The Wire’s gender problem


Stringer Bell is confused. “Whaddaya mean The Wire’s not feminist?”

The Wire, the HBO series that ran for five seasons, will apparently live on, despite its shelf life, in a class at Harvard. And Professor William Wilson, the self-admitted “huge fan” who will be teaching the class, is high off of The Wire’s Kool-Aid:

“I do not hesitate to say that it has done more to enhance our understanding of the challenges of urban life and the problems of urban inequality, more than any other media event or scholarly publication,” Wilson told the audience before poking fun at himself, “including studies by social scientists.”

As a racial justice advocate who loves politics and sexually diverse representations of people of color, one can’t help but be a sucka for The Wire. (Also, I am not going to lie. I might have dedicated a Facebook status, or ten, to good-God-what-have-you-done-to-me Idris Elba.) But when you fasten your feminist goggles and take another gander, you are bound to get bamboozled, psyched out and sucka-punched by yet another attempt to be progressive — hold the feminism.

Elizabeth Ault, a bad-ass feminist at the University of Minnesota, begins to sum up The Wire’s gender problem in the title of her paper: “You Can Help Yourself, But Don’t Take Too Much”: African-American Motherhood on The Wire. At one point she states,

The Wire is quite capable of creating sympathy for the
struggles of men… shows us
characters like alcoholic police officer Jimmy McNulty, strategizing
drug kingpin/real estate developer Stringer Bell, and corrupt (okay,
maybe just stupid) cop Thomas Hauk, and doesn’t dictate how we
interpret their storylines; rather, much of the show is full of
precisely the sort of representational ambiguity that obviates calls
for “more positive representations” and earns the “authentic”
plaudit–except, again, when it comes to black mothers, women without
the social or cultural capital of those men.

Then she goes for the jugular:

The institutions that The Wire is so devoted to condemning
have failed these women too. In order to make its damning assessment of
urban politics within its own institutional context of
Time/Warner-owned HBO, The Wire must make some compromises. In this
case, black mothers’ sexualities, their subjectivities, their desires,
and therefore their fitness as parents is the price the show, like so
many before it, is willing to pay.

Her paper has not been published yet. But it’s chock full of good
stuff about the director’s decision to opt-out of “woman of color
feminism” and her analysis of the director’s reinvestment in
“heteropatriarchal family.” I don’t know what Wilson has planned on
the syllabus, but he needs to give our girl Liz a call. Because the
urban inequality problem he rails on about is gendered.

and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

28 Comments

  1. davenj
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Much as I love The Wire I’m in complete agreement. The show presents male viewpoints to the point of exclusivity, and aside from Kima there aren’t any female characters of major import unless you want to count Beadie.

  2. GREGORYABUTLER10031
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Well, after all, “The Wire is a show about narcotics detectives and drug dealers – and, since both police departments and criminal gangs are patriarchal (and often flat out misogynist) institutions, it wouldn’t be an authentic narrative if it wasn’t sexist.
    The whole point of “The Wire is to show you gang members and cops on their own terms and from their own worldview – and sexism is very much a part of that worldview for both groups.

  3. norbizness
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Without being presumptuous, I would think that a better Baltimore-based, David Simon-produced series to explore the hardships of women affected by urban inequality would be ‘The Corner.’ Granted, it didn’t have a five season run (it was six hour-long episodes).
    Personally, it’s a bit off-putting to hold the creators of the show accountable to the overhype dumped on it by people like Professor Wilson; I certainly wouldn’t want to ask Matthew Wiener to justify all the blog-encomiums larded on Mad Men.

  4. halime
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Rose, do you know where we could download this paper online? I did a quick Google Scholar search and can’t find it.

  5. tommydagun
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Hmm, is this post essentially saying “What about teh wimminz?” Just asking.

  6. John H.
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Granted it’s just one of many subplots, but I feel the Kima/Cheryl relationship is a pretty feminist portrayal of black female sexuality. They have the same problems — dependency, attachment, and infidelity — that your average couple has.
    But this is exactly the genius of The Wire; it largely subverts issues of sexuality. You forget that Kima and Cheryl are black lesbians after a while because they’re just so goddamn normal! Just like Omar. His homosexuality is incidental to his existence. Sure, those who fear him refer to him with anti-gay slurs, but ultimately, it’s his ruthlessness and his effectiveness that definte him.
    And of course, there is a huge gender imbalance in the characters of the show. But as mentioned before, the show exists within the framework of law enforcement, the drug trade, politics, and the press — all of which are indeed patriarchal and dominated by men. Regardless of this, the female characters that exist within these institutions shine through and are in several cases more effective and more competent then their male counterparts. I’m thinking specifically of Kima, Rhonda, and Snoop.

  7. Ariel
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Feminist goggles might be my favorite term now.

  8. Blitzgal
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Came in to wonder what the author thought of Kima as a character, but I see that John already has that covered.
    Snoop was also a prominent female character later in the series.
    I also appreciated the way that The Wire did not sugar-coat the issue of human trafficking in the second season. Many lesser shows take a more “Pretty Woman” approach to prostitution and the sex trade. Forced prostitution is ugly, and the show portrayed it as such.

  9. emulsifier
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    There’s bad parents and good parents all over this show. There’s just as many bad white fathers as bad black mothers. There’s more bad than good, but it’s not leaning towards any racial undertones.
    The show “earns the “authentic” plaudit–except, again, when it comes to black mothers, women without the social or cultural capital of those men.”
    Examples please?
    “black mothers’ sexualities, their subjectivities, their desires, and therefore their fitness as parents is the price the show, like so many before it, is willing to pay.”
    This strikes me as academic bullshit. Big words and yet no examples?
    How about Bode’s grandmother? Who only appears in the first season and is acted beautifully? I think she stands against this claim.
    Or, I dont’ know.. Kima Greggs. One of the main characters.. you know the one.. the lesbian who has a child with her partner, subsequently going through a giant range of emotions regarding this? They’re also pretty sexually active in several episodes. Her partner is also a very deeply written character.
    In season 4.. the mother of Nathan? (forgot his name, long haired kid) is absolutely brutal to her son… She’s got alot of desires and seems lik ea subjectivity to me. Yes, not all mother’s are great people. The Wire even included them.
    OK, so no black mothers have much “social capital”, which I’m sure you’re interpreting through their relationship to the Barksdale/Bell drug ring. Yes, that drug ring is pretty patriarchal… how does that not strike you as “authentic”?
    What about Deangelo’s mother!?!! She isn’t granted “subjectivity”? Did you watch the episodes when/after she finds out how her son died?
    Here’s another word for you: Snoop. If she had a child, would it be different?
    I have a MA in Cultural Studies, and I despise it. You can’t start honest academic discourse when you’re very focused on finding a specific result.

  10. EndersGames
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    This post made no sense to me.
    It’s like criticizing the movie “Precious” for not focusing on the issues faced by black men. The movie isn’t about black men. It’s about the struggles faced by a young fat girl who is living in desparate conditions.
    The wire is primarily about the toxic societal factors that have driven many young black men to drugs, and the struggles of cops and government to solve a problem that seems unsolvable. There are quite a number of strong female characters and non-heterosexual characters. But the show is primarily about the experiences of men, in a way that is not often portrayed on mainstream television.

  11. dangerfield
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Well said. The Wire is about sexist institutions. It had a duty to portray them as such, and to document the sexism of those institutions: contrary to what this post avers, the show did an excellent job of conveying the struggles many of the main female characters had within in these sexist, male-dominated institutions. I don’t understand how a show that brought us Kima, Beadie, Snoop and Rhonda can be unfeminist. Each of these characters–norm-breaking but very realistic women struggling within male dominated institutions–is conveyed with a nuance absent elsewhere on television.

  12. aleks
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Did they get an authenticity waiver to make a show about the experiences of men?

  13. dangerfield
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    rhonda. snoop.

  14. maevele.livejournal.com
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    this. I found there to be a number of female characters, well portrayed, considering the context. I can only really think of one stereotypical ‘bad black momma’ in the whole thing, and otherwise I found the female characters to be well rounded, diverse in personality, and in some cases, fascinating. Admittedly, the show was overwhelmingly male, in sheer numbers, but the drug business and the police business are still pretty male spaces, so i found it realistic.

  15. Boodle
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Hey–I love the Wire, and I also love Homicide, which was an amazing show made by many of the same people. I’m not sure The Wire is sexist; it does focus on males and patriarchal institutions, but that doesn’t make it sexist. It’s only sexist if it fails to critique those institutions. I don’t think it does fail, nor did Homicide fail at providing critique. I actualy think The Wire does it better.
    That said, the class on The Wire should include feminist critiques of the show–let the students do some meta-criticism and decide for themselves!

  16. pam
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Oh, Precious. Many of us will be unsurprised to hear that *Precious* fails Black women in the same way *The Wire* does (pathologizing individual Black mothers; ignoring structural factors that limit the choices and life chances of women of color in general and Black mothers in particular). Check out what Juell Stewart has to say about it: http://colorlines.com/article.php?ID=632

  17. Boodle
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Hey–I love the Wire, and I also love Homicide, which was an amazing show made by many of the same people. I’m not sure The Wire is sexist; it does focus on males and patriarchal institutions, but that doesn’t make it sexist. It’s only sexist if it fails to critique those institutions. I don’t think it does fail, nor did Homicide fail at providing critique. I actually think The Wire does it better.
    That said, the class on The Wire should include feminist critiques of the show–let the students do some meta-criticism and decide for themselves!

  18. Newbomb Turk
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    How does one get high on Kool-Aid?

  19. aleks
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 10:55 pm | Permalink
  20. aleja
    Posted November 7, 2009 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    re: Stewart’s critique
    “While nothing would excuse being silently complicit while your daughter’s father repeatedly sexually abuses her, I can’t for a moment believe that anyone would do so without a conscience, or without any context in their larger environment. ”
    Except that… this happens all the time. Women sell their children all the time. Women look the other way while husbands/boyfriends/uncles/brothers fuck their babies ALL THE TIME. Black women, white women, Asian women, Latinas… of all class backgrounds do this. Her entire critique rests on her inability to accept this kind of familial dynamic. She isn’t able to see beyond her own limited life experiences.
    Stewart if blissfully naive and her “critique” suffers as a result.

  21. aleja
    Posted November 7, 2009 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    Can we talk about how problematic it is that we are looking to a privileged, white academic like Ms. Ault to be the authority on “authentic” black motherhood?
    Oh wait. I forgot. This is “Feministing.” I guess we can’t.

  22. MaggieDanger
    Posted November 7, 2009 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Actually, I disagree. I got to the second half of the third season and had to stop because the sexism was really bothering me. I very much like the first season, and the second season is quite good, but season three is surprisingly sexist and I was so tired of everyone telling me the show was a work of art and I was “reading too much into the sexism” that I quit the show.
    Yes, the institutions included on The Wire are sexist, and they represent them as such, realistically, and show that up for the stupidity that it is. But as of Season 3, it seemed like every single woman on the show other than Kima was “at home to nag at the man once he returns from work, she never understands him and eventually leaves him because she needs a man who focuses on her, not the job.” Hell, even Kima was taking the “man’s” role in that equation. Females in the show were strongly othered, made needy, and pushed out of the important parts of the plot. The men sexually used and threw away women even when there was no strong plot- or character-related reason to do it, as if there was no other way to show that he was a cold, verile man in the context of the show. And that red-headed female prosecutor? (Can’t remember her name.) She was a strong, successful woman in her own right, yet she let the men in the show pass her around, keep her as a secret affair, and generally treat her like crap while she made frowny faces in protest but still let them come in and nail her when they showed up drunk on her doorstep.
    Maybe things get better in later seasons, and I liked The Wire for many other things. But since I found Season 3 pretty boring, anyway, and it insulted me as a woman, I was out.

  23. davenj
    Posted November 7, 2009 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Yep, that’s problematic. In general I like to avoid the “authentic” label, which is pretty normative in and of itself. It also connotes deeper knowledge, which in many cases those using the word do not actually have.
    Case in point: The Wire. People love to call that show “authentic”, but at the end of the day it is still dramatic fiction. It can be insightful and thought-provoking without being called an authentic portrayal of Baltimore.
    And there’s definitely privilege involved in who gets to call something authentic. The only major black pundit I can recall who talked about The Wire’s general authenticity was Mike Wilbon, and this was only in an interview run by a white person.

  24. Edward
    Posted November 7, 2009 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    The women was in a greater position of power. Why is she not free to engage men sexually as she pleases? If she wants so sleep with a drunken man so be it. Two people having an affair often call on the other when they are drunk and horny with minimal self restraint. If she had slept with no one, how would that have improved things short of reducing the complexity of the drama? Women have sex with men and they do so for their self interest. In respecting a women as equals I would not judge them differently for doing the exact same thing a powerful man might do. She need not locate a man of equal status and secure a committed relationship just for want of sex or companionship. She is free to indulge in many men ,freely changing partners as she sees fit. I don’t think she was passed around so much as she was enjoying variety for her own benifit. It is bias against womens sexuality that leads us to call women “sluts” or say they were “passed around” rather than seeing the women as in control and choosing to indulge in as many lovers as she chooses.

  25. Eileen
    Posted November 8, 2009 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    I love the Wire. My only major problem with it was the under-representation of women’s experience. It disappoints me to see a show that is ostensibly about the comprehensive problems with a major urban area, but the women mostly get to stay home unless they’re sleeping with one of the primary players. When people acknowledge that women are vital parts of patriarchal institutions, and that their stories are just as important, then I’ll be watching a truly progressive show.
    Season 4, for example, was an amazing exploration of how the City grinds down children. Oh wait, no it wasn’t. It was about boys, not children. Of course.

  26. Posted November 8, 2009 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Hell, even Kima was taking the “man’s” role in that equation. Females in the show were strongly othered, made needy, and pushed out of the important parts of the plot. The men sexually used and threw away women even when there was no strong plot- or character-related reason to do it, as if there was no other way to show that he was a cold, verile man in the context of the show. And that red-headed female prosecutor?

  27. https://me.yahoo.com/a/Sbg41ux2yeHtb0uQCr6A7AQn3gx4PIujihLL_6w-#29b58
    Posted November 8, 2009 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    Just wanted to pop in and say I am sick to death of references to “drinking the Kool-Aid.” Do you know anything about what happened at Jonestown? People, including children, were forced to drink a lethal drug-and-poison cocktail at gunpoint, or had it forcibly injected into them. They were peaceful people who wanted to make the world a better place and they were murdered. I’m sick of hearing light-hearted references to this tragedy.

  28. pam
    Posted November 12, 2009 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Stewart doesn’t seem to be saying that women don’t behave this way in “real life,” but rather that the women you’re talking about live their lives within political, social, and personal CONTEXTS that shape their experiences, choices, lack of choices, etc.
    And (as Precious and The Wire exemplify) TV and Hollywood almost never take those bigger pictures — particularly wrt structural factors — into account when it comes to Black women. Instead, we get lots and lots of pathological two-dimensional Bad Mothers.

Feministing In Your Inbox

Sign up for our Newsletter to stay in touch with Feministing
and receive regular updates and exclusive content.

203 queries. 0.665 seconds