Outside of the Bada Bing Club Tracee lights a cigarette, soon to be followed outside by Ralphie, her lover and effectively her boss; he works with and for the owner and famed New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano. Tracee had insulted Ralphie’s manhood inside the club in front of his friends, in most ways a lover’s quarrel. Ralphie plays a doting lover, putting forth ideas of suburban homes and their child that Tracee is pregnant with. Ralphie then switches to extreme cruelty, expressing that he hopes it isn’t a girl so she won’t end up a “cocksuckin’ slob just like her mother.” Tracee pushes, screams, and punches Ralphie in the face in anger, only to have her whole body slammed against the metal roadblocks and head caved in by Ralphie’s fist. Ralphie later claims that Tracee “fell,” which, to Tony Soprano’s credit, he calls bullshit on. But Tony exclaims that Ralphie was “disrespecting the Bing” — the club, not the woman — and even in death Ralphie blames her. “It’s my fault she’s a klutz?” When her dead body is discovered, Tony and the other mobsters at the Bing stare over her body. Tony exclaims, “Twenty years old, this girl!”
The University episode of The Sopranos is one of the most controversial episodes of the entire series due to the graphic nature of Tracee’s death, having resulted in an uptick of HBO subscription cancellations — at least according to the actress who plays Tracee, Ariel Kiley. It’s the only episode within The Sopranos in which the audience can see how the New Jersey mobsters that make up Soprano’s men interact with their employees at the Bada Bing Club. It’s not that the Bing isn’t featured in The Sopranos otherwise; quite the opposite. The Bada Bing Club is in almost every episode, serving as a space for Tony Soprano’s men to not just make money but also to take out their own lack of emotional regulation on the club’s employees, from the bouncers to the dancers. But the University episode is the only one in which any of the dancers actually talks in any meaningful way; where she’s more than just an intro shot while dancing or background as grown men play at big crime. Tracee, the only named and personified stripper of the Bada Bing Club, is often brought up as an example of how The Sopranos treats women horribly — which is also true. Women are treated horribly on The Sopranos, but the reality is that if one only takes away from The University episode that the show has a problem with misogyny, well they would be actively ignoring the fact that Tracee’s murder at the hands of Ralphie didn’t just happen because she was a woman, it happened (and is excused in the world of The Sopranos time and time again) because she was a sex worker.
Every aspect of the targeted violence against Tracee, outside of the systemic violence of poverty and misogyny, happened to her directly due to her work at the Bada Bing Club. Violence from her bosses (Silvio punched her in the face because she didn’t show up to work for three days, and her lover Ralphie, a made man, technically is one of her bosses), coercive sex with a cop, and her eventual gruesome murder — which is of course then covered up quickly. Her death is but a plot point to make Tony seem sympathetic through his emotional connection to her death — but the way he justifies his interest in her death is because it “disrespected the Bing” and he constantly underplays throughout the whole third season (and into the fourth) the clear impact Tracee’s death had on him. Tracee’s death is used as a plotline for Tony’s humanization. Their connection, however minor, had an impact on Tony and him holding a grudge towards Ralphie for her death is meant to humanize Tony. As Tony is a narcissist though, it’s much more likely that he was using even her dead corpse as a way to have attention and command power. That’s not to say he didn’t care for her on some level; but that if he really cared for her, wouldn’t she have had better working conditions in the club? For some reason he couldn’t admit to the shame of grieving a whore, which is what he’s reminded of every time he would bring up her death. “But Tony, she was a whore.”
It’s difficult to watch the scene where Ralph kills Tracee for basically anyone with a stomach – and a heart – but as someone who had been literally beaten by a client while working in an abusive dungeon, watching that episode wrecked me. Not because a woman had been murdered on the screen but because a sex worker had, so brutally, and her blood-coated body was voyeuristically stared at by everyone. There is no other woman on the show who is beaten so brutally; there’s none other whose death is meant to be a statement on her life. Men in The Sopranos aren’t known for necessarily treating women amazingly but the levels of targeted disgust, control, and humiliation that was extended to Tracee would never have happened to a non sex-working woman on the show. It’s also interesting to note that Ariel Kiley, the actress who portrayed Tracee in the show, blogged that James Gandolfini himself actually made the decision to exclaim after Tracee was murdered, “Oh god, so young, only twenty years old.” The original screenplay actually had Soprano telling his men to be careful to not get blood on the carpet they were rolling her body up in. Gandolfini was right to know that the audience would react poorly to his character going the uncaring route, so instead they attached Tracee’s death to some kind of indicator of Soprano’s morality. Like yes, he is a mobster, but look at his unspoken grief? When he finally beats Ralphie to death over an abused horse (in the eleventh episode of season five, The Test Dream, which resulted in a write up in The Baltimore Sun mourning Ralpie’s death), he screams “You fucking killed her!” and we all know he’s not talking about the horse.
Even good criticisms of the show’s misogyny in this episode (and generally), do not really emphasize the fact that Tracee was a stripper. When they do, it’s always to fall into the Madonna-Whore Comparative narrative of Meadow, Tony’s daughter who loses her virginity in the same episode, and Tracee being painted of course as this victim of circumstance. The audience is meant to grasp that Meadow has been given every opportunity in life, both educationally as well as within her romantic and familial relationships. She goes to Columbia, she’s able to pursue men at her own pace sexually and she has her mother Carmela, Tony’s wife, who can offer her support. Tracee, on the other hand, grew up with an abusive mother, has a child by the age of twenty (she was pregnant with a second child at the time of her murder), and works in an exploitative working environment The Bada Bing Club. To be clear, there is nothing inherently exploitative about stripping (nor sex work in general), but the working conditions of that specific club were atrocious.
There is a lot to be said about the odd parallels of various kinds of organized criminalized labor and the often gendered (even though, not always) differences of the work, the fact that the Bada Bing Club itself serves as almost a junction of mob crime along with stripping. It’s interesting that in the world of The Sopranos their work is completely respectable, despite the body count, while with Tracee in her contexts the route that The Sopranos chose to go, instead of a thorough exploration of how these worlds intersect, the route of doom for the “fallen woman,” while their made men get big homes and outwardly happy families. Sex work is often a way for people to work their way out of poverty into levels of financial stability; Tracee was denied this dream and even have it laughed in her face right before she’s murdered.
The working conditions at the Bada Bing Club are obvious from the get go because the bouncer of the VIP room directly states that if you want to go to the VIP room and make a couple grand, you have to pay out to him AND give him a blowjob. This conversation happens twice, in the beginning of the episode and after Tracee’s murder, while the bouncer talks to the new girl hired (it’s implied she was hired to make up for the loss of Tracee in the money pool). This is also a very clear sign of an abusive working environment when you’re a sex worker in a managed space, not just the demands for extras but the fact that often the workers are so in and out that it’s barely noticed when they are gone.
If you work in a semi-criminalized to fully criminalized work environment, there is often no way to organize as workers, or organizing is perilous. There are no sort of protections of any sort and often the law is against you, which can be seen by the scene of Ralphie rawing Tracee as she’s forced to suck the cock of a gross cop. It’s common for sex workers to be raped by cops, both by going undercover as clients and arresting them afterwards, as well as extorting money or threatening arrest. In a study mentioned in a SWOP USA report in New York City, up to 17% of sex workers interviewed reported sexual harrassment and abuse, including rape, at the hands of the police. The likelihood of cop harassment increases if you work outdoors and are at a higher threat of surveillance; however, it can and does happen in managed spaces as well with a Chicago study referenced in the same report 30% of erotic dancers in managed spaces and 24% of street-based sex workers identified a police offer as their rapist.
When they include the brief scene of Tracee being eiffel towered with Ralph and the cop, they expressed the clear relationship between law enforcement and abusive working environments in sex work. Margaret Prescod, Founder of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, was correct in declaring that law enforcement was designed to “uphold men’s power over women in order to uphold their own power over everyone.” Even though she may have been referring to law enforcement’s tendency to ignore the serial murders of Black sex workers in Los Angeles in the 1980s at the hands of The Grim Sleeper, it’s important to be reminded that when sex workers are murder victims, especially those who work outdoors under high police and societal surveillance, their cases are labeled by law enforcement NHI, or “No Human Involved.” This term is often also used for those who are houseless or have a history of chronic drug use.
When Tracee is found dead by Ralphie’s hands, they know they have no reason to worry, because no one is coming to check up on her. The tail end of the episode shows girls gossiping at the Bada Bing about what they think could have happened to Tracee: “I heard she went outside with Ralphie and never came back.” Her co-worker replies, “Do yourself a favor, keep what you hear to yourself.” Sometimes working conditions can feel hopeless; it can feel safer to watch your own neck than show solidarity with your fellow worker. But also one can hardly blame other sex workers for trying to navigate a managed space in a criminalized system. It took me a long time to move past the fact no one came and checked in on me when I was being beaten, despite my audible yelling rooms away. It took me an even longer time to rightfully place the blame on the owner who allowed the man that beat me to return to the dungeon, even begging me to allow him a chance to “apologize” for crossing my boundaries. Managed spaces that toe the line between the civilian and criminal worlds, a part of the demimonde if you will, create difficult conditions for labor organizing because the only recognized labor deserving of protections in the eyes of society is labor that isn’t criminalized. This is seen in how the club operates with law enforcement to keep the status quo, to keep the club worker in line and silent, still allowing 50% of the profits to go to men who aren’t even in the room half the time. Envisioning a world where Tracee isn’t murdered, gets radicalized and tries to organize the club, we know Tony would have her clipped, so it’s ironic that her death is used to highlight “Tony’s Humanity,” when in all reality even if Tony did care for Tracee, he cared about his bottom line more.
The facts are that Tony Soprano made Ralphie a Captain, promoting him in the structure of the mob, after murdering Tracee, even if it was only because he felt he had no other option. Despite Tony’s disgust for Ralphie, again he chooses what he’s “supposed” to do for his business instead of processing his anger over Tracee’s death. Ralphie got to wipe Tracee’s murder out of his life, her presence barely noticed when gone, just another body on the long list of bodies that exist in the wake of the New Jersey and New York City mobsters. Tracee never gets a funeral.
But unlike the other bodies on that long list, Tracee existed to fill an archetype: the hooker with a heart of gold, the woman fallen from grace, Tony’s make-shift daughter, the whore to Meadow’s madonna. She is written so as to be pitied, a poor girl with a hard and bluntly ended life. It is also very clear from the get go that we are not to expect good things for her — after all, every time Tracee’s onscreen it’s for the audience to be reminded of how her fate is inevitably, irrelevant of what it is, completely out of her control. Either she stays at the club after an abortion, marries Ralphie, has the kid, and really gets that dreamy suburban existence never promised to girls like her, or she ends up staining some mobster’s carpet. Maybe it’s due to the brevity of her character’s presence on the show, but Tracee’s character was never allowed the nuance for an attempt at autonomy or control; she is ripped from the chance therefore forever stuck as a disposable whore to the criminals of the mob. Criminals who also approach each other with various levels of disposability, but allow real grief to coexist with that. They might kill each other but they’ll show up at the funeral and make sure their wives are taken care of after the fact — what of Tracee’s family? The Sopranos chose to let her stain the carpet but she could never get a normal good work environment nor could she lift herself up outside of poverty into some sort of middle class wet dream. Representations of sex workers in television so often exist to remind us that horrible things are not only expected for us but inevitable, excusable, and necessary for story development. When Tony Soprano has to grasp his grief over Tracee’s death, he can only comprehend his pain in the personification of Tracee through a horse named Pie-Oh-My. It’s telling that the only acceptable thing to grieve in his world is his dead horse; whenever Tracee is brought up mournfully, people downplay her death with her status as a sex worker.
When will the day come where we have representation in which we are not dead at the end, abused, or exploited? When will we have our days in the sun, with stories of joy and community? In some ways The Sopranos portrayal of Tracee did allow for levels of connection to sex working characters that many audiences usually wouldn’t have had at that time (the episode aired April 1 2001; Tracee died before 9/11). However, even the things that they use to humanize her are based in pity for her life. This often happens in portrayals of people who trade sex: they’ve gotten caught up in something outside of their control, they’re going to be harmed, and even if they have a heart of gold, they’re going to be victimized in some way. In reality, even though there are people who are survivors within the sex industry, the things that lead to victimization is the combination of criminalization, stigma, and poverty. Imagine a world where Tracee wouldn’t have had to suck that cop off because she wouldn’t have had the law at her throat for saying no. Imagine a world where she could sue Silvio for punching her in the face. There are so many creative and innovative routes a person’s life can take; so why do so many media portrayals attempt to decide our destinies for us? I would love to know in the current timeline in The Sopranos reality if the Bada Bing still exists and if the dancers have more control of the business now; I want a Bada Bing Club Collective. The Sopranos is an amazing story that still rightfully grips audiences to this day, but imagine an alternative world where Tracee survived, where she got revenge on Ralphie and Tony let her walk scot free. Imagine if our liberation was a plotpoint instead of our demise? The Sopranos wasn’t willing to.