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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Nuclear Tribe

In the FX Television show "Sons of Anarchy" we get a unique look of two types of family units portrayed in a media. Not only do we have the modern family of step parents, but a very tribal extended family. It is also in a very non traditional setting, being the family is based on or around an outlaw motorcycle club. To an outsider this is a gang, but the inner workings of the average American motorcycle club is the closest thing to family some of it's members will ever know. Understanding this you will see the roles of mentor, brother, friend, and disciplinarian played out in most every episode. The interactions between people in and out of the club are an easy way to judge the reverence that members hold for similar groups. We can also look at the family unit the main character, Jackson "Jax" Teller grew up in, and its affect on his own concept of immediate family as he takes on role of father and dutiful son. Jax (played by Charlie Hunnam) is raised by his mother, his step father and the MC. His step father is the clubs president, and Jax is the Vice President. This furthers his role as both a father and son. 
There is very little research showing the relationship based communications between traditional father and son roles. Most of the research reflects preadolescence and development with an adult father of birth. Step parents are rarely reflected in communication and delve deeper into the psychological. What little there is to offer in the aspects of communication does show similarities with normal father/son behavior. Parenting in general appears to be summed up in the aspect of interpersonal communication as a passing of values and beliefs to your young, in the hopes that they will continue to model their behavior and habits as you have.
In SOA you see Jax being raised by the MC, and receiving a large array of values from them. You also see Jax learning things from Clay (step father) and Gemma (Biological mother) and passing them onto his children. You see the behaviors transferred from one group to another. Every member of this male dominated outlaw motorcycle gang also talks of SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Originals) as a great mythical perfect family. They do things for the family, the club is worth more then their own freedom. This is a sense of family loyalty is taught through a regime of fear mixed with love in a very nontraditional sense of family communication. 
In a normal healthy relationship between a father and son, values are passed down through conversation, tutelage, and system of rewards of affection with a mild amount of discipline. Sometimes that discipline is brought on in the form of corporal punishment. In SAMCRO the values are brought on with the ideals of corporal punishment being first. The language is used in the upbringing is very "We" internally, very "I" externally, and punishment is dealt out with that I/we concept. Father figures like the President, and the Vice President deal out punishment to their fellow Sons. The whole group equally hand out punishment to non sons with impunity. Rewards are rarely external, and internally the value system of the rewards is based on very nontraditional values as well. While some receive rewards of affection, material things, or praise, the Sons find great value is something as simple as a patch. 
While in a traditional extended family you will see a heavier influence by the immediate family, in this MC though its the needs of the extended family that come first. It is a strange juxtaposition of the ideals of self based freedoms and the personal sacrifice of those freedoms. The openness expressed within the group is balanced with the external need for silent protection. It is when those roles are reversed that you see conflict in the club. Secrets are for others and not for this family. This is enforced by the perceived father figure the club itself represents. Not the president but the mob mentality of the club itself. Like a corporation the club is a person. It lives and breaths, and has the reach of all hands. 
"The proportion of children who live with only one parent at some time during their childhood years is expected to continue exceeding 50%" (Kelly, 2011) While this could be an issue as far as passing family values and providing life needs for the child, more providers take a smaller portion of the roles traditionally held by two parental units. When they need a decision made on a hard subject they go to "church", or hold a democratic vote on the direction of the club and every patched member is allowed a vote. Depending on the severity you could expect a different level of approval. The greatest risk does not always mean unanimous votes. These votes are the voice of the father that is the table. This is the role many of these men look for. Many of them on an individual basis did not have the ideal fatherly role. They did not have the order so the appeal of the outlaw gang is the father they never really had, and a father that was a part of a life of adventure.

In the very first episode you see Jax as the young buck, the Beta male. Clay his step father is firm in his role as the Alpha male. He looks to Clay as his father, and looks for approval for all his moves. You see the need for that praise. You see that traditional role filled in a very traditional sense, even if by his step father. As the first season progress's you see that rebellion of youth. Jax is not sure why all the time, and he grows suspicious of Clay's motives and direction. The early acts of rebellion stack on each other, and the only thing that stops a more rapid escalation is desires and needs of the club. The club members even step on Jax's more then once to keep this order in place. Many of them have one issue or another with some of the actions that Clay initiates, however their love for the club (their father figure) supersedes logic in most cases.
By the second season you see the typical father/son rebellion come to a head with Clay and Jax fighting in jail. The rest of the boys prevent others from stepping in. Bobby Elvis even states clearly that they need this, and that the club needs it for them to work out their shit. The correctional officers break it up before a clear victor in the fisticuffs can be decided, but Clays arthritic were an obvious factor. If given time the old dog would have been replaced by the young dog before he was ready to lead. The same Bobby Elvis that supported the fight even offers Jax some personal advice. He tells him to settle his personal beef as it were. It is not good for the club, and Clay had earned the respect of age. It was not his place to bury it, he had earned that right while Jax hadn't. Here you can clearly see the hierarchy of value placed on shared risk. This giving Clay, the established older member, and great amount of social currency. 
In the third season you see a deeper pay of Jax's accepting his role as a father. Other then a few scenes before this you really do not see him step up as a dad in the previous seasons. He pays it the lip service it deserves, but little more then that. He puts down his dead fathers journal and shifts his focus from the club to his family. Granted it took a Belfast gunrunner kidnapping his son, but he makes it his focus. He still handles the business of the club, but he does it to serve him in his quest to get his son back. He sells prescription drugs on the black market, instigates a clearing a gang war, even participates in a few murders along the way. He gets his priorities straight in losing something he didn't even know had that much value to him to begin with. You see the shift on the personal perception for Jax here, and his identity becomes more of the role of the father, and less of the dutiful son. This also ties in deep with his shift to his immediate family from the extended family. 
By the fourth season starts you see Jax settle into the role as a father, husband, and trying to establish a more traditional family life. This shift in identity actually helps him assume his role as the new voice of the club. As he tries to run away from his responsibilities the role fits him better and demands his accession. It is the spirit of the father in the club that takes control of his destiny. Actions build and build preventing his and his families chance to escape the Sons. The development of body language in Jax shows this sorrow well. Watch the first episode, then watch the last episode of season four. The change is well acted. The shoulders are heavy with regret, his face lined with determination. It took time for him to understand his burden, and when he did, he no longer wanted to be the father figure. The burden is his though, and heavy is the head that wears the crown. 
The value system that is passed on through the club is summed up in a quote from John Teller, Jax's dead father. "A true outlaw finds the balance between the passion in his heart and the reason in his mind. The outcome is the balance of might and right." This is the very masculine outlook developed through years of study of beat poets, underground writers, and people from outside the social norms. It is this foundation that develops the norms for this tribal group that prides itself from being outside the norm. These male roles will develop into a serious gestalt that is an embrace of anarchist masculinity. The beliefs are enforced by a mutual need of survival and a sense of the only order they can understand. 
A strong moral establishment offers a sounding board of morality from which a family can draw on. Many people are coming from single parent households and most times this means a distinct lack of the father figure in their life. In this is is hard for a father to pass on his values to the children, and the image masculine behavior is watered down. There are an additional 36 million Americans who are divorced or widowed U.S. Census, 2007 (Gold, 2010) This is based on a population of 225 million, and an additional 35 million people that are remarried at the time. Based in this thirty five percent of children are not raised by their biological father in daily contact, if there is contact at all. Here the strong code, this draw or guide to the young men, this need for boundaries and understanding, is filled by the Motorcycle Club. Now instead of one father, these young men are being taught how to be a man by a pack of very masculine archetypes. Something other young men are lacking, having traditional masculine habits vilified or offered in satire. 
The appeal of this violent culture is apparent in the eyes of curious young men. A scruffy biker drives by on a thunderous machine surrounded by other like minded men, and you will see many children staring in awe. It is this life or death culture that appeals to the young man struggling with his identity in our watered down culture or male role models. Mom does not know what it means to be a man. She may have a great idea of what it takes to be a good person. She might even have an idea of what it does not mean to be a man. This leaves young boys searching for a strong male role model that can teach them the ins and outs of being a man. This is the appeal of this mass father offered by the MC, and portrayed rather well in "Sons of Anarchy". These are men who have embraced the positive and negative images of manhood. Life is give or take on the streets of Charming, CA. It is the men of value that survive, and it is the men of honor that are praised for their sacrifice. They protect their family, and their home. They offer an image of near mythical proportions, and how could this not be appealing to someone trying to come to terms with their own concepts of male identity?

In seeing this extreme dramatization of the male iconography, we can break down the evolution of masculine behavior and see the new social norms. If you look to the older concepts of a father son relationship, you see hunting trips, boy scout meetings, and the transfer of traditional masculine behaviors. Most of the behaviors are being brought to a shameful reflection now and it is not as socially acceptable to be a man or overtly masculine anymore. Boy scouts are played off as homophobic fundamentalist and hunting trips are considered barbaric. The things we pass down to our sons are no longer identified with being a man. Even automotive repairs are degraded to menial task and not associated with masculinity. It is no longer socially acceptable unless you are androgynous or overtly feminine. 
This is were the "Sons of Anarchy" come in. The appeal of the stereotypical masculine relationships are served through the grouping of the motorcycle club. You are raised up like a child as you prospect. You are taken hunting when you are on the road maneuvering against other motorcycle clubs. You are taught that violence is not done in your home, but it is a great way to defend your home. You get to see all the things that people vilified as manly behavior in the safe light of the dramatic outlaw biker gang. The appeal is that the social pendulum has swung away from the masculine, yet here you can see it in a way that is tolerated by society. Yes these are manly things, but they are in a fictitious group that also functions outside of the the law. The father son traditions are projected in the most negative manner so they can be absorbed safely and still feed the need for people to feel their masculinity.

I enjoy watching this show based on all those issues. It allows us to secretly enjoy those parts of our social behavior in a guilt free way. We can ride on the back of the danger and socialize with rough characters. We see the honor code that is a huge part of this dark and violent world. It calls to a neglected social need, and lets us feel what is like to be men. We can live vicariously through Jax, Clay, Bobby, Tig, Halfsack, and even Gema. We get to experience all those things we are told we supposed to be ashamed of. Once a week we can be men without shame. We can enjoy a relationship with a father we never really had. Our fathers can watch this and feel the same way. It is the forbidden fruit of male social standards.

1 comment:

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