thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Daughters of Anarchy

In gender on November 6, 2011 at 11:43 am

by Sarah S.


Tattoos. Harleys. Illegal gun running. And…awesome female characters? You’d better believe it. Sons of Anarchy (SOA) relies on updating older narrative tropes that, much like Deadwood, veer towards the Shakespearean. It’s no surprise, then, that the Prince (in the form of Charlie Hunnum’s Jax Teller) loves a woman from outside the club (Maggie Siff as Dr. Tara Knowles) or that the Queen (Katey Sagal’s amazing Gemma Teller) owns her Lady Macbethian role from episode one. But in their roles, Gemma and Tara also received the updated treatment, and in the process turned a TV series about bad ass bikers and the girls that service them into one about family, community, and the different kinds of strength women carry. That is until this season, season four, which has so far (9 episodes in) declawed, defanged, and de-interested the women of SAMCRO.

From the get-go, Tara seemed more “feminist on paper” than actual feminist model. A rock star natal surgeon, she nevertheless fled an abusive relationship with an ATF agent during med school and came back to her hometown, in part to be close to Jax, her high school sweetheart and the only man she feels can keep her safe. Which turns out to be true, more or less. The spin, however, relies on the way that Tara tips the scales of Jax’s conflicted relationship to his club and its escalating violence, bringing out the wounded passion of the man at the heart of the story. The show also refuses to let Tara off the hook for her own complicity in desire for the “bad boy.” SOA always denies her the opportunity to remain innocent, ignorant, or passive and this makes her as complicated a character to like as Jax. We want to root for this smart, beautiful, independent woman yet we cringe a little bit when she smilingly beams at Jax, “I’m your old lady” or puppets Gemma, saying, “I just want to protect my family.” Fast forward to this season, which contains a scene that epitomizes perfectly the show’s uncertainty over how to portray its women. After Jax’s best friend, Opey (Ryan Hurst), gets caught cheating with the porn star, Ima, that Jax slept with two seasons ago, Jax goes to comfort Tara who he assumes will be upset. Tara informs him that it’s not the memory of Jax’s own infidelity, but the way that the club treats women in general that appalls her. Jax claims that he gets it but then later in the episode he beats Ima and threatens to kill her if she flashes her “rancid pussy” around his club again; he then spits on her face, calls her “whore,” and walks out. Ima is an unlikable character, but it’s still a disturbing scene. Yet Tara, thus far, never hears about this incident and there’s nothing in the tone or plot that evidences awareness that Jax does not, in fact, get it. Instead, we have re-established hierarchies of good girls and bad girls, and the bad ones are still disposable.

Then we have Gemma, who was always strong but who dominated season two with a completely unique spin on a traditional trope. When white supremacists move into the town they tell the club’s president and Gemma’s husband, Clay (Ron Perlman), to stop selling guns to “color.” When Clay declines, they kidnap Gemma and gang rape her, assuming that when she tells the club they will collapse in rage and grief. But the rapists underestimate the wells of strength in Gemma, who does not tell, thereby changing the whole plot of the season but, also, the plot of what victimized women are supposed to do. From that moment on, Gemma-as-character is a game changer. Flash forward to season four, where Gemma does nothing but run around looking worried, frantically scrambling to keep things under control yet becoming the ineffectual mother figure who is out of the loop and hasn’t a clue. Early in the season, Jax and Clay make plans for how Jax can leave the club. Jax dismisses Clay’s concerns about how they’re going to get around Gemma by saying, “She’s just an old lady, Clay.” At the time, I thought that Jax was greatly underestimating his mother or misunderstanding the power in the “old ladies” that surround him; unfortunately, this season seems bent on proving Jax right.

In juxtaposing Tara and Gemma, SOA created a pairing that I see repeated in Mad Men and that suggests the ways we are grappling with women’s roles right now. Mad Men juxtaposes sexy Joan, who dominates by playing within the rules, against Peggy, who senses that the game is rigged; as admirable as Joan is, the show nevertheless punishes her for her traditionalism, signaling a contemporary ambiguity about women’s sexuality/beauty and how they should/should not wield it. In SOA, the pairing offsets traditional, sexy, and powerful Gemma against smart, educated, but vulnerable Tara. Unfortunately, this season seems uncertain what to do with them, particularly Gemma. We see a resultant devolution not only in Gemma and Tara, as such, but in strong female figures on television. We have three episodes to go till the end, so hope remains. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that Kurt Sutter, Katey Sagal, and team have some feminine wiles lying in wait for us.

  1. I had been completely uninterested in SOA but now may give it a shot.

  2. […] My last (and first, ha!) post was on the women of Sons of Anarchy, and how the show seems uncertain how to handle strong, non-stereotypical female characters and so, by season four, they were beginning to dissolve. In terms of Gemma and Tara, the show gave us an uptick of interesting behavior, plot twists, and potentials at the end of the season but the season itself ended with much ridiculous, silly, semi-coherence. Alas, I fear that SOA may have jumped the shark. […]

  3. when Jax Teller put his hand on athe porn star neck and then spits in her face
    that was the most erotic thing ive ever seen

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