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He was a liar, a cheater, murderer, as well as a mother hater, and he cursed the same as a truck driver while drinking and eating plenty of food that is unhealthy. He literally had a breakdown when the small duck family he loved to watch flew away, and was likewise depressed, prone to anxiety attacks.

He stood for, there were also compelling reasons to adore him, although observers of The Sopranos had many reasons to despise the criminal subculture and also Tony Soprano. He was, despite his power and bravado, a regular suburban man as he attempted to balance his family life with that other family life, from New Jersey who fought in his relationships together with his wife, son, and daughter.

Despair is resounding round the world for the sudden, untimely departure of James Gandolfini, the Emmy Award winning actor who brought the mobster that is troubled to life. Yet his death has also started a dialog about fictional characters we become caring of and the way in which they affect our well-being and psychological wellbeing. One pop culture expert says characters like Tony aren’t meant to be role models, but mental health specialists seem to believe they are on TV and in movies can impact the behavior of real people.

“When we glorify inferior behavior it might be extremely confusing to young audiences,” said David Klow, a Chicago-based Marriage and Family Therapist. “We are all quite impacted by the images that we see. It becomes much more confusing when the writing on a program or film is not bad and we feel for the character who makes poor choices and actions badly. It at least lets us discover the mankind in these types of characters and not see them as monsters.”

Although media has for many years depicted mobsters Tony Soprano was a gangster having an exposed side as well as a level of consciousness, in contrast to being completely sociopathic.

“He did have a moral compass, he only made a decision to deny it,” said Robert Thompson, PhD, television, radio, and film professor and director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in Syracuse, N.Y. “In the first episode he’s having empty-nest syndrome, his lad is turning 13, his daughter is clearly about to fly, the ducks that mean so much to him fly away, plus it begins his entire dysfunction. Along with the dislocation led him to make some important changes, the biggest one being he begins to actually become aware of who he is, what his life is, and what he does for a living and goes to some shrink. He’d only been going around doing what his family had been doing for such a long time, what it was presumed he’d do… Via a succession of occasions he’s offered a chance at redemption… He just chose not to go in the direction the moral compass was pointing.”

Yet viewers around the world hung in with him. They were able to relate to the vulnerable, mental Soprano who in one breath would whine about stresses at home or killing someone, as well as in the following try and get his shrink into bed.

“I think it was easier to link to Tony Soprano than it was to connect to Don Corleone of The Godfather,” Thompson said. “Don Corleone did have family, and there were parts of this character that did arouse empathy. But you actually saw [this in Tony], in the daily sort of stuff — like when he’s lying in bed worrying about some investigation and his wife says, ‘Tony, ya gotta get up, I’ve got to get to the Sports Authority to get socks.’ You’ve got this enormous organized crime narrative overlaid by the stupidest dialog that makes up most of that which we say every day.”

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The Role Model Myth

What happens to us when we get involved with characters, like Tony Soprano or Walter White on Breaking Bad, who engage in such dangerous, fatal, wrong actions? Or Don Draper of Mad Men, who is not a criminal, but can’t keep himself from sleeping around and drinking too much.

“Our films and television shows don’t consistently show us what happens to the bad man when he gets in trouble,” said Klow. “Yet we need to prepare ourselves on the consequences of our activities and figure out strategies to handle our caprices prudently.”

Thompson says we also have to be clear about how exactly a character is being viewed by us. “If we consider the characters we see in fiction should be role models, is Tony Soprano a great role model? No! Absolutely, absolutely, definitely not. But no one ever said — and I certainly wouldn’t want it to be the case — that all the characters we see in fiction and storytelling are role models.”

While he will not think fictional characters determine people to kill, have sex, or drink too much, he says they may have a remarkable impact on the culture when it involves superficial things such as hairstyles, clothing, and language that become part of the common vernacular. Think of Farrah Fawcett’s layered hair design of the 1980s in the peak of Charlie’s Angels, and Jennifer Aniston’s famous “Rachel” haircut in the heyday of Friends. And let’s not forget Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City placing Manolo Blahnik around the map or our acquaintance with all the phrase, “Is your final answer?”

“When it comes to these huge things, like killing folks, I think the cause and effect there’s far more sophisticated,” said Thompson. “As for the eating and all that stuff, Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo is a good example. At the same time I don’t believe it’s showing a role model, plus it does show what could be considered unhealthy options, although they eat Cheetos as a main course. I actually don’t know any sane individual who would watch and say, ‘Oh, I want to eat like them.’ This is a show where they have been presented — let’s face it — for us to laugh at them.”

“It is human nature to feel you know them when you do not, to admire them and want to be like them, even when that wouldn’t be good for you,” said Gail Saltz, MD, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, bestselling writer and television commentator. “It’s incredibly unfortunate that we do hold up stars like they are role models, because of course, actually they are just talented human beings, with a unique ability that doesn’t mean anything about their ethical fiber, their values, their customs or their health. We all can benefit from understanding this, and telling our kids, so that you can minimize the consequence of a want to emulate them…sometimes down a dangerous path.”

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