Bury Your Gays: The Camp Tragedy of The Sopranos
In the tradition of Martin Scorsese’s mob films, The Sopranos, created by David Chase, is at its root a show about whiteness and masculinity (beloved by many white dads). It centres on the titular Soprano family and their wider social circle of ‘waste management consultants’, as they navigate the various highs and lows of Italian mob life in North Jersey at the turn of the 21st century. Though most of the characters are insulated from the consequences of their actions by obscene, ill-gotten wealth, their power, money, social and sexual standing are only ever one wrong turn away from dissolving into nothing.
The pilot is framed by Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini)’s first visit to psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco (KarenTM in Goodfellas). This focus on the interiority of a straight white man with a well-paying job and white picket fence (especially in a series which undergraduate boys at parties tell you you must watch) may initially give pause to the discerning viewer. Why would I waste my precious Saturday nights watching yet another late 90s bitch-fest about how some guy is dissatisfied with his job security, guaranteed housing and loving nuclear family? Maybe I should just listen to Sarah Jessica Parker tell me bisexuality isn’t real instead.
Gentle reader, fear not. The Sopranos filters its far-from-virtuous characters through a lens of pure absurdity. Yes, shocking and life-shattering things happen, but the characters’ reactions undercut the seriousness of the situation in utterly bizarre ways. People have terrible opinions and motivations, but the hand of fate squashes them, either literally in brutally sudden death, or by making a fool of them in an arena which so values social appearances. Performances of gender and class are particularly outlandish, creating an aesthetic so ostentatious that it in itself implies a façade—in other words, camp.
John Waters, in a Very Special Episode of The Simpsons in 1997 (two years prior to the premiere of The Sopranos) defined camp as being ‘the tragically ludicrous [and] the ludicrously tragic.’ This is the definition of camp which I most often find myself returning to, both for its conciseness and for its camp value as a citation. The Sopranos as a series certainly fits into this definition, as do some of the series’ most memorable moments.
Tragic and emotional scenes are repeatedly undercut by hilarious malapropisms. The elderly Junior Soprano, mocked by friends and family after his girlfriend boasts of his prowess in oral sex, smashes a pie into her face and in doing so ends a decades-long relationship. Bobby Baccalieri, whose wife Karen recently died in a car accident, weeps profusely as the woman trying to woo him forces him to eat the last dish of baked ziti Karen ever made. Phil Leotardo, untouchable New York mob boss and noted homophobe, is shot whilst exiting his car at a petrol station. His wife, distraught, runs out of the car, taking her foot off the brake. The car rolls down the slope, crushing Phil’s skull with a revolting wet crunch.
The homosocial relationships which underpin the structure of mob life, too, often veer into extreme camp. The intense and constant social pressure for mobsters to perform a particularly aggressive form of masculinity, as well as to demonstrate constant love and affection for one another, often result in inadvertent homoeroticism in an attempt to affirm masculinity.
A particularly notable example of this comes in Season 5, when a group of mobsters take on no-show jobs at a construction site. ‘No-show jobs’ are a form of union corruption, whereby various gangsters spend weeks at a time sitting in lawn chairs at a construction site doing nothing, in order to collect pay and union benefits. Deeply bored, and threatened by the demonstrations of masculinity all around them, surrounded as they are by construction workers, casual conversations occasionally spill over into anger and even violence. One particular argument ends in hospitalisation, when a mobster casually and jokingly insinuates that his childhood friend and colleague is gay, who then begins brutally beating him.
Despite constant insinuations and suspicions of homosexuality, well-developed queer characters are notably absent from the rich narrative tapestry The Sopranos weaves - with one exception. Apart from numerous minor characters, Vito Spatafore (Joseph Gannascoli) is the only recurring queer character in the main cast of The Sopranos. The audience first becomes aware of Vito’s attraction to men when Tony’s daughter’s boyfriend, Finn, sees Vito giving a security guard a clandestine blowjob at the no-show job site. Finn is too scared of Vito (who is extremely quick to anger) to tell anybody apart from his girlfriend, Meadow, about what he has seen.
A season later, Vito’s sexuality becomes public knowledge. Attending the wedding of a colleague’s daughter with his wife and children, Vito is incredibly tense and uncomfortable. The camera repeatedly cuts away from wide shots of the lavish wedding to tight shots of Vito sweating profusely, grasping his wife’s hand as he stares in terror at her wedding ring. He leaves the reception early, claiming to be tired. Once home, he tells his wife he needs to leave for work, and goes to a leather bar. There, we see Vito, dressed in leather gear (although wearing far more clothing than anyone else), dancing with a topless, moustachioed man. Unfortunately, he is spotted by two mobsters from New York, who confront and mock him despite his pleas that his presence there is ‘a joke’.
Vito immediately skips town, trying to hide out at his mistress’s house until things blow over. This last-ditch attempt at concealing his sexuality fails when Finn tells the family about what he saw. After Meadow reveals the secret to the rest of the family, Finn is hauled into a meeting of capos and aggressively cross-examined. An incredibly nervous Finn reveals that Vito was ‘catching, not pitching’ when he saw him with the security guard, infuriating the gang.
Vito barely manages to escape his colleagues, driving away into the sunset. Lost in a stormy night and driving without direction, his car eventually breaks down outside a quaint New England town, where he ends up staying for several weeks. He claims to be a writer and assumes a new name, realises he has a wonderful eye for antiques, and begins a relationship with an extremely butch biker and volunteer firefighter whom he nicknames Johnnycakes.
Vito’s sojourn to New England, safe in a warm and comfortable environment where queer couples walk hand-in-hand down the street and are welcomed by the locals, seems too perfect, too soft and tender for The Sopranos. The scripting of the show overall, and of the New England episodes in particular, mean that Vito’s realised dream of his perfect gay life is interspersed with scenes of brutal violence, misery and repression in the lives of his mobster community back home.
Realising that he cannot live like this forever, Vito tries to reconcile his newfound freedom with his obligations to his wife and children, whom he genuinely loves and wants to do right by. Predictably, these attempts fail, and he returns to New Jersey to make amends. He approaches his boss, Tony, in a mall food court, attempting to rebuild their relationship. Tony brushes him off but does not entirely reject his request to reenter the business, buying himself time to come to the inevitable conclusion that he must kill Vito for his transgressions.
Meanwhile, rival New York mob boss and extreme homophobe Phil Leotardo becomes increasingly enraged at Vito’s return, and at Vito’s friends and family members for not telling him about his return. Vito is distantly related to Phil through marriage, and Phil consequently takes it upon himself to ‘fix’ the problem of his association with Vito.
Returning from a promising day of making amends, Vito is ambushed in his motel room by two of Phil’s associates. Phil emerges from a closet with a Bela-Lugosi-esque affect, tells the bound and gagged Vito that he is a ‘fucking disgrace’, and then sits on the edge of the bed, taking in the spectacle of Vito being beaten to death in the mirrored ceiling. The camera lingers on Phil grasping the bedsheets almost sensuously, as Vito moans in pain.
Vito, who dares to dream of a life beyond enforced heterosexuality and Victorian gender roles, is punished brutally for stepping out of line. Whilst The Sopranos buries its only properly-explored gay, there is something tragically beautiful about the chance Vito is afforded to catch a fleeting glimpse of a life he might have had.
Notwithstanding, the pain of Vito’s death is deeply and almost immediately undermined by his colleagues’ reactions to his death. The crew, including Tony, find out what has happened when a member of their gang walks into their office and tells them that Vito has been found beaten to death, apparently with a pool cue shoved up his rectum. They are shocked, clearly saddened, and obviously outraged. It quickly becomes clear, however, that they are not shocked that Vito has been murdered in such a degrading and cruel manner. Rather, they are outraged that Phil has committed a violation of their code of mob honour in killing Vito, due to his rank.
His death is important to the show and to his colleagues, but only in terms of its political outcomes. This lack of interpersonal feeling for Vito from his comrades of many decades, largely due to his sexuality, is emphasised by the actions of one fellow mobster. Terry Doria borrows a large sum of money from Vito in the knowledge that he is probably about to be killed by members of their own gang, and is pleased to hear that Vito’s death means he won’t have to pay it back.
Whilst the show later comes to implicitly condemn the actions of characters such as Phil and Terry (largely through emphasising the negative impacts of the entire situation upon Vito’s children) these immediate reactions to the resolution of the disruption that Vito caused are nonetheless somewhat disquieting. Although the writers are clearly trying to condemn the callous behaviour of those seeking to exploit Vito’s death, the use of his murder to set a variety of plots crucial to the show’s conclusion into motion feels rather exploitative on their part.
Vito’s idealised gay life also dates the show greatly, and dates its writers even more. At the leather bar, the crowd is mainly white, and apparently entirely made up of cisgender men. In New England, the local LGBTQ+ scene is even less diverse in terms of race, although the sequence does include sensitive portrayals of queer working-class men. The show seems to feel that in order for us to sympathise with a queer character, their queerness cannot be disruptive—it must be white, it must be cis male, it must be respectable and hard-working, and it must ultimately be chaste.
This last point is driven home by the show’s treatement of queer sex. Heterosexual sex features in almost every episode (this is, after all, an HBO show), and frequently involves at least partial nudity and explicit depictions of sex acts. The two scenes of Vito having sex with men, counting the blowjob, obscure or quickly cut away from any actual sex.
This lack of conviction, arguably veering into discomfort or disgust around queer sex, seems to undermine the show’s attempts at a positive depiction of queer sexuality. However, the time and love given to Vito’s journey points to a desire to reach forward, into a better future for LGBTQ+ people. His death is certainly tragic, but its ludicrousness, especially in the direction and cinematography of his murder, serves to undermine the motivations and beliefs of those who carry it out. Even if the use of Vito’s death as a plot device forms part of the ugly legacy of the Bury Your Gays trope (a hangover from formal censorship of depictions of queer relationships, whereby queer characters must end up straight or dead), this choice by the writers seems to suggest that the homophobia of those around Vito is no longer acceptable. It may be 1954 in the Soprano household, but society outside has moved on.
The Sopranos, in many ways, is a show constantly straddling oppositional forces. Its airing dates are split between the 20th and 21st centuries, and its characters’ fears and anxieties often come down to this temporal shift in attitudes, desires, and behaviours. At this moment of tension between tradition and modernity, between duty and desire, Vito becomes squashed in the middle, and must die in order that other characters can continue walking this tightrope.
Joseph Gannascoli is currently organising a GoFundMe to provide meals for key workers and those in need in New York during the pandemic.
When not attempting to escape reality through consuming five forms of media at once, Rose likes to write and think about what possible queer and/or political subtext might be extracted from said media, like gently sucking a minute whelk out of its shell.