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So I'm watching the Sopranos because I was way too cool (read: young) to watch it the first time it came around. I'm on Season 3, but if you all want to talk about seasons to come in the comments or whatever, no worries. I basically know what happens, and I don't really give a shit about having things spoiled. Anyway, let's talk about that episode. You know that one I'm talking about. "Employee of the Month"

These thoughts are not coherent, but whatever.

In this episode, Tony Soprano's psychiatrist and moral compass, Dr. Melfi, is raped in a tv-trope random guy in the stairwell way. The rape is shown in the ways rape should be shown: it is not pleasurable for the audience. It is incredibly uncomfortable to watch. There is nothing sexy about it. There is also no real reason for it, which makes sense. It was a random violent act on a show that survives by us being entertained by random violent acts, yet smacked in the middle is a random act of violence that is so breathtakingly senseless that we're almost shot out of the show and into the reality: this can and does happen. Mob violence does as well, but there's something tongue and cheek about the flavor of the Sopranos that makes it realistic but just hyper-real enough where we don't have to really consider it as much more than brilliant storytelling (unless we want to).


The rest of the show deals mostly with the fallout. Melfi reports her rape, and even though she (seems to) get a rape kit immediately and can identify her attacker, the cops mishandle the perpetrator and he is let go. Later, Melfi sees his photo on the wall of a fast food restaurant - The Employee of the Month is her rapist. There is, admittedly, some class issues that perhaps can be raised, but I'm putting those aside for right not, especially since the show doesn't deal with them (The Soprano family is a case study of the working class coming into wealth, but that's a whole other blog post).

Now Melfi has a choice. She knows that Tony Soprano loves her (even though his love is often violent and always on his terms) and that if she asks this of him, he "could have that asshole squashed like a bug... if I wanted!" She notes that there is a certain satisfaction in this. Ultimately, though, even though she breaks down in tears in front of Tony and he asks her if there is something she wants to say to him, she says, firmly, no. And thus ends the episode and (far as I can tell) any discussion of the rape. It's possible it'll come up again, but this moment has passed.

So, let's analyze Melfi's "No". Her no at the end is echoed during her rape: No, no, no. Except, at the end of the episode, her No is listened to. Tony will not act on her behalf.

On the other hand, the world that the Sopranos sets up is one where by breaking the social contract do people succeed. Keeping the contract of family and respect (as defined by immoral men) are what will lead to success. The women on this show have power only as much as the men allow them in, but that does not mean that they too do not cheat the system. Like in "Our Town" women's power is shown in the early episodes indirectly. They can't play the games that the men play, but they will skirt around the edge and take what they can.


But let's real theorize for the moment: Melfi's rape, while statistically unlikely (it is more likely that she would have been raped by someone she knew) is very real in regards to how law enforcement drops the ball. How many times do we see that rape kits have magically gone missing, or that rapists beat the system? While Melfi is surprised and hurt that the cops mishandled her case and no justice is served, it is not surprising to the audience. For Melfi, justice is something she has to get indirectly if she wants it at all. She has to make the Faustian deal with a Mephistopheles who is in love with her, but whose love is... well watch the show, his love isn't very good.

I think we're meant to read Melfi's "No" at the end as one of being above Tony's world - where morality is still something that can be decided by one individuals good actions. Perhaps she is able to do this because she is not as involved in the world as most of the other characters - Adriana or Carmella would have the guy whacked, I think - but that speaks both to her character and also to her privilege. She can leave this at any time. This is not something the other women can do - and honestly it's not something the men can do either.


Later on in the season, Ralphie beats a dancer at the Bada Bing to death, and Tony beats the shit out of him in return (citing that he is disrespecting the place, but later tells Melfi that he was devastated that someone so young could die like that) because that is the sort of justice that is available to women in this milieu. They have to rely on the men, and hope that they don't come too late. Else, they have to live with the helplessness of being raped, or the devastation of dying far too young. And all the while, they exist as sex objects or punching bags for the men.

Let me say that there is no right choice here except the choice that Melfi makes. That said, she is a fictional character, and her abstraction allows us to impose our own morality onto her choices more easily than we could an actual human being. She should have had him murdered. Violence is the actual currency in this world, and those with the most access to enacting it are the ones who are empowered. Through Tony, Melfi could have had that access, but she denied it, and I suspect this (while it will make her distinct from the rest of the characters) it will also lead to her characters eventual character death. Not to say that she dies, really, but that there is no where to go. She is uncomplicated. She will do what is socially right in our world every time: and as such, she has no place in Tony's. Whatever importance she had on this show is going to fade away. She is far too above Tony to reach him, and she can't help him anymore.


I speak of this in terms of narrative, but I will say there would have been something cathartic about having seen that guy murdered. The same way it was cathartic to watch Ralphie get the shit kicked out of him.


Sorry for the nostalgia. I'm mostly just bored. But anyway, to sum up: don't deny the power of narrative violence, ya'll.

ETA: as bearslovehoney points out, Janice shooting Richie after he hit her is one of the very few cases where women do take their justice into their own hands. And with so few consequences?

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