Got Yourself a Son: Tony Soprano’s and Hank Hill’s Confusion and Success as Modern Fathers

by Ed Scherer

Michael Kaufman writes in his book, Cracking the Armor: Power, Pain, and the Lives of Men, that “the joys and pains of manhood are now joined by a new confusion” (4). Kaufman is reflecting on twenty-first century masculinity and also postmodern fatherhood.  His words are inspired by the conventional shifts fathers’ roles in society have undergone, evolving from disciplinary breadwinners to also include an element of nurture—“caring and rearing to maturity,”— as Richard Christy declares in his essay, The Impact of Social Change on Fatherhood. Fathers must, in contemporary times, express to their children intimacy and emotion – not unlike a mother. Keep in mind that mothers and postmodern women have also expanded their duties to other facets of society, such as the workforce. Corporal punishment has been condemned and gender norms have been blurred. New technologies like video games and social networking add to the confusion of modern fathers who must feel as though they were sent too far into the future and are the focus of inescapable attention. This leaves men with something to contemplate as they are looked upon to become more emotionally understanding, as further surmised by Richard Christy:

“…Do men ‘mother’, can men mother, and do men mother enough? Nurturance puts the whole discussion of fatherhood and fathering on a new plain. It affirms that fathers are committed to nurturing over time and that nurturance is a key definition of a postmodern man’s self-identity” (38).

The postmodern fathers who have succeeded their own fathers of the 50s and 60s, the ones who may have used corporal punishment and withheld love and emotion to uphold standards of masculinity, are, as Kaufman writes, “confused.” They are not able to mimic their dads’ distant and authoritative parenting style. As Christy suggests, they are distinguishing themselves alongside mothers in their quest to bestow the nurture and intimacy to their children that modern society expects from them. I have realized that this “confusion” as to how to raise a child these days, specifically to nurture a teenager, is captured with hilarious and dramatic results on the television shows The Sopranos and King of the Hill. The specific relationship of fathers and sons are of focus because male on male nurturing particularly conflicts with the previous social conventions of fatherhood that Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini) and Hank Hill (voiced by Mike Judge) experienced themselves from their fathers. Yet, now they must endeavor to emotionally connect with their respective sons, A.J. Soprano (played by Robert Iiler) and Bobby Hill (voiced by Pamela Adlon.) It results in emotional outbursts and fumbling intimacy of great entertainment value.

King of the Hill is a half hour animated show set in fictitious Arlen, Texas. What makes Hank Hill natural to study is his comedic fear of any emotion whatsoever. The show, though animated, is also renowned for its realism. The Sopranos is an hour length serial drama set in New Jersey that is set within the world of Organized Crime. What makes Tony Soprano so natural to study is the fact that he sees a psychiatrist, Doctor Melfi, and this means the show comes with an analytical lens already installed towards his relationship with his son.

Both Tony Soprano and Hank Hill were raised under stringent masculine codes and were initiated into manhood in the 1960s. Tony Soprano was fathered by a Mafioso crime boss while Hank Hill was raised by a World War II hero who had his shins shot off. Therefore, both Tony and Hank were forcefully molded into, or at least ingrained with, an image of a man who was emotionally detached, primal, and who subordinated women and weaker men-overall a dominant creature. Hank Hill’s father, Cotton Hill, is brazenly misogynistic, a product of old standards prior to the women’s rights movement of the 1960s. In the episode “Shin’s of the Father”, upon receiving a full breakfast from Hank’s wife that lacks a sausage, he declarers to his grandson, “You see, Bobby? Women work: Man loses his sausage.” Tony Soprano meanwhile, while recalling his childhood in the episode “Fortunate Son,” witnesses his father dominate another man by chopping off the man’s pinky finger for not paying a gambling debt. Such were the fathers that Hank and Tony were to compare themselves to. But perhaps a shift away from this type of masculine figure was already beginning in their hearts. Frank Pittman of Psychology Today puts the paternal attitudes leading up to that transitional decade (1960s) into historical context:

“Society decided that raising children was women’s work and that making money was the single-minded point of men’s lives … I recall one man, talking about the problems of his son, saying, ‘I don’t know what Betty could have done wrong raising that boy. I know it wasn’t anything I did, since I was busy working and left it to her. I barely saw the kid so I couldn’t have done anything wrong” (1).

To parallel the last segment of that quote, in the King of the Hill episode “The Father, Son and J.C”, Hank’s father, Cotton, yells at him in anger, “You hate me do ya!? After all the love I allowed your mother to give you!” Tony Soprano, as a child, was seen in the episode “Down Neck”, tells his psychiatrist that his father “wasn’t around much”, while once again revisiting memories of spying on his father, who drove around New Jersey savagely beating people and collecting money-the physically dominant father on display. Tony admits in the episode to taking pride in this and bragging to his classmates that his father was tough. He mentions to his psychiatrist in the same episode that for his father, “the belt was his favorite child development tool.” Tony then patterns himself after his father insofar he also becomes a violent criminal later in life, but it is a volatile struggle. As a father, he manages to adhere to the postmodern ethics of being non-abusive and nurturing. These motherly qualities are in many ways indebted to the equality of a woman’s voice in contemporary society when looking at the following quote from the episode “Cold Stones” when A.J. slanders his mother, “Jesus, you can’t even talk to her.” Tony responds, “…You should be kissing her feet. Because when you were growing up, if it wasn’t for her, I’d have knocked all your baby teeth out with one shot.” Then talking to Dr. Melfi in the same episode, “If Carmela (his wife) had let me kick his ass like my father kicked mine, he might have grown up with some balls.” Dr. Melfi answers, “He might have also grown up taking out his anger of his father’s brutality on him on others. He might have grown up with a desperate need to dominate and control.” Dr. Melfi alludes to Tony’s job as a crime boss where he rules as a murderous alpha male.

By all means, Tony Soprano and Hank Hill grew up with a masculine standard difficult to match and initiation into a similar state of manhood was daunting when you consider that the ideal established was that you needed to kill another man. In the Mafia and the world of The Sopranos, you must make “your bones” and eventually murder someone to be considered legitimate. In King of the Hill, Hank’s father boasts throughout the series how, in the war, he “killed fiddy (50) men.” And Hank, a constant disappoint in his father’s eyes (Cotton has a second infant child literally named G.H. which stands for Good Hank), never fulfills this initiation. Indeed, is this rite of passage even available to men of later generations who lacked a war as noble as World War II? It is referenced in the episode entitled (coincidentally) “Unfortunate Son” that Hank tried to enlist in the army as a teenager but they wouldn’t take him because of his narrow urethra: “The army felt I wouldn’t be able to relieve myself efficiently under duress, especially in front of others.” It is interesting then to watch Hank Hill’s behavior towards Bobby while considering Richard Christy quoting a man named Sam Keen. “…in postmodern society ‘many men have become aware of the wounds they suffer from the absence of their fathers and the vacuum they feel in not being initiated into manhood” (37).  Hank then, inexperienced with feeling intimacy from his father and uninitiated as a man in Cotton’s eyes, finds it difficult to initiate his own son into manhood in an episode entitled “Good Hill Hunting.”

In this episode, the passage into manhood is discussed and represented by Bobby killing his first deer. Hank, however, is reluctant to get the permits, and his wife Peggy tells him, “You are scared of your own son.” To which he replies, “Maybe I am. So what? I don’t get him sometimes—the things that come out of his mouth.” Hank Hill is frightened of being alone and emotionally communicative with his son in the woods. “Did you remember to pack batteries for Bobby’s GameBoy?” He is familiar with video games as something childish that will distract his son and help avoid communication because the idea of a father doing so is completely new to him. This is especially poignant when Hank Hill is unable to secure permits, but before telling this to Bobby, the child at the threshold of initiation says, “I know I’m about to be a man, Dad, so I wanted to take this last chance and tell you how much I love you.” Bobby has also modeled his perception of manhood after what he believes to be his father’s, and therefore, is eschewing emotion for the rest of his life. Hank Hill, however, does not want to be emotionally distant, he is just unaware of how to express himself having no male to pattern himself after. He struggles to be nurturing and show intimacy, and Tony Soprano, as a sociopath, struggles to be nurturing by not being abusive. Consider Lucia Genesoni and Maria Anna Tallandini’s Men’s Psychological Transition to Fatherhood: An Analysis of  Literature, 1989-2008, which, by virtue of the title, you can understand studied clinical data of modern father’s behavior in a culture directly fitting for the two decades that these shows made their most prominent runs.

“Our literature analysis confirmed the earlier documented findings of fathers’ gradual and conflict-ridden shift from traditional and authoritarian behaviors to more openly affectionate and warm roles. The recent literature more frequently described men’s willingness to break away from the paternal role model of previous generations. Yet, the literature did not examine the degree to which, or the frequency with which, fathers actually managed to put this intention into practice” (315).

This “willingness” to become an affectionate father, yet struggle to put it into practice, is a running joke and emotional beat throughout King of the Hill. Hank’s voice cracks, with pubertal tones (his underdeveloped intimacy vocalized!) just saying the word “love” at his son in the “Pilot” episode of the show. In the first season of the show, it was established this was a focus with, “The boy ain’t right” became a running phrase as Hank accepted his child as odd rather than himself as incapable of relating to him. Yet, at the end of every episode dealing with their relationship, he triumphs. At times the show is somewhat of a template for modern fathers to disregard their masculine concepts and find moments to be a nurturing father. At the end of “Good Hill Hunting”, Hank, unable to take Bobby hunting, let’s Bobby drive his truck: “I going to skip you ahead one whole milestone … grab some wheel.” His son’s reacts, yelling with pride, “I don’t believe it! I’m in your seat! … I’m driving the hell out of this truck!”  Hank Hill succeeds in shifting from previous notions of fatherhood to nurture his son and help initiate his manhood, “caring and rearing to maturity”—as previously quoted from Richard Christy.

But unlike King of the Hill, which is a half hour animated show meant to have emotional resolutions at the end of each episode, The Sopranos is an hour long serial drama. This, in a sense, gives The Sopranos a greater freedom and in fact a duty to leave unresolved issues every episode. The father-son relationship is often a part of this, wherein A.J.’s initiation into manhood is long and complex. In fact, one of Tony Soprano’s most confusing dilemmas as a father is keeping his son out of the life of organized crime. In many ways he just feels the child to be inadequate. He says to Dr. Melfi in the episode “The Army of One”, “A.J., in my business? He’d never make it.” Yet in some ways this is a form of mothering. Tony views A.J. as inadequate for his job which simultaneously keeps him out of harm’s way from the violent world of the Mafia. In many ways, Tony departs from his father’s habit of chopping off fingers and beating up people in front of his child, which helped create the gangster that is Tony Soprano. Tony does a much better job at hiding his crimes from his son. Ironically his distancing himself from A.J. is an act of nurture. He is not the visible tyrant that his father was but rather a secretive one.

The show is also explicit television. So while Hank Hill, not to detract from the emotional weight of the show, will jest when Bobby hits dog turds with his golf club that “the boy ain’t right,” Tony Soprano, in the episode “Cold Stones”, will confess to his psychiatrist that A.J., who has been fired from his job at Blockbuster video and is a dropout brat, does little but go to nightclubs and vegetate on the couch:

“How ’bout the fact that I hate my son? I come home—he’s sittin’ on the computer in his fuckin’ underwear…wastin’ his time in some chitchat room goin’ back an’ forth with some other fuckin’ jerk-off… gigglin’ like a little school girl. I wanna fuckin’ smash his fuckin’ face in…My son. Whaddya think about that?”

As a tangent, Tony’s aggression towards A.J., especially his great commentary about social media-“ some the chitchat room”-welcomes back my assertion that technology has altered fatherhood and helped fueled the confusion fathers like Tony and Hank Hill have towards their sons, wherein they view technology as being very childish. It is something their boyhood lacked, it is a modern phenomenon they don’t understand (just like the youth culture their sons are emblems of) and therefore it can’t be manly. Both equate computers, and in both shows, their children’s affinity for Nintendo, with laziness and a state of arrested development. In “The Fortunate Son” Tony asks A.J. when he’s going to “throw that thing out the flippin’ window?” Hank Hill ponders in the episode, “The Incredible Hank” that, “The boy’s got no fight in him. I don’t get it. He spends five hours a day playing violent video games. What’s the point if they don’t have any effect on him?”

Both Tony Soprano and Hank Hill view their children’s generation as lazy and unmanly, yet, and this is perhaps why so many of the studies examined in this essay used the term “postmodern father”, both Tony and Hank constantly reflect on the authoritative upbringing of past generations to help steer them towards a more equal role parenting role, and therefore a more motherly role. What is finally interesting to look at is the role of Hank Hill’s wife, Peggy, and Tony Soprano’s wife, Carmela, in helping their husbands assume these motherly duties which decades ago were exclusively theirs to carry out. In The Sopranos episode “From Where to Eternity”, A.J. drops a platter of food, and Tony, after arguing with Carmela about a vasectomy points at his son and says, “I’m supposed to get a vasectomy when this is my male heir? Look at him.” Carmela shouts, “Tony, come back here and apologize!” But Tony leaves. He later gets up the courage himself to bring pizza to his son’s bedroom and sits down and explains:

“..I got to learn to control my emotions around the people I love. I think you’re the same way, you know? I think your feelings—you keep them inside, and you and me, we react without thinking. That’s why I get mad at you, you know? I see myself in you. I couldn’t ask for a better son A.J. And I mean that.”

Tony is unaware that his wife, A.J.’s mother, eavesdrops outside the bedroom as if supervising, and surely approving of the mothering her husband is attempting.  Likewise, in the “Pilot” of King of the Hill, when Hank Hill’s voice cracks trying to tell his son that he loves him, it was Peggy who set up the confrontation.  “I want you tell Bobby that your love for him is unconditional.” Hank then goes to try and tells his son he loves him and, after a very funny minute of garbling his words, he eventually manages it all in one breath, “I love you no matter what you do. There!” To which Bobby asks. “You mean I’m not just a big disappointment?” And this provokes Hank to open up. He explains that his son is the only thing in life that hasn’t let him down, not once. “Dammit—you’re my boy!” And the father-son bond is shown as unbreakable and loving.

These two acts by Tony and Hank, expressing their inner most feelings towards their sons, are brave in that they contradict the very concepts of manhood they were raised to believe. Never do the men fully understand their sons or the generation they are a part of. They will be forever confused by that, but by communicating affection to their sons, they succeed as fathers in the modern world.

Works Cited

Christy, Richard D. “The Impact of Social Change on Fatherhood.” International Journal of the Humanities 8.3 (2010): 31-39.

Genesoni, Lucia and Maria Anna Tallandini. “Men’s Psychological Transition to Fatherhood: An Analysis of Literature, 1989-2008.” Birth: Issues in Perinatal Care 36.4 (2009): 305-318.

Kaufman, Michael. Cracking the Armour: Power, Pain, and the Lives of Men. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1993.

Pittman, Frank. “Fathers and Sons.” Psychology Today. 1 Sept. 1993.