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.

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