Harris O’Malley looks at the way the code of manhood puts the characters in ‘Sons of Anarchy’ into an ever-widening spiral of retaliation, violence and death.
Originally published on ThinkProgress by Harris O’Malley
This post discusses plot points from Sons of Anarchy seasons one through five.
I’m a huge fan of Sons of Anarchy. I find the world of outlaw motorcycle clubs fascinating; they scratch the true-crime itch for me in a way that mob stories or Investigation Discovery’s many murder marathons can’t reach. Mix Hells Angels with Hamlet and you’ve got a show that was practically custom made for me. And while it may not be Kurt Sutter’s intention, it vividly conveys how rigid, toxic ideals masculinity can destroy men’s lives.
The idea of the outlaw is intriguing. The bikers on Sons live outside of society’s rules, chafing under the authority of people they feel have no moral jurisdiction over them. It’s a romantic idea, deliberately setting onself outside of the rigid confines of social order even if that meant giving up safety and comfort. But at the same time, the bikers find themselves trapped by the social expectations of “manhood”.
The traditional definition of masculinity breaks down into things that you do, rather than being part of who you are, which makes it fragile and unstable. While traditional femininity is defined by inherent states — the ability to give birth, for example — traditional masculinity is defined by actions. A man, for example, is a provider to his family. He’s dominant, often violent. He’s strong. He’s tough. He shows few emotions besides stoicism or anger. But because manhood is based on deeds rather than an something intrinsic to one’s sex, it means that it’s something that can be taken away from you.
Everyday life becomes a challenge of negotiating the complexities of emotional and social relationships without actually admitting vulnerability or allowing others too close, to allowing that perhaps you don’t necessarily conform to the Man Code and that stress continually takes its toll. A study on masculinity and aggression found that men who have their manhood threatened suffer from acute stress and anxiety, while others have found that the strain of constantly being on guard and needing to reassert their manhood correlates to increased levels of hypertension, depression and excessive violence.
The most obvious example is poor, doomed Opie. From the beginning of the series, he’s suffering — after a long stint in prison, he tries to earn “straight”, leaving the Sons at his wife’s behest. But the long hours and lousy pay of his lumberyard job wears on him. They’re consistently in debt and in threat of foreclosure, no matter how much extra work he picks up. Already his manhood is in question — he’s no longer able to provide for his family, and rejoins the Sons in an attempt to get out from under his financial burdens. But being torn between his love for his brothers, who represent one core aspect of manhood to him, and his wife and family, who represent another, leaves him vulnerable to being framed as a rat, ultimately ending in Donna’s death.
From there, it becomes a downward spiral. Opie can never admit that Donna’s death has broken him, even to his dearest friend and his brothers in the club; to do so would be admitting to vulnerability and weakness, something that goes against the old-school, rough-and-ready masculinity the Sons embody. Being willing to open up to somebody, anybody might have saved him. In the end, the code of manhood meant that he could never be truly honest with his doubts and pain. He can’t give up the club or the code, even as it takes everything from him, and he plots a suicide course. He may have chosen to sacrifice himself to Alexander Pope’s thugs to save the club, but he had been charging headlong into his own grave since Donna’s murder.
Opie is hardly the only one hurt by the laws of masculinity, though. John Teller’s perceived weakness lead to his murder; his attempts to end the cycle of violence by ending the association with the IRA prompted his best friend to kill him. Jax longs to leave the Sons behind, but can’t bring himself to leave the money behind. He needs to be the provider, something he could never be as a half-rate mechanic without the club’s backing. In his mind, it’s better to suffer, to stay in the club that has brought about the deaths of of people he cares about and put his loved ones in danger more times than one can easily count. Evidently the risk of having the Galindo Cartel try to assassinate your wife or the True IRA murdering your brothers-in-arms is the price of not living on the salary of a brilliant and talented surgeon.
The outlaw lifestyle is dripping with machismo and barely restrained violence, even as it prides itself as being violent for a higher purpose. “Most of us were not violent by nature,” according to John Teller’s journal. “We all had our problems with authority, but none of us were sociopaths. We came to realize that when you move your life off the social grid you give up the safety that society provides. On the fringe, blood and bullets are the rule of law and if you’re a man with convictions, violence is inevitable.”
It’s incredibly easy, in this outlaw mindset, to rationalize the brutality of their lifestyle—it’s just a matter of safety. The idea of avenging a wrong becomes idealized: “When we take action to avenge the ones we love personal justice collides with social and divine justice. We become judge, jury, and God. With that choice comes daunting responsibility. Some men cave under that weight. Others abuse the momentum. The true outlaw finds the balance between the passion in his heart and the reason in his mind. His solution is always an equal mix of might and right.”
But it seems that every slight becomes potential fuel for a violence-filled vendetta; no insult can go unanswered lest the individual — or the club — betray weakness. The code allows for nothing less. Sons of Anarchy makes it easy to believe in the need for violent reprisal by choosing easy, uncomplicated targets, providing us with a black and grey morality; the Sons may be a criminal organization, but they’re consistently placed in opposition of people who are far worse than they are. It’s easy to pump your fist and cheer when Jax beats down the meth-dealers who sold to his pregnant wife and murders the white supremacist who raped his mother. But that same code that prompts him to avenge his mother’s assault or his son’s abduction also demands that Jax beat Ima, a woman half his size, into a bloody pulp.
The code of manhood allows for no forgiveness, no weakness, no alternate means of resolving a conflict – you reassert yourself through furious violence, using guile or even conciliation only as a last resort. The masculine law becomes the kyriarchy of the crime world in a microcosm; that need to address any slight, to establish their dominance over others drives the Sons deeper and deeper into wars they can ill afford until they finally take on enemies so large, that they simply have no choice but to back down.
It might even be seen as acceptable if it were only the Sons who bore the consequences of their violent actions. Instead, each time they reassert themselves – take back their manhood – an innocent victim pays the price in an ever-widening spiral of brutality and bloodshed. An eye for an eye doesn’t just leave a man blind, it leads to the brutal murders of innocents and bystanders. Intimidating a rival porn producer leads to one of the girls being beaten in retaliation. Striking back again results in Otto Delany’s old lady having her head smashed in and tossed into a ditch. The ongoing turf battle with the Mayans results in Lyla’s son being shot in a drive-by and Deputy Chief Hale being run down. Sheriff Roosevelt’s wife gets gunned down as a result of Clay and Jax’s jockeying for power and Tig’s daughter dies horribly in the name of vengeance and settling scores.
In the end, John Teller had it right: “I realized that in my downward spiral of hopelessness I was actually falling into a huge hole created by my absence of basic human graces. The most obvious was forgiveness. If I was wronged by anyone, in or out of the club, I had to be compensated by money or blood. There was no turning the other cheek. When relationships become a ledger of profit and loss, you have no friends, no loved ones, just pluses and minuses. You are absolutely alone.”
The Sons’ neverending cycle of pain and death betrays the trap they’ve been caught in. They claim to be brothers, but in the end, they all stand alone.
Photo Credit: FXNetworks.com