There are a lot of things that have gone wrong this season on Sons of Anarchy, from its underdeveloped school shooting story to Tara’s faked pregnancy. But in its intermittent discussion of the ugly side of the pornography and sex work, the industry Jax and the Sons see as their potentially legitimate and risk-free business, it’s done something very interesting. Sons of Anarchy has always been a show deeply concerned with the declining value of white masculinity, and the terror of being white, and male, and downwardly mobile. But this season, it’s done something fascinating, aligning those downwardly mobile white men with a transgender woman, Venus Van Dam (Walton Goggins).
To get the obvious objections out of the way, Venus isn’t a perfect creation. The character came across as a parody in the episode where she was introduced, as a sex worker the Sons were using to blackmail a local business, though her hyperbole was grand. The discussion of Venus hasn’t always involved the most appropriate terminology for trans people. And given the extremely limited number of roles available to transgender actors, it’s entirely fair to debate whether Goggins, a cis man, should have gotten the part, especially in a moment when Laverne Cox’s breakout performance as Sophia Burset on Orange Is The New Black has set new standards for filmed exploration of trans women’s lives, and for what trans actors can accomplish when they’re given the opportunity.
But even acknowledging all of these things, I want to talk a bit about this week’s story on Sons of Anarchy, which strikes me genuinely unusual, and genuinely important. It was an episode of television that portrayed hypermasculine bikers as socially and sexually comfortable with a trans woman, without treating her like a freak or an exotic creature. It expanded that trans woman’s role in the show, from sexual instrument of the Sons’ plan to a real member of their community. And the show turned pulp conventions on transphobia, treating someone who would harass, humiliate, and sexually abuse a trans person as if they’re a poisonous villain who deviates from the law, sexual norms, and common decency.
When Venus was introduced last season, Goggins’ performance seemed like a one-off, a demonstration of just how many boundaries Sons creator Kurt Sutter was willing to push, and how far. But this season, Venus has been more deeply tied to the rest of the characters on the show. In last week’s episode, Venus went to Nero for help, and Nero’s reaction to the idea that Joey, initially presented as Venus’ nephew, was in the custody of Venus’ mother suggested a real and long-standing relationship between them. In a bit of subtle writing, supporting Venus has become one of the ways Gemma tries to ingratiate herself with Nero: last week, she was mixing up Venus’ pronouns, but this weeks, she appears to have gotten them right. And Gemma tells Jax that “Venus is like family to Nero. And he’s family to me.” And while in the previous season, Jax treated Venus like a curiosity, and Tig’s interest in her as part of the other man’s general pattern of sexual adventurousness, by this point in the series, Venus’ immaculate manners seem to have brought out some courtliness in Jax. “Hey, I guess I’m just a sucker for a pretty face,” Jax tells Venus, after hearing her plea for help.
It’s that plea that ties Venus’ story to one of the larger themes of the season, the Sons’ ignorance of and disgust at the practices of other parties in the pornography business. Venus’ mother, as it turns out, used her emerging gender identity as an excuse to sexually assault and exploit her, and that’s the reason she can’t stand to see Joey in her mother’s custody. “Abuse abounds within the walls of that house,” Venus explains. “The kind that never leaves you. I was ten years old when my inclinations began to dominate my gender direction. And my mother, Alice, she would get me drunk and lovingly try to straighten me out. Her husband at the time began filming the experiment. And that’s when it all began. I was, before long, having more sex than my hooker mama. And in turn helped her launch a very, very lucrative child pornography business.” It’s an ugly story, but one that positions Venus as a survivor, and her mother’s actions, not her gender identity, as the thing that’s done harm to her.
And that transphobia plays a crucial role in Venus’ climactic confrontation with Alice. Joey, it turns out, is Venus’ son, the result of an encounter that happened when, as Venus put it, “I was 21 and still discovering my womanhood.” When it becomes clear that Venus and the Sons have Alice and her associates–who Venus describes in some fabulous writing as “consorts who are equal parts dim and dangerous.”–Alice lashes out at Venus in venomous terms. “You don’t deserve a son,” she spits at Venus. “I had a son once, and he forgot who he was. Deserted his family. Turned into a freak of the fringe. You go ahead. You tell that sweet boy all about his daddy. How much you love him. Want the best for him. It won’t matter. Because when he finds out who you are, he’s going to grow up hating you. Hating your lies. Hating the lie you forced him into.”
Sons of Anarchy has a sick taste in violence, but in one of the few things the show’s done in a long time that genuinely shocked me, Jax shots Alice and kills her to cut off her hateful rant. And Charlie, the criminal boss who runs Stockton, backs him up, declaring “If you hadn’t killed that bitch, I would have.” What’s striking about the killing isn’t so much that it’s an act of impulse, or that it’s yet another shooting on a show with an already-high body count. It’s that what makes Alice unbearable to Jax isn’t just that she sexually abused her own child, made child pornography featuring, and profited off the misery that she created. It’s the viciousness of her hatred of trans people, which has literally become something that Jax wants to shut up forever. The conventions of pulp, a genre that worships hypermasculinity, are turned against someone who’s enforcing gender conformity in a way that causes enormous damage, and that turnabout takes place at the hands of people whose remaining privilege comes from the fact that they’re white, cis, and successful at their performance of hypermasculinity.
There’s a sweet, quiet moment after that killing, when Venus prepares to send her son to friends in Seattle who can care for him, giving up her claim to parenthood. “I’m just not ready to lose him yet,” Venus tells Jax, by way of explaining why she can’t bring herself to tell her son the truth. “And how do you know you’re going to lose him?” Jax asks, suggesting that being able to explain that you saved your son from sexual abuse and exploitation is a pretty good way to come across as a parental hero. “That is a very kind sentiment,” Venus demurs. And in that moment, they’re both right. Venus knows that it’s less risky to count on cruelty than on kindness. But if Jax’s trajectory in his relationship with Venus, from bemused distance to emotional investment and respect is any indication, Joey might be able to come around.