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The first word of Mario Puzo‘s novel The Godfather (1969) is “Amerigo,” the name of the Italian explorer which was feminised by the cartographer Martin Waldseemuller in 1507 to provide the American continent with its own name. According to Waldseemuller’s collaborator, Matthias Ringmann, Amerigo only ended up as America (via the Latin “Americus”) “since both Europa and Asia got their names from women”. Vito Corleone will later listen, “like a priest in the confessional, gazing away into the distance, impassive, remote,” as this particular Amerigo – the undertaker Amerigo Bonasera – repents of his love of America, as if she was a faithless woman, in a blasphemous undoing of the Oath of Allegiance. The Godfather is thereby launched with a character who symbolises a repentant, re-masculinised America.

In such an America, Vito Corleone‘s face would feature prominently on Mount Rushmore, alongside those of his sons, and possibly with that famous horse’s head peeping out the back as well. Yet the vision of America being redeemed by a bit of masculine bravado may seem fanciful or nostalgic, leading one to detect the hand of a sentimentalist who just could not cope with America, with its loneliness and cruelty. Why else would the most basic building blocks of America – its capitalist economy and ingrained individualism – be swept away and replaced by a cosy, musty tribalism, in which the transactions between citizens appear to be replaced with the loyalty of “the family”?

Within the context of American history, this is not such an original initiative. The Mormon experiment at Salt Lake had re-imagined civic society as a huge family contract, which adopted those who could not depend upon their own wherewithal and duly rewarded their loyalty. The Mormons took resources such as water into state hands and they converted the institution of the family itself into a sort of contributory public enterprise, in which those who contributed the most to civil society could marry more wives and sire more children.

At first glance, Mormon civic society and the social institution pioneered by Vito Corleone may both appear to be grossly, almost flamboyantly patriarchal. Yet they pose an interesting challenge for the feminist: can a society which essentially regards women as serfs be realistically opposed as “masculinist” when in the very act of making men, it denies them their independence or any capacity to succeed using their own resources? Indeed, The Godfather is predicated on the belief that the world is ultimately stacked against honest and law-abiding men, and that a man cannot succeed unless he flees to Don Corleone for protection – comparable circumstances to those which force most women living within a patriarchal society into marriage.

Don Corleone may himself respond that only his family can make men, since America otherwise castrates them. He sneers at American society and its citizens for being weak, passive, and by implication, female. When Amerigo Bonasera demands revenge, the Don is moved to sarcasm: “give me your word that you will put aside this madness. It is not American. Forgive. Forget. Life is full of misfortunes.” For the Don, America may undoubtedly possess virtues – such as wealth, civilised attainments, and resources for men to plunder – just as a woman may similarly offer beauty and love. But he otherwise scorns and defies this society on essentially misogynistic grounds.

Yet this equation of America with femininity is not wholly sound in the example of his son Michael Corleone, which invites us to compare Michael’s old world and new world wives. Michael’s European bride Apollonia could not be a more perfectly submissive woman and he keeps her as “almost his slave,” savouring the fact that, “a young full-blooded girl aroused from virginity to erotic awareness was as delicious as an exactly ripe fruit.” Still, with her animal physicality and brave, boyish name, Apollonia is a lot more spunky than Michael’s second bride, Kay Adams, whose American femininity is comparatively weak and synthetic. If Apollonia tastes like an “exactly ripe fruit,” Kay is more cheap gum.

Michael views Kay as a “fair and fragile body, milky skinned and electrified by passion,” and this exceedingly Aryan ideal makes Michael’s Italian identity seem darker and murkier in comparison, recalling Frantz Fanon’s description of Antilleans arriving in Le Havre whose “dominant concern… was to go to bed with a white woman.” For Fanon’s black immigrant, making love to a white prostitute fulfils a “ritual of initiation into “authentic” manhood,” and Michael’s conquest of Kay is likewise a conquest of a wider America, a leap out of the shadowy pit of his Italian identity. Kay may end up as merely a tacky souvenir from a land where Michael might have settled, but their relationship initially signifies his freedom within America – the extent of his power over this otherwise racist and intolerant society – in ways that medals and an article in Life magazine do not.

Michael loves Kay for “her sweetness, her intelligence, and the polarity of the fair and dark,” whilst Apollonia provokes “an overwhelming desire for possession.” Once Apollonia is on the scene, “Kay was wiped completely out of his consciousness.” In truth, she means little to him. After Michael emerges as the novel’s hero, he quickly requires a loving heroine and Kay is merely the nearest practical woman to hand. He here stipulates the conditions of their contract:

“…I won’t be telling you what happened at the office every day. I won’t be telling you anything about my business. You’ll be my wife but you won’t be my partner in life, as I think they say. Not an equal partner. That can’t be.”

Beneath his apparent sympathy to Kay, we may grasp the vivid sense of his heartless disinterest and her gormless acquiescence. Kay squanders the more liberated femininity extended within American society in order to be buried under the Corleone patriarchy, a fate which seems airily tragic but ultimately unavoidable because she lacks any true will to power. Weighed against Apollonia, her femininity seems to be contaminated by a spurious mental overdevelopment, and Michael’s family will judge her to look “too sharply intelligent for a woman.” We may have assumed that Kay was an educated, free woman, because she went to an American college, but her innocence becomes comically apparent when compared to the knavishness of her parents, two old squares who will save the day when the police turn up by gamely showing a bit of Corleone spirit.

As readers we may initially feel a certain solidarity with Kay because she is, like us, an outsider in the Corleone underworld. But this drippy woman promises a plotline which will never materialise. She will not be torn between loving her husband and standing up to his evil, because she never finds the heart to mount any moral case against him. What one assumes should be the novel’s climactic scene, in which Kay’s conventional morality collides with the ruthless reality of Michael’s existence, ends up petering out after Michael does not even appear, sending Tom Hagen to speak on his behalf. When Kay offers a bit of sarcasm, Hagen speaks “harshly” to her and she falls silent. During the subsequent conversation, she learns that in a family of gangsters, asking her husband to stand godfather to her in-laws’ child comes under the category of “business” and that this is henceforth none of her business. In a patriarchal society, women are invariably consigned to the domestic realm, but Kay is even excluded from this.

In effect, the whole material world is intended only for men and whatever remains should be left to the women. Perhaps a woman should never set foot out of her husband’s bedroom. Michael dreams of “owning” Apollonia and “locking her in a house, and keeping her prisoner only for himself. He didn’t want anyone even to see her.” We are told that, “In Hagen’s world, the Corleone’s world, the physical beauty, the sexual power of women [ie the only power they have], carried not the slightest weight in worldly matters.” On the other side of the fence, the villainous Captain McClusky is of the same mind: “He never confided in his wife on anything. She thought they lived the way they did on his policeman’s salary.” Vito tuts that, “You let women dictate your actions and they are not competent in this world, though certainly they will be saints in heaven while we men burn in hell.” If the Don’s ever-attendant companion Tom Hagen is effectively his earthly wife, the proper place of Mama Corleone, who daily prays for the Don’s soul, is as his ambassador to the next world.

One is niggled by an ironic sense that this story should purely concern the exploits of men, and that women are only ever portrayed when they exert their inevitably destabilising influence over men’s affairs. Unlike Mama Corleone, who grumbles harmlessly about her husband “playing the fool,” her daughter Connie will cluelessly get under the feet of the fighters, demanding that Sonny carry out her own revenge on her husband, Carlo, and then becoming enraged when Carlo is killed to avenge Sonny’s death. Her mistreatment at Carlo’s hands will not shake Vito’s faith in patriarchy, leaving him to merely remark that, “Even the King of Italy didn’t dare to meddle with the relationship of husband and wife.” No doubt to his mind, Connie will become suitably submissive once her husband has learned to act like a man, and injecting a bit of testosterone into their marriage indeed has this effect.

Even the story of  Lucy Mancini is told only because it lead to the crucial meeting between Johnny Fontane and Jules Segal, and once the men end up plotting together, Lucy withdraws silently into the backstage world of marriage. Lucy provides an example of a woman who must be taken in hand with expert skill and sensitivity. Perhaps we regard Sonny Corleone as heroic because of his huge penis, but Lucy, whose vagina seems to be tailor-made for him, apparently needs an operation to have her vagina compacted. One cannot imagine Sonny agreeing to have an operation to shorten his penis to regular size.

The Godfather was published a year before the appearance of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, and if Greer deplored the alienation of women from their libido, Puzo’s flashy Doctor Jules conceivably embodies everything that she deplores. Even the lovemaking of this high priest of the patriarchy conceals a professional research interest, and he ends up teaching Lucy about her own vagina. “You are medieval, you are positively medieval,” he declares, although he seems to otherwise settle for the eighteenth century. He and Dr Kellner pose around Lucy’s vagina like teenagers around a pool table, so that, “Dr Kellner made his incision with the confidence of a pool shark making an easy shot.”

Just as American society can only be mastered by one such as Vito Corleone – a ruthless patriarch with a solid sense of duty and justice – a woman can only be saved from moral anarchy by the leadership of a seasoned man. Yet this anarchy often derives in the first place from a woman’s instinct for justice – to want the various obligations towards her fulfilled – and when a relationship is reduced purely to commerce, the essence of America in fact, then such anarchy may assume nightmarish proportions.

When Johnny Fontane abandons his marriage, he invokes a sort of curse, so that “His career had gone to hell, his voice had gone to hell, his family life had gone to hell.” He ends up being subsequently married to a “whore tramp of a bitch,” and then lost and uprooted amidst the sexual adventurers of Hollywood: a nightmarish world of zombie whores, who are uniformly animated by an aimless, predatory sexuality. Even though there are no end of “broads” for him to choose from and he “never slept with any girl unless there was something about her he really liked,” Johnny finds the bargaining for casual sex wearisome. Yet he knew that “he could not afford not to love them, that something of his spirit would die if he did not continue to love women no matter how treacherous and unfaithful they were.”

When women are not ruled by men, they are no longer recognisably human. We are told that “a year after Sonny’s death” Lucy still “grieved for him more fiercely than any lover in romance,” but it turns out that she is grieving for Sonny’s cock rather than for Sonny. Johnny is left cold by the attentions of a woman who “resembled nothing so much as a female animal in heat” and which he knows to be  “a deliberate act… a fake.”  The face of Johnny’s first wife will light up with “a look of savage and joyful satisfaction” when hearing of his failed voice, leading Johnny to realise too late that, “Women really hated seeing their men doing too well. It irritated them. It made them less sure of the hold they exerted over them through affection, sexual custom or marriage ties.” Luckily, we are not offered any further glimpses into this murky realm of uncultivated femininity.

Johnny is a narcissist who loves his voice more than his wife, and he will be sustained more by his imported friend Nino than by her. He is so inadequate (or so much of a cunt) that his life will be only turned around by a gynaecologist. The gangsters regard a “ladies’ man” as “a greedy infant always at its mother’s nipple – in short, unmanly.” Johnny and Fredo Corleone both fit this bill, and they end up consigned to a gender purgatory, between the cynical dependence of women, their natural inferiors, and the independence of men who can make it using their own resources. Counter-intuitively, Fredo’s penchant for “banging all the cocktail waitresses… two at a time” (and no doubt spilling the drinks) goes hand in hand in Michael’s eyes with “allowing himself to be physically humiliated by a man like Moe Greene” as “degeneracy.”

Yet powerful men appear to only exist as an idea in Hollywood, where everybody, even Moe Greene, seems to need sponsorship and assistance. According to Deanna Dunn, there are no real men in Hollywood: “Johnny is one of the few men with balls in this town… The rest are all fags and sick morons who couldn’t get it up with a broad if you pumped a truckload of Spanish fly into their scrotums.” Significantly, this most American of cities is also the most emasculated. The Godfather’s mastery of America is an inspiring moral battle that should be re-fought down at the level of every individual marriage, and here the difference between anarchy and authority is simply self-evident:

Don Corleone’s face had become cold without a hint of sympathy. He said contemptuously, “You can start by acting like a man.” Suddenly anger contorted his face. He shouted. “LIKE A MAN!”