Friday, January 14, 2011

Abortion & Sons Of Anarchy

cross posted on my Media Justice column

Earlier last month I picked up season 2 of the television show Sons of Anarchy. My homeboy Mark who lives in LA (right now we are working hard to get him to the east coast), mentioned enjoying the show. I had assumed it was a reality TV series about motorcycles and riders, similar to American Chopper. However, that was not at all what the series is about and I was instantly hooked.

I’ll share a bit more about the TV show in a moment, but what I want to spend some time discussing is their representations of abortion and choice in the series. I also want to spend some time thinking about why there has been no discussion around this media representation as there has been for other shows such as Friday Night Lights, Private Practice, and Grey’s Anatomy. My belief is that this series focuses on certain members of our communities that we tend to want to ignore, and that, to me, is not all right. After all, our stories and lives are complicated (which is what makes some great fiction) and often when it comes to requiring reproductive health care, we need to recognize that we all must have the same access and freedom in making the best decision for ourselves. We also all deserve the best and safe care.

Quick & Dirty Overview Of Series

I’ll write this overview with limited to no spoilers because I’m hoping some of you may be compelled enough to want to check out the series on your own! First things first, there are three seasons so far and this show is aired on the cable network FX. There are some popular actors on the show, namely Ron Perlman (he plays Hellboy) and Katey Sagal (she played Peg Bundy on Married With Children). Other actors in the show I’ve noticed in several other advertisements, television shows, and media projects.

The series follows a California motorcycle club, Sons of Anarchy, located in Redwood and begun by nine male veterans of the US military. Ron Perlman is Clay, one of the founding nine members and the President of the club, which is referred to as SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original Chapter). Clay is partnered with Gemma (Katey Sagal) who is considered the “mom” of the club. Gemma’s son Jackson is the Vice President and his father is John Teller, one of the founding members. Yes, you should by now see some shadiness going on since Clay and John were homeboys and Gemma is now with Clay.

We follow the lives of each of the SAMCRO male members and their partners (wives, lovers, girlfriends, etc.) and their children if they have any. Not only do we follow their lives but also we get a glimpse into what some small town communities do to work within, with, and outside of the law. Originally SAMCRO helped law enforcement, which are a handful of officers and one sheriff who is friends with SAMCRO members and trusts the club. They work together to ensure some levels of safety and security in the community and keep outsiders who may cause trouble out of their city. Charming.

Now, we also see how the club has evolved under Clay’s leadership and have now begun to work with the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in Ireland (they go international in the third season) to traffic heavy artillery into the US and sell to other motorcycle clubs and/or organized gangs. They are also beginning to work within certain aspects of illegal narcotics, including pharmaceuticals. There was one storyline where they “inherited” some HIV medications and sold them cheaply to low funded and very much in need clinics in the California area.

Abortion Storylines

What I appreciate about this series is that the characters are complicated. The connection to “dealing drugs” even if pharmaceuticals, is something we consider in our society to be an illegal act, but then they add the HIV med component and that complicates our understanding of what illegal is and what “drugs” are considered.

There are also areas that I’m not crazy about in the series, as in it’s not the most positive representation of women or communities of Color, but the women who are presented and the people of Color are strong and important to the stories. However, we learn in the first season how the writing of activist and anarchist Emma Goldman inspired the name and creation of SAMCRO. John Teller shares in a written memoir his interaction with Goldman’s writing, and how it spoke to him in ways that made sense and that he wanted to share and create a community through. Although Goldman’s work is not dissected, the legacy she has left influences the club and we are reminded of it at all times through symbols and naming.

In season two we are introduced to sex workers that are supported and partnered with SAMCRO. We meet one specific sex worker who is a mother, Lyla. She partners with one SAMCRO member, Opie, and we watch their relationship grow, and the challenges they experience. There is also Tara who is partnered with Jackson (also called Jax), who is a pediatric surgeon in the community who left Charming as teenager and returned three years ago. Jax and her were high school sweethearts and their relationship continues throughout the seasons.

In season three Lyla and Tara become pregnant unexpectedly. We learn first of Tara’s pregnancy as her character has a larger role in the series. She is early in her pregnancy and her relationship with Jax is not exactly what she is hoping it could be. She struggles with whether or not to continue the pregnancy and as a doctor; she knows all of her options. She speaks briefly with Gemma about her options, but Gemma is in favor of her pregnancy and is also very much invested in having another grandson. Tara asks Gemma to respect her decision not to speak to Jax about the pregnancy yet, and Gemma obliges.

I really appreciated this interaction between the two strongest female leads. It was a very realistic representation of what may occur when people interact with others who know they may be pregnant and who have strong decisions about the pregnancy. Although Gemma was in favor of Tara carrying the pregnancy to term and parenting, Tara was clear she was not yet sure about what she wanted to do and was able to stand by that confusion and not be swayed. She was not to be bulled by Gemma and I think that is an important interaction for folks to see. Often older adults may encourage us to make certain choices based on what they want versus what we find and need for ourselves.

While Tara is thinking about her options Lyla approaches her and asks to speak with her privately. It is common knowledge Tara is a doctor and has helped numerous SAMCRO members who are in need of health care. Lyla asks Tara very matter of fact if she knows of any good abortion clinics and/or doctors she can refer her to. Tara is honest and says she does not personally but will ask and get back to her. Their conversation was so much like the ones I have had with many people in my life, clients, friends, and partners of friends. It was exactly what I’ve had happen in my life and the interaction between Lyla and Tara was supportive.

Tara asks her supervisor at work who provides her with a referral. Even though Lyla and Tara are not the best of friends as their partners Opie and Jax are, Tara offers to drive Lyla to her appointment and wait with her. We watch as they are seated in a moderately decorated clinic waiting room, and interact with nurses and providers. The clinic experience is on point! I’ve worked at abortion clinics and hospitals that provide terminations and the warm bedside manner, somewhat bare, but welcoming and informative d├ęcor of the area is exactly what we see and experience. Staff was helpful and gentle when working with the women. All of this in a short two minute scene!

It’s during this scene that Tara decides she too is going to terminate her pregnancy and asks for an appointment. She is helped and provided with paperwork and information for her appointment later in the week. Tara finds support from her supervisor at work, who she has not always been on good terms with, and her supervisor offers to drive her to her appointment and clear her works schedule the next day. While on their way to the appointment, they are stopped and I won’t tell you what happens or if she goes through with the termination you’ll just have to watch the show!
What I will tell you is that I was completely impressed with the supportive network of allies and love that the women showed for one another. Yes love! It is a form of love to support each other as women during difficult decisions. We are not lead to believe that the choice Lyla made was too difficult for her, she was clear “it’s not a good time” for her and Opie, as she shared with Tara. I believe Lyla’s confidence in her relationship and her own life goals was what helped Tara allow herself to come to a specific decision.

When we support one another we are in turn giving ourselves a gift. It is a gift to help others, not only to other people but also to ourselves. Often when we ask for help, asking a particular person is a gift we give that person as well. It’s not something we are often taught or told to recognize as gifts, usually we are told they are forms of weakness. But they are gifts. I was very much grateful for having these gifts shared among these women even if for a total of six minutes of the entire season. Those six minutes make a huge different for many people, as we’ve seen over the past few weeks.

Nobody’s Talking About These Storylines

So I began to wonder why nobody was embracing these storylines about abortion in the same way they have other primetime and cable television shows. It came to me that it could be a number of things from not having access to cable (although I’ve read a lot of articles that do mention and discuss cable television representations of abortion, like MTV’s “No Easy Decision” ), the series is not online streaming as some other shows, so it’s not as accessible. I also thought about how the characters and the lives they choose to live may be considered “negative” by some folks who write about these topics from a popular culture standpoint.

Now, I’ll be honest and clear here, there is writing about this episode but they are from anti-choice perspectives. One of the reasons this has occurred is because when Lyla goes for her appointment she uses a pseudonym: Sarah Palin. The one article I did find that was not by an anti-choicer, but by my homegirl Jaz, was this one, where she does a great job of outlining some contradictory tactics anti-choicers use.

Many of the SAMCRO members are working class people. It is clear that many members who own homes struggle with paying their mortgages, car notes, and even finding a place to live as many members stay at the clubhouse when needed. They are also living lives that many would consider “deviant” and disapprove of for various reasons. This is where the complexity comes into play. Often we are all complicated and not so easily put into certain categories or meet certain expectations. I believe because the characters in Sons of Anarchy make certain decision in the series, many of us make judgments about what we consider worthy of empathy and support.

I know I’ve done this, especially when cheering for a particular person or crew in reality shows as I’ve shared in the past. Yet, what does it mean when we as media makers and folks examining and deconstructing the media ignore such narratives? How do we isolate and only uphold certain testimonies about abortion and relationships as legitimate? What does this do to the narratives and experiences we don’t hear but we know exist?
My hope is that we can expand conversations that include abortion narratives in 2011 and that there will be more storylines that allow us to do that!

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