Female Suffering in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Howard Hawks’s Scarface
The average wife may see kids in her future, a prosperous career, and buying a home. A girl may dream of marrying someone who they can love and live a long life with. However, for some women, violence and organized crime found its way into their marriages. Instead of falling in love with the man of their dreams, they were seduced by mafiosos. Bullets, drug deals, and a string of crime became a permanent part of their life. They had married into the mafia and their husbands were not normal men. At night, they lay with murderers, thieves, and cheats. They married the mafia and in turn, became mafia women. Through all of the deception and lies, they stick by their husbands’ sides through it all, in some cases, help them sneak and deceive. Being married to a mafioso forces a woman to wear many masks and perform several roles within the community: she is wife, mother, partner, and alibi; she is the working cog behind the scenes. To perform so many roles, the psyche of the mafia woman suffers. Her mental state is affected while dealing with the inordinate amount of stress that comes with being married into a family of organized crime. After making those vows, her place in the community changed, her relationships morphed, and she became elevated in a way that could not be reversed. The women of the mafia, while crouching behind the scenes, are affected by the choices their husbands make; every murder, business deal, and trick affect these women who vowed to do anything for their husbands. Living a life woven through with risk takes its toll on the mind and after years of cleaning bloodstained shirts and watching friends disappear, what does the mind of a woman married to a mafioso look like? How is her life affected? In this essay, I will explore what it is to be a mafia woman and how being married to a man who lives this unorthodox way of life can change a woman’s mental state and draw her into a life tainted by murder and scheming.
The genre of mafia films is mainly portrayed in grand shows of masculinity and the pride of being or becoming a “made” man. Audiences watch these films and are in awe at the violence and patriarchal ways of mafia culture. These films produce a sense of fear and utter amazement at what these men can do, but one thing that can go unnoticed is the presence, or lack of women in these films. There are wives, girlfriends, and sisters but they do not seem to have a point beyond looking pretty and being an alibi when needed. Their role is even described by Danielle Hipkins in her essay, “Which Law Is the Father’s? Gender and Gender Oscillation in Pietro Germi’s In the Name of the Law” as a “role of suffering…and passive feminity”, making it plain to what degree these women have been reduced and molded to. (Hipkins 206) This is no accident made by the film industry or even the culture of the Italian mob. The mafia is a patriarchal structure and women do not have a prominent place within it, neither in fantasy nor reality.
Even within the genre of mafia films, it is impossible to find a fully developed image of the mafia woman that is not strictly seen through the male’s perspective. Audiences are given glimpses of women in these films, usually hysteric at the actions of their husbands or performing domestic duties that they have been ordered to complete. In some films, audiences see these women do more than laundry and cooking such as in the film Goodfellas where Karen eventually plays an active role in the dealings of her husband, but more often than not, they are secluded to the box in which they are commanded to stay in. In the film Angela directed by Roberta Torres, the female is focused on in the film more so than her masculine counterparts and with this distinction, it is made plain how much of a role a woman truly plays traditionally within the community of the Mafiosi. Apart from the few outliers that have been previously explored, “Angela demonstrates most strikingly and deliberately…the impossibility of the ‘woman’s film’ in the mafia context…Angela refuses to allow us to ‘know’ its protagonist, and suspends her fate at the film’s end…[it] denounces the fragility if any sense of female power or agency in this context” (O’ Rawe 334). These women are so reduced that even in the genre that is meant to glorify and reveal the way of the Mafiosi, they are not given an alternate ending or portrayal. Even in fiction, they are still resigned to their domestic roles as mother, lover, and when needed, punching bag. They are constantly wading through troubled waters in a haze of misogyny and tradition, forced to play a role, or face the potentially deadly consequences of opposition.
Seduced by big shows of masculinity and the promise of a life that will leave a woman wanting for nothing, many women were seduced by the glamorous sheen the mafia produces and others married into it as a matter of family business. Whether it be by choice or obligation, these women made more than a vow to stay loyal and true to their husbands on their wedding day. They also made a vow to keep secrets, keep their mouth shut, and essentially be at the beck and call of their husbands. Putting it into a more patriarchal perspective, Peter Schneider writes “Not only are women excluded from the fun and games; solidarity-building rituals revolve around the ridicule of feminity” (Schneider 38). These women were not only married to murderers and thieves but they were married to men who held little respect for them. This can be traced back to Italian culture or the overall consensus held by many for centuries that men are superior to women. It is no secret that these men were scraping the barrel in terms of respect for their wives and it is made extremely apparent in mafia films where women have little to no presence in the plot.
What is seen of the mafia wives and women in films such as Goodfellas and Scarface are various glimpses of them being horrified by what their husbands, brothers, and fathers are doing or scrambling to cover evidence of their crimes. We see them condemn and shout against what the men in their lives do and keep the house together when their men are carted off to jail to serve yet another sentence. In Martin Scorsese’s film Goodfellas, we see Karen, wife of Mafiosi Henry Hill loudly object to his actions, even driven to try and kill him while he slept. It was no secret that she thought his actions were out of hand and inhumane. In the film Scarface, Tony Camonte’s mother made remarks on several occasions against the actions of her son and his newfound wealth and swagger. Being married to a “made” man is to live a great paradox; a mafia wife is married to a man who is “at times gentle and loving, at other times abusive and scary. She [is] both afraid to stay with him and unwilling to leave him” (Schneider 43). These women are roped into an existence that is not so easy to escape from. She is surrounded by murderers and men who would not bat an eye at making her disappear should she make enough noise and she is resigned to a life where she is a sex object and a breeder.
A mafia woman is expected to care for her husband in more ways than the domestic duties of the household, rear children that will one day take part in the dirty family business, and also play hostess to the various men who will be coming and going as business goes on. She is matron of the clan as are all of the wives and she is obligated to carry out her duties as the wife of a mafioso, and she will do all of this without complaint because while she is afraid to act against her husband or leave this abusive way of life, she will not make a move to go because admires as well as hates what he does and who he is. In Scorsese’s film Goodfellas, Karen even admits after dating Henry Hill and seeing him brutalize a neighbor of hers for stepping out of line that his barbaric actions were attractive. Tony Camonte’s sister, while copying the appalled reactions of her mother, marries a mafioso herself because while her brother disgusts her with his disregard for humanity and reason, she is attracted to his right-hand man for the very same reasons. While he may appear more level headed than her brother, he is still a player in the same game; a game filled with bloody remains and dirty money.
However in love a woman might be once she falls for a man who possesses charm as well as wealth, it will wear off pretty quickly once she sees what is behind that gleaming smile and piles of cash. Whether or not she was truly aware of who she was marrying, the mafia woman undergoes treacherous treatment from her husbands They are kept in the dark on most business conducted by their men and have to deal with the consequences of the life their husbands chose to partake in: domestic violence, the presence of drugs, and never truly knowing the events that are really taking place within the family. Her life is strict and restricted to the demands of her husband with no leeway: “A “good” woman of the Mafia dedicates her life to her family, and especially to her husband. Her function is to maintain the good image of her man by never asking questions, keeping to herself, following him wherever he asks her to go, and above all bearing his (preferably male) children.” (Fabj 193) Her role in life is diminished to values that are arguably archaic and should she not follow these rules, she will be forced to meet the wrath of her husband and other men in the community. When she took her vows, she signed up for a life unlike many and to live among this kind of violence, her psyche suffers and cracks.
To live day after day kept in the dark and only acting as a sexual object and doormat, a woman will begin to resent her way of life and the choices made by her husband. However glamorous that life may have seen while she was dating her mafioso husband, all glitz and glamour have faded away and been replaced by bloodstained shirts, friends and family disappearing, and the constant phrase of “don’t ask questions and keep your mouth shut.” Her life is no longer something to be envied but something to be feared. She goes along with the actions of her husband because to defy him could be detrimental to her being and in some cases, she becomes an accessory in his dangerous way of life. Women of the mafia were sometimes more than pretty faces meant to please their men when they were not out whacking someone or laundering money. Some become accomplices, helping their husbands hide evidence and run the operations of the business because when put into perspective “the Mafia benefits both from her traditional supportive image and substitutive figure when the male members of the family cannot intervene directly in the family business.” (Cayli). Living a life that has desensitized the act of murder, it is no shock that the women of the mafia eventually play a role in the family business. Someone has to take over when the husbands are carted off to jail and there has to be someone to raise the children in the way of the family, creating more copies of the murderous examples set by their husbands.
Wives of the mafia were often kept in the dark on the dealings their husbands, but also in many cases, the women were up there with the men running things which is no surprise when Sicilian culture is taken into account where the women held just as much importance as the men. The mafia woman “may be asked to ensure the safety and comfort of fugitives whom her husband feels obliged to hide…her sons will join a crew or cosca…she knowingly prepares [him for this way of life].” (Schneider 41). However violent her way of life may seem, she married into a family business and family took care of each other no matter the danger it posed to her immediate family’s safety. She is forced to sacrifice her morals in order to please her husband and keep her children and family safe and this, and many other factors contribute to the brainwashing of her mind and make normal the dealings of murder rather than the common domestic mold found not only in American society but also in Italian.
The mafia woman’s involvement in the family business and her husband’s affairs can sometimes beg the question of who is running the show and who is taking the backseat. The argument here is not whether or not the man of the house plays a role, that much is clear, but it is whether or not his wife plays an active role and therefore shares the responsibility. It can be argued that she plays a part merely because she has either been brainwashed to partake or has been forced to, but regardless, in many cases, the women of these families play a role. Should their husband be tried in court, they are expected to stand before a judge and lie to save their husband’s neck if information has not been kept from them, they are handed bloodied clothes to dispose of, and they lie and gossip to gain information for their husbands.
One very unique aspect of the duties of the wives of the mafia is the sway they hold over reminding their husbands of their duties to the family when it comes to avenging those who are lost: “Women play an integral part in this cycle of killing although they themselves cannot kill: they keep alive the memory of the dead and remind the living of their duty to avenge them…Women must choose the man in the family who will avenge the dead” (Fabj 194). It is not plain that the mafia woman plays a role in the dangerous dealings of the family, but how much blame can be placed on her when she is forced to live in such a toxic environment? No matter how wicked they begin their career as when they enter in the family business, countless murders and a lifetime spent lying can take its toll on many men and even drive them to give up their confidence to the family in order to purge their souls of their sins. Whether this attempt at reconciliation with their souls takes place in court or as they are begging to get out, it’s not only something suffered by the men; the women too deal with this internal battle.
There have been many instances of mafia women coming forward in court to reveal all of the treacherous dealings of their husband and make clear that they no longer want a part in the life steeped in murderous blood. In these places of law, women use their voices to come forward and reveal the crimes of their husbands. Secrets that were told in confidence and brushed under the rug are now out in the open because the women of the family could no longer take the deceit and intensity that comes with being married to a “made” man. To purge themselves of the wrongs committed by them and against them, these women attempt to “separate themselves from the Mafia culture and seek public reform…they also function as attempts to keep talking about the problems of the Mafia and the need to fight it” (Fabj 191). Having lived in these toxic environments their entire lives, these women chose to step forward and share their stories in order to reveal to the public the treachery these men commit and continue to as they work hand in hand with a government that can be bribed to hide murder and deceit for profitable gain. Their families have been put in danger as well as their own lives and they have met their limit. While they may now be referred to as traitors or “Henry Hills”, a term coined following the betrayal of Henry Hill to his mafia brothers, they have decided that the actions of their husbands and the family connected to them were too terrible to try and justify against it.
Women of the mafia are creatures hidden in shadow. They do not live the domestic mold shown in American pop culture, baking pies and carting the children to school, but instead are kept hidden in the house and reduced to creatures made good only for sex, gossip, and breeding. They are banded together to men who hold a strong dominance over them and even though some try to deflect against this misogynistic way of life, all become a victim to it one way or another. Living lives connected to murder, deceit, and crime, what is right and wrong becomes blurred by actions made by others instead of themselves. These women are accessories to murder, alibis when needed, and lovers when demanded. They did not choose this way of life but were seduced by it in a show of machismo and grandeur. Mafia women are hidden roles, suffering in the shadows of their husbands, and forced to be content with a life drowning in sin. Some choose to press against the rigid mold formed around them and others remain resigned, but all are affected by the actions performed by their husbands, fathers, and sons, trapped between the love for these men in their lives and the tangible fear as well.
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Fabj, Valeria. “Intolerance, Forgiveness, and Promise in the Rhetoric of Conversion: Italian
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Hawks, Howard. Scarface. The Caddo Company, 1932.
Hipkins, Danielle. “Pietro Germi’s In the Name of the Law.” Mafia Movies: a Reader, by Dana Renga, University of Toronto Press, 2019, pp. 203–210.
O ‘Rawe, Catherine. “Roberta Torre’s Angela: The Mafia and the ‘Woman’s Film’.” Mafia Movies: a Reader, by Dana Renga, University of Toronto Press, 2019, pp. 329–337.
Schneider, Peter. “Gender and Violence: Four Themes in the Everyday World of Mafia
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