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Sons of Anarchy: A Little Stealth Feminism?

November 15, 2010
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The show was created by one of the creative team from The Shield, which I watched, and I’ve followed SOA from its premiere. Katey Sagal, who is married to creator Kurt Sutter, both plays a major character and co-produces — you may remember her as Peggy Bundy on Married With Children, but she’s come a long way.

I wouldn’t call it an explicitly feminist show, but there are a lot of things for feminists to love.  The strong women characters are not terminators with breasts, they’re real humans with full inner lives and complicated problems.  The plots often explore women’s lives in ways that mainstream shows overlook.  And the show humanizes women, like sex workers, who are too often presented as one dimensional.

[Spoilers in pretty much every paragraph ahead]

[Trigger warning for brief, nonspecific discussions of rape and other violence]

Strong Women

The show isn’t exactly a Hamlet retelling, but it’s a conscious parallel.  Sagal’s character, Gemma, is the Queen.  Her dead first husband and the father of her son, the show’s protagonist Jax, was the club’s founder, John Teller.  Her current husband, Clay, is the President who replaced him, one of the first nine members.  Like Hamlet’s father, John Teller’s ghost speaks to Jax through a manuscript that he left behind.  Jax is conflicted, has a close but fraught relationship with his mother and a close but antagonistic relationship with his stepfather.

This makes Gemma central to the club and to the show.  She’s involved in almost every aspect of the club.  She’s both powerful and vulnerable, both calculating and impulsive.  She’s no shrinking violet; almost always armed, she’s willing to kill people to protect her own – including the mother of her grandchild, who just survived an overdose that she arranged.  But her character doesn’t begin or end with machinations.  We’ve seen Gemma as a den mother, a grandmother, and a tutor to new women around the club.  The show is set in Charming, Califonia, among the redwoods, and the crusty, corrupt old Sheriff says that she left and brought an outlaw biker gang back with her.  (Her relationship with him is deep.  They’re friends who have known each other for forty years or more, and there’s no hint of sexualization in how they deal with each other.)  We’ve seen her selfish and selfless, searching for faith, putting her father in a nursing home, and we’ve seen her scared and weak and we’ve seen her take charge. 

Her relationship with Clay (played by Ron Perelman) is almost unique in television.  She’s fiftysomething, and so is he, and they’ve been together since the early 1990s (or maybe before, but those are my guesses about plot twists).  She’s going through menopause.  Yet she’s a sexual person, and they’re a sexual couple.  They love each other, and they fuck.  She’s not there as eye candy, either.  She’s not a sex object – never in the show, really.  She’s a sexual agent.  She’s a fiftysomething women who wants to get fucked, and she’s not ashamed of it, and it’s neither played for sentiment nor for laughs.  Find me that on broadcast.

Largely because of Gemma’s central role, many and probably most episodes pass the Bechdel Test.  There are usually two women characters with names who talk to each other about something other than a man.

Jax has a girlfriend, Tara (Maggie Siff), a doctor with whom he has a history since high school.  She’s a pediatric cardiothorasic surgeon who could have gone anywhere, but returned to a town in the Northern California woods whose only claim to fame is as the national seat of an outlaw motorcycle club.  She’s brilliant, hard-headed, possessive, and constantly trying to maintain an inherently unstable balance between law-abiding doctor and the old lady of the club Vice President.  She’s endangered her medical license several times and just skirted felony charges.  This doesn’t sit well with Jax, who is really stuck.  He’s unwilling to kick her out of his life and keep her away from the club that could destroy her, and his efforts to push her away have not worked, at least not in a lasting way.  But if she’s in, she’s too strong-willed to be anything but all the way in, doing favors for the club that could be disastrous.  And she knows it.  She knows at some level that it’s a crazy decision to dive full-on into club business, where she’s patched up a shot IRA splinter group terrorist, helped dispose of a body and sold black market medications.  But she’s a grown woman and her mistakes are hers to make.

Through seasons two and three, we’ve watched Tara’s relationship with her supervisor change from outright antagonism to alliance, and we’ve learned that the supervisor had her own saga with substance abuse and a boyfriend on his way down the tubes.  That rollercoaster has some sharp turns left in it, too.

In the first season, Jax’s best friend, Opie, had a wife, Donna.  Donna was less a part of the club family than either Gemma or Tara.  After Opie did five years in prison on club business, she wanted him out.  In a tragedy that ended season one and drove the plot in much of season two, she was gunned down in the front seat of her husband’s truck by another club member.

There are other women who have significant screen time and places in the plot.  Cherry, for example, becomes the old lady of a prospect – a club member who had not yet achieved “full patch” membership, and later travels to Ireland.  Her place in the club and her motivations and her relationship with Gemma get significant attention.  They started out on a rocky road – she slept with Clay out of town on a run, but then followed the club back to charming trying to get close to the prospect, Half-Sack.  When Gemma finds out that she’s broken the rule that what happens on the run stays on the run, Gemma is overwhelmed with jealousy and breaks Cherry’s nose with a skateboard.

The Scottish biker, Chibs (Tommy Flanagan, instantly recognizable from the “Glasgow Grin” scars where attackers slashed the actor’s face on the street long ago), has a formidable IRA affiliated wife (and in the third season, a daughter), and John Teller turns out to have an ex and a daughter in Belfast, who we meet in season three.

Finally, Opie’s new girlfriend is a porn star, Lyla.  Opie is a recent widower, and he’s still raw.  Their relationship has been a challenge for her because he’s closed down emotionally, and because he has issues with her work. We get to see these issues as much from her perspective as his.  More about that below.

Taking Violence Against Women Seriously

One of the things that this show has in common with Sutter’s last show, The Shield, is that the protagonist and his companions, the core of the cast, are doing very bad things all the time.  Making a bunch of outlaw bikers who deal guns, or in The Shield, a group of corrupt cops, sympathetic requires creating a moral vortex where they appear palatable because everyone else is so much worse.  (Interestingly, the club is a heavily fictionalized Hells Angels, complete with Northern California headquarters, war veteran founders and a longstanding feud with a latino club, but the creators chose to have them make money running guns instead of drugs because the latter would have turned off too many viewers.)

One way the creators have created antagonists that the viewers can root for the club against is to use neo-Nazis as foils, in the first and especially the second season.  The other is to make them men who hurt and kill women. 

The first real gorgon that we meet is Tara’s ex-boyfriend, an ATF agent from Chicago.  Played brilliantly as a seething control freak and the very picture of an abusive ex by Jay Karnes (another Shield veteran), he tries to get Tara back by intimidation and then threatens the club to get to her.  Finally, he overplays his hand, ending his law enforcement career, and having little left to lose, tries to rape Tara.  She shoots him instead.  He doesn’t die right away, but when Jax shows up to help Tara, the ex is still spitting venom.  When he declares, “once a biker slut, always a biker slut,” Jax executes him and buries him in the middle of nowhere.

Also in the first, season, when an important local businessman’s daughter is raped by a carnival worker, the club steps in to impose vigilante justice.  Since he’s a child rapist, he’s very unsympathetic.  This being an outlaw motorcycle club, they play it for advantage, and there’s a catch.

In the second season, a group of white supremacists tries to take over the town and collapse the club.  The leader is played by Alan Arkin, and his enforcer by Henry Rollins, who has come a long was as an actor and carried it off very well.  His character is a racist absolutist surrounded by opportunists, and he manages to pose the question of which kind of evil is more loathsome.  And Rollins’s character is really, really loathsome.  He captures and gang-rapes Gemma.

One of the major story arcs in the first season is how Gemma deals with the aftermath, with who she wants to tell and who she doesn’t or can’t, and her eventual decision to tell both her husband and her son, which she needed to do to get them almost literally to let go of each other’s throats.  There are a number of great scenes between her and Tara.  Also, Gemma has a nuanced relationship with Sheriff Unser, who she grew up with, and the relationship isn’t played either as sexually loaded or even as an old flame.  They’re just friends.  Her process with him and the aftermath of the rape is great low-key drama.

Some of the less nuanced violence against women moments are pressed into stock white knight duty to burnish the club members.  Jax, for example, beats the tar out of a guy who hits his girlfriend at a convenience store, rescuing the damsel in distress, though we later see that she can’t live the outlaw life and goes back to the abuser.  I thought that bit was mailed in.

Cherry, who featured in parts of both season one and two, and now in three, first took up with the club – actually, an affiliated club – when her abusive husband died in a suspicious fire.  Eventually, she has to leave the country because the fire was no accident – but that’s okay, in the SOA cosmology, because her husband beat women.  If that’s the moral calculus of this fictional world, I’m on board.

Sex Workers Are People, Too

So there’s this guy, Otto.  He’s a member, he’s in prison for a long stretch – and now he’s blind, because someone hurt him to provoke the club.  His wife, on the outside, needed to support herself, and she moved from performing in porn to producing, and built her own production company.  When she started getting pressure from outside and needed protection, she made the club her partners. 

The first interesting thing about this is that Jax sees it as the way to go legit.  In his moral calculus, while running guns is a danger to the club and the community, partnering in a porn company or even pimping some of the performers who trick is cleaner money.

The second interesting thing about this is that Lyla and her friends from the studio are around a fair amount.  They’re not a monolith.  Some are sweet and some are assholes.  The woman who tried to get Jax in bed even though he’s attached is a shit, but not because she’s a sex worker – just because some people are like that.  Lyla, on the other hand, is wonderful.  She doesn’t love doing porn, but she doesn’t hate it either, and she tells Opie that she wants a few more years to make some money in it while she “still looks like everyone’s kid sister.” 

Opie has issues with the work, and the show is written so that his issues are not justified; they’re just his issues.  When she is supposed to be backing someone up and gets distracted because his girlfriend is on a box cover in a porn shop, he’s the one in  the wrong.  When he blew his stack because Lyla and others were making semi-amateur porn with some gangsters as a favor to the club, and blew up a good deal, he was the one who did the wrong thing.  Lyla is patient; she understands that the emotions happen.  But when he says something nasty to her about her business after her friend gets Jax to cheat on Tara, she smacks him.  She’s patient, not a doormat. 

The thing that’s most unique about Lyla, though, is that she’s material.  There’s kind of an unspoken rule in the culture that women can’t be both sexual and maternal; it plays with men’s whore-madonna narratives.  Lyla doesn’t have kids of her own, but has a son of her own, and Opie has two motherless children, and she’s wonderful with them. 

However, Opie has a long way to go before Lyla can be sure he’s someone she can be with forever.  So when she gets pregnant, she asks Tara for an anonymous abortion provider.  Tara goes with her, and schedules her own, because she’s pregnant, too.  (As I write, that plotline is unresolved.)  Any judgment is something the viewer brings to it – the place is clean and professional and nothing bad happens – just as if abortion were a common medical procedure that a large swath of the women in the US had once or more in their lives.  It may be that, because of Tara’s pregnancy, which I suspect she ultimately will not terminate, the writers wanted to have Lyla get her abortion first, unremarkably, so as not to look like all those other shows that bend over backwards to avoid it.  But even that would be an important conscious choice.

Plenty Of Sluts, No Shaming

When was the last time you heard a man called a slut in a television show?  In Ireland, Gemma was desperate to keep Jax from finding out that Maureen Ashby’s daughter Trinity was his half sister, and her mother had lied to her about who her father was.  When Jax (having broken up with Tara) hooked up with her, they had to stop it.  So they barged in on the two getting undressed.  Maureen made a side remark about the “little slut,” and Gemma said, “yeah, he is.” 

There are groupies, “crow eaters” (after the Charming chapter’s acronym SAMCRO, for Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original) who fuck club members.  When the club needs a favor, they’ll sometimes ask these women to show a nonmember a good time.  On one occasion, the payback the woman asked for was a night with Jax. (Lead Charlie Hunnam is attractive enough for that to make a lot of sense.)

Nobody’s sexuality gets shamed unless they’re raping someone.  Even the compulsive masturbator that the club sort of adopts, while played for laughs, has been humanized and is somewhat sympathetic.  Lots of people want sex.  As long as it’s all consensual, it’s all good.

The Wrong Notes

The biggest thing that bothers me about the show is Agent Stahl, who is a collection of villainess stereotypes.  Some of it is unavoidable, and some should have been avoided.

Some of it is unavoidable because, in order to make viewers root for gunrunning outlaws against the cops, the cops have to be really, really bad.  Anyone who watches Boardwalk Empire, about a prohibition-era political boss, knows that the religious and upstanding lawman is in fact an obsessive and sadistic zealot.  Well, Stahl is an obsessive and sadistic zealot who caused the death of an innocent by deliberately making the club think that one of their own had turned.  While this feeds the stereotype of the manipulative woman, her machinations would still make some sense if her character were a man.  She has to be bad to make it work.

What they didn’t have to do is make her sexuality a stereotype, too.  The two-dimensional manipulative villainess fucks for pure pleasure or to get what she wants, but is loveless – incapable of it, probably.  True to stereotype, after Stahl appears in Charming, she and the well-built Deputy Sheriff get naked in the office together, but she’s just using him and he soon learns that he can’t trust her.  Then, this season, we find that she’s also sleeping with her partner at ATF, another woman Special Agent.  When Jax finds out, he isn’t surprised that she’s pansexual, but that she’s sleeping with someone she works with, and she concedes she “never seems to learn.”  Maybe she’s just using her or maybe she just doesn’t know how to end it, but true to stereotype, Stahl sets this lover up, too, by procuring testimony against her.  That line hasn’t played out yet either.

The other thing that rankles is Tig.  He’s Clay’s enforcer in the club.  In bits and pieces, we’ve learned that Tig is deeply misogynist.  He says nasty things about women, so much so that the other bikers comment on it.  He has a rap sheet that includes sex offenses.  He makes remarks about slapping around hookers.  In the first season,  it looked like he was being set up as a villain within the club.  His misogyny was at the forefront and he was being positioned as someone we should want to see killed.  At some point, that changed, and it seems to have changed consciously.  Someone liked the actor or the character, and the misogynist stuff dropped out.  Since then, he’s been written as oversexed but not predatory.  That’s a problem for me, because I can’t unlearn what I know about Tig.

It’s not a perfect show and it doesn’t wear its feminism on its sleeve, but FX’s quirky, dark little biker show isn’t what you might expect.  It’s one of the best shows for complicated women characters on basic cable right now.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Visan permalink
    November 15, 2010 6:07 pm

    Sons of Anarchy rocks! The women are strong, smart, flawed, sexual and beautiful! They are multi-dimensional. No one-note broads! About time the sho got recognition for it’s great storylines!!!!

  2. AnneBonney permalink
    November 15, 2010 7:46 pm

    [Some spoilers.]

    I love this show, for a lot of the reasons you mention, and I have been really conflicted about Tig since Season 2. While all the over the top misogyny just layers on the crappy, the thing I still can’t get over he had had sex with corpses, and that the editorial perspective of the show treated that as a joke, or a personality quirk, rather than a deeply upsetting dovetail to his attitude towards women. But, his obvious affection and loyalty towards Gemma goes a long way towards making him much, much more palatable; their scene together after he finds out she had been raped and they nearly have sex was very, very interesting and felt realistic.

    I think we’ve yet to see where there going to take him, but the show seems to think that his sexism is just one set of issues, on par with Opie’s or Jax’s. The worst part, I think though, is that they are really going at rehabilitating him, and for me at least, it’s very nearly working. Is it humanizing the character or manipulating the viewer? I’m not sure yet, but it is one of the reasons I watch; I enjoy challenging TV, even when I feel uncomfortable.

  3. November 15, 2010 10:03 pm

    Lyla has at least one child — a son. She may have one more but I’m not certain.

    Good article

  4. NicoleZZ permalink
    November 15, 2010 11:50 pm

    Lyla does have a kid. A boy I think to be specific. One of the first times we met Lyla she had her kid with her and talked about how she had to drop him off at school so Opie gets one of the hang-a-arounds at the Teller-Morrow Garage to take them. Otherwise a great article!

  5. Van permalink
    November 16, 2010 12:07 am

    Great article, I love SOA.

    There was a little mistake though, you said Lyla doesn’t have kids of her own. She does, a little boy named Piper. We’ve seen him with her and, Opie’s kids on more than one occasion.

  6. dee permalink
    November 16, 2010 12:53 am

    Yes. Lyla does have a son. His name is Piper.

  7. November 16, 2010 11:27 am

    Sounds awfully upsetting. Think I’d pass even if I did have cable. I’d rather see Married with Children.🙂

    • November 16, 2010 2:06 pm

      It’s a dark show. It’s not a complete moral wasteland like The Shield, but it’s dark.

      • torrie permalink
        January 1, 2011 2:13 pm

        The Shield wasn’t a moral wasteland – Lem was pretty much the moral compass, that was the whole point of his character.

  8. Hel permalink
    November 17, 2010 5:16 am

    I’ve started watching SoA, pretty much entirely because of this post, and so far, as of ep 8, the worst thing Tara has done is give them surgical tools to patch up the IRA guy. Anything she does after that, I think needs to be taken in context of the trauma of Kohn’s actions, and the fact that Jax killed Kohn to save her. That would really put one in a weird headspace, one likely prone to actions of questionable ethics.
    As for Tig, he is a misogynistic perv, but he’s also a human being, and his misogyny isn’t the only facet of him, even in this season. I could absolutely see how he could in later seasons become a better person.
    It’s definitely a nuanced show, with characters with a lot of depth.

  9. Sarah permalink
    November 25, 2010 8:06 pm

    I love the show–this post has really made me appreciate it in a new light! Thanks!

  10. December 29, 2010 8:56 pm

    I globally like Sons of Anarchy, but the episode where they agree to go and eliminate a trans woman was a bit too much for me, between the act in itself and the way they talk of her…

    **SPOILER**

    Though, I actually enjoyed the end, because she is portrayed as the easy victim who, yet when the cop comes to arrest her she just shot him and runs away. But it’s a bit difficult to find the SoA crew sympathetic after that…

  11. Mark P permalink
    October 17, 2011 4:40 pm

    And how does this show now measure up, after this last episode which showed that two members of the gang used a stripper for sex (Jacks, seasons past, and Opie in that episode), which resulted in Jacks beating her, threatening her life, and spitting in her face while choking her, all because THEY had sex with her? Seriously, one of the most disturbing displays of sexual violence on television I’ve seen in a while. They fucked her, and it’s her fault.

  12. April 22, 2012 7:43 pm

    I agree that this is a complicated show with women characters that are played with many different strong attributes. But there is so much on the show that is over the top violent and mysgonistic that I find it hard to watch. Even though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn this is true to life, it just makes it harder to see.

  13. maria_iks permalink
    September 11, 2013 8:02 am

    This is something the most stupid that I ever read. You really don’t have a clue what feminism is. The real feminist would not take all those shit that happen in this show. It is just another show that treats women like some stupid, brainless robots who would do anything for the immoral, cheating bastard in the name of love. No smart woman would waste her life on a guy who is so disgusting like Jax Teller.

  14. Claire Bentham permalink
    January 2, 2014 11:11 pm

    The show is actually much more misogynistic and damaging to how society views women than it is feminist, and that the misogyny is so subtle makes it even more damaging.

    None of the female characters are responsible for their actions, there’s always someone there to clean up their mess, so they never need to go on the narrative of the Hero’s Journey like is expected of Jax, who starts naive, to grow into a hero and make difficult decisions. Women in the series are treated like children “suffer the children the kingdom of heaven and let them come to me” in that they are not responsible for the damage they cause, they are innocent. They need to just run to Jax or someone in the club to handle their problems for them. Even a character Otto who resembles Job from the Bible (even going as far as to get angry at the tests he’s given) who had everything taken from him is not given the same pity as Tara, who has all of her problems for her up until season six solved by someone else, and is naive, and she has the nerve to say “you have no idea what I’ve been through”

    Women cannot grow into stronger characters unless they go on the heroes journey, and become responsible and accountable heroes with difficult decisions, choices, and tests with real repercussions, which would also make them a lot more interesting human characters. Both the men and the women characters in this series are responsible for perpetuating this.

  15. kdlsfd permalink
    May 7, 2014 10:07 pm

    While you do have a few interesting, valid points (particularly the Lyla stuff), I think most of this is misguided. Gemma, yes, she is an extremely interesting, multi-dimensional character (she’s pretty much the only reason I watch the show from time to time) and, like I said, the Lyla stuff you wrote is pretty interesting and has some merit too. However, the fact that you say Ima is a “shit” because she “tried to get Jax in bed even though he’s attached” is quite a remarkably UNfeminist way to look at what happened – Jax cheats on Tara, and it’s the other woman’s fault?? No. It’s Jax’s fault. That brings me to my next point – Tara is BEYOND pathetic – and it seems the creators of this show only somewhat realize that. She ruins her career and puts herself in grave danger all for the “love” of some man who barely respects her at all and when he pretty much tells her to go away and stop (sooo pathetically) calling “the club” her “family,” the viewers are supposed to think it’s “cute” or something that she just keeps clinging. So, yes, some of the female characters are interesting (Tara, in my opinion, is absolutely not one of them – thank God they finally killed her off), but this is sooo far from a “feminist” show – not even a stealthy one lol.

    • May 13, 2014 8:14 am

      I think the last two seasons have destroyed whatever understanding of the women characters the show originally evidenced. One possibility is that Katey Sagal, who in addition to playing Gemma acts as an EP and is also married to Sutter, had more influence in character creation and story early, and that her influence has waned or expired, with sad results.

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