Sons of Anarchy: Analyzing Masculinity

After a successful run, Kurt Sutter’s hit series Sons of Anarchy ended on December 9th after seven years. The show features strong story lines, characters facing moral dilemmas, and surprising twists that could either end triumphantly or tragically. What I found most interesting about the series was how the show was inspired by William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Season 1 begins with young Jax Teller, vice president to the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original (often referred to as SAMCRO), involved in gun-running and dealing with various rival gangs. He finds a manuscript written by his father expressing his discontent with his club. Having read this, Jax intends to turn the club into a legitimate business, often clashing with his stepfather, Clay Morrow, and his mother, Gemma Teller-Morrow. Clay is inspired by King Claudius from Hamlet, while Gemma plays the Queen Gertrude character; however, Gemma’s character draws some inspiration from another Shakespearean character: Lady Macbeth due to her ruthless and calculating nature. While Sons of Anarchy (or SOA for short) provides an engaging story, the article will focus on masculinity as a form of power, as well as violence against women.

The members of the Sons of Anarchy portray real masculine behavior and traits, including danger as a form of excitement, a callous attitude towards women, and masculinity defined by how tough and violent they are. Throughout the series, the crew participate in countless motorcycle chase scenes, played against rock or metal songs, to emphasize their thrilling lifestyle as an outlaw. Another example focuses on Half Sack, a prospective member for SAMCRO and club president Clay Morrow. He confides to one of the members of SAMCRO about his lurid attraction towards Gemma, not knowing that Clay is standing behind him. Later that day, he meets a woman named Cherry, becoming increasingly attracted to her; however, Clay intervenes to spite Half Sack. This scene reveals several ideas of masculinity: men thrusting their authority and women being treated as objects.

Opie Winston
Opie Winston (played by Ryan Hurst)

Not only does the show depict the members of SAMCRO enforcing their masculinity, but also presents characters struggling to meet the masculine expectations. One of the memorable members of SAMCRO is Opie Winston, recently released from prison and Jax’s best friend. Unable to make ends meet, Opie decides to rejoin SAMCRO. For Opie, he struggles with his masculinity because he is unable to provide for his family. After the murder of his wife, her death forever changes him, yet he refuses to publicly mourn her death. Instead, he intends to find the person responsible for her death, going as far to inflict violence. Loyalty is an important value and attribute, but this quality can have a negative impact. Thinking under false pretenses that Opie and his wife ratted out the club, Clay and fellow member Alex “Tig” Trager plan to kill Opie for betraying the club; however, Tig accidentally kills Opie’s wife, Donna. Tig is consumed with the guilt, but refuses to express his culpability, yet one scene shows Tig holding a small doll, crying and saying “I’m sorry.” No other member is nearby to see Tig in such an emotional state, allowing him to privately mourn without jeopardizing his masculinity.

Another example is Juice, agreeing to help the federal authorities in exchange for a family secret that would jeopardize his association with the club. His complaisance, however, leads to him killing a fellow member. His affiliation with the feds, along with the guilt of killing an innocent member of the club, leads Juice to attempt suicide. Although he survives the attempt, Juice’s suicide is not viewed by the rest of the members of SAMCRO as a cry for help, but as a sign of weakness, one that could lead to him being expelled from the club. Because the members of SOA exhibit behavior and ideals of masculinity, the men are expected to be robust, virile, and tough. In fact, this season showed Jax confronting an old mentor, Jury, who explains to him a possibility that his father, John Teller, sacrificed himself to save the club and his family. Although Jury viewed John Teller’s death as a sacrifice, Jax interprets the allegation as a suicide. For Jax, believing that his father committed suicide would alter his perception of him. Therefore, SAMCRO reinforces traditional gender roles, with these men strongly believing that masculinity defines them.

Gemma Teller-Morrow
Gemma Teller-Morrow (played by Katey Sagal)

One of the pivotal characters is Gemma Teller-Morrow. If this series has taught audiences anything, it’s that Gemma would do anything to protect her family. That being said, most of her actions are on behalf of the men in her life. At first glance, Gemma Teller commands attention, carrying a gun, arguing her way out of a situation, and proving to everyone that she can save herself. As a strong woman, Gemma represents “the potential to challenge and undermine female gender roles by appropriating the characteristics of toughness generally associated with the masculine” (154). But does Sons of Anarchy truly portray a strong woman who is equal to the men of SAMCRO? The women are expected to be faithful to their men, but the rules do not necessarily apply to the men: Clay, for example, was able to have sexual relations with Cherry. Kerry Fine states that “the man ‘owns’ and controls the women’s sexuality, but she does not own or control his” (163).

Season 4 ends with Jax becoming the new SAMCRO president with Tara by his side
Season 4 ends with Jax becoming the new SAMCRO president with Tara by his side

Jax’s love interest, Tara Knowles, represents a character foil for Gemma. She stands her ground and occasionally seeks advice from Gemma in regards to her role in SAMCRO. Yet, season 6, depicted a major character arc for Tara. Facing the possibility of prison, Tara undergoes a series of trials to prevent her sons going in Gemma’s custody. Like Gemma, Tara will do anything for her family. This is possibly the first time audiences see Tara going against Jax. Arguably, Gemma, throughout the series, trains Tara to becoming a strong figure for Jax, implying that she must stand by him at all costs; however, Tara’s association with Jax and the club places her life in danger. For example, Tara severally injured her arm, threatening her career as a surgeon. Throughout the series, Tara sacrifices her own life and career for the sake of Jax.

Although the show depicts strong female characters, such as Gemma and Tara, these two women continuously face violence throughout the series tenure. In Season 1, Tara is harassed and stalked by a former lover, while in Season 3 she is kidnapped by a rogue member of a rival gang due to her association with SAMCRO. As for Gemma, season 2 primarily focused on a storyline where she is assaulted and raped by a rival gang as a message to SAMCRO. While the storyline showed depth to Gemma’s character, this storyline proved at times hard to endure, especially when Gemma grows increasingly distant to her family, displaying emotional and psychological reactions. These storylines centered on the female characters of Sons of Anarchy that depict violence reveal story for the sake of entertainment.

As of 2009, The Wrap published a study conducted by the Parents Television Council reported an increase in television storylines depicting violence against women; the PTC implied that the violence on TV could impact viewers by desensitizing them. Although the report is old, consider the number of shows currently on air that feature a storyline centered on violence against women: Mellie Grant from Scandal, Anna Bates from Downton Abbey, Vivian Harmon from American Horror Story, Joan Holloway from Mad Men, Claire Underwood from House of Cards, the women preyed upon by a serial killer in the television series The Fall, just to name a few. Karen Valby, a writer from Entertainment Weekly said it best,

“the idea that there are stories to tell about the sources of women’s anger, her ambition and fear, her brokenness and resolve, that don’t involve pinning her under some man’s heaving chest.”

With Gemma’s rape, she refuses to tell the truth to Jax or Clay. According to Kerry Fine, she argues that Gemma “delays seeking justice…until she can engineer the situation so that she reaps maximum benefit” (167). Throughout season 2, tensions rise between Clay and Jax, who believes that Clay was responsible for the death of Donna Winston, Opie’s wife. With Jax deciding to permanently depart from the club, Gemma decides to tell Clay and Jax the details of her assault and rape. Although Gemma finally discloses the truth, the reasons behind her decision allow Jax and Clay to reconcile, and Jax deciding to stay in the club. While Gemma gets revenge on the people responsible for her attack, her decision benefited others first, as opposed to benefiting herself.

"I'm not a good man. I'm a criminal and a killer. I need my sons to grow up hating the thought of me."
“I’m not a good man. I’m a criminal and a killer. I need my sons to grow up hating the thought of me.”

The series ends with Jax Teller meeting a similar death to his father, intentionally crashing into a semi-truck. We understand that Jax was shocked at the idea that his father committed suicide, but by the end Jax accepts the fact that his father was trying to protect him from a life of crime; therefore, Jax does the same to protect his sons from the dangers of the club. What made the series interesting was providing a perspective on the outlaws. The outlaws were the heroes, while the law was depicted as corrupt. However, there were moments in the series where the outlaws and the law were not much different, living a life filled with corruption and violence. Jax takes responsibilities for his actions and discovers his dangerous lifestyle led to the death of the people he loved. He comes to terms that his lifestyle is not something to strive for. One scene in the finale shows Jax speaking with Nero Padilla, an associate for SAMCRO, asking Nero to promise him that his sons will not becoming like him. By killing himself, Jax intends to break the cycle, forbidding his sons to endorse in a lifestyle that permits masculine behavior and violence towards women.

Works Cited

Fine, Kelly. “She Hits Like a Man, but She Kisses Like a Girl: TV Heroines, Femininity, Violence, and Intimacy.” Western American Literature 47.2 (2012): 153-173. Web.

Teinowitz, Ira. “Study: TV Violence Against Women up 120%.” The Wrap, The Wrap 28 October 2009. Web.

Valby, Karen. “Hey TV: Stop Raping Women.” Entertainment Weekly. Entertainment Weekly, 27 February 2014. Web.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Contributing writer for The Artifice.
Edited by Danny Cox, Venus Echos.

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26 Comments

  1. I hope they eventually make a sequel. I want to see abel and opies son raise hell.

  2. Son Billings
    0

    I love the way it explores themes of masculinity. I think feminism is great but men often get demonized, and I love how gender roles and why they do and do not work is a major SOA theme. Many things I can’t understand as a heterosexual female that identifies as a girl, and one of the many things that is so great about Sons of Anarchy is that it gives women a peek into the inner struggle many men today deal with regarding contemporary issues and timeless moral and ethical struggles. What it means to be a man, and the idea of brotherhood and all that jazz is super-interesting, and I LOVE how the male characters on the show can say “I love you” to one another and hug and kiss and it’s not considered “unmanly” or “weird,” but accepted for the what it is: real love and bonds between people.

  3. I was hoping that the season would continue with Otto losing some body part every week.

  4. They killed off the best character though…(Piney)

  5. Venus Echos

    Thanks Amanda for this article on SOA.

  6. LORINDA
    0

    BEST SHOW!!!! GOONG TO MISS IT SO MUCH!!!

  7. Great Ending with some eastereggs.

  8. Edward Deena
    0

    Wow, it’s hard to fathom that one of my favorite shows is all over. I’m so glad I re-watched that final confrontation between Jax and Jury just before watching the series finale. Jury’s thoughts about the death of Jax’s father made the final scene of this episode all the more impactful for me. I guess Jury was right all along.

  9. Aside from the heavy handed symbolism at the end, I liked the bits with just the crow on the road sign, and the homeless woman’s “last supper”. The ending looked way too composited and I wish they had not shown as much as they did just because that kind of took you out of the moment.

    I also like to think of Milo (Michael Chiklis’ character) was the ferryman of death. He ferried Gemma to her final destination, and was there to do the same for Jax. Although I think a better touch to that ending would have had Milo not act surprised and not said a word. The “Jesus Christ!” bit was too much.

    Overall great ending. They tied everything up in a nice natural manner. Nothing seemed too fast or sped up. It’s interesting how as a society we all want to root for the bad guy. I personally was just waiting for most of these guys to die. There were some good members there though, but Tig still being alive? Happy? lol And we lose Op! Oh well, still a great ending to a great series. Very western and cowboy like. I guess that’s why I loved it so much.

  10. Jason Schabinger

    Kurt Sutter is a fantastic writer on every level of the story

  11. Still expect it to comeback and open up with Ethan Zobelle as the villain.

  12. I thought it was a prefect ending. Jax went out his own way,without putting the burden on his brothers. He was no longer a son so he could end his own life,note he gave his patch to chibs. He got his kids out like tara wanted. Some say he could have done right by them but don’t forget he had to meet Mr mayhem.

    He sacrificed himself so his kids and club were now free.

  13. Bad ending IMO.

    The sons dont kill themselves, Jax told it earlier to Juice.

    Now he broke the rule once set by his father.

  14. The gender relations in this show were always one of the things that kept my interest in it, at least for the first few seasons. It seems counter-intuitive, but portraying this community where everyone knows and acts in support of specific sexual roles provided a really good opportunity for really great female characterization. That seems to have gotten less true in the last 3 seasons or so. For me it seems like the show was less self-aware in that aspect, and crossed the line into gratuitousness and shock value (Jax beating up the porn star comes to mind).

  15. Pretty good show. There were lots of highs throughout the seasons but just as many, if not more, low’s and mediocre episodes.

  16. Morgan R. Muller

    Interesting article, I will definitely have to take a look at the series!

  17. Brianna

    This show portrays a very masculine image, but once you see the show you see a lot of masculinity, but the females also do not get demolished from power and it makes for a great storyline.

  18. wonderful analysis. thanks for writing it.

  19. LaurenCarr

    Great article! I have to admit, I never got into Sons of Anarchy. It seemed so contrived…

  20. valerio
    0

    Loved this show and I loved the ending. It brought tears to my eyes a bit when he was taking his final ride. He obviously wasn’t a “good” guy and did so many awful things but I wouldn’t call him an evil character and I think he redeemed himself a bit with his final actions. He did what his father couldn’t and got his children out of the endless cycle of violence.

  21. Kristian Wilson

    I shouldn’t have read this. I wasn’t aware there would be spoilers.

  22. Matt Phillips

    I really liked the end, what you describe as Jax ‘breaking the cycle.’ I think you’re right. Overall, I felt the last season was pretty… well, boring. Not much happens in the episodes and they seemed to drag out scenes in the name of high drama (except it doesn’t work). My thought was that the series simply went on too long. One thing to note: Jax also breaks tradition when he insists the club vote in an African American member…

  23. I think the ending was strong, and well made. The final season in itself was boring, basically because they killed off a ton of people in season 6. The whole point of the show is that Jax is trying to take his club towards the direction his father wanted it to go. He deals with the dilemmas of family and friendship along the way making difficult decisions, but in the end it was what was best for everyone.

    The Sons will continue to live through Tig and Chips at the head of the table, but they will also be able to tell the tale of all the members who’s lives were lost for the good of the club. Opie, Piney, Juice, JT, Clay and most importantly Jax.

    Jax wanted to die because he knew then and only then would his boys be free of the violence his lifestyle bestowed upon them. He still felt responsible for the death of Tara, regardless of the fact that he had nothing to do with it. If he had left SAMCRO back when she had first asked him, a lot of things would have been different. He put SAMCRO ahead of his family most of the time, the only way to fully get out and start over would be to kill himself.

    He didn’t take the cowards way out, because he faced all of his problems. Unlike Juice who couldn’t handle the guilt of the things he had done. SAMCRO didn’t want to lose him, and were willing to lie for him. He was a hero in their eyes, and did his best for the club. He just knew this part of his life was over, and he couldn’t go back and fix the things he did

  24. The ending to Sons of Anarchy was nothing short of poetic. I like to see Jax look at the trouble he caused and take responsibility. It showed that even though his father started the club, he wasn’t immune from the club’s code and rules. And the moments where he ties up all the loose ends and the montage of everyone as The Forest Rangers’ “Come Join the Murder,” just sends shivers down my spine every time.

  25. Harley
    0

    I apologize, I did not really feel the need to engage in everyone’s proposed synopses

    Ya you guys are dorks, for sure – you should know that your moral framework is of no use…..

  26. Harley
    0

    I apologize, I did not initially really feel the need to engage in everyone’s proposed arguments, but…

    Ya you guys are dorks, for sure – you should know that your moral and ethical frameworks for judgment is of no use…..when it comes to organized crime.

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