Sons of Anarchy is an American television drama created by Kurt Sutter that airs on FX network. The drama series, also known by its acronym SOA or SAMCRO, is centered around the culture of motorcycle gangs and includes multiple gangs with differentiated racial makeups. The series is set in current-day California in a fictional town called Charming. The town is modeled as a small-town community which has limited government interference normally and lenient authorities. The first season was aired in 2008 and followed the lives of motorcycle gang members in the caucasian gang, called the Sons of Anarchy.
Other gangs included in the series were a black gang, called the one-niners, and a hispanic gang, called the Mayans. Each gang is criminal and commits various crimes from murder to drug dealing.
I am studying closer how FX network incorporates the criminal actions of minority groups in the show. They are always placed opposite of the Sons of Anarchy and their criminal actions seem to be scrutinized more than the criminal actions of the Sons of Anarchy. The question I am trying to answer is “What is the difference in the representation of criminal activity based on the racial group involved?” By focusing on the racial roles in the show and how they compare in relation to criminal activity I hope to come to a conclusion on minority representation that I can present to Kurt Sutter and FX Network. I chose to study this topic since I am an avid viewer of this series and the topic of media representation of gang violence interests me.
There seems to be a disparity in the way gang crime is portrayed on news outlets depending on the race of the group and I wanted to find out if that disparity would be similar in Sons of Anarchy. For example, do crimes by black groups face criticism than those by white groups or is the reaction equal without regard to racial factors.
I already knew from watching the show and following Kurt Sutter’s personal blog that the series has come under-fire before for using race and violence as a shock-factor instead of using it for plot progression. Kurt Sutter is known for his use of profane language and defending his show from critics by decreeing that they do not understand the concepts. For example, in a recent post he wrote about a contest in which he and the cast would visit the winners hometown, “We will come…basically disrupt your neighborhood and piss off all your neighbors. Fuck those neighbors, I hate those shitheads anyhow.” (Sutter, “Season 6…”) He seems to have no care for the hatred his words incite.
Other than his hatred of neighbors he has had to defend himself before because of his use of race in the show. During season four of the show one of the members of Sons of Anarchy named Juice was threatened by the police with the race he was born. The sheriff, a middle-aged black male, had found out that he had actually been born with a black father and threatened to tell the Sons of Anarchy that he was not the latino label he had been hiding behind his whole life. After three seasons it surprised me the Sons of Anarchy seemed to have this new rule about not allowing blacks into the gang but latinos were fine to join. This disturbed me a little because the gang had no problems working with black gangs in the past and there did not seem to be any racial tension besides the racial slurs thrown around by all the gangs.
There seemed to be no major race-based violence within Sons of Anarchy until this plot point was brought up. Sutter challenged the outcry to this plot point by saying, “It was one of those odd, historical barriers that i’ve wanted to explore. The depth and weight of this rule varies from club to club and this season we see how it’s handled by the Sons of Anarchy”.(Sutter, “BLACK…”) For the sake of authenticity he felt that this must be included because “they [motorcycle clubs] function within a structure that is built upon a form of segregation”.(Sutter, “BLACK…”) How the plot point ended though had me scratching my head wondering if Sutter had missed an opportunity to make a statement about race.
In the end Juice admits to the main character Jax, a young white male, that his father is indeed black. Instead of using this opportunity to show how outdated the rule is and that progress can be made against racism no matter how long the rule has been around Sutter decided to have another character again use race to blackmail Juice. I understand the need for authenticity but I felt this scene was just reinforcing to all watching that it is shameful to be black and it can be used as threat. It was a weak way of showing how racism can effect someone after all the build up during the season and concern for his life. In a matter of one scene it was brushed off, there was no lesson learned nor was there any realism in supposed racist actions of the gang. The ending was neither insightful nor authentic. It just seemed to end without any real conclusion.
It had also seemed out of place in the story because during season two the Sons of Anarchy spent the whole season fighting a white supremacist gang. During that season the gang seemed just as disturbed by the ideas of the white supremacist gang as much as their threat to Sons of Anarchy’s control of Charming. It seemed to me that Sutter was using Juice’s race as a shock-factor. This was no surprise to me though as there are many off-hand racist jokes made during the show as well that seem to have little value. For instance, in the pilot one member of the gang makes a remark after finding two hispanic women burned alive, “Goddamn, fried and refried” Clay says with little remorse. The show plays this racism as a fact of life that the gang cannot escape, control or overcome. It hides behind trying to make the racism humorous like Clays line instead of showing it show racism how it actually exists, ugly and disturbing.
After thinking back on Juices plot point, which originally had me interested in studying and discussing this show for my study, I went back to re-watch the first season. I decided to start with the first season because it was Sutter’s first attempt at depicting the gangs and it would not be fresh in my mind since I had not seen it since last summer when I binge-watched all the seasons again. This time instead of just taking in the show for entertainment value I set up some guidelines for my viewing. I decided that I would make a table which would include the three most prominent gangs: Mayans, Sons of Anarchy, and One-niners. Each column would represent one of the gangs and the rows would be the type of crimes committed on the show. Whenever a gang was involved in any crime I would mark down which category it was in and then what response it garnered from the community and the authorities. These groups seemed to me most likely to be unbiased when it came to criminal activity.
Neither necessarily should have any stake in the violence besides wanting it to be eradicated. After collecting this information I would have a breakdown of each gang: how many crimes were committed, how many deaths were caused, were the actions deemed necessary or unwarranted, what kind of police action was taken. Gangon-gang action would be analyzed in the same manner. The information I collected was then compared to see who was responsible for the most crime and which gang had the worst reputation. Assuming all things normal it would be the same gang. This show being less than a normal representation of society as it is a dramatic television series I did not expect to find that the gang with the worst reputation had committed the most crimes.
My expectations were the hispanic gang, Mayans, would garner the worst reputation while the Sons of Anarchy committed the most crime. These expectations came from my previous knowledge of the show and the vague feeling that the show might be a little more distasteful towards hispanics since it was set in California where race issues abound with the immigration of hispanics across the border. After watching the first season over these were the figures for each of the gangs.
The figures ended up being somewhat similar to what was expected but I was surprised by the amount of crimes that Sons of Anarchy had in the “unwarranted” column. When watching the show for pure entertainment the communities response seems heavily in favor of the crimes. The data tells a different story with only five of the thirty-five crimes committed being deemed “necessary”. The crime numbers for Sons of Anarchy may have surprised me but the other gangs fit the profile that I had expected. With thirty murders in just thirteen episodes the show is more violent than I remember. I attribute this to murders being desensitized throughout the show by dark humorous remarks from characters and no consequences for those committing the crimes. Overall, the Sons of Anarchy committed the most crimes in season one by a long shot with more than both Mayans and One-niners combined. This may have been attributed to them being the centerpiece of the show.
What cannot be explained is the representation of each of these crimes. The Mayans and One-Niners never caught a break from the community and authorities but the Sons of Anarchy did. Five times, after being found guilty of committing the crime, the Sons of Anarchy were represented as just doing what was necessary for Charming. Three of these crimes were murder, while the other two were assault. Such violent crimes without an eyelash batted by the police. One of the assaults was even encouraged by the police who stood by and watched. On the other hand, every crime known about by the community and authorities that the other gangs committed was scrutinized and pursued. These groups never received the blessing of Charming. Even though they committed less crimes than the Sons of Anarchy combined they were seen as the outlaws.
I believe this originates from the Sons of Anarchy attempting to brainwash the town by telling them crime is needed to keep worse crime out of the city. The Sons of Anarchy continue to tell the white community they live in that their town needs to be protected from invasion. I believe there is more too it than that though. While watching I also kept tabs on the racial makeup of the town. I could count the amount of black and hispanic people not in a gang on one hand and thats the whole seasons worth of episodes. It seems to me that according to Sons of Anarchy if you are colored then you are a gang member. Even the brutality of the crimes is more dramatized with regards to the other gangs. The crimes always seem done out of haste and are unplanned. It gives the rival gangs a sense of stupidity that they cannot control their actions or make a plan.
In conclusion, it seems that Kurt Sutter seems biased towards the Sons of Anarchy when it comes to representation of crime. They are seen more as a police force by the community than a gang. While they are pursued for various crimes during the season they are never actually charged with anything. Even when all the evidence comes together they end up getting away. This is extraordinarily annoying as it just perpetuates that a crime committed by a white male compared to a black male is any different. There are no repercussions for their actions while the One-Niners are hunted down for drug charges constantly.
I believe the FX network and Kurt Sutter could do more to better represent the crime equally. It might be better to actually put one of the Sons of Anarchy behind bars for once. Instead of them continually getting away they could show the real-life struggle of having members constantly going to jail. It would be both more realistic and more equal criminal representation. Kurt Sutter could also spend more time discussing the problems both the Mayans and One-Niners have. It could be a way to combine all three gangs under one banner. I’m sure it would not be too difficult to discuss why those groups may be committing crimes like Sutter does with the Sons of Anarchy. It would add an emotional tie to the characters in those gangs. They could be seen in the same light as the Sons of Anarchy; a group of troubled people with needs and no way they see fit to satisfy them except crime. Right now those minority gangs are just a group of hooligans committing crimes with no motive, no morals, no reason. If Kurt Sutter were to make these changes it would add a new dimension to the show and also attract a more diverse audience. My hope is the show takes a more neutral stand as it enters its last season.
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