the specific codes and signs in the series. Semiotics is the study of signs and behavior relating to sign identification, including sign processes, such as allegory, metaphor
To conduct this semiotic analysis, I will use feminist standpoint theory. As an epistemological theory, feminist standpoint theory focuses on how one’s gender shapes her knowledge. “A feminist standpoint grows out of (that is, it is shaped by, rather than essentially given) the social location of women’s lives. Feminist standpoint can, but does not necessarily arise from being female,” (Wood, 2012, p. 62). The feminist standpoint theory was developed by Dorothy Smith (1987), Hillary Rose (1983), Patricia Hill Collins (1986), Donna Haraway (1988, 1997), Sandra Harding (1991, 1993) and Nancy Hartsock (1983) (Wood, 2009). This theory identifies the cultural values and power dynamics that continue to subordinate women. The theory also highlights the conditions and experiences that are common to women, which are experienced through typical female activities, such as domestic work and caregiving (Wood, 2012). Both women and men can derive value from understanding feminist standpoint theory and patriarchal hierarchies. The feminist standpoint theory aims to promote understanding that a “woman” is not just a body, but also is an unheard voice in a “man’s world” (p. 267). This discourse has created a patriarchal point of view, in which women speak from unknowingly. The bottom line is that this theory believes it’s a man’s world, in which men’s language is preferred (Rakow and Nastasia, 2009).
To this point, Carmella certainly reinforces the discourse of a patriarchal point of view, unknowingly. I question, “is Carmella a feminist?” In some ways, Carmella possesses a tremendous sense of agency. She holds the unique ability to control her unruly husband. While Carmella rejects feminism as “an elitist practice”, she is a paradox and is full of contradictions. At times she portrays the role of victim, at other times she is a domestic goddess and at others, a Mafia matriarch.
Carmella does, however, portray a gender normative role as a stay-at-home mother who places her role as a mother above all else. The most relevant example of this is in regards to her affair with AJ’s guidance counselor, Robert Wegler. The only sexual affair that Carmella has in the series is with Wegler, whom she sleeps with to get A.J. special treatment at school. He calls her out on this and she acts surprised, but it is obvious that she is using her sexual prowess to ensure her son receives advantages at school. This isn’t the first time that uses her agency to get what she wants.
In light of the college admissions scandal, it’s particularly interesting to hark back to the episode where Carmella strong-arms Joan O’Connell, a prestigious alumna of Georgetown University, to write Meadow a letter of recommendation to Georgetown University. Carmela brings Joan a ricotta pie (of course using food to represent desire) and a folder of Meadow’s high school transcripts. Joan refuses to write the recommendation, but Carmela tells her she is not asking for it, she “wants” it. It is clear that she’s using her power and influence to ensure that her daughter gets into the right college. When Joan realizes that Carmella is the mob boss’s wife, she changes her mind and decides to write the letter of recommendation.
Another example of Carmella using her agency is in Season Four, Episode one. Carmella presses Tony about their finances and a need to conduct estate planning. She approaches Tony while he is in a vulnerable state, eating ice cream on the
So, is Carmella a feminist? On one hand, she is able to successfully use her agency to get what she wants. While she publicly denies her alignment to feminism and holds gender normative roles, she certainly bucks against patriarchal society and does not submit to the dominate male presence on the series. While Tony may display the male bravado and appear to be in control, the reader can see that Carmella is the one person who knows how to ultimately get what she wants in her male dominated environment.
Now let’s explore how Carmella uses her agency as a woman to seduce the
The Priest is
When Tony returns from his trip with Meadow and learns that Father Phil not only ate all of “his” ziti, which he is upset over when he opens the refrigerator and discovers the “entire tray” is missing, but he also learns that Father Phil spent the night. This scene is particularly interesting, as Tony is clearly upset at Father Phil coming into his home, sleeping with his wife (literally) and eating his food. He says, “He spends the night here and all he does is slip you a wafer?” Notice the use of ‘slip you’ which is also used in the phrases “slip you the tongue” and indicates giving someone something secretly, such as “slipping” a tongue in their mouth to French kiss when the other party wasn’t expecting it. Carmella warns Tony that he is on the verge of sacrilege and Tony retorts, “I didn’t mean to verge”. This entire scene demonstrates that Tony views this act of Carmella engaging in a food exchange with Father Phil as a sexual act.
I want to provide linkage between sex, desire and food. When I think of the symbolism of food and how it serves as a sign for sex, I think about what Barthes (1983) says in Empire of Signs. He writes, “food is never anything but a collection of fragments, none of which appears privileged by an order of ingestion; to eat is not to respect a menu (an itinerary of dishes), but to select” (Empire of Signs, 22). By correlating food to fragments and ‘selection’ we see the intention of choosing food and intention correlates to meaning. Sexual encounters are also a series of fragments. One partakes in sexual experiences in the same way one indulges in culinary delights. He/she selects the object of one’s desire, there is a giver and a receiver and they are ‘served’ as a series of fragmented episodes, tied together through a common experience.
We certainly see this play out with Tony, in fact, it’s so spot on it’s as if Barthes was speaking directly about Tony Soprano’s behavior. Tony ‘selects’ sexual encounters with women as freely as he orders his gabagool, pasta fagioli and cannoli’s. He is used to being served, both with food and sex, and he’s a man who is used to getting what he wants. His sexual encounters are like fragments, just as fragments of dishes, scattered about and at his disposal to indulge how he would like. However, Carmella, as a female, isn’t afforded this same opportunity. Rather, her “desire” doesn’t seem to be so much sexual, but rather intimacy and desirefor connection.
According to Kenneth Burke (1953), consubstantiality or “shared substance” represents our unconscious desire to identify with others. We may identify with someone because we want to be with another or feel better about ourselves when we are with them. Burke believes there is a struggle between identification and division, as people can never be identical or divided in the absolute sense.
Burke (1953) states in A Grammar of Motives:
As regards human motives, the natural, biological, tribal order of food and growth would seem to culminate in the emotion of love. It is the realm of appetites generally, the whole range of desires encompassed by the psychoanalyst’s concept of eros or libido” (122).
In Carmella’s encounters with Father Phil, the Priest, I believe that her “desire” to be with him isn’t necessarily driven by her libido, but rather what Burke states as the desire to “identify”. Carmella lives a life of sin, benefitting from her husband committing crimes to provide a life for their family. She has a desire to cleanse herself from these sins. By having a sexual relationship with a Priest, she feels she can absolve herself of her sins and become one with God, in a sense. Therefore, her “desire” is related to how she wants to identify with the morality of the Priest. Food serves as a semiotic representation of Carmella’s desire.
What’s also interesting about Carmella’s religious undertones to her desire is that in Christianity, the enjoyment of food and eating is cautioned against as a ‘sin’ of gluttony. Gustatory taste can divide and unite classes, race, and gender. From a moral standpoint, food can serve as both a bodily pleasure and a vice of gluttony. I hark back to my example in the introduction of Hunter asking Carmella, “How do you stay so skinny Mrs. Soprano?” The answer is because she doesn’t eat these rich foods, rather her gratification and pleasure don’t come from eating, but rather denying herself food and feeding others…giving, not receiving. Now, the question is, does she deny herself food for religious reasons, because she is trying to absolve herself of sin “gluttony” or is it because of the patriarchal societal expectations of women and their appetites?
A patriarchal society is a social system in which men hold the primary power. The term ‘patriarchy’ originated from the Greek word πατριάρχης, meaning patriarkhēs or “the rule of the father”.Power is related to privilege. Therefore, the social consequences in living in a patriarchal society is that men hold all the power. The challenge of a patriarchal society is that women are oppressed by the underlying basis of a society in which men hold all the power. Caprino (2018) interviewed Terry Real, a couple’s therapist, bestselling author and senior faculty at the Family Institute of Cambridge and Director of the Gender Relations program at the Meadows Institute in Arizona. Real explained that we all live under a patriarchal society and it isn’t an issue that only affects women. The psychological issues relating to a patriarchal society are that men and women lack the intimacy that could be achieved through two equal parties. He relates the concept that psychologically, women normalizing a patriarchal society is similar to a child who has been abused protecting their abuser. He calls this the “core collusion” (1). This psychological effect can be damaging as the perpetrator is being protected.
Therefore, Carmella doesn’t realize she is living in a patriarchal society and her actions act as protecting her perpetrator. Another social consequence from living in a patriarchal society that values a woman’s ability to provide sexual satisfaction to men above all else is that women are judged for their bodies. As Hunter pointed out, Carmella is thin, conventionally attractive and gender normative. Therefore, societal expectations for her consumption and indulgence are different than an overweight woman. It’s considered acceptable for a thin and beautiful woman to indulge in culinary delights. However, take the same behavior of indulgence and extend it to women who are overweight, and suddenly eating is shamed, looked upon as gluttonous, overly indulgent and gross. Compare and contrast how women and food were portrayed between Carmella (skinny) and Ginny Sacrimoni (obese). Carmella is seen denying herself food, while Ginny Sacrimoni is seen on her hands and knees eating candy bars that she hid in the basement.
The correlation between how the series treats thin and obese women is similar to that of how Evelyn Couch, Ruth and Idgie semiotic representation in Fried Green Tomatoes. The film creates a dichotomy between “good eating” and “bad eating”, linking thinness with “good eating” and fatness with lack of control. The film follows Evelyn Couch, an overweight housewife with no self-esteem (of course, no overweight character is allowed to have self-esteem) and a husband who doesn’t pay attention to her. Evelyn is shown indulging in candy bars and other junk food, and it is portrayed as pitiful. Contrast that with how the film portrays Idgie and Ruth, both of whom are thin and attractive. They indulge in a variety of culinary delights and it’s seen as acceptable, even sexy. The scenes alternate between the stories of Idgie and Ruth, which are full of homemade pies, fresh berries and picnics and Evelyn’s pitiful life, which includes her devouring an entire box of Krispy Kreme donuts.
In a food fight scene, the cinematography and editing techniques set the stage by displaying a close up of the green tomatoes in a skillet, the film cuts to a bowl of red tomatoes, then plays the sound of tomatoes frying. The camera then cuts to fresh berries, eggs
We have to ask ourselves if the behavior of women in The Sopranos depriving themselves of food is due to patriarchal societal expectations, and if so, is this a matter of a woman acting in a
In relation to denying food, Carmella isn’t the only female to be seen on camera serving, but not partaking. Her best friend, Rosalie “Ro” Aprile, is also a “feeder”. In I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano (Season 1, final episode). Carmella visits Father Phil at the church, bringing him an overflowing casserole dish full of her baked ziti. However, as she enters the church, she sees him sitting with
Carmella doesn’t say a word, but flees the church and immediately dumps the contents of the baked ziti into a trashcan right outside the chapel. The camera is angled up from the ground, so the viewer can see the painstaking way she scooped out the ziti in a fit of rage and deceit. Note that even though she’s enraged, her ever-practical side ensures to save the glass casserole dish. This scene reveals how Carmella viewed her food (ziti) as her love and desire, of which she was delivering to the subject of her desire (Father Phil). When she discovered him eating another woman’s food, it was a betrayal as if she caught him having sex with another woman. The symbolism of Carmella dumping the ziti in the trash represented her discarding her desire for Father Phil. Later in this episode, Carmella accuses Father Phil of convoluting food and desire when she says:
He’s a sinner father, and you come up here and eat his steaks, and you use his home entertainment
Carmella recognizes that Father Phil substitutes food for sex (for which he can’t have because he’s celibate). When she says, “you eat his steaks”, referring to her husband’s “steaks” she is alluding to the fact that Father Phil is “consuming” the fruits of Tony’s labor, including his food, entertainment and wife.
Carmella has this yearning and desire for love and connection because she’s missing it from her husband. I do believe that Tony and Carmella love each other, but what they are lacking is trust. I posit that
Carmella and Tony do not trust each other in any sense. Carmella knows Tony is cheating on her consistently. Tony doesn’t trust Carmella, as he knows she stole $40,000 from their bird feeder in the back yard. Throughout the series, they demonstrate this lack of trust being the underlying issue in their relationship.
The third example of food representing sex is in Pine Barrens (Episode 11, Season 3). Before detailing this scene, I’d like to mention that Tony suffers from the Madonna-Whore complex, which is the juxtaposition of women as either the saintly Madonna figure or debased prostitutes. Given that he has this viewpoint, he finds it difficult to remain faithful to Carmella, as she is the mother of his children and therefore, in his eyes, not someone whom he can treat in a sexual manner. He viewed his “goomah” (mistress), as a “whore” and he treated them with disrespect and as a source of purely sexual pleasure. Gloria Trillo, Tony’s
The viewer feels the tension as we see Tony’s back tighten, we know what he’s capable of, but instead of returning the passion she’s shown towards him, he simply leaves. It’s also important to note that we don’t see Gloria partake in any of the food she’s prepared. She drinks wine while waiting for Tony, but the food remains untouched. This is a semiotic representation that the food represents her sexual desire, and it’s not for her consumption, yet for her to “give”. The viewer can also make a parallel between the female being the provider, not the receiver, in the episode Boca (Season 1, Episode 9) in which Uncle Junior takes offense when his girlfriend, Bobbie compliments him on his
- “Little Junior”
- Twig and berries
- Catching shut eye – limp dick
- Muffin cap
- Man giving oral sex to a woman:
- Whistle up the wheat field
- Eating sushi
- South of the border
- In the muff
Notice how several of the euphemisms for sexual terms are food (sushi, sausage, muffin, pie). Just as a man “giving” oral sex to a woman is viewed as a sign of weakness, men are also viewed as weak if they “give” food. And speaking of manliness, a scene in which food overtly serves as a semiotic representation of masculinity is in the episode Marco Polo. Tony and Carmella are in the midst of their separation and impending divorce when she throws a birthday party for her father. Her father demands that Tony attend because he was the “man of the house”. Carmella reluctantly asks Tony to attend to appease her father and he shows up, late, with a string of sausages around his neck, serving as a semiotic representation of his masculinity. He is indeed making his presence as “man of the house” known. The sausages serve as a euphemism for his penis and he proudly has them on display, claiming his territory for which he’s been usurped.
Speaking of euphemisms, I also want to call attention to the derogatory euphemisms used against homosexuals in The Sopranos. The crew is definitely homophobic and they use slang terms, such as “fanook”, “ass muncher” and “flopjob” to describes homosexuals.
Foucault’s (1990) speaks about sexuality and his conception of modern power in Volume 1 of The History of Sexuality. According to Foucault, sexuality isn’t a “thing” that is repressed by power and then needs to be rediscovered. Sexuality and power relations are closely intertwined. Foucault states that sexual repression is a superficial phenomenon. The hystorization of women’s bodies leads people to believe first, that the female body is highly sexual and secondly, an object of medial knowledge. The female body is a place of public interest and control.
“[T]he deployment of sexuality, with its different strategies, was what established this notion of ‘sex'” (154)
in which sex could function as a universal signifier for anatomy, gender, biological functions, pleasure, sensations, and behavior. The conception of sex takes form in the strategies of power, not separate from it. Foucault also believes that family doesn’t repress sexuality, but nurtures it. According to Foucault, sexuality doesn’t exist in us in the way our consciousness exists in us, but
it’s a construct that has grown out of instead . discourse
I’m not sure why there is homophobia in The Sopranos. Perhaps it is related to what Foucault states about sex and power and the fact that they are intertwined. Possibly it’s due to sexual repression. Or possibly it’s due to the Italian-American culture and the reinforcement of gender normative roles.
Culture influences human behavior, thinking
The characters in The Sopranos definitely have rigid expectations on gender, sex
“Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture. Cultural taboos around sexuality and desire are transgressed and made explicit as the media bombards folks with a message of difference no longer based on the white supremacist assumption that “blondes have more fun.” The “real fun” is to be had by bringing to the surface all those “nasty” unconscious fantasies and longings about contact with the Other embedded in the secret (not so secret) deep structure of white supremacy” (181).
In Western culture, ethnocentric statements are pervasive and often overlooked.
We certainly see in The Sopranosthat Meadow seeks this “spicy” ethnicity, as this is her first relationship outside of her parents’ home. She wants to explore the world, and therefore explore her sexuality with the “Other” to ‘spice’ up her life.
Hooks states, (1998),
“It is not African American culture formed in resistance to contemporary situations that surfaces, but
nostalgicevocation of a “glorious” past. And even though the focus is often on the ways that this past was “superior” to the present, this cultural narrative relies on stereotypes of the “primitive,” even as it eschews the term, to evoke a world where black people were in harmony with nature and with one another,” (188).
Inherently the problem is that even in mass media that attempts to ‘embrace’ all cultures, what they achieve instead is driving cultures further apart. These films inadvertently reinforce negative cultural connotations and oppression of the “other” through glorifying the past and positioning superiority as consuming the other.
Speaking of Meadow’s ‘taste’ for the ‘Other’, Korsmeyer (1999) explores the history of ‘taste’and how it was used not only in the literal sense as it applied to
In regards to taste, it’s also relevant to mention the association with a ‘taste’ for foods that bring pain (example-hot sauce, spicy peppers, etc..) correlates to the pleasure-pain principle. Snider (2001) states that pain can be involved with food and sex in regards to pleasure and pain. For example, eating hot peppers, spicy foods can be considered aphrodisiacs. The same dopamine-laden neurotransmitters in the brain are activated when risk behaviors related to both food and sex are sought. Anything the brain perceives as enjoyable will cause dopamine to flood our brain cells and build a memory ramp for pleasure. Food and sex are generally closely linked. They are physically in our brain, as well as emotionally. Good food is correlated with good sex.
“Some social theorists—Foucault, namely—argue that this tantalizing, ongoing search for culinary and carnal pleasure has much more in common than most pleasure-seeking eaters and sexual practitioners are even aware of themselves. These prime reasons consist of: purely pleasurable greed and bliss; masochistic endeavors; psychological confusion and/or substitution of the oral and phallic stages; desire for or purposeful loss of self-control; social status motives such as succumbing to trends or obtaining bragging rights; transcendence of gender and oft-established power roles with ‘foodie’ or sexual experimentation; among other reasons explored in the forthcoming sections” (135-136).
The relationship between risk, potential pain and pleasure are interconnected. Sex has been substituted for food. The separation between pleasure and pain, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aspects of sex and eating.
In conclusion, there are several examples throughout The Sopranos series in which food acts as a semiotic representation of love and desire. Through the examples provided we see how the theme throughout the show is that women are the ‘provider’ of food and pleasure while men are the recipients. The Italian culture, as represented in The Sopranos, views men as “less manly” if they are the provider of the pleasure or food, whether it be oral sex or baked ziti. Food helps shape the gender normative identity of women throughout the series, as we seem them preparing and serving food in a nurturer role while the men form their masculine identity through consumption. It is fitting that the final scene in the series ends with the family coming together for one less dinner. One by one they pop a single onion ring into their mouth to the tune of “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey. It harkens back to the first episode when Tony said that it’s the small moments that we remember. Their small moments are peppered with food, serving as a semiotic representation of their love, desire and motivation.
Barthes, Roland. Empire of Signs. Cape, 1983.
Patriarchy. Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patriarchy on March 17, 2019.
Caprino, K. (January 25, 2018). Renowned therapist explains the crushing effects of patriarchy on men and women today. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kathycaprino/2018/01/25/renowned-therapist-explains-the-crushing-effects-of-patriarchy-on-men-and-women-today/#5f8092932161
Goldthwaite, Melissa A. Food, Feminisms, Rhetorics. Southern Illinois University Press, 2017.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage
bell hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” in Eating Culture, ed. Ron Scapp and Brian Seitz (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 181.
Korsmeyer, Carolyn. Making Sense of Taste: Food & Philosophy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999
Snider, Zachary. “The Erotic Pleasures of Danger Foods” Pre/Text , vol. 21, no. 1-4, 2001, pp. 133–165.