AJ Soprano Shows How Privilege Can Be Suffocating

Ryan Fan
https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=3MOaRd_0Z5wHKE700Appearance-wise, AJ Soprano has almost nothing to complain about.

He’s rich, white, male, and lives in a comfortable mansion where he’s never had to struggle to survive or struggle to acquire any material possession. On the outside, AJ Soprano is the epitome of privilege.

For people who don’t watch The Sopranos, AJ is the son of the protagonist anti-hero of the show, Tony Soprano, a mob boss who terrorizes the lives of others. While the older daughter, Meadow Soprano, is the golden child of the family who attends Columbia University and shows tremendous career promise, AJ is the opposite. He is constantly getting into trouble and can’t seem to do anything right. He gets expelled from Catholic School, fails to get good grades in anything, smokes weed at his own communion, and is constantly disillusioned and lost in a world he has every advantage.

This article will include major spoilers for The Sopranos.

Throughout the Sopranos, we see those preconceived notions of white male wealthy privilege shattered. AJ Soprano is the most unhappy character in a show that predominantly features violent murderers and sociopaths. He struggles with depression and panic attacks. He’s the only person in the show to attempt suicide.

Beneath his struggles, you can’t help but feel empathy for AJ Soprano because he has a good heart, unlike many characters featured in the show. And because he’s a good person in a cruel world, he does not go out of his way to hurt people. While depression runs in the family, AJ directs his pain inward instead of outward.

The source of AJ Soprano’s despair is his inability to find acceptance. His father, who runs the north Jersey mob, shuts him out of the family business, hoping for his son to have a better and less precarious future. His friends are far too ruthless for his comfort. He wrestles constantly with feeling undesirable, before and after being left by his fiancé.

Why AJ Soprano doesn’t fit in with his friends is his morality and conscience. He is horrified they would pour acid on and burn someone who didn’t pay off a debt. He is terrified they would assault an African student and call him the n-word — just because they can. After these vicious attacks from the next generation of the mob, AJ realizes he never fit in with the people he grew up with. He thinks about his fiance and speaks with his therapist about his privilege relative to hers — he was a 21-year-old rich white kid who had everything handed to him, while she was a 29-year-old Hispanic single mother who has a 3-year-old son who can barely talk and doesn’t receive a good education.

He doesn’t have the backbone. He doesn’t have the ruthlessness. He feels too much remorse. Above all, AJ realizes while he shares his father’s mental health problems, he will never share his father’s capacity for violence and cruelty.

Only in the mob is feeling empathy for other people’s suffering a bad thing. AJ tries, time and time again, to be just like his father, only to fail miserably. One example is when he tries to visit his great uncle in the hospital. Uncle Junior, who has an on-off relationship with Tony, is suffering from dementia, and his memory late in the show is rapidly deteriorating. Junior, one night, mistakes Tony for an intruder and shoots him in the stomach before fleeing to his closet, neglecting Tony’s plea for help and medical assistance.

AJ and the rest of the mob see Tony on his deathbed, unsure whether he’s going to make it. It is an agonizing period for the whole family, but while his mother and his sister express their pain in the hospital, praying for Tony to get better, AJ is in an awkward place. He seems to suppress his emotions but feels like he should express his masculinity by avenging his father. He tries to buy a gun, only to be blocked by his father’s capos who are enforcing Tony’s wish not to have his son a part of the mob. He then sneaks a knife into Uncle Junior’s nursing home, only to panic and have the knife drop out of his jacket, then be brought down by the nursing home staff.

Any other person would have faced a charge of attempted murder, but not a Soprano. AJ Soprano escapes those consequences because Tony, at that point recovered from the gunshot wound, calls in a favor with a corrupt law enforcement official. Part of me, at that moment, felt AJ wanted to suffer those consequences because trying to avenge his father made him feel like he belonged like he was a man.

At the core of AJ’s mental and emotional anguish is more than just genetics. Although he does have a father and a grandfather who suffered panic attacks, AJ is far more introspective than both. Throughout the show, we see a gradual loss of innocence when AJ realizes the comforts he is afforded were only possible through the suffering of others.

Much of that comes from the nature of the mob’s violence, but it also comes from his privilege. While many of us who grow up with a semblance of privilege don’t have family members in the mob, we can attribute much of our luxuries to the suffering of others. The iPhone you hold in your hand or Nike shoes you wear might have been built on the cheap labor of Chinese factory workers. Simply living in America or Great Britain means being complicit in the sins of worldwide imperialists and oppressors.

AJ’s privilege manifests itself in guilt — while Meadow made her peace with the family business a long time ago, AJ can’t shake his conscience. Unlike Meadow, who felt disadvantaged in being a woman, AJ has no cause for complaint. Shortly before AJ attempts suicide, he and Meadow have a conversation about who’s the family favorite. AJ argues that Meadow, as the family’s pride and success, is the favorite, but Meadow counters:

“We’re Italian, AJ. You’re their son. Do you have any idea what that means? You’ll always be more important.”

The context of this conversation was Meadow trying to save AJ. AJ had been wallowing over breaking up with his fiance, Blanca, and stayed in bed all day. Meadow and AJ maintain a close relationship throughout the show in a family too often dysfunctional — Meadow informs AJ that their father is in the mob and sounds the alarm to their parents about AJ’s deteriorating mental health.

White, rich men still have problems. The privileged still have problems. AJ Soprano shows us that, and he also shows us the perils of having a conscience in a ruthless world that profits off of the suffering of the disenfranchised.

I used to scoff at rich people, considering how much my immigrant family struggled when I grew up. But I always felt drawn, to some degree, to AJ Soprano, perhaps because I saw a part of myself in him. When he is in college, AJ Soprano reckons with his complicity in the world’s suffering. He wrestles not only with the sins of his father, but his place in the world. In a futile attempt to cheer AJ up, Tony tells him:

“You’re handsome and smart and a hard worker….and let’s be honest, white — which is a huge plus.”

Now, let’s talk about the elephant in the room — AJ’s suicide attempt. What saved him was what plagued him in the eyes of his parents the whole show: AJ couldn’t do anything right. As he tried to kill himself in the family pool, his father makes a timely return home for lunch, just in time to jump in and save his son.

The two events that immediately precipitated the suicide attempt were AJ’s reckoning with his privilege. The assault and hate crime against the Somali student was something AJ wasn’t directly responsible for, but something he was complicit in — he does nothing to stop his friends from brutally beating the student. He also truly internalizes his privilege when he sees how Blanca and her son have to live, but we also see a crippling factor in AJ’s life: he cannot sustain a healthy relationship.

AJ can’t sustain a relationship because of who his father is. Part of why Blanca ultimately breaks up with AJ is she can’t see herself marrying into the mob. Very early in the show, AJ gets into an altercation with a classmate that escalates into an afterschool fight, but the classmate only pays him money and surrenders when he shows up. No one can get into a fight with AJ Soprano without being scared of Tony.

Others in the show handle their privilege in different ways. We see AJ’s friends find acceptance into the mob, and fully embrace their role in the world’s suffering. AJ’s foil, Jackie Aprile Jr., faces similar circumstances: his father wants a different life for him and wants to shut him out of the family business. But Jackie Jr. finds no home or place of acceptance other than the mob. We see Meadow embrace liberal social justice politics and causes, working to give legal representation to those who can’t afford it.

AJ wrestles with his conflicting feelings towards his racist, violent, and brutal friends. They almost pulled him out of his depression and gave him a sense of belonging, but it was merely a mirage. He realizes that although he grew up with them, he is nothing like them. Part of it results from AJ being coddled by his parents, but much of it also results from AJ’s own conscience and innocence.

The story of AJ Soprano shows the suffocation of extreme privilege because he’s the prodigal son, but the prodigal son has no home. He finds no belonging or acceptance anywhere, and he finds a glimmer of hope at the end in his desire to join the military. But his story is also a tragedy — the lesson from his life isn’t “privileged people have problems too.” It’s that AJ never chose the family he was born into, and those extremely privileged circumstances made him feel trapped like no other.

Photo from Laurence Agron on Dreamstime

Originally published on Vulnerable Man on March 17, 2021.

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