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"Sopranos" Educational Conference Sparks Unexpected C*ntroversy
May 27, 2008  | By David Bianculli
 

sopranos_finale.jpgOver Memorial Day weekend, New York's Fordham University and West London's Brunel University banded together in New York to present a memorial to The Sopranos. The invigorating international conference, called "The Sopranos: A Wake," gathered academics from as far away as Australia to dissect and debate the groundbreaking HBO series. The participants presented papers, offered observations, and, in at least one case, generated controversy...

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say I chaired the closing discussion, dedicated to the finale of The Sopranos, on the event's final day. And once again, as with Tim Robbins at the NAB, I found myself participating in a conference that, simply by the frank discussion of ideas, got some people fairly agitated.

This time I wasn't dead center. The hot seat was occupied by Kim Akass and Janet McCabe, the respected U.K. scholars presenting one of two opening-session papers. Theirs was an examination of women's roles, and male characters' opinions of them, and featured a title that ruffled more than a few feathers among the bigwigs at Fordham, whose campus hosted the event.

The intentionally raw and abrasive title is so volatile that even when quoting it here, I'll hide behind an asterisk, and the barely euphemistic "the 'C' word.' The title: " 'Blabbermouth C*nts': The Sopranos and the Feminist Dilemma."

Akass and McCabe have edited books on other TV shows and issues, and teamed to present many incisive chapters and papers. The "Blabbermouth" quote was lifted directly from the series -- yet behind the scenes, the women were scolded for their inflammatory title. By the time I arrived Saturday, a goldenrod-colored handout was being distributed, as conveners Paul Levinson and Al Auster of Fordham, David Lavery of Brunel and Douglas Howard of Suffolk Community College sought to defuse the tension. Included in the handout were the following sentences:

"Please know that we intend no offense to anyone with any of the language... One of the very purposes of this conference is to assess and analyze ethnic and gender stereotyping on television."

The buzz around campus this weekend was that some members of the Fordham board questioned the very value of devoting serious scholarly study to a TV series -- an absurdly closed-minded, elitist viewpoint I attacked as outdated in my book Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously. And that was 16 years ago.

The value of the Akass-McCabe paper, and the conference in general, will be obvious soon enough. Lavery announced, after the last papers were presented, that their quality and range almost guaranteed that a book compilation would follow.

It should.

 

1 Comment

 

George De Stefano said:

Good piece Bianculli. I was at the final session, which you chaired, and you did a fine job. I may be biased, having been a presenter myself ("A 'Finook' in the Crew: Vito Spatafore, The Sopranos, and the Queering of the Mafia Genre") but I thought the conference overall was terrific. The papers I heard were smart, provocative, and often very funny -- like The Sopranos itself. The conference proved, as if proof were still needed, the value and importance of media and cultural studies.

Comment posted on May 27, 2008 8:48 PM

 
 
 
 
 
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