Of Motorcycles and Melodrama

November 28, 2011
By | 3 Comments

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.


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3 Responses to “ Of Motorcycles and Melodrama ”

  1. Michael L. Wayne on December 4, 2011 at 2:52 PM

    Professor Lotz,

    Thanks for this post. I am a fan of both SOA and your work.

    Do you think the series has become more melodramatic over the course of four seasons? In my mind, the fourth season uses traditional melodramatic strategies more frequently than earlier seasons. Perhaps this is related to the stronger influence of Hamlet on seasons one and two.

    Again, thanks for the post.


  2. Amanda Lotz on December 5, 2011 at 12:39 PM

    I haven’t thought about it systematically, but the control of information was definitely more central this season than in the past, and I found it stunning how much dramatic tension that could build just from this narrative device. I think Sutter also does a great job creating a storytelling universe where most anything can happen, which heightens the tensions–for example, it seemed possible that Tara might die this season. I think part of what has compelled me toward tonight’s finale has been a curiosity over how the series will continue given the plotlines that are unfolding.

  3. Hunter Hargraves on December 13, 2011 at 7:06 PM

    Hello there —

    I too am an avid SOA fan, to the point where I desperately want to lobby for its inclusion in the same category as “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights” among scholars of television studies. But I always seem to have a hard time doing so, not just to others, but to myself; your comments here seem to capture a lot of my hesitancy.

    What interests me about SOA is the inexplicable need to burn through storylines at an amazing pace — which, of course, has its advantages (gripping drama!) and disadvantages (disappointing season finales, such as the one that aired a week ago). Part of what frustrates me about the series is its lack of, well, commitment to a sort of politics that exceeds the family. Yes, the white supremacists were the bad guys of Season 2, but after Juice’s storyline this season, the racial politics of the club has always left me a bit befuddled. It’s not that I want Sutter to take a “stand” as either progressive or not, but rather that I get the impression that the series doesn’t quite have a solid grip on what its stance towards race is. The ties to the Irish (a rather fetishized marker of cultural “whiteness”) best illustrate this, for example. (Maybe next season, with a new African American villain/drug kingpin, will help clarify this.)

    Similarly, I find its relationship to questions of gender pretty muddy. Gemma and Tara are badass, no doubt, but I’m not sure the program has found a successful way to explicate what, exactly, being an “old lady” entails; the constant shifting between strong matriarch and supportive “woman” seems to occur at such a schizo pace that it makes it hard for me as a critical viewer to really evaluate. Maybe I’m used to “quality” dramas that move at a rather glacial tempo (a la “Deadwood”), but it seems to me that when SOA attempts to confront these questions of race and gender (and probably sexuality too, though this hasn’t been fully fleshed out yet), it does so rather half-assed.

    At any rate, thanks for the post. It certainly is interesting to see how shifting expectations in terms of narrative and plot development raise new issues for acafans!