Multilayered, expansive, bold, ambitious — these are just some of the glowing adjectives often used to describe HBO’s The Wire, which is finally inching its way into the broadsheet elite of TV shows that deserve serious attention. The buzz surrounding the program, the fifth and final season of which will soon be released on DVD (August in the US; September in the UK), tends to be all the more fevered because of its relative marginalization. Threatened with cancellation after the third season and only available to most international viewers via DVD or the Internet, its fans tend to sound frustrated in the manner peculiar to those who recognize the irony of the ratings-chasing system chewing up a series that has explored the oppressive force of institutions with a subtlety and gusto rarely seen on TV.
Ostensibly a cop show set in Baltimore, The Wire is about the city’s drug slums, schools, political systems, dock workers, unions — it doesn’t need to move deftly between these worlds because it shows how they feed and double-cross each other, day after day.
The typical viewers’ response to The Wire is characterized by a combination of childlike joy, politicized inspiration, and an impatient desire to convert. These effects can’t just be attributed to the show’s labyrinthine, suspenseful plots that weld humour and tragedy, or its nuanced performances and richly layered scripts. A specific and crucial part of the excitement surrounding The Wire is its inherent, instinctive political morality. The Wire‘s principally black cast is an anomaly on TV — the fact that the script confronts racial politics without losing itself in dogma or obsessing over black versus white sometimes seems miraculous.
Gay characters on TV are almost without exception stereotyped, ridiculed, or defined by their sexuality. The Wire doesn’t so much tear apart this convention as act like it never existed. One of the show’s most phenomenal characters is gay stick-up guy Omar, who makes money by robbing drug dealers. He is one of the good bad guys (although things are never that simple in The Wire, and all the characters could conceivably be categorized as bad good guys or good bad guys or something in between). But his character, and his position in the fated, chaotic choreography of institutional game-playing that drives the show, transcends all of these things without discarding their fundamental force. It’s exciting to see a mainstream series — any series, really — driven by a progressive political sensibility that finds expression in its most profound aesthetic achievements. Forget clunky, tokenistic left-wing gestures — progressive politics is The Wire‘s lifeblood.
It’s the program’s instinctive sense of justice that makes it difficult to accept that The Wire has betrayed women, and it’s this that makes the betrayal saddening and important in a way that the inbuilt sexism of most mainstream TV is not. That one of the most progressive TV shows in the medium’s history is also one of the best is deeply heartening. That one of the most progressive TV shows in the medium’s history consistently demonstrates its ignorance of and disinterest in gender politics is utterly depressing. This ignorance almost seems calculated — for every aspect of the program that makes you wish creator David Simon was president, there’s an anti-feminist flipside. Points to The Wire for its tireless emphasis on the circumstances and institutional pressures that make people who they are. Negative points for the encyclopedia of stock female stereotypes the writers lazily peruse whenever the script requires an extra x-chromosome. You want the gold digging girlfriend? You’ve got it — and why not pick up the tyrannical dragon-lady mother or the idealized angelic woman-saviour on the way? The show deserves heartfelt applause for its recognition that activist factions are damaging and artificial, that it is misleading to think about race without considering the economy without taking into account education, and so on. But gender is either excluded from, or a mere footnote to, this sophisticated, expansive worldview. Democracy is at the heart of the program, to the extent that viewers find themselves caring about 20 characters almost equally. But so few of these characters are women, and the female characters that do emerge aren’t at stake. In The Wire, it is boys who are at stake. Women and girls are bit parts in a compelling drama played out by men.
In a political program, the question of who is at stake is a vital one. If a piece of art is trying to make a change, who is it trying to save? The Wire is blind to the relationship between its driving concerns and gender. It is a disability that is thrown into sharp, saddening focus in Season Four, when the show’s revolutionary treatment of children emerges alongside some of the most chilling examples of sexism in The Wire‘s run. It is difficult, if not impossible, to remember anything on TV that thrusts a group of complex, believable children characters center-stage without reducing these kids to their roles in adults’ lives. The Wire does it with the characters of Namond, Michael, Dukie, and Randy, whose stories are told in a sensitive, insightful, non-patronizing way. They are all boys. There might have been an excuse for leaving a giant, woman-shaped gap in the previous seasons because they were set in the male-dominated worlds of gangs, unions, and politics. There is no excuse when the setting is a co-ed high school.
These four protagonists are the kids whose future hangs in the balance. Michael is being courted by Marlo, the new king of Baltimore’s drug dealers. Namond, son of imprisoned gangster Wee-Bey, lives with a tyrannical mother who wants him to make money for her by dealing drugs. Randy is a schoolboy entrepreneur, selling confectionary on his lunch break. Dukie’s parents sell his school clothes for cash. They are the vulnerable future of America, and the series pulls no punches in revealing how America’s families, schools, social care system, legal framework, and police force are leaving them behind. But why are they all boys? In The Wire‘s eyes, it is the boys who are out on the corner, the boys who are selling drugs, the boys who are killing each other, and the boys who are penned up in jail. Therefore, it is the boys who are at stake. This reasoning is ill-thought out, immature and lazy enough to pass without comment on regular primetime television, but its presence in a program so perceptive, challenging, and passionate is evidence of the extent to which gender politics have been marginalized in intelligent pop culture.
The Wire‘s Snoop (Felicia Pearson)
Unlike the show’s empathetic gangsters, women in The Wire are born bad. Its creators fail to recognize that “dragon lady” De’Londa Brice is a victim of racial, economic, and sexual circumstance. To them, she is just another cog in the oppressive system. What The Wire fails to realize is that if mothers are driving these kids out on to the streets to deal drugs and commit murders, then the girls that will eventually become these dependent, powerless, controlling parents are just as at stake. These girls need to be saved too. The social forces that create gangster matriarchs like Brianna Barksdale and De’Londa Brice are damaging because they deprive women of agency and require them to depend on men for money. Why does The Wire have so much empathy for a character like Bodie, who sells drugs and kills people but is portrayed as the product of a fucked-up environment, yet none for Namond’s mother, who neglects her son and refuses to make her own money, apparently just because she is a controlling monster?
Still, The Wire has its fair share of irredeemably violent gangsters. A tyrannical mother or two could have slipped through the net if there had been anything to redress the balance. It would have been easy and should have been natural to write into the plot some schoolgirl peers of Michael, Dukie, Randy, and Namond, at risk of becoming wives and mothers, dependant on drug money, just as the boys are at risk of becoming husbands and fathers who make that money. You can’t accuse Simon and his co-writers of ignoring girls entirely. In one memorable episode, a female pupil has consensual sex with some boys in a school toilet and pretends it was rape. One of our boys, Randy, is caught up in the allegation and winds up telling the police about a murder committed by Marlo’s crew to avoid prosecution. He gets a rep as a snitch and his home is torched, leaving his foster mother hospitalized and Randy in the hellish situation of having to live in a violent group home. False rape allegation stories are more than just misguided given the low rate of prosecutions for the crime — they are downright damaging, unless handled intelligently. There is a hint of the girl’s motivation in lying when she overhears the boys she had sex with making fun of her. This isn’t enough. The whole episode is a low point in The Wire‘s confused, borderline-sadistic relationship with the women that populate its universe.
The Wire has female characters who are important to the show and whose depth extends beyond cookie-cutter cliché. The most obvious of these is kick-ass lesbian detective Kima Greggs, but she is by no means the only woman who can hold her own. On the side of the law, Greggs is flanked by the firm-but-fair assistant state’s attorney Rhonda Pearlman, while mass murdering androgynous gangster Snoop fits into no archetype I can remember. Addictive and incredible these characters may be, but an excuse they are not. Anyone who tries to pass Kima and Snoop off as a defence against the accusation that The Wire is gender-backwards is under the illusion that a portfolio of “strong women” makes something feminist. If that is true, I’m Lara Croft. If there was ever a time for the politics of role models, it has come and gone. As The Wire rightly recognizes, our attention should lie with the institutions that make us what we are — and often, what we are is vulnerable, complicated, and weak. Carmela Soprano crying in her kitchen did more for women in one scene than Sex and the City‘s Samantha did in her entire tenure as a superficial woman who behaved like a shallow man.
The other problem with these impressive lady characters was admitted by Simon in an interview with Mystery One: “I tend to suspect that my female characters are, to quote a famous criticism of Hemingway, men with tits.” In the same interview, on Kima: “Largely, I write her as a man and then, I confess, its Sonja Sohn who adds all the subtlety in her performance. So, if it’s thin ice, I’m still above it, at any rate.” In a way, Simon is right that he’s above the ice. It’s only when the script gets too self-conscious about the “men with tits” phenomenon — think Kima bonding with rebel detective Jimmy McNulty over infidelity — that the characters stop ringing completely and utterly true. But Simon’s admission that he’s scared of getting inside women’s heads says a lot about his gender politics, or lack of any. Would he have considered saying the same thing about black people? Would anyone have accepted it?
Amy Ryan as Beadie Russell in The Wire
In one of the first season’s early episodes, McNulty tells Kima that all the good women police officers he’s ever met were gay. It is only in retrospect that this assertion seems like more than just characterization. Through poor old fuck-up McNulty, the writers were able to voice this wee-bit contentious idea without fear of reprisal. Maybe what McNulty claimed about female police is true — like I said before, positive images are not good politics. But The Wire gained my trust for exploring the reality behind everyday inequalities. Using flawed characters as a mouthpiece for unhip opinions is a betrayal of the show’s own tireless morality. Instead of confronting the gender politics of the Baltimore police, The Wire gives us Beadie Russell. A capable but dull port cop, Beadie plays a small part in the second season’s action before fading to black in the third season. In the fourth season she’s back and blonde and suddenly significant for her role in “saving” McNulty from “himself”. Cue the strings — if The Wire needs to read up on women’s issues for one reason alone it should be that the most anti-feminist parts of the show are usually the most cringeworthy. There’s more than a hint of the jealous-best-friend syndrome in the fact that McNulty being saved also involves him leaving high-end police work — what he does best! — for home life and an easy day-to-day as a beat cop, not to mention markedly fewer scenes. Don’t ditch us for a broad, McNulty! Look what they did to Randy!
What hurts is that The Wire knows women aren’t sorted now. Lost women are everywhere in the fabric of the show’s Baltimore — turning tricks, smacked out on drugs, shutting their eyes to the world they are losing their children to. And The Wire knows that it’s not just men who die because of organized crime and corruption. The second season’s plot involves an episode in which the dead bodies of 13 women are discovered in a crate. They had been shipped from Eastern Europe to the US, destined for a life of forced prostitution and slavery. Yet these women are just a plot strategy, dressed up with some token sentiment when McNulty tries and fails to find out the identity of one of the deceased. The promiscuous detective — that old chestnut! — winds up falling into an accidental threesome with two foreign prostitutes when he goes undercover in a brothel, in a scene played out as comedy for the boys.
Sex workers in The Wire are not real people in the way that male gangsters, drug dealers, and police officers are. In the first season, stripper Shardene Innes is persuaded to work undercover with the police against the criminal Barksdale crew when she is told that they left one of her co-workers to overdose and die at a party. Kima tells Shardene: “They fucked her and threw her away.” This plotline is an open invitation for The Wire to confront gender issues with the same intelligence it brings to race, class, and the law, and the show’s cop-out is spectacular. Shardene becomes the love interest of wise old detective Lester Freamon, and any significance she might have had overwhelmed by the humor of the revelation that Lester is actually a horny old man. Like Beadie after her, Shardene fades to black, only to return for a cameo in Season Two, with one line about how she’s on the straight and narrow now that Lester has encouraged her to be a nurse. She is never mentioned again. It’s more of a car crash than a cop-out. And when the anger subsides, it becomes truly bewildering that women have been marginalized in this program’s penetrating indictment of a failed society. What did they do wrong?
The Wire‘s sexism is sad, because the show’s approach to political and social analysis could do a lot for feminism. It is time to progress beyond identity politics and towards the perspective at play in The Wire, in which the connections between social groups and institutions are much more revealing than the gaps between them. Campaigns for women’s rights have historically been dogged by criticisms that they are all about middle-class white girls. The rhetoric surrounding the recent struggle for the Democrat nomination in the US only highlighted the widespread perception that gender issues are for white people and racial issues are for black people. But middle-class white girls are not the only girls. There are women all over the world that could do with programs like The Wire on their side, valuing their lives and thinking about their position. As it stands, culture makers as well as politicians are leaving these girls behind.