The XX Factor

Sons of Anarchy Is a Show About Biker Dudes. And Feminism. 

Katey Sagal and Ron Perlman in Sons of Anarchy.

Photo by Prashant Gupta/FX.

I missed the boat on Sons of Anarchy, the drama about a violent biker gang and its relationship to the fictional town of Charming, California, back when it first premiered in 2008, but once I caught up, I became obsessed. This is the show that represents the extreme of FX’s exploration of contemporary masculinity—other FX shows on the spectrum include Louie and The League. But Sons of Anarchy also features some of the most interesting female characters and relationships between women of the anti-hero television age. And Tuesday night’s wedding episode was a perfect example of what the show can do at its best.

Sons of Anarchy has two women as its magnetic poles. Gemma (Katey Sagal, who is married to show creator Kurt Sutter) is the old queen of the Sons of Anarchy biker club that’s at the heart of the show, married first to John Teller, the man who founded the club, and then after his death to Clay Morrow, the man who inherited John’s leadership post. Gemma also retains power and influence over the club as the mother of Jax Teller, her son with John, and the man meant to inherit his mantle when Clay is too old to ride.

Then there’s Tara (Mad Men veteran Maggie Siff), who begins the show as everything Gemma is not. Jax’s childhood love, she’s an accomplished surgeon who reconnects with the Sons when she returns to Charming and ends up performing complex surgery on Jax’s newborn baby. Once she’s fixed the baby’s heart, Tara proceeds to reclaim Jax’s. By this season, the fifth, she and Jax have another child together, and in last night’s episode, she and Jax, they decide to marry quickly before Jax turns himself in to the police for crimes he committed last season.

Their wedding could have been the occasion for a vicious catfight between women who are separated by education, class, and different visions of Jax’s future. Gemma has always wanted Jax to assume his father’s seat, while Tara once believed that she and Jax could leave Charming and start over, with Tara’s lucrative work as a surgeon supporting their family until Jax figures out what he’d like to do with his life other than run guns and drugs. But Sons of Anarchy, for all its masculine trappings, has always been slyly sensitive about women’s issues, from its handling of a sexual assault Gemma suffered in the second season to an abortion subplot presented with wry humor in the third. And Tara and Gemma’s relationship is no exception to that general rule.

Both women are caught in the universal mother-in-law/daughter-in-law conflicts, but Gemma also recognizes that Tara, in tying herself to Jax, who works as a mechanic when he isn’t committing crimes, and giving up the chance of advancing her career outside of Charming, is choosing a particular kind of downward mobility. She understands the choice. 

Gemma may have defaulted into a life that was becoming retro when she married into a biker gang and the requirement that she embrace a decidedly subordinate position not just as a wife, but as an Old Lady in a hugely sexist organization in the ‘70s. And given the resources that Tara has that Gemma lacks, her decision is even more bewildering. No matter how much the world has changed, women will still surrender power and position for the men they love. Gemma and Tara’s relationship with each other, and to the men in their lives, puts a show about tough, sexist men, smack in the middle of contemporary feminist debate.