UK

TikTok’s mob wife aesthetic is far from the harsh reality of women in Italy’s world of organised crime

American Fiction: scathing and accurate portrayal of the obstacles black writers face in publishing

I am sitting in a cafe in downtown Naples listening to Signora Anna* give me an update on her life since her husband (a mafia boss) came out of prison. She has dedicated her life to him, keeping her family together while he was serving time in different prisons across Italy.

Signora Anna is someone who might be called a “mob wife”, but her world and look are galaxies away from the mob wife aesthetic that has become popular on TikTok. There is no fur coat, no big sunglasses, no bright or bold coloured t-shirts or cheetah-print tops, no black little dress with predominant cleavage, no Louis Vuitton handbag.

There is no excess or luxury on show here. There is no self-confidence either, no glamour, no tough cookie act or arrogance of superiority. Just the face of hardship, poverty and survival.

This new TikTok trend is inspired by The Sopranos’ 25th anniversary and the American TV series “Mob wives” (a kind of Big Brother-meets-The Godfather). It is a commercial product rather than a reflection of the gritty reality of Italian mafias and organised crime. As someone who spent time with real mafiosos and mob wives, I am confused by this trend.

There are so many contradictions with the representations and portrayals of mafia women today. We continue to use the male gaze and regard them as glamorous and irrelevant actors (“bimbos”) only interested in frivolous things. From my experience of real mob wives, this lies in direct contradiction of the very essence of mafias.

The real mafia women dress code

Mafias are by nature secret societies, although some are more visible than others. Their main aim is to control territory, make profit and launder their illegal gotten gains into the legitimate economy and access politicians. This makes ostentatious clothes a no-no, but cultural variations among mafias means that differences exist.

Italian mafia wives are different from American mafia wives because a structured Italo-American mafia developed during the 1930s within a different historical context of capitalism and the American dream. Although the Italo-American mafia is presented as a predominately male only mafia, the bosses of the five families in New York in the 1930s (Bonannos, Colombos, Gambinos, Genoveses and Luccheses) all had discreet wives by their side.

By the 1990s, the new generation of Italo-American bosses were fully integrated into civil society and the business world and their women had become a bit less discreet, shy and invisible. This reflected American society’s fascination with the mafia, celebrities and flashy culture. These are glamorous women who appear as trophies on the arms of their men without a care in the world, rather than normal women with daily concerns.

Film and TV had a large hand in this. Films like Scarface (1932) and The Godfather trilogy (1972 to 1990) created a mould of what a gangster ought to be. They were followed by a wave of films in the 90s like Goodfellas (1990), King of New York (1990), Donnie Brasco (1996) and others.

Surprisingly, Hollywood’s simplifications, misconceptions and stereotypes have been taken on by some of the criminals themselves. I have interviewed former mafiosi who have explained to me how they were inspired by films like The Godfather, how it dictated their dress code and mannerisms.

These films also inspired many different images of mafia women that confuse and overlap our understanding of them. They are at once objects and extensions of men. They can have it all and are empowered by dressing in a bold way. They are effortlessly unaware or ignorant of the violent criminality and sophisticated money laundering techniques used by their men.

American mafia women have an ambivalent status. They are predominantly portrayed as passive bystanders, fashion icons with no real criminal agency.

This is very different from Italian mafia women – Sicilian, Neapolitan and Calabrian. At the higher leadership level, women have traditionally remained tactful and invisible for the good of the organisation. The invisibility of women is key for profit and the long-term survival of the clan.

When women are seen, they dress in black (like good Mediterranean widows) or sober colours, as mafias have understood that this deflects attention from them and their possible criminal complicity. This sartorial choice projects that there’s “nothing to see here”.

In this way, Italian mafia women have always been portrayed as passive and ignorant bystanders, not visible and loud mob wives. Important Italian mafia women may like branded clothes, luxury and exotic holidays but they will never show off. Their discretion as well as their participation is vital for the existence of the crime group.

A prime example is Maria Licciardi, known as “a piccirella” (the little one), who was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2023. Licciardi ran extortion rackets as the boss of the Licciardi Camorra crime syndicate clan and was known as a true “madrina” (godmother).

Another example was Angela Russo, known as “nonna eroina” (grandmother heroin), was suspected of being a drug courier between Palermo and the Italian mainland. While on trial in 1982, she explained she had, in fact, been acting as boss.

TikTok glorifying the criminal underworld

More recently, at the street level of the mafias, things might be changing. The use of Instagram and TikTok have exploded among the young. Naples is a particular hub of TikTok production with many focusing on mafia images, symbols and messages as well as neomelodica music (Italian pop music).

Women are part of this showing off of social status in posts flaunting their latest clothes, their plastic surgery and holiday destinations. However, if these women were important in the crime group they would probably not be showing off in this way, and rather would try not to be seen.

Often these constructed images are empty, superficial illusions that hide the everyday misery, suffering, sacrifice and survival strategies of many women and families. There is no “Mafia chic” but rather the daily worries of putting food on the table, not getting caught or being killed by rivals, and keeping your kids off the street so they don’t join the up-and-coming clan.

Many of these women come from poverty. Facing bad housing, lack of education and few job opportunities, the only real way of making money and of survival is through the illegal economy and organised crime groups. These illegal money-making opportunities, however, are not stable, which means that a steady flow of income is not guaranteed.

Signora Anna, for instance, has to work long hours undertaking backbreaking cleaning work to pay her rent, bills and buy food for her and husband, who cannot work. Money is still very tight, there is often nothing to spare and sometimes women like her end up penniless.

The TikTok trend is fundamentally a distraction from addressing the real hardships that girls and women deal with within organised crime spaces on a daily basis. It contributes to our normalisation of violence and the excessive wealth that bosses make illegally. It also perpetuates the stereotype of women as bystanders who benefit from the crime while not being active participants in it.

Reading the latest fashion articles on the mob wives phenomenon, I am left with a sour taste in my mouth as mainstream and social media naively replicate and amplify some of these simple stereotypes. TikTok might be full of young women presenting their mob wife looks, but ultimately they end up trivialising and glamorising mafias and organised crime that remain a real social problem.

*Not her real name.


Looking for something good? Cut through the noise with a carefully curated selection of the latest releases, live events and exhibitions, straight to your inbox every fortnight, on Fridays. Sign up here.


The Conversation

Felia Allum is a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).