Sexism on Sons of Anarchy

I’m a big fan of waiting until series are done before watching them, because I really enjoy the experience of working through them very quickly, keeping complex plots clear in my head and watching how the episodes layer atop each other. This summer, I watched Sons of Anarchy, which just concluded, and there are a lot of really interesting things about the show, which revolves around the exploits of a fictional California-based motorcycle club with its fingers in a lot of criminal pies. As a glimpse into a fictionalised narrative of a culture I now want to learn more about, it’s an important entry in the pop culture lexicon, and there are also a lot of things about the styling and creative choices that I liked, including the use of short seasons that packed things in really beautifully, with no filler episodes.

But one of the things I really struggled with over the course of the show was the sexism, because there are a lot of women on the show, but they occupy a unique, and frustrating, position. The ‘Old Ladies’ theoretically have clout and influence and are sometimes talked about like they’re the power behind the throne, but in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. They are objects, and they pay a high price for their involvement with the club.

There’s Gemma, the theoretical matriarch of Old Ladies by virtue of being married to Clay, the early seasons’ president, and mother to Jax, the vice-president and later president of the Sons. There’s Tara, Jax’ wife. Wendy, Jax’ ex-wife and mother of his oldest son. And there are other women, like Luanne, the former porn star turned producer, along with several of the stars who work for her. There’s a female ATF agent who dogs the club for several seasons. Women are everywhere, even in a very male-centric world, and there are even a few times when the show passes the Bechdel Test.

And the thing is, I know a lot of women who ride motorcycles, including women who are involved in clubs, though none quite like the Sons. Yet, in a show that revolves around motorcycle culture, we almost never see a woman on a bike — and when she is, she’s riding pillion. The Sons doesn’t have any female members, even though it relies on Gemma to manage their accounting and Tara, a physician, to patch them up when they’re injured. But the core focus and identity of the club, biking, appears entirely closed to women.

The women of the show endure horrific violence as a result of their association with the Sons, and it’s always played for plot development. Gemma is raped to send a message to Clay, and the club at large. Tara is assaulted in a botched kidnapping after Clay attempts to have her killed. Clay at one point beats Gemma, and while she pledges that she wants to get revenge, her need for justice is set aside for the club’s ‘greater good.’ Luanne is praised for no longer being a porn performer (often in crude terms), but she’s also punished for it when a rival producer sends a gang to rough her up and they kill her. Even Tara’s supervisor at the hospital gets caught up in the violence of the club.

Sons really showed me that I need to learn more about the culture of motorcycle clubs, some of which definitely do include a criminal element. And I feel like I need to know more to fully contextualise what happens to the women on the show — for example, some clubs likely do close their membership to women, and treat the Old Ladies like property. But it was also a stark reminder that even in a world of fiction, women cannot get ahead — in Sons of Anarchy, they’re being shot in the head for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They’re summarily dumped for not meeting the expectations of their partners. They’re killed, beaten, and raped to punish members of rival clubs.

And even as women are being brutalised, they’re also being treated as objects under the control of the men who are married or related to them — the men need to ‘protect the women,’ sometimes the self-same women they’re treating like garbage, from external threats. In a way, the Sons remind me of roosters and the Old Ladies of hens, with the boys puffing up and marching around them to delineate their territory while the ladies are supposed to sit in a passive pack and be defended. When something terrible happens to one of the women, it’s somehow magically the fault and responsibility of her Old Man, rather than, you know, something that happens because she’s a person and terrible things happen to people — apparently they are property to the point that they don’t even own their rapes, their beatings, their assaults, their murders.

The sexism of the culture of the Sons, and Sons of Anarchy at large, is a really telling testimony to how people think about women. The narrative here demands violence against women for the purpose of advancing the plot or sending some sort of message. It demands that women be made dependent on their Old Men, and be punished when they have lives and careers of their own. There’s a way to include this kind of violence selectively, and to present it in a critical, thoughtful way that challenges both media and culture, but Sons failed pretty dismally at it, which makes me sad, given the fact that the show does so many other things so very well.

Image: Sons of Anarchy, Andrés Nieto Porras, Flickr