I was in the car yesterday evening when I heard on NPR’s All Things Considered that James Gandolfini died, and I finally got it. While I still think that on-line eulogies in general are the absolute worst, and that a hundred monkeys typing on a hundred typewriters in the British museum will all lazily Tweet “R.I.P.” to let the world know they’ve heard of the missing celebrity, in this particular instance I heard the news and actually felt sad. He wasn’t someone that I knew personally, obviously. And thousands of people die tragically young every day with much less fanfare, I know that. (See: standard Videogum sardonic obituary post title construct.) When a celebrity dies you should still stay the hell off Twitter, it is the very worst place on Earth. But I am admitting that I at least understand the impulse now, and I am guardedly apologizing to anyone who has had genuinely emotional reactions to the passing of a famous person in the past if I somehow diminished or disregarded how you were feeling as some form of self-reflective narcissism (as if there’s any other kind). And there is no statute of limitations on this either. I didn’t care when Kurt Cobain died and I made fun of my high school girlfriend for wearing her Nirvana shirt to school with the eyes blacked out. People grow up, OK? Besides, she is married and has a baby now so she is doing FINE, don’t mourn for HER.

Anyway, I will, as I have always encouraged everyone to do, leave the actual eulogizing to people who either knew him or who at least know how to actually write. But, just for my own sake, because ME ME ME (which is the whole problem with this medium) (although I do think there are weird similarities between the death of Nora Ephron and the death of James Gandolfini and I will get to those in a second) I was trying to figure out what made this one different. Why, this time, did I “get it”? Is it the fact that I have been slowly rewatching The Sopranos over the past few months, so I am particularly aware of James Gandolfini’s greatness as an actor? I’m sure that’s part of it. But I think it’s something deeper. I think that my reaction would have been mostly the same either way, and I think it has to do with modern manhood and masculinity. Uh oh, get ready. This post is for BOYS ONLY, so GET OUT OF HERE LADIES. Just kidding. But seriously:

Tony Soprano was the last male role model. Which is obviously a crazy thing to say. He was a fucking sociopath. But that is the genius of James Gandolfini’s performance: that he was able to humanize and even make sympathetic an absolute monster. (If you want an example of how hard this is to do: look at Bryan Cranston’s Walter White. Cranston is undoubtedly a masterful actor, and Breaking Bad is a good show, but the entire endeavor has slowly chipped, beaten, and boiled away any sympathy the audience may have had for its characters, with the possible exception of Jesse Pinkman.) Tony Soprano’s very story was about the old school archetype confronting modern day pressures. He was neurotic and took Prozac and by season six he even had minor difficulty cheating on his wife without feeling guilty! Like the ducks he discovered in his pool at the beginning of season one, his natural habitat was being destroyed, and he was desperately flapping his wings, trying to find safety. (Groan. Whatever, shut up!)

Please bear with me, because in the same way that it is kind of weird and kind of fucked up when a woman says that she’s attracted to Don Draper, I recognize that it is kind of gross to say you want to be a man like Tony Soprano. Really, what most women probably mean is that they like Jon Hamm’s face. So what I am trying to say is not that most men that I know who identify with Tony Soprano hope to one day get into the “garbage business,” but that we simply wish we had some of that brutish, bull in a china shop quality. I am disgusted by most of Tony’s behavior, but I am enamored by the style with which he carried that behavior out. He took care of business, and while that business was selfish, violent, illegal, morally bankrupt, and psychologically damaging to those around him, that business did get taken care of, which is more than you can say for a lot of business these days.

I’m not going to start citing all of the studies that have been done lately about the decline in male self-actualization or whatever the fuck because a) I am too lazy (see: studies) and b) let’s all be honest about what we are talking about here: men are doing FINE. No one is crying for men. Ugh, men.

But if we restrict ourselves to a superficial conversation about male role models as they are related to us in film and television, who do we have? Even Tony Soprano himself, in the show, mourns for the loss of Gary Cooper, the strong silent type. This erosion has been on-going and it is nearly complete. If movies and TV reflect our desires and who we dream of being, who the hell are men dreaming of being these days? Brad Pitt? With his long hair and his sprawling brood and his unattainable spider wife? Nah. George Clooney? With his Italian castle and his string of unserious waitresses and his wry smile when he talks about his back pain? Close, but still not quite right. We certainly don’t want to be Ryan Gosling, who is too pretty and talks with that fake accent. He broke up a fight in the middle of the street? Sure. Now imagine James Gandolfini breaking up that fight.

(I do recognize that I keep conflating the actual actors versus Tony Soprano. It is a rhetorical and logical error that you will allow me in the midst of my grief.)

James Gandolfini represented, through his most well-drawn character, an actual man, with all of his piggishness, yes, but also all of his potential strength and his weakness and his desire to be more. He punched people in the face and he ate big sandwiches and he tried to raise his kids right. He was a horrible father, a worse husband, a sketchy friend, and a selfish lover, but he was doing the best he could. And the fact that James Gandolfini, the actor, died at the age of 51 only adds to the complication. For men and women, we yearn to understand what we are doing here, and to take our best crack at it, hopefully leaving something however small of value behind, always worried that we won’t have enough time because guess what: we almost definitely won’t. So I think that’s why I got sad for a second.

Anyways, I know that this BLOG POST was way too long, but I felt like writing it, and it’s my website, so va fungool, you fat fuck.

Comments (56)
  1. Wait, Gabe, what were you going to say about Nora Ephron?

    • Oh, basically that I now recognize that Nora Ephron’s work was so much about how to be a woman in a modern world, and helped to define so many people’s ideas about who/what that all meant. Therefore, if I am positing that James Gandolfini (as Tony Soprano) was the last male role model, then I have to also take into account that I was probably insensitive to certain aspects of the public mourning over Ephron’s death that I am more sensitive to now. (This is all very general, too, because I don’t want to get into comparing the voluminous and varied work Ephron produced to James Gandolfini being an actor on a TV show. That could get sticky and is beside the point. We are just making casual observations to try and pull apart our feelings!)

      All of that being said, I still don’t think that anyone should ever Tweet anything ever about anything because Twitter is the #1 worst.

  2. Great post. And it kind of brings up a touchy subject for me personally. As someone who grew up essentially fatherless, TV dads and male school teachers were my main source of paternal advice. But mostly TV dads. Nick @ Nite was great because it was all these family comedies with great dads helping their kids. And as much as it pains me to say, According to Jim was a show I watched a lot because the masculine father figure who played in a band really kept me trying to be a “man,” whatever that means anymore, and to have a passion. Guitar/music is my passion. My real dad is passionate about ties and nice clothes and my wardrobe is a dumpster diver’s wardrobe. Maybe being essentially fatherless has helped me become my own man.

  3. I think “Last Male Role Model” is what I felt, although what I’d describe it as is “Tough Uncle With A Heart Of Gold.” RIP

  4. R.I.P. Gabe’s anti-celebrity eulogy stance.

  5. I think the problem with trying to find men (or women) you want to be in shows you want to watch is that watching someone be wholly good and admirable is not very interesting. It’s like a love story – the best love stories to watch are filled with ups and downs and drama, but you want your love story in real life to be pretty boring: we met and started hanging out with each other a lot, we fell in love, we committed our lives to one another, we grew old and happy together, the end.

    • Yeah, I would say an actual male role model is someone like Tom Hanks. He’s smart, funny, likeable, and manages to retain his dignity even when appearing in dreck.

      Tony Soprano is not a role model, he’s a power fantasy. We wish we could punch people in the face when they make us mad, but we know we can’t, so we watch Tony do it and vicariously experience the brief thrill and then watch as he lives with the consequences will our own lives remain intact.

      Sure, Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck are dead. They were great at portraying male role models, but they are not the only ones. I haven’t seen Man of Steel, but from everything I’ve read, both Kevin Costner and Russel Crow play strong, stoic, classical father figure archetypes.

      • Not saying that Man of Steel is super awesome or anything, just saying that there are definitely still tons of instances of male role models portrayed in popular culture. Do not weep for the lack of powerful white men in popular culture, Argentina.

  6. Ok, I’m already regretting typing this comment and I’m only 14 words into it. Gabe, I completely understand your thesis on Tony Soprano — the things he did in his day-to-day were horrible, but the manner he went about them (quick, decisive, eye on the bottom line ) is worthy of admiration. Also, clearly The Sopranos and James Gandolfini meant something personal to you and the loss you feel is genuine. (Ugh, getting TOO serious here and flailing for a gif chaser.)

    However, what I struggle with to your point is now that James Gandolfini has passed away, we can no longer glean these lessons from or aspire to be as matter-of-fact as Tony Soprano. Why? Because the actor no longer lives, the role he played is diminished? Because the show is no longer on the air, future generations won’t relate to his performance? Who are men aspiring to be these days? Who says they still can’t use Tony Soprano as a role model?

    I guess if I’m trying to get to the nut of your post, it’s that James Gandolfini played what you think is the last true role model for a certain subset of men who use pop-culture/entertainment figures as aspirations for myriad reasons. Makes sense and I agree with you to a certain point, but I’m not sure why James Gandolfini’s passing lessens the aspiration to be Tony Soprano?

    • Well, it is like how Tony Soprano mourned for Gary Cooper. He could still draw on his memories of that archetype, but he also recognized that it was disappearing from the world. And honestly, yes, it does go away. You can rewatch Sopranos all that you want, but if James Gandolfini doesn’t play any more roles, and that show moves further and further into the rearview, then yes, it loses its power and meaning. If you meet someone on the street who has drawn upon Fistful of Dollars Clint Eastwood as his masculine role model you will laugh right in his very stupid face.

  7. I actually was thinking about people’s insipid reactions to things on the internet a bit yesterday.

    Truckasaurus made a fairly innocuous joke yesterday about boob drones (that would strike down all those who want a boob job) and I reacted with some politically correct bullshit. While I do believe everything I said, it made me wonder why the fuck I felt the need to say it, knowing full well that truck clearly didn’t mean anything hateful by the joke?

    I can’t stand how there is a sort of cultural cache on the internet to be the first one to call out racism/misogyny/homophobia/transphobia/etc… and yet I instantly became a part of that kind of internet culture that I loathe (see: all of tumblr).

    The answer is that I was fucking bored. I’m bored with my life, I’m bored with my job, at which (after getting laid off, but also that I am still working here strangely) there is so little to do. I did it because I was doing nothing else even a little bit more interesting.

    I think the thing about twitter eulogies or Facebook eulogies is that people are bored, and I guess sad too, and they just have nothing more interesting going on, so they might as well say something, anything at all, and isn’t that sad in it’s own way.

    • To be fair, though, I did joke that drones should MURDER women who want boob jobs, which is pretty harsh.

      I think on other websites people are more predatory about these kinds of things and your comment (to me anyway) felt a little like “obligatory of course women who want boob jobs aren’t bad” “oh yes of course not” which is part of commenting on the internet (tone not as easily visible). I’m just glad that VG doesn’t (often) turn into “I’m the most feminist!” “NO I”M the most feminist!!” because that would be a bummer.

      I think it’s boredom and also just “I have to say this so people don’t think I don’t care” which is understandable.

      Also I’m amazed that you’re even still working. I would be full-on Office Spacing.

      • Yeah the “I have to say this so people don’t think I don’t care” mentality is understandable, but also kind of fucked up that it exists, no? Like why do you have to validate yourself that way, when you already aren’t an asshole who says offensive shit? It’s a product of, and try not to break your face rolling your eyes at what I am about to say because I know it is UGHtastic, the sort of McCarthyism/witch hunt mentality that occurs on the internet sometimes with this stuff due to the barriers of not always really knowing the people you interact with on the tubes. It’s complicated!

    • Yeah, I am just gonna say how much I despise the cultural cache on the internet you talk about in the 3rd paragraph. It all just becomes a pissing contest of who can be the most offended, and I honestly don’t think it’s very productive. Acknowledge that something is wrong is good, but after a certain point people need to ask themselves, “Who am I doing this for? Me, or the people I am claiming to champion?” I am not trying to call you out personally for the stuff you said yesterday or anything, and I don’t judge you at all for anything you might have said. This is just a general observation that pisses me off and that is something I feel like you can’t say because then some asshole will call you out for being racist or what have you, which is missing the point entirely.

      • 1) My friend wrote a piece about this on tumblr, in reaction to a video he made which was immediately called misogynistic.

        2) It’s amazing that people on the internet have no ability to feel ambiguous towards their media consumption. As if you can’t love something but recognize it’s faults.

        • Oh wait, here’s the link to that post my friend wrote

        • I think it goes to the whole thing where “if I can find something wrong with something than I must be the smartest so if I find a lot wrong with something than I’m the super smartest and anyone who likes things is not smart enough to find something wrong with it” which is bullshit. Basically “if I can be offended than I’m the most politically aware and the smartest because I noticed it and everyone else just is duped into accepting it and is not very critically aware” which is, of course, also bullshit.

    • I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, though. It’s the same reason you get into bullshit political discussions with your dorm-mate at 1am. Sometimes, stuff is interesting to reason out and think about and I think commenting on stuff (as I am doing now) is a good way to work through your own ideas on a topic.

      Obviously, if you’re just trolling for the sake of riling everyone up or flaming people for no reason you’re probably kind of an asshole and/or 14, but there’s value in discussion, even if it’s kind of ephemeral or abstract.

    • My goal with twitter is to refrain from saying anything unless it’s something heartfelt like, “I enjoyed Goldfish crackers more back when they weren’t produced with that smug, self-satisfied look on their faces.” because that’s just true.

  8. He used to come to a Jersey shore restaurant I worked at for a few summers. He was going to be my table once, but requested something a little more private. I probably would have dropped everything on him though, so it’s for the best.

    • I saw him once at the Crab’s Claw in Lavalette. I was standing at the bar with my uncle, who spotted him first. My uncle said “Hey! It’s Mr. T!” So I of course looked around for a black guy with a mohawk. And then made fun of my uncle for spazzing out and calling him “Mr. T”.

  9. I’m a little surprised, Gabe, that you neglected Eric Taylor in your list of the last male role models. We joke about FNL around here a lot, and Coach Taylor is obviously much tamer than Tony Soprano, but I do feel Taylor represents a realistic model of television masculinity that was idealized, sure, but still relatable.

  10. Can we marry this post and its comments to our lady love fest over in the “post bridesmaids” post from last week? They could have amazing and satirical and witty discussion babies on gender roles and society and media.

    real talk videogum, real talk.

  11. This is going to sound like a joke, but I think it’s bullshit to say there are no male role models on TV.

    All of the men on Drag Race are my heros. They are the bravest people on television.

    I feel like Gabe’s post is very hetero-centric. Which is NOT saying that he is homophobic. It isn’t. I’m just saying that maybe we should have a broader idea of what a male role model should be.

    • Give me a fucking break, Eric.

      • Wait, really? You don’t think that the idea of male models in TV and in society are based on a hegemonic system of too-specifically coded masculinity and that we should expand our notion of what masculinity is?

        Yes, saying that they are the bravest people on television is hyperbolic, sure. Fine. And I also recognize this comes after a comment I just made about people whining about oppression. YOUR POST, NOR ARE YOU, OPPRESSIVE.

        I do mean it, though. There is a lot of bravery in being an openly gender-non-conforming person, often times in the face of physical violence. That kind of bravery is the kind of bravery I think I can look up to.

        • Re: Role models on TV…

          As a father of two little kids, this really struck me the other day:

          and made me really think about how my father was with me, and the kind of father I want to be.

          • and if you don’t want to click a link, it’s Louis CK’s “Father’s Day” piece that reran on CBS Sunday Morning last week.

        • Oh, I think everyone should find their role models wherever they can, and if anything I don’t even think you need to say “I know this is going to sound like a joke” before saying that you admire all of the men on Drag Race. But don’t frame it as if a heteronormative discussion of male role models is somehow rudely ignoring all of the other options out there. I don’t think that everything needs to take into account every other thing. It’s not weird or incorrect for a specific and personal point of view to overlook the infinite options open to other people. I know that you were not saying that my post was homophobic, but you did bring the word “homophobic” into the discussion through a side door and that is where I think you need to give me a fucking break.

    • Let me just put on my good heels so’s I can walk into this landmine…

      I think its casting a bit of a broad net to infer that all the men on Drag Race are role models (whether or not they are yours personally, which is great and fine). While I love that show and enjoy the real and invented characters, not everyone that goes on it is a crusader of personal growth. As it is reality tv, they clearly do their best to drum out people that are not only singularly talented in drag, but also have dramatic or heart wrenching back stories, larger than life personalities, and maybe a complex or two.

      I am not saying that some of them may not be role models, or potential role models, but just as you coud claim Gabe is being a bit short sited in his view of what constitutes a male role model, I think the inference that someone is a role model simply because they are willing to do something that is still largely culturally taboo in public, is also. You can be a drag queen and while doing something that satisfies a personal need of your own in the face of potential threat to yourself, still be a total jag.

      I think the part that makes drag queens, or anyone in a similar situation (women who choose to wear a burka or not wear one in societies where it is very taboo to wear/not wear one lets say), is only partially what they are doing publicly as statement, but much more what they are doing (potentially) privately for their community. Or heck, just even in the kind of person they are in the privacy of their own homes, serving as a role model to their siblings or children. Anyway, we are the world, etc etc.

    • What did you JUST SAY up top about finding fault with something someone else created or wrote for reasons that are tangential to the point they were trying to make simply because you’re fucking bored? Holy crap. Have you tried Sudoku?

  12. Right after I heard the news all I could think about was calling my dad and checking up on him. I couldn’t figure out why that was my first and strongest reaction, but I think this post pretty much explains it. Thanks Gabe for helping me understand my brain!

  13. Kurt Cobain RIP

  14. Luckily this is also helpful at this moment:

    James Gandolfini on being scared on Sesame Street

  15. I got super sad when I heard this too but I refrained from an RIP twitter.

    I lied. I just RIP twittered about the death of Vine now that there’s Instagram Video.

  16. I RIP’d about Slim Whitman on Twitter yesterday, but I linked to a song that WASN’T “Indian Love Call” and didn’t make any snide Mars Attacks jokes. Not sure if that makes me more or less insufferable, though.

  17. I heard that they don’t yet know what was the cause of death because everything cut to black right before it happened.

  18. I completely understand your reaction and the emotion you feel. I feel the same way only, you know, manlier somehow. I’m not sure what that means.

    For reals, great piece. I’m halfway through S1 (again!), and I took the Gary Cooper line to mean something different in the wake of JG’s death. He’s my Gary Cooper, myth and all.

    Oh, yeah, also still the greatest television show ever made. So there’s that.

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