Sea Hags, on Their Own Terms: The Feminist Legacy of VH1's 'Mob Wives'

Forget "The Godfather" and "The Sopranos." With their husbands and fathers in jail, deceased, or estranged, the women of "Mob Wives" completely flip the script on sexist Mafia narratives.

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Jan 25 2016, 6:50pm

Screengrab via VH1

The women on VH1's Mob Wives don't just hurl insults and pull hair—they gash faces and exchange death threats. In five seasons of raving, furious reality TV, the queens of Staten Island have not only immortalized the phrases "sea hag" and "dumpster juice"—they've also totally transformed the way we understand women's experiences as victims of—and accomplices to—organized crime. Virtually every Mafia movie and TV series from the past century, from The Godfather to The Sopranos, features men as the anti-heroes and women as quiet or otherwise secondary wives, left mostly or completely in the dark. Mob Wives flips the script on this old formula. With their husbands and fathers completely off-screen—in jail, deceased, or estranged—these women tell their own stories on their own terms. Although the recently premiered sixth season will be its last, now is the perfect time to reflect on the surprising feminist legacy of Mob Wives, to celebrate what this under-appreciated series has done for a genre that so often silences the women it depicts.

In the final shot of The Godfather, Kay Corleone is literally shut out of her husband's rise to criminal prominence: As the highest-ranking members of the Corleone crime family toast to Michael's newly official Don status, the men close the door in Kay's tearful, helpless, and irrelevant face. Even if some post-Godfather mobster fictions give us compelling, layered, and powerful female characters—like Carmela Soprano of The Sopranos—their narratives ultimately come from the interiority of the male protagonists, who remain the focus. Consider, for example, the opening credits sequence to The Sopranos. The camera places us almost dizzingly close to a stoic Tony Soprano as he drives through the bleak New Jersey cityscape and suburbs where he commits his crimes. The intimacy between us and Tony, the intensity of that close-up, immediately frames the way we watch the entire series: from inside the dark recesses of Tony's mind.

The opening credits of Mob Wives, season one re-imagine Tony's drive home. As the four original cast members strut alongside a gray Staten Island shipyard, their husbands are nowhere to be seen, and their faces are hard—as no-nonsense and menacing as Tony Soprano's. In a spiked high heel, Drita D'Avanzo steps over a newspaper on the ground with a headline that reads, "Mob Takes a Hit." It's a literal and figurative attack against the mainstream reporting of mob events; the move suggests that the stories these women tell will somehow un-do or replace what we would read about their husbands and fathers in a newspaper. In other words, it is no longer the gruesome crimes their husbands or fathers commit that warrant our attention but rather the untold stories of the women left behind at home.

One version of the truth—a journalistic account of the men's misdemeanors—is replaced by another: the reality TV confessional. It gives these women a new outlet for expression that had been previously unavailable to them in mainstream media.

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Many feminists, media experts, and cultural critics argue that reality TV is one of the most toxic forces of 21st-century misogyny. Last month, Gloria Steinem appeared on Watch What Happens Live and called The Real Housewives "minstrelsy for women." LaToya Jefferson James recently wrote, for Broadly, about how Flavor of Love exploited black women. In recent years several books—like Jennifer Pozner's Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV and Rachel Dubrofsky's The Surveillance of Women on Reality Televisionhave outlined how awful reality TV is for women.

But far from victims of reality TV surveillance and manipulation, the women on Mob Wives have used the medium as a way to free themselves from the men who had controlled their lives. After seeing the prototypes for her new shoe line in season three, Renee Graziano told us how important this was for her: "This is the first time I'm venturing outside of my family, not asking for financial support from my dad. This is really important for me, and I think it's showing my independence—it's showing that I have changed. Renee is in charge." During the current final season, Drita has decided to write a book despite her husband's insistence that she stay silent. Angela "Big Ang" Raiola gave Drita these words of encouragement: "It's your book. It's your story." Drita agreed: "I have to do it for me."

Mob Wives owes a lot to its predecessor on Bravo, yet the show brings a new grit to the now-traditional format of feuds among larger-than-life women. The catfights on Mob Wives are more vicious than any you'll see on a Real Housewives episode. It's apt that the women use the phrase "going to war" to describe starting an argument: More than a few of their brawls have ended in blood. Indeed, we might even say that their behavior is so violent that this is not your normal reality TV performance. This is the stuff of mobster fiction. The women on Mob Wives have elevated the Real Housewives lunch meeting for re-hashing altercations into somber, dimly lit sit-downs. Renee explains it like this: "The way gangstas work it out, they have a sit-down."

Mob Wives also makes a crucial substitution in the Housewives ratings equation. On Bravo, privilege + alcohol = drama. On VH1, struggle + alcohol = drama. In lieu of entitlement and classism is adversity. The women on Mob Wives share their experiences growing up in drug- and crime-ridden communities and the subsequent traumas of raising children while their husbands were in prison. On last week's episode, Drita took her children to visit the apartment where she grew up in the projects of Staten Island. Although today she lives in a big, beautiful house that feels more like Orange County, hers is a hard-earned success, funded partly by the great work she's done as a charismatic reality TV personality willing to open up her present and former life to cameras.

In the world of mobster fiction, opening up is being a rat. Wearing a wire and cooperating with the police is the worst thing you can do, an unforgivable act of disloyalty. The women on Mob Wives have no respect for betrayal, but by agreeing to appear on reality TV, they are the ultimate rats, actively courting the same kind of surveillance the men in their lives so aggressively avoided. Whereas the criminal confession means the end of a mobster's career, the reality TV confessional is the beginning of these women's fame. The Mob Wives are asserting themselves by doing precisely what their husbands and fathers could never do: speak to the camera. This version of wearing a wire no longer elicits shame and disgust—on Mob Wives, being a rat means telling your own story, and becoming a star along the way.