The first time Karen and Henry meet in Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s pivotal 1990 decades-spanning Italian gangster film, it is on a forced double date that precedes a back room meeting, with the sole purpose being so Tommy can “bang this Jewish broad”. Henry is beyond rude and Karen is timid, although timidly pissed as she has every right to be. Notably, she is dressed to the nines (complete with styled hair and a set of pearls) as she will stay for the duration of the film no matter the situation. When Henry stands her up on the second date she immediately requests, nay demands, to be taken to find him in order to ream him out in front of his cohorts. She is a formidable woman in action as well as spirit, content with embarrassing him in front of his friends without thinking twice while still acknowledging the attraction present between them. Karen’s love for Henry Hill isn’t quite blinding, but it does keep her complicit in his activities far longer than denial is an acceptable excuse for staying in the marriage, even as her role in the marriage deteriorates. Throughout the movie she vacillates from strong partner to admonished wife, the timidity that was once a small piece of her personality fully overtaking her at some points as a direct result of the culture she married into.
To fully understand how Karen’s steep diminishment as a partner, including outright abuse at the hand of her husband at times, is not only far from unique but completely expected it is necessary to look at it on a cultural level as well as one of organized crime. Karen is of Jewish decent, making her marriage one of two cultures coming together, an obvious parallel to Henry’s parents who are Italian and Irish. The latter couple’s marriage was overwhelmingly unhappy, with Henry’s father repeatedly beating not only his wife but also his children. This type of spousal treatment is therefore instilled in Henry from a young age as something that is acceptable, especially because society didn’t bother a second look at this behavior due to gender norms and marital expectations of the time. His fulfillment of an early life dream to become a gangster only compounds these formative examples of how to effectively treat women like an object. Marriage is mostly a necessary evil on the road to children here, as well as the only solution to the problem of everyone asking when you will settle down (a problem Tommy encounters consistently throughout the movie) Henry’s early comparisons of life as a gangster and being President of the United States ring all the truer in light of how many Commanders in Chief of the 50’s and 60’s were known to treat their marriages as something less than monogamous. These wives are props at best; privy to only the most important details of their husband’s business while still expected to be available at a moment’s notice for favors, errands, or keeping up appearances.
The difference between Karen and the other wives she socializes with is that the movie gives her a voice and a perspective of her own. She is never written out or entirely marginalized as things get increasingly dicey, nor is she positioned as powerless after a certain point in the narrative. Less powerful than at first, yes, but never completely defenseless. Her actions are an integral part of whether Henry’s dealings pan out positively or not. She is polite to law enforcement when they serve pointless warrants, she defers to Henry’s sensibilities on legal troubles while not jettisoning her own doubts, and yet her demure behavior is only meant for the public eye. She asks for shopping money as if it were an allowance for a kept wife, then offers up a kitchen blowjob that is presented as something close to an act of prostitution but upon second glance is a unilateral decision by a woman to please her husband. She looks down on the other wives, not only denying that they are her peers but refusing to become the kind of wife politely waiting for her husband to come home from prison or accept that he is a cheater. No other wives would dare show up to the apartment of their husband’s mistress and essentially slut shame her via lobby intercom for the whole building to hear. Chances are none of them would throw a log of prosciutto at their husbands in prison after seeing the same mistress’ name on the visitor log either. She does not fill the natural obligation of Italian wives to accept what their husbands do without another thought, and as such stands out in the midst of so many wives who choose to adhere to the traditional guidelines of Italian Culture. Karen is satisfied to take what she needs from Italian values and leave the corpse of those norms for the next wife who decides to do exactly what she is told.
Of most significance in how Goodfellas frames Henry and Karen’s marriage is that her personality butting up against the stifling nature of an Italian marriage in the 1970’s allows for the balance of power in their relationship to be ever-shifting. Karen falls just short of being a full-on time bomb while still managing to keep Henry on his toes. The fact that she bought into the marriage fully, with the knowledge her husband is dangerous and embracing the sexiness of those qualities instead of being hightailing it in the other direction, helps her stay out of the victim category completely. She repeatedly confesses her mixed feelings on the marriage, her love for Henry constantly outweighing the negatives of her situation. When threatening him with a gun because of his marital transgressions the camera places her in a position of power physically but not mentally. Hands shaking and stuttering out threats, she desperately tries to maintain the upper hand but eventually succumbs to his charms. When he is in prison she makes her ability to walk away without another thought and leave him to rot incredibly clear, allowing him to contemplate just how much she contributes to the partnership beyond being a mother to his children and sedate figure on whom his masculine temper can be projected.
Importantly, divorce is not an option because of adherence to traditions so where the ups and downs of their marriage would result in a divorce for a more mainstream couple they are stuck in that cycle in perpetuity. Henry’s stint in prison is essentially their “divorce”, a break from each other and a break from the demands of his lifestyle. His statement early in their marriage that “Jeannie’s husband went to the can just to get away from her, she’s such a pain in the ass. Nobody goes to jail unless they want to, unless they make themselves get caught” is a throwaway line until he does exactly that. As soon as Paulie tells him he needs to go back to Karen to maintain the appropriate outward picture of a committed couple, he makes a simple mistake and gets caught. It is telling that almost as soon as they got away from a life as Italian gangsters they separated permanently, being that the witness protection environment does not have such high expectations of their marriage as they were used to. As soon as her presence has no bearing on his reputation or success any longer she is gone, leaving him to make his way through life without the convenience of the kind of a wife willing to be complicit in his illegalities while still genuinely loving him. No matter the importance of cultural traditions or the baggage they have as a couple, Karen only sticks around until the lifestyle benefits of staying the marriage are far outweighed by the health of the relationship itself.