Tony Soprano takes a hit from Camille Paglia

Culture critic Camille Paglia opened her mouth and an attack on “The Sopranos” and the New York media poured out, no pauses for breathing.

Paglia, a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts, came to bury Tony Soprano, the anti-hero of HBO’s popular TV show about Italian-American mobsters, at the Gay Talese Lecture in Logan Hall Nov. 1. Smart, funny and outrageous, she drew regular applause from the mostly Italian-American audience of about 170 people.

As the first of two speakers at the lecture, entitled “Tony Soprano, the Media and Popular Culture,” Paglia declared herself “on the warpath,” fighting the disrespect shown Italian-Americans in Hollywood and in the news media.

The other speaker picked up the no-respect theme. Richard Benedetto, political columnist for USA Today, spoke only briefly of “The Sopranos.” “Of the last four presidents, who’s more like Tony Soprano than all the others?” he asked. “I think you know who I’m talking about.” Then he took off after former President Bill Clinton. He also launched into a defense of Christopher Columbus. But it was Paglia whose comments kept the audience enthralled.

“Tony Soprano sitting and having analysis—this is an insult. There may be Italian analysts. I don’t know any.”

Paglia, a lesbian feminist, attacked the “condescending, high-tech androgynes”—the “haute bourgeoisie media in New York”—who raved about “The Sopranos.”

“Libelous images of Italian-Americans are being replayed, poured into the culture,” she said. “Italians shouldn’t put up with it anymore.”

Real Italian-Americans finally got noticed after the World Trade Center attack, she said. The people who have been the invisible “backbone” of our nation’s infrastructure—the police, firefighters and janitors—were being recognized as the sexy heroes they deserved to be.

The lecture, the second of five annual talks honoring journalist Gay Talese, a visiting Fellow at the Kelly Writers House in 1999, was sponsored by the Writers House and the National Italian American Foundation, in collaboration with Penn’s Center for Italian Studies.

Originally published on November 29, 2001