Screenshot via HBO, Instagram Sticker via Giphy
What do Tony Soprano from The Sopranos and Jack Pearson from This Is Us have in common? They both, apparently, support Joe Biden for President, according to the artists that had a hand in creating them.
Our relationship to the things we’re fans of has gotten thorny. Over time, it has grown from a lovely little piece of shrubbery into a wild, untamed jungle. If it’s not women marrying Severus Snape on the astral plane, it’s Voltron fans holding leaked episodes hostage unless their ship is made canon. As the creators of these things we love become more and more available to fans, fans have started asking more and more from them, leading to an uncomfortable tension where fanbases can sometimes hold a lot of sway over creators—or where corporations can leverage fandom into exploitative relationships.
It’s October, the season of celebrity endorsements for presidential candidates, and the celebrities are, well, doing that. Seeing the collision of fandom and electioneering happen makes sense in spaces that are more niche, where marginalized people tend to gather. Fandom is a traditionally nerdy space, and while that doesn’t always mean that it’s representative of the marginalized experience, online fandom is often made up of women, queer people, and non-white people who see something they relate to in what they’re obsessed with. They become defensive of their favorite characters or couples because they see the things they’re fans of as speaking to them in a specific, special way. I’m not sure fans of Milo Ventimiglia’s character in This Is Us have quite the same relationship to Jack Pearson and Voltron fans had for the Klance ship. But Ventimiglia seems to feel like it’s worth telling the Jack Pearson fandom who this character would vote for.
Similarly, Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti on the acclaimed HBO drama The Sopranos has declared that the show’s lead character, Tony Soprano, would vote for Joe Biden. David Chase, the lead writer on the show, has said something similar in a New York Times interview in 2019, intimating that he felt that Tony wouldn’t like Trump. Imperioli takes it one step farther, though, by explicitly telling fans on Instagram that Tony Soprano took a class with Cornel West and changed his political understanding.
Imperioli told Vanity Fair, “I’m taking ownership of the confusion between myself and the character and trying to control that narrative instead of letting it get away from me…. Taking these memes and the politics and just trying to say, ‘the Sopranos are woke now, and they’re campaigning for Biden.'”
Celebrities campaigning for Biden leverage their powerful fanbases in other, smaller ways as well. On October 13, the Biden campaign held a virtual event called Trek The Vote, featuring huge names from various Star Trek shows including Patrick Stewart, who played the beloved Captain Jean-Luc Picard. The site where fans can RSVP for the event is decked out to look like a recruitment site for Starfleet. Aaron Sorkin, filmed a special reunion of The West Wing for the organization When We All Vote, which premiered on HBO Max on October 16, and also features messages from Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton urging viewers to vote. Although When We All Vote is a self described “non-profit, nonpartisan” organization, it is pretty clear who the creator of The West Wing and all its characters is supporting in the election. The episode that was filmed for the special, Hartsfield’s Landing, is all about voting—it takes place the day before a crucial primary as President Bartlet runs for re-election. The special itself is pure fanservice. Sorkin does not imbue the material with any new magic, directing the episode as if the camera was an impartial observer of fact. Still, the melodrama that Sorkin loves so much feels particularly pointed. In one scene, the White House Communications Director implores President Bartlet to make this an election about “qualified and not.” It’s the Sorkin version of a wink and a nod; a reference to current events that’s about as subtle as a brick. The characters aren’t telling to vote for Biden, but at the same time, they’re practically screaming it.
In the intro to this special episode of The West Wing, actor Bradley Whitford, who plays White House deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman on the show, appears out of character to explain why they’re doing it. “We understand that some people don’t fully appreciate the sentiment of unsolicited advice from actors,” he says. “We feel at a time like this, that the risk of seeming obnoxious is too small a reason to stay quiet.” I admire the sentiment, but it’s absolutely wild to me that Whitford, Sorkin, Imperioli and Ventimiglia not only think people will care, but need the characters they’ve played to share their political opinions.
Tony Soprano worked in organized crime. He cheats on his wife and murders people. He’s a racist and a homophobe. For that and for many, many other reasons, he’d probably vote for Donald Trump. I never watched The Sopranos because I believed he was a good guy, though. I watched it precisely because he was a piece of shit. The tension between his already dying brand of macho and a more progressive world was what was interesting to me. I don’t need him to be good—I need him to be good television.
As adults, we all have the ability to read between the lines, to interpret meaning where there is none. It’s why we see animals in the clouds, and Jesus’s face in a piece of toast. It’s also why we don’t need Milo Ventimiglia to tell us how Jack Pearson would vote. We have the ability to look at that character’s choices and values, and decide if they are the kind of person we would like to be. Fiction allows us to learn about ourselves and our world not by simply recreating it wholesale, but by placing it in stark relief. It doesn’t really matter how Tony Soprano would vote. It’s more about what we have learned by watching him, and he doesn’t have to be a good example for us to learn something. In fact, there has never been a better time to study a criminal piece of shit.