Meadow Soprano Was the Blueprint for Liberal Millennial Daughters of Conservative Dads
I began watching The Sopranos for the first time just before the pandemic. As we entered lockdown, throwing on an episode while eating dinner became a ritual with my partner — weeknights with our favorite Italian American, panic-addled mob boss; his motley gang of Christopher Columbus-loving soldiers; and his dysfunctional upper middle class family.
By season 2, I would not have been surprised if my boyfriend had developed bruises from all the times I slapped his thigh and said, "Oh my God, Tony is my dad."
To be clear, my dad is not a mob boss. But he is an Italian American man, a Baby Boomer, and a hardline conservative who, like Tony Soprano (the late James Gandolfini), believes that American society is in decay. On October 1, HBO will premiere The Many Saints of Newark, the prequel to its seminal series, which will tell the story not only of how Tony became the leader of one of the most powerful crime families in the Tri-State area, but how his adolescence informed conservative beliefs — beliefs that would eventually become a central tension between him and his daughter, Meadow.
Meadow Soprano is the original Liberal Millennial Daughter of a Conservative Man archetype. I'm not saying that rebelling against ones parents by championing progressive causes is new by any stretch of the imagination. (I am aware of, say, hippies.) But there's a familiar flavor to the dynamic between Meadow and Tony that many progressive children of conservatives will recognize today. You see it in the way Tony is at once doting and dismissive, seemingly disappointed in Meadow's choices, but confident — as all conservative parents seem to be — that Meadow will eventually come around to his world view. Watching Meadow deploy statistics to support an argument, for example, only for her dad to reject her words because of her age or gender or his distaste for "the elite" is so relatable that I found it almost impossible to watch at times.
Tony and Meadow's most memorable conflict comes to a head in season 3, shortly after she begins college (at an Ivy League in New York City, a rebellion in its own right) and starts dating Noah, a biracial student who is Black and Jewish. Tony unleashes a racist tirade on Noah and demands he and Meadow stay away from each other. When Meadow reacts with disgust, Tony retorts with the kind of patronizing, "you don't know what's good for you" response, his dismissiveness a lethal form of condescension. After weeks of the silent treatment, Meadow finally breaks, calling Tony a racist. When he doubles down, she appears on the verge of spontaneous combustion, a scream of frustration sitting in the back of her throat. Eventually, she storms out of the room. Meadow knows there is nothing she can say to change his mind, not with all the facts or logic in the world. I know this because I've tried. Because Tony is my dad.
Like in real life, Tony and Meadow's conflict is not neatly resolved. Only after Meadow and Noah break up does Tony take steps to patch things up with his daughter. Though, this process includes no admission of guilt, no remorse for his racist words or behavior toward Noah. Both remain stubbornly steadfast on their positions, but agree to sweep the fallout under the rug. I hate this scene because it reminds me of my own dad and the conflict that we've had over similarly sensitive issues.
Rewatching their reconciliation, I'm disappointed in Meadow but also empathetic. So many Liberal Daughters have had to cave in similar ways in the last five years in order to preserve familial relationships — with those who may be Trump-supporters, say, or anti-vaxx. Meadow lets bygones be bygones out of love for her dad, but she continues her liberal streak until she graduates. Toward the end of the series, however, her beliefs are less clear.
Months after I finished the Sopranos, I began watching HBO's other family crime drama, Succession. I couldn't help but think of Siobhan Roy (Sarah Snook) as the grown-up Meadow. Shiv is not only the smartest of her siblings, she's her father's favorite, perhaps the only of his children whom he respects despite her acts of rebellion — or maybe because of them, because they illustrate, if nothing else, a strong backbone. While her father's company shills right-wing propaganda as news, Shiv runs point for politicians on the left, going so far as to work for a Bernie Sanders-lite presidential candidate whose agenda includes the destruction of her father's company. And yet, at the first opportunity she gets to abandon the Progressive Ship for the chance at captaining the conservative media conglomerate, she does. Betrayal disguised as #girlboss ambition.
Real life liberal daughters can be equally unpredictable as these TV tropes. On the one hand, we have Ivanka Trump, who left all of her purported liberal ideals behind when her father's campaign came calling. Kellyanne Conway's daughter, Claudia, caught the attention of the national media with her leftist outbursts on TikTok last year, and a few months later, Kellyanne resigned from her position in the Trump administration and appeared alongside her daughter on American Idol, the picture of familial support and reconciliation. (Notably, the families in which these archetypes exist are usually white.)
There is a key difference between myself and these Liberal Daughters: Though I come from a privileged background, I am not reliant on my dad for material wealth or connections or reality TV fame. Sometimes I wonder if our relationship would be different if I did. If the cognitive dissonance between the desire to do good and the desire for comfort and protection would cause me to bend so far (to the right) that eventually I snap, as Meadow, Shiv, and Ivanka appear to have in different ways. By the end of season 3, Meadow defends the family business in front of "an outsider," while simultaneously condescending to a doubtful friend whose family is also involved in the mob.
To men like Tony, men of a certain generation who become bullies perhaps because they were bullied by their own fathers, the father-daughter relationship is a special one. While it's strained at times, Tony and Meadow's relationship is also undeniably tender. In their most endearing scene together, which takes place late one night just before Meadow's high school graduation in season 2, Tony says to Meadow, "I tell people you're like your mother, but … you're all me." She is the only woman he can see outside of the gender roles he was taught so early, because he recognizes himself in her — his passion, his stubbornness, his pathological need to make things right. I wouldn't be the first to speculate that Meadow is the only person Tony truly respects. There's no man in the Sopranos universe who can outwit Tony, and a daughter is the only person capable of forcing him to see a woman as more than his sexist viewpoint could allow before her.
If we were to follow the Sopranos timeline to today, Tony would be in his early 60s (depending on your take on the finale). Meadow, likely married at this point, would be in her mid-thirties, approaching Tony's age at the beginning of the series and the age at which her earning potential and her power will peak. Like Uncle June, like his own Mother, Tony will eventually begin to relinquish the power he once wielded so boastfully, whether he's ready to or not. The title "daughter" will evolve as Meadow does; father and daughter will reverse roles — Meadow as caretaker, Tony as dependent.
When it's time for me to step into my power, like Meadow, I hope that I stay there rather than waffling out of deference to my father, and that he rises to meet me there. Then, finally, Tony Soprano will feel less like a person I still know in real life and more like a relic from the past.