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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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