I confess to binging on season five of Sons of Anarchy recently. While I was put off by the orgy of patriarchy, raw vicious sexism, homophobia, white supremacy and fetishization of gang culture, I was captivated and it took a little while (episodes 1-4 to be exact) to pin point what it was. What compelled me, beckoning my fingers to push the blinking play arrow episode after episode was not the gratuitous fist fights awash in glossy, sexy, hyper-masculinity. Nor was it the obligatory mid-show motorcycle chase complete with crosscutting camera shots and bass thumping rap music. And while the Greek Tragedy thematic interplay of love, deceit and betrayal was interesting, what really intrigued me was Gemma Teller Morrow.
Gemma, played by Katey Sagal, is a wife, a widow and mother of men who have all been president of the outlaw biker club for which the television show is named. Gemma is the family and club matriarch, she is older, and she is hot.
Sadly, it is still rare to see older women characters in television shows that are not only sexy but also sexual. Gemma is hot in a white biker mainstream gender normative way to be sure, but she is hot nonetheless. Gemma has sex and is a sex symbol and it’s not a joke. She is not nervous or anxious about getting old or being an older woman and she wears her sexuality without apology or embarrassment. This is not to revel in the presentation of femininity or womanhood in Sons of Anarchy. The women in Sons, as one might imagine, are relegated to the unfortunately enduring dualistic pure/good or whore/bad roles and are not extraordinarily complex in their characterizations. These women uphold gender stereotypes and demonstrate internalized sexism in predictable ways. They manufacture deceit, manipulate and facilitate access to power through their sexuality.
Women are dominated via a variety of mechanisms including the constant fear of rape and co-occurring mythos about the need to be protected by men (who also assault them). While violence against women is a staple of mainstream media, it remains uncommon to see older women being victimized or subjugated through sexualized violence. Gemma’s brutal rape by rival club members occurs because she is viewed as sexual. Older women are de-sexualized in most media representations and as such, sexual assault or the fear of rape is rarely used as vehicle through which to assert power. Gemma, as a sexually active and sexual older woman, however, is a body that can be violated and her rape is used to assign her viability as a woman as well as assert power over her and by extension her husband and son.
Despite the machismo, violence and gender provincialism on Sons of I love watching Gemma. Portrayals of older women characters as sexy, devoid of being a cougar or fraught with aging insecurity remains refreshing. Gemma is older without a lot of hoopla. I understand her character is probably too distracted by coke deals gone bad, kidnappings, gun smuggling dramas and the ever constant triage of stoic men-in-danger to worry much about crows feet or lip lines. I get it. She has much bigger fish to fry. I am also well aware that an army of professional make up artists primps her, like every other actress, and that her sexy sans puffy eyes close ups are the result of hours of carefully crafted lighting and an array of cosmetics. But she rocks her soon-to-be senior status so well and the cinematic poverty of older woman characters is such that I find myself not begrudging her the absence puff, bags or her smoothed over skin. It remains depressingly novel to see an older woman on the screen that is not either sculpted into seeming perfection that allows her to be “sexy” or relegated to the sexless void of old age. Gemma is unapologetically older with wrinkles, under arm flab and sun spotted cleavage.
I watched Gemma and found myself reflecting on other bad ass and sexy hot women actors of a certain age. I want to see more. That I could recall some women is fantastic but does little to counter the onslaught of youth-beauty focused images flooding media and saturating young (and old) minds with ideals of mis-perfection that encourage anxiety, body dysmorphia and insecurity driven consumerism which make scads of niche diet, exercise and “health and beauty” marketers very rich. While Gemma and the other female characters in Sons are not offering a radical alternative to normative beauty standards nor providing a counter narrative to the axiom of women—as –objects, it is nevertheless inspiring to see an older woman unashamedly sexual and not digitally altered into an “ageless” perfection.
There are plenty of people striving to diversify the media landscape for women of all ages. This includes agitating for more women in leadership positions, the inclusion of women and older women writers and producers in media, more roles for older women as well as creating and supporting alternatives to mainstream media. There is a great deal of work to be done to this end. Indeed, the sad reality that forty is considered “older “and older female actresses are mostly celebrated for how youthful they look speaks to the long road ahead. I want more complicated character representations for all kinds of women and I want a much more diverse array of examples of older (and sexual) women in television and movies. In the mean time given the absence of older sexually active women characters in movies and TV shows, I will undoubtedly continue my Gemma and Sons of Anarchy binge.