Sons of Anarchy: A Little Stealth Feminism?
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]
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.