Carmela's Reckoning

White women, ignorance, and the 53 percent

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In Season 3, Episode 7 of The Sopranos, Carmela, wife of mob boss Tony Soprano, sits in the office of a psychiatrist. It’s a dark office, lit just by a single lamp and soft sunlight filtering through half-closed curtains. Carmela sits in the dark, light illuminating only part of her face and her legs. The effect is that of a Renaissance painting, chiaroscuro—the balance of light and dark.

“Everybody’s marriage has problems,” she says to the psychiatrist. 

“Is he seeing another woman?” the psychiatrist asks. 

Carmela tells him about the many other women and, also, the crime. The organized crime. But she insists she wants to help him. “Do you?” the psychiatrist asks.

Carmela then lashes out with some antisemitism. Pointing out that he is Jewish, and “we Catholics believe in the sanctity of marriage.”

Plus, she insists, Tony is a “good man and a good father.”

It’s the “good man” myth— the fantasy that Carmela has spun around her enchanted wealthy life to ignore the blood outside. But the psychiatrist isn’t having it. He lays her life out before her.

“You tell me he’s a depressed criminal. Prone to anger, serially unfaithful. Is that your definition of a good man?”

He calls her an accomplice and an enabler. He refuses to charge her, telling her he will not take her blood money. Then, he tells her to leave Tony. “Leave him. Take only the children. What’s left of them and go.”

What’s left of them. When I heard that, I gasped. Carmela isn’t even allowed the lie that she’s staying for her children. This marriage is costing them too. The psychiatrist is letting her know that.

Carmela goes home, and Tony finds her on the couch sobbing. She looks at him and demands $50,000 to their daughter’s school. It’s her price, her price for staying. Tony knows this, and Carmela knows this. He gives it to her, and she stays.

Many years ago, in my own therapy session, I told my therapist about a time someone I loved was very cruel to me. I tried to make excuses. “I don’t think they knew,” I said. 

She looked at me in shock. “This person called you a callous bitch to your face. This person watched you cry and then they walked away. And you don’t think they knew? They knew,” she said.

She told me about how we all have at least one moment of reckoning, a Road to Damascus moment. She referenced the story in the Bible where Saul, who had been persecuting the early Christians, is struck blind and is spoken to by the voice of God. He’s given a choice: stop it and see again, or continue and stay blind.

“So many people,” she said, “choose not to see their actions. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t see them clearly at least once. And that refusal is a kind of acknowledgement too, isn’t it?”

I am new to watching The Sopranos, the HBO hit that is over 20 years old now. I started watching it because I love a messy family drama and it’s good, of course it’s good. But the story of Carmela is far more complex than Tony’s story. There would be no Tony if there were no Carmela at home, washing shirts and refusing to look at the truth.

Later in that season, Carmela is told by a priest to take the good of Tony’s life and money and leave the rest. It’s an easy out. One that gives her a way to whitewash her complicity. But she knows. She’s had her Road to Damascus moment. And over the course of the show, she will have at least a couple more. But this is the moment that you know she will never leave. That she’s in it and she’s a willing part of the whole murderous enterprise.

It’s a moment I’ve been thinking about a lot. I have a friend who spent 18 months with the alt-right and she once said, “Those guys couldn’t organize anything without the women.” 

It’s not a new analysis. Seyward Darby writes about this in her book Sister’s in Hate. Arguing that the complicity of women is not tangential, but essential to the cause of white supremacy.

In Nice White Ladies, a new book by Jessie Daniels, which I am reading right now, she argues that repressive institutions and ideas benefit white womanhood, which is why white feminism refuses to dismantle them. 

Pew analysis of the 2020 election shows that Donald Trump gained ground with female voters between 2016 and 2020. In 2020, 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump. I wrote about this in November before the Pew numbers came out, when the early analysis seemed to show that a nation of white women saw the disastrous results of the Trump presidency and decided to vote for him again. This is a reality we need to contend with. A reality we can’t girlboss our way out of. 

I wrote: “This is because, as a political force, White female rage has long been better at enforcing patriarchal norms than dismantling them. Why? Quite frankly, White women benefit from the status quo, while change would require burning down that system and building a new one — one where they and their children might lose the shared superiority and protection they get by being attached to powerful White men.”

The online response to that article was rage. A lot of professional male pundits told me I was wrong and spent the day tweeting at me. I logged off. But that didn’t stop them. A male journalist acquaintance called me on the phone to inform me how mad everyone was. I was so stunned, I laughed. “You are calling to tell me about men yelling about me on the internet?” I said. He immediately got defensive.

What was notable was the resistance to a narrative that isn’t new. Hell, I’m not even the one who has written about it in the best or most informative way. But culturally, we seem to be unable to come to terms with the role white women play in the most repressive institutions and ideas of our time. The resistance to this narrative is one of the reasons the narrative continues. We rely on the plausible deniability of white women, the intentional ignorance. The, “I was just doing it for my children,” or, I can hear Carmela’s psychiatrist, “what’s left of them.” 

Right now, it is white mothers pearl-grabbing in school board meetings about critical race theory on behalf of their children. In Iowa and South Dakota it is white female governors who oversaw the complete lack of pandemic restrictions, who sat by and watched people die. A willing trade-off for the political realities they are cultivating.

We want to chalk it up to stupidity. They are puppets. Maybe getting played. I’ve heard it all. But that lets them off the hook. The truth is, they know. 

It’s the same thing with Melania Trump. In the beginning of Trump’s presidency, the hashtag #FreeMelania took off, with people claiming she was a prisoner against her will. Which is utter nonsense. She knows. In 2005, Melania spoke to an NYU class and a student asked her if she would be with Donald if he weren’t rich. “If I weren’t beautiful, do you think he’d be with me?” she replied. She knows. It’s a trade-off, a willing exchange. It’s Carmela’s $50,000. 

And I know they know, because I knew. I have written about this in my book God Land, but for years, I went to churches that held anti-LGBTQ theology, just to make my ex-husband happy. I thought I could take the good and leave the rest. But when the rest is oppression, you cannot ignore it and keep yourself clean. But I tried to ignore it. I tried every which way around the problem. I tried to reason my way out, donate money, activism, and friendship. Because I knew that if I faced the problem head on, it would blow up my entire life and the only narrative I had been taught to live. I didn’t ask any real questions about my husband’s beliefs, because I knew, if he said them out loud, what they would be. I needed the ignorance. But my life was founded on the oppression of others.

Right now, I am working with a financial planner and accountant to put my financial life in order. And I am 38 and realizing how little I know about money but also realizing how all of that was by design. My married life for 12 years relied on my intentional ignorance, my easy willingness to hand over control. My life, my house, my furniture came at the low, low price of my freedom. But I was willing to make that exchange, wasn’t I? I had my own moments of reckoning. My own moments of knowing the trade-off. And there is not one day I am sorry I left it all.

But it’s also worth pointing out, women of color are not allowed this ignorance. Dr. McMillan Cottom wrote about this, noting, “You see, white ladies don’t have to pay attention or learn things or be capable. There is an entire world designed to make their confusion attractive.”

In high school English, when we read Hamlet, I went on a rant about Gertrude. Gertrude was Hamlet’s mother, who married the man who murdered her husband. The same man who was also her husband’s brother and who would plot to poison her son. She was morally bankrupt, I said. My English teacher cautioned me that as I got older, I would not always be so harsh about Gertrude. And she was right. For a long time in my 20s, I understood the moral calculation Gertrude had made. But now, I understand it and I still think it’s corrupt. What about power was worth her soul? What about power was worth the soul of her child, or what was left of him?

I think about that scene with Carmela, where she is incredulous in the face of the psychiatrist telling her to leave. “I would have to get a lawyer,” she says. As if that is somehow harder than enabling a murdering criminal.

And doesn’t that say something more about the moral calculus of her comfort? 

Further Reading:

I am working on my next book (This American Ex-Wife) and thinking about whether the entire endeavor of heterosexual marriage is rooted in inequality and what women are willing to sacrifice for it. So some of these newsletters will sound like I’m thinking out loud. And I am. I’ve been reading Nice White Ladies, which you should pre-order. And Sisters in Hate, which you should read for sure. I have also read some of Joseph O. Jewell’s scholarship. And Mothers of Massive Resistance by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae. I have also ordered They Were Her Property, a book that looks at the history of white female slave owners. And in trying to understand how marriage in America came to be, I’ve been reading Far More Terrible for Women, which is first-person accounts of slavery by the Black women who experienced it. If you have other thoughts or want to recommend books/articles, let me know!

Men Yell at Me is a newsletter about the places where our bodies and politics collide and yes, the occasional yelling man. Learn more about it and me (Lyz) here. You can sign up to receive the free weekly email, which includes interviews, essays, and original reporting. The Friday email is a weekly round-up of dinguses, drinks, and links. On Monday I have a subscribers-only open thread where we discuss politics, food, dogs, our bodies, and more.