Of Motorcycles and Melodrama
The happenstance of academic life recently has led me to revisit a lot of 1980s feminist writing on soap operas at the same time I have been enthralled by the fourth season of FX’s Sons of Anarchy. The drama, set in a California motorcycle club, has often been described as Hamlet on Harleys for good reason. But my readings of late have me thinking that the show actually offers some really different inflections on Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance.
As I’ve reread debates about whether and how soap opera and melodrama are inherently “feminine” forms (this writing is notably pre-Butlerian), I’ve thought of how the authors couldn’t have possibly imagined Sons of Anarchy’s (SOA) melodramatic depths that are paired with just about every imaginable signifier of patriarchal masculinity. SOA is fascinating as a story set in a male, homosocial, largely patriarchal context but which centrally relies upon drama created by family conflict and secrets.
This season, SOA has utilized most every narrative strategy that defines soap opera and at the same time turned them on their head by refusing other aspects of daytime soap related to drawing out action over long periods of time. Despite the fact that many episodes feature motorcycle chases or firearm fights that offer physical action, the aspect of the storytelling that has me on edge of my seat—yelling at television, “tell him, tell him”—is that the real action has been about the process of disseminating or withholding information—straight out of the daytime playbook. The viewers know most all the secrets (or so we think), which inflects scenes with rich nuance as we try to ascertain what characters might know or suspect, just like in daytime serials.
But at the same time, SOA has used the pacing of a weekly serial, burning through narrative at a rate similar to The OC (the last show I can think of that developed and resolved major plotlines and subplots that would span seasons in most shows in just a matter of episodes). Here we have a hybrid storytelling strategy that allows and delivers conclusions within the span of a few weeks or at least the course of a 13-week season, very much contrary to the perceived source of women’s soap enjoyment of never-ending serial complications.
Categorizing SOA is difficult. In many ways, it is a family drama. Its deepest conflicts are personal and deal with the negotiation of competing loyalties; its cumulative narrative seems to be Jax Teller’s journey of deciding what kind of man he will be and dealing with the implications of that choice on those he loves and who love him. Of course this family drama takes place in the fictional, small, rural town of Charming, California on the backs of motorcycles, amidst plotlines of illegal guns, drug trade, and porn shoots, albeit with a more complicated gender politics than non-viewers might assume. I’m pretty sure John Fiske would be at a loss in trying to apply his categorizations of “feminine” or “masculine” television, and it makes me wonder a lot the scholarship of the era and continuing assumptions of gendered spectators and genre/narrative strategies.