The Sopranos

Rethinking 'The Sopranos' and Its Depiction of Strippers

As the HBO show hits its 20th anniversary, a former sex worker explains why she stopped watching

Courtesy: HBO

I loved The Sopranos until I hated it. Having spent my early teenage years in North Jersey, the setting, the fashion, the characters’ accents and turns of phrase, even their aspirations, were familiar to me. The complicated tangle of familial love and frustration between Tony (James Gandolfini), his wife and his children were, at the time, singularly rendered. And like any Jersey girl who had dozens of second- and third-generation Italian-immigrant friends, the red-sauce conviviality, giant social gatherings and deep, if sometimes sketchy, commitment to Catholicism struck a perfect note. 

My husband, the son of a second-generation Roman Catholic butcher from Queens, spent his childhood sitting down for those dinners of ziti and homemade gravy. We’d pencil in Sunday nights to watch the show together, and the quotable dialogue (“The Feds are so far up my ass, I can taste Brylcreem”) and accents (“gabagool!”) immediately entered our household lexicon.

It was excellent television.

As a recently retired stripper, I watched the scenes set in Bada Bing, the fictional strip club, with trepidation. The scenes, filmed at real Jersey topless bar Satin Dolls, off of Route 80 in Lodi, were largely focused on the meetings between the made men, with the strippers providing seamy background verisimilitude, like tits-and-ass wallpaper. There was an occasional stripper-supplied blow job (which probably forced the girls who danced at Satin Dolls, then reputed to be a strict club, to add “actually, no,” to the lookie-loo customers who dropped by seeking the Full Sopranos Experience). 
Because the show centered on the brutish, hyper-masculine world of organized crime, I took for granted the show’s casual misogyny and shallow-to-callous view of sex workers. I didn’t expect sensitivity or kind regard—the Woke Mafia isn’t a thing. But when the stripper fucking died, I tuned out for good.

(Spoilers ahead.) If you missed 2001's "University" (season three, episode six), here’s the Wikipedia precis: “At the Bada Bing, Tony receives homemade bread from one of the strippers, Tracee, for helping her out with her sick son. Tony graciously refuses the gift, partly because Tracee is having an affair with Ralphie. Tracee tells Tony that she is pregnant with Ralphie's child and asks whether she should get an abortion; he advises her to do so and not tell Ralphie about it … [After arguing with Tracee, Ralphie bashes] her head into a metal guardrail, killing her. In violation of Mafia code, Tony assaults Ralphie, a fellow made man. The other Bada Bing strippers ask amongst themselves where Tracee went. Georgie, sporting a bandaged eye, trains a new stripper in place of Tracee.”
Not addressing the danger that sex workers face can be rightly criticized as whitewashing, but to render it as a non-event can normalize it—oh well, dead stripper, no big.
The gruesomeness of the death scene left me gasping—it was a splatter-fest, graphic beyond any reasonable need. I got up from the couch and left the room; I’d reached my absolute limit in violence against women as entertainment. I saw myself, and every other woman with whom I’d ever danced, in Tracee—how we were but one asshole’s good graces away from a possible brutal end. I knew damn well, from personal observation, that if one of us died, particularly at the hands of a customer, no one would give a shit, and people would probably suggest we were asking for it for working a job like that.

I couldn’t watch the show anymore.

In a blog post, actress Ariel Kiley, who played Tracee, writes that in in the script’s original draft, Tony comes upon the gory scene and “says something about how it’s going to ruin another rug” to wrap up Tracee’s corpse for disposal. To his (partial) credit, she writes, “When James Gandolfini read the part with me, he put in a request to change the ending of the episode. Instead of responding to Tracee’s death by being angry about the destroyed carpet, he changed it to say, remorsefully, ‘20 years old, this girl.'”
I’m glad that Gandolfini chose to change the dialogue. That decision, that sad, fleeting framing of the victim as an actual human being and not solely a prop engaged to showcase male brutishness, showed that Tony had a (somewhat) moral heart in the center of his tormented soul. But it did nothing to feature the humanity of the stripper beyond the fact that she’d had a pulse. And it didn’t prevent me from being reluctant to watch any more episodes. I simply couldn’t take any more. (I did tune in for the finale, but I made sure I was bracketed between my husband and a good friend who had been a stripper at a gown club in Connecticut. I needed the moral support, just in case).

Violence against sex workers is a legitimate occupational hazard, particularly for women and trans femmes of color. I don’t wish to see this grim reality ignored by the media, or in art. Quite the opposite. But I do wish that writers would tread with caution when said violence is depicted fictionally. Not addressing the danger that sex workers face can be rightly criticized as whitewashing, but to render it as a non-event can normalize it—oh well, dead stripper, no big. Stripping is a dicey endeavor, but there are many ways to leave the business besides being zipped into a body bag. Or rolled up in a rug.

As the concerns of people working in the adult business slowly tick up as a matter of importance, I don’t require that writers now make sex workers into superheroines, or give them the all-too-tired hearts of gold. Rather, what I ask is that writers and directors consider alternative endings to sex workers’ complex stories beyond ending their lives. (Like, Ralphie couldn’t have gotten Tracee out of his life by sending her and her son off to Calif. with a suitcase full of cash, or setting her up with her own day spa in Wyckoff or something?) We can acknowledge that sex work can, at times, be violent, degrading and depressing without the blood-and-guts denouement so. damn. often. Now that, I’d like to see.

Lily Burana is the author of four books, including Strip City: A Stripper’s Farewell Journey Across America.

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