The Women of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas
By Shelby Cooke
When The Irishman (2019) was released on Netflix last year, Martin Scorsese was scrutinised for the lack of female characters (and dialogue) in his film. This led to an outcry from many, asking why our sweet mobster dad was neglecting women in his stories.
This conversation isn’t completely shocking because we all know Scorsese is known for his male-dominated mobster movies - they’re violent, they’re rowdy and they’re filled with more testosterone than a gym on leg day (see The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)). It’s valid to criticise Scorsese for not giving representation to half the population - and when he does, his women are overly sexualised and are there to please a man (or in most cases, drive them crazy). Some of his films fair better with female representation than others: in Hugo (2011), Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) serves as prominent of a role in the narrative as Hugo (Asa Butterfield), and in The Aviator (2004), Cate Blanchette is, rightfully, given room to shine as Katherine Hepburn. But perhaps the most surprising of female transformations in a Scorsese film is Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) in the acclaimed 1990 film, Goodfellas.
Goodfellas follows the true story of the rise and fall of mob henchman Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). In this hyper-real world of crime and violence, the men dominate the scene. But it's Scorsese’s dramatisation of the film’s main female character, Karen Hill, that helps to depict the intensely violent and suffocating world of the mob. On the surface, Karen is treated like many of Scorsese’s women: she’s abused by her husband, she’s depicted as a nuisance to Henry’s good times and she’s not exactly shown to be the smartest housewife out there.
Yet, there is more to Karen than what’s on the surface. Scorsese uses the physical and behavioural transformation of Karen’s character to symbolise the evolution of Henry’s intricate involvement in the mob. As the film progresses, Scorsese takes Karen from being an illustrious Jewish beauty with a bad temperament to a paranoid, coked-out alcoholic who has let life as a mobster’s wife beat her down.
When Scorsese first introduces Karen, she is the girl next door: he depicts her as prim and proper - almost innocent and pure - through stylistic choices. Her clothes are classic, stylish and modest, and her hair and makeup are simplistic, which gives off an image of a proper and beautiful woman who goes through life safely. But Scorsese also shows the audience her aggression - a fierceness brewing under the graceful surface. She has a bite and isn’t afraid to fight. Karen, in many ways, reflects the world of the mob for Henry in these early years. Much like Karen, there is this haze of beauty and grace surrounding the mob for Henry. At this early point in his gangster career, he is still in the honeymoon phase; he loves his life with the glamorous and stylish mob. But, also like Karen, there is an underbelly of trouble and mischief bubbling up in Henry's world, which is what he finds most attractive about both being a gangster and his soon-to-be wife.
This early version of Karen, who’s an outsider, ambitious and pure, starkly contrasts the other mob wives she mingles with. Scorsese dedicates an entire scene to comparing Karen with the other wives, drawing attention to her and Henry’s place in this social group. The mob wives - whose husbands have surpassed the level of naivety that still surrounds Henry - are presented as vulgar and excessive. Their makeup is unnatural, and they look aged and haggard. Their clothing is mismatched and their jewellery is bold and over the top. In appearance alone, they dramatically contrast the soft and posed appearance of Karen.
The dichotomy continues between the women’s behaviours: at this point in the film, Karen is reserved in her actions; she acts out when she needs to, showing that she is tough enough to stay in this world, but overall is calm and respectful. She is seen cuddling her kids and allowing the police to search her home without putting up a fight. On the other hand, the seasoned mob wives beat their kids, shout constantly, act brutish and speak their mind without any reserve. They represent, in both appearance and behaviour, the brute, gaudy and excessive life of the mob. These wives embody the collective identity of the “family” - whereas Karen still has her individual identity.
The other women are fully a part of the family, with no foreseeable future outside of it. Henry and Karen are still outsiders in this world. They both have yet to completely experience what it takes to become blood; they naively going through the motions of mob life, but it isn’t until Henry conspires against the family and helps Tommy (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy (Robert de Niro) kill Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) that he passes the threshold into the real mob life.
When Henry partakes in the murder of the “made man”, he is fully integrated into the mob world - it is the point of no return. And subsequently the beginning of his downfall. Henry has completely lost his former self and has begun to resemble the other mob members - he gets side girlfriends, he buys a garish house and he begins to lie to Paulie (Paul Sorvino). This is also the point when Scorsese begins to morph Karen into a proper mob wife. She starts dressing excessively with more bold jewellery and louder outfits and is more aggressive and erratic in her behaviour, most notably holding a gun to Henry’s head while he’s asleep. As Henry gets pulled deeper and deeper into the underworld, Karen slowly evolves from the respectable and sane woman she was at the beginning of the film to the garish and ostentatious wife of a gangster.
Finally, as Henry embarks on his career as a drug dealer and delves deeper into the underworld, Karen becomes even more of a different person. During the climax of the film, Scorsese presents a very different Karen from the proud, respectable woman she was at the beginning of the film. She drinks and smokes excessively, she does lines of cocaine, she looks worn down and beaten, she has dark circles under her eyes, she is unkempt and paranoid. She goes along with whatever Henry tells her to do - just like other loyal mob wives: this time when the police show up at her door, she doesn’t cordially invite them into the house. As Karen is pulled deeper and deeper into this abusive environment with Henry, she evolves and adapts to protect herself by physically and emotionally becoming a member of the mob.
Although Karen is transforming to match her toxic surroundings, there is still an element of her individuality remaining. Despite the gaudy jewellery, she still dresses in stylish clothing. Despite her haggard appearance, she never wears caked-on makeup; . in fact, by the end of the film, she isn’t wearing any makeup at all. Perhaps this is Scorsese’s way of foreshadowing that Karen and Henry will never truly be a part of the family. They will always be outsiders looking in. No matter how close they get to the inside, they will never truly be real Italian mobsters, which is why they can so easily give up the operation to the police.
Scorsese’s evolution of Karen’s appearance and behaviour mimics the violent, excessive and unhinged world of the mob. Karen morphs from being a well put together respectable woman to a paranoid, beaten down alcoholic. Karen becomes the embodiment of female oppression. She reflects a woman’s loss of agency in abusive marriages and the power men and environments have over captive women. By the end of the film, there are little to no traces of Karen Hill from the beginning of the film, only a woman who has let the mob world fully consume her life, down to her erratic behaviour and tacky jewellery.
is a founding member of Film East and is a freelance culture and media writer. She writes mainly on British cinema and society, with a special interest in the representation of national identity on screen. She has an MA in Film Studies from the University of East Anglia and is an expert on all things David Bowie. Her favourite films are: The Man Who Fell to Earth, Paddington (1 and 2) and Lady Bird.
Shelby's complete portfolio is available to view at uppergroundproduction.com and you can follow her @shelbscookie.