The return of Breaking Bad this summer drew headlines for its meteoric rise in the Nielsen ratings, transforming from a cult success to a breakout hit for AMC seemingly overnight. Many credited Netflix for this development, rightfully so, but I was struck that pieces like Andrew Wallenstein’s at Variety made no mention of Sons of Anarchy, which is arguably the first drama series to benefit significantly from Netflix in its continued—and trend-breaking for drama series—rise from season-to-season.
The reasons it hasn’t been mentioned range from the statistical (its increases have been more gradual) to the contextual (it isn’t in its final season) to the typical: for better or worse, depending on who you ask, Sons of Anarchy has slipped under the radar when it comes to the prestige drama trend. With Justified and The Americans more beloved by critics in FX’s lineup, and shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men seen as better representatives of the dark, masculine dramatic series trend, Sons of Anarchy has largely been left to grow its audience outside of conversations like Wallenstein’s that privilege those series deemed most important.
Sutter and his bosses at FX have been expecting these audience increases: Sutter continues to hold a “contest” to hold a special fan screening of an episode late in the season if ratings go up over the previous year, which is more a way of rewarding fans for sticking with and promoting the show than an actual contingency (I expect he’d find a way to hold the event regardless of whether or not ratings had gone up, as it wouldn’t be the first time he’s privileged his relationship with fans over an arbitrary number). Still, one increase that perhaps works against the ongoing trend—gradual 10-15% increases per season—is the fact that ratings for the season six premiere among women 18-49 and women 18-34 were up 35% and 43% respectively.
Variety’s AJ Marechal posed the possibility on Twitter that this could be chalked up to the casting of Sons star Charlie Hunnam in female-friendly franchise 50 Shades of Gray, but I’d argue that’s a web of causality we can’t possibly break down. That being said, the increase in female viewership does tie into discussions of the series’ streaming success, as well as its expansion in non-linear platforms with the online Anarchy Afterword series that debuted following the record-setting premiere.
When doing some preliminary research on Sons of Anarchy‘s relationship with Netflix, I was directed to a new Netflix ad campaign that focuses specifically on the television shows available in the service’s library. Or, rather, I was directed to two versions of the same Netflix ad designed to appeal to different audiences.
The first ad opens with Sons of Anarchy (highlighting its importance on the service), and continues on to highlight Breaking Bad, Family Guy, Burn Notice, Mad Men, Parks and Recreation, The Killing, The Walking Dead, and Scandal.
The second ad opens with Glee, and continues on to The Vampire Diaries, New Girl, Once Upon a Time, and Revenge in addition to four carry-overs from the other ad: Mad Men, Scandal, The Killing, and Sons of Anarchy.
As you may have guessed, these are ads designed to appeal to men and women, most evident in the addition of broadcast soap operas to the second ad but also evident in smaller details in the shows shared across the two ads. Apparently, men—likely imagined as older men—relate to Clay and Don Draper, while women are more likely to relate with Jax and Peggy. Scandal and The Killing remain identical across the two series, perhaps because Fitz and Olivia’s illicit affair showed cross-gender appeal in testing and the Killing footage chosen highlights Linden and Holder equally.
I had a lot of questions related to the gender demographics of Netflix following these ads (which I imagine are being placed on broadcast series with male/female audiences appeals respectively): with Netflix rarely if ever releasing any sort of ratings data, it’s a telling way to see what they’ve decided men and women are watching on their service (and more nuanced than those awful Netflix Awards). Can we derive any gender information from The Killing‘s presence in both ads, or is it present as a result of the service’s partnership with AMC in its choice to revive the canceled series for season three? Is Scandal‘s presence in both ads a suggestion that—despite being perceived as a primarily female audience-driven series on broadcast—the hype surrounding the series is expanding its gender appeal? Is Breaking Bad‘s absence in the ad aimed at women a sign that its primarily male audience hasn’t expanded on the service (which tracks with Nielsens, where the Breaking Bad premiere drew a 1.7 compared to Sons‘ 2.9)? And, bringing me back to the central focus of this post, can we take those record ratings in female demos for Sons of Anarchy as a sign that Netflix has expanded the audience for the series significantly?
Now, as Alyssa Rosenberg argued last year, Sons of Anarchy is both a “show that represents the extreme of FX’s exploration of contemporary masculinity” and a show that “features some of the most interesting female characters and relationships between women of the anti-hero television age.” FX as a channel has always been primarily focused on male audiences, with Sons‘ hyper-masculine setting and violent overtones often emblematic of the channel’s brand identity (which has had Sons as its flagship since the series’ launch). However, the series has always featured complex female characters from the beginning (with none of Breaking Bad‘s struggles to develop Skyler retroactively following limited development early on), and is really not that different from a “soap” like Scandal in terms of its basic narrative appeals (simply trading out national politics for local politics in regards to a larger framework around which to tell character-driven stories).
In other words, I do not want to exoticize female viewers of Sons of Anarchy—while they remain a slight minority according to Nielsen, the increase is notable not for the novelty of women watching and enjoying such a masculine series but instead for its substantial increase over the previous year. However, at the same time, I couldn’t help but think about these gender questions during last night’s Anarchy Afterword livestream. On the one hand, you have “celebrity superfan” Margaret Cho, enthusiastic in her love for the series and eventually gifted her very own personalized Sons of Anarchy cut at episode’s end; on the other hand, you have porn star Puma Swede used as a glorified billboard, carrying in product placement alcohol and being ogled by the primarily male panelists. The episode featured a taped segment highlighting the work of the series’ costume designer Kelli Jones, a largely feminized position in the industry; said segment was also focused on how she designs and shops for the two different whorehouses on the series (one of which served as the set for the Afterword episode).
I raise these points not to suggest that these elements outright contradict one another, but rather to note that the series’ extremism breeds this particular kind of gendered appeal. Sutter’s approach to television is to make a show that gives the appearance of having made no compromises, a badge of honor he wears proudly, but that undersells the degree to which he has actively engineered a series capable of containing these contrasts and contradictions. The series can indulge in the male gaze at the same time Cho represents the series’ female fanbase, or highlight costume design while foregrounding the perspective of its male host, because it has never felt as though it entirely shut out any particular perspective. It’s a messy, chaotic show with a range of appeals, most easily understood as a masculine drama but containing elements that have clearly been embraced by women in the series’ later seasons.
That being said, however, I do wonder whether Anarchy Afterword was designed without the foresight to see the series’ growing fanbase. Given the presence of the scantily clad Puma Swede, and with male-focused Miller Lite as its chief sponsor, one can’t help but feel that Anarchy Afterword was imagined—or at least sold to sponsors—as a primarily male-skewing experience. That seems unfortunate to me, especially given that women make up both a significant portion of the series’ audience and its active fanbase: it was not a coincidence, after all, that the only on-air caller during the aftershow was a female fan, and I can’t help but hope we’re due for an aftershow—that doesn’t air on MTV—with a female host at some point in the future.
I can’t say for certain how the online series was designed, but I would wager that Kurt Sutter would argue that breaking it down by gender oversimplifies it. Instead, perhaps Anarchy Afterword was just a mirror of the show’s complicated gender politics, willing to indulge in the objectification of hired porn stars because it knows that it still draws in female fans (many of which may well be attached to the show for the same reasons that we imagine men are tuning in). As much as I personally felt uncomfortable with the gender politics of certain Afterword segments, the series’ recent demo breakdowns remind us not to oversimplify the imagined viewer of this—or any other—series; this won’t stop Netflix from overtly designing ads aimed at men and women, nor will it dramatically transform FX from its focus on male demographics, but it at least better acknowledges the viewers who exist outside of the realm of marketing and branding efforts.