The Godfather’s wife

In Fargo, Floyd tells her granddaughter, “This is our time

In Fargo, Floyd tells her granddaughter, “This is our time"  

Mafia women may have begun reclaiming their turf in the gangster genre with matriarchs like Floyd Gerhardt

It’s war,” declares Floyd Gerhardt walking out of her incapacitated husband Otto’s room. Helping him and the boys to tally accounts over the years, Floyd has always been more than just a mob boss’s wife.

She has been involved, complicit. Always aware of the stakes, of the true nature of the family business—gambling, drugs and whores. Growing up on the farm, amidst money, rifles and death, she has seen it all, never really separate from the boys. Not that she hasn’t been reminded of her place.

But with Floyd, they ought to have known that it would have taken more, much more than that. Otto’s sudden illness, however, thrusts the Gerhardt empire into chaos. There is so much to be done—accounts to be settled, threats to be made, people to be bumped off. All this while her boys battle for the throne.

At this critical juncture in her life, Floyd understands the role she needs to play and becomes matriarch of Fargo’s most powerful, organised crime syndicate. She bravely tells her granddaughter in a later scene: “This is our time.”

Second fiddle

Floyd Gerhardt (Jean Smart) from the second season of FX’s Fargo has little inspiration to seek from her predecessors—mafia women who, even when surrounded by the illusion of power, could only play second fiddle to their husbands, lovers, brothers and sons.

In The Godfather (1972 and 1974), Carmela Corleone lived and died in the shadow of her formidable husband. One saw glimpses of her in the Corleones’ early years in New York but it was Vito’s struggles, his choices and affiliations, and his phenomenal rise to power that were always the focus.

Subbu refuses to be the victime in the brilliant Aaranya Kaandam

Subbu refuses to be the victime in the brilliant Aaranya Kaandam  

When Carmela sings at her daughter’s wedding early in Part 1—a bawdy Sicilian song, perhaps learnt as a young girl and sung secretly with friends years ago—one suspects that her screen time is mainly a result of the actress’s (Morgana King) singing talents.

Similarly ill-fated is her long-suffering daughter-in-law—Sonny’s wife (Julie Gregg), who finding some audience at the same wedding, brags to them of her husband’s ample gift even while Sonny (James Caan) gets busy elsewhere displaying its merits to some hapless woman.

Connie (Talia Shire), the cheery bride, too has a sad future of abuse and neglect ahead of her while Kay (Diane Keaton) gets left alone, literally shut out with the door closed on her, as her husband, the new don, slowly disappears into his new office—that sacred male space where men gather to discuss business and women have no place.

Molls and victims

Gangster narratives have typically relegated women to the margins. Present merely as types—the meek and obedient wife who learns to look the other way, the abused sister who must be avenged, the “moll” who offers an escape from the testosterone world and does domestic duties—women have served as mute witnesses and victims in a world where men make the rules and are the key players.

There are countless such examples across film and TV: Eastern Promises (2007), David Cronenberg’s brilliant film where a teenage girl is raped and forced into prostitution by the Russian Mafia; or Mahesh Manjrekar’s Vaastav (1999) and Anurag Kashyap’s crime saga Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), where women are caught in the web of male egos.

Even a show as recent as Netflix’s Narcos, on the life of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, fails to disrupt the categories the genre pushes women into.

The enablers

Codes of honour and shame, masculinity and power abound. And it is the presence of women, however peripheral, that enables the playing out of these codes. In Goodfellas, it is the danger, risk and glamour of Henry’s (Ray Liotta) life that attracts Karen (Lorraine Bracco), which in turn adds to Henry’s own sense of his success. Wives, children and the home help to put up a front, enable “wise guys” to hide in plain sight and lend a sense of legitimacy, all of which ultimately enable the smooth running of the ‘other family’. Nowhere has this intricate balance been more cleverly examined than in the television series The Sopranos.

In the Tamil gangster film Aaranya Kaandam (2010), drug lord Singaperumal (Jackie Shroff), now well past his prime, imprisons the young Subbu (Yasmin Ponnappa) and abuses her at will, eager as he is to prove his potency. Not only is this a cause of shame among the brotherhood, it also threatens the don’s image. But Subbu refuses to be the victim. In the film’s closing scenes, as she defiantly walks into freedom, we not only rejoice but also laugh with her at the male presumptions and folly that prevented the men from seeing her as a threat and lead to the ultimate destruction of their world. Leaving it behind, she declares: “The best thing about being a woman is that it’s a man’s world.”

Riding high on the success of the first two seasons and with a third poised for release this month, Noah Hawley’s Fargo has broken new ground. Not only is it an elaborate homage to the cult 1996 Coen Brothers classic but by extending the original story and building on its principal themes, the also makes its own significant offering to the gangster genre.

A figure like Floyd Gerhardt does much to ease the gender imbalance and extend the genre’s scope. That old women can head crime dynasties and dare to declare war when their offers are refused and demands unmet holds great promise for the future of mafia women in film and television.

Sucheta is a film writer who also works with Marg magazine in Mumbai, thus bringing together two favourite things: writing and cinema.

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Printable version | Jun 6, 2020 5:11:14 AM |

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