The Power of the Feminine in ‘Sons of Anarchy’

Spoilers ahead (through “Sweet and Vaded,” which aired on Oct. 22)

This piece was cross-posted here with permission from Bitch Flicks

Sons of Anarchy has always considered itself a modern-day morality play. The club doles out unlawful justice, and usually punishes enough really bad guys to make us feel like they are the good guys. However, the peripheral damage that the club is responsible for took us, the audience, to a breaking point early in season 6.

Some critics were concerned at the beginning of this season because Jax didn’t appear to feel enough remorse after the school shooting (which was made possible because the club ran guns). I argued that this was in keeping with the tradition of morality plays–because we are supposed to judge and question what constitutes virtue and vice, and Sons of Anarchy is forcing us to do that.

At this point in the season, the men have done what they could to stay straight–they’ve gotten out of the gun business and split ties with the Irish (after their clubhouse was bombed).

They’ve moved shop away from a heavily masculine auto repair center to an abandoned ice cream shop. By the end of “Sweet and Vaded” (which aired Oct. 22), the men are literally handing out candy to kids at their refurbished soda shop counter.

The men’s world seems almost ridiculous–motorcycles, a candy shop, giant wooden SOA signs, and leather cuts feel silly compared to the reality of the women’s lives around them.

Tara is taking the reigns, with the help of other women.

Tara is taking the reigns, with the help of other women.

In “Sweet and Vaded” we got to see the culmination of Tara’s plotting, which has been incredibly suspenseful throughout season 6. Her plans are working exactly as she wants them to. She’s using everything in her power to keep her sons safe and away from the club, and she’s doing so by exploiting her own femininity and collaborating with other strong and powerful women. While she gets limited help from Wayne (who doesn’t know what exactly she’s doing), Tara is able to protect and cleave her children from the outlaw world–at least, this is the first big step in that direction–by collaborating with women.

Tara brings Wendy back in as the most trusted potential guardian for the boys.

Tara’s lawyer, Ally Lowen, pulls legal strings.

St. Thomas administrator Margaret Murphy has long been a support for Tara, and she helps her navigate the hospital’s part in Tara’s plans and is always there for the boys. (I would also theorize that Margaret has been giving Tara hcg shots to skew pregnancy test results–the doctor then would have seen a great deal of blood and nothing on an ultrasound, and assumed that she’d miscarried.)

This feminine collaboration is strong (which is rare to see in film and television), and they are able to work together against the dangers of the club and Gemma.

Tara’s staging of a pregnancy and miscarriage was jarring and unsettling. We are not used to seeing women (or “good” women) use measures like this to gain ground. “Dire circumstances require desperate measures,” Tara says, and means it.

It’s fascinating to see complex women characters who aren’t just good or just bad–aren’t just virgins or just whores. When we can have the same kind of conflicted and uncomfortable feelings for female characters that we do their male counterparts, that’s excellent (and feminist) writing.

What Tara did was horrifying, but she felt it was what she had to do. Her plans clearly aren’t finished, either.

The last few episodes have also featured Venus Van Dam, a trans* woman (played by an excellent Walton Goggins). I was concerned at first (just like I was concerned when Lyla got an abortion), because I wondered how right a show like this could get sensitive subplots that most dramas don’t touch.

However, I didn’t need to worry, because Sons of Anarchy respected its trans* character with a poignant grace that seems rare.

Venus suffered horrific abuse (emotional and sexual) at the hands of her mother, Alice, who could not accept Venus’s true identity. Alice ran a child porn ring (which Venus was a victim of when she was a child), and the emotional accounts that Venus gives are heart wrenching and so incredibly important.

Venus has son, Joey, who thinks he’s her nephew. Venus isn’t ready to mother him, but wants him to be protected from the life that she endured.

Goggins and Kurt Sutter were aware of Venus’s importance, as Goggins says:

“This was always approached with much earnestness as we could muster and seriousness because it is very delicate. [We wanted to] participate in that argument, the conversation that is going on in this country about where we are as a society. And in my mind, if Venus Van Dam is able to help a young man or a young woman in America, in a small town, feel better about themselves because they see their story reflected dramatically, then I feel like we’ve done our job.”

Jax and the crew are recruited to help rescue Joey (Venus goes to Gemma, whose gentle performance as an ally to Venus is powerful and increases our sympathy with Gemma). They find him drugged in a warehouse that’s clearly used as the location for the child porn videos. Alice confronts Venus and is terrible–she verbally abuses her, and finally says that Joey will be devastated about “the awful thing that turned out to be his father.” When she spits that out, Jax shoots her in the head.

Once again, it’s clear to know who we are supposed to root for by what they are against. This hyper-masculine motorcycle club is against the abuse of all women.

They may do business in pornography, but torture porn and child porn leads them to kill for justice. Abuses against women–when sex work isn’t consensual, when gender identity is belittled and attacked, when a woman is raped (as Gemma is again when prison guards force her to have sex with Clay)–represent the vice in this morality play, and the Sons are virtuous.

It’s complicated, though, as it should be. Are we expected to love and respect Macbeth or Lady Macbeth? Or are we supposed to be swept into an amazing story about complicated, sometimes-sympathetic, sometimes-awful people?

These women are not meek and fragile, though, which is incredibly important to keep in mind in regard to Sons of Anarchy. Except for the violent revenge against Alice, the Sons are spending a lot of time regrouping in their little ice cream shop, while the women are collaborating against the dangers they see to protect one another and the children they love.

The beauty of Sons of Anarchy in part lies in its complicated, suspenseful plots involving women. Tara isn’t a character on the side with a subplot, she has a plot to herself, as Gemma always has. It would be easy to dismiss the show by just scratching its surface (masculine men with phallic playthings–motorcycles and guns–and their “old ladies,” who don’t ride or sit at the table).

But the complex and powerful women show us that Sons of Anarchy isn’t just another show by men about men. It’s about all of them.

In an interview, Goggins said about Venus:

“She’s a very courageous, very flawed, very strong woman — or let’s shoot right past that and say [that she’s a strong] person in the world.”

There are people on Sons of Anarchy–they may appear to conform to heteronormative gender roles–but they are not typecast. Bad-ass mothers–Gemma, Tara, Wendy, and Venus–show us that women, and the feminine, can be a powerful force in a sea of masculinity.

To have conflicting feelings about women characters–sympathy, disgust, pity, rage, and pride–feels good. They have prominent story lines and important roles.

The feminine, in all its complexity, is powerful and necessary–now there’s a good morality play.

Leigh Kolb is a composition, literature and journalism instructor at a community college in rural Missouri. 

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