Does The Wire have a gender problem?
Jane Does, supporting characters and lazy stereotypes: an exploration into the lack of agency and (under)-representation of women in HBO's The Wire
It can be annoying when people try to persuade you to watch particular television shows. Programmes like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and The West Wing have a certain mythical status, and if you express indignation, dislike or just general apathy towards them, the fault is with you. “What do you mean you don’t like Mad Men?!” they cry incredulously, mentally demoting your opinion on anything else. I have been both a victim and the perpetrator of this exchange (as anyone who speaks to me about Mad Men can attest to). Most of the time, though, it simply is just a matter of taste, and time, and really –what are you missing out on if you don’t watch the so-called “best TV show of all time”?
Or so I thought. As I’m sure millions of people did, I spent the majority of my lockdown watching TV. Mostly reruns of Spaced and Peep Show, and plenty of heart-warming Queer Eye to distract myself from the raging pandemic outside. Towards the beginning of lockdown, my brother recommended that I start The Wire, a show he had watched around ten years ago.
The Wire really and truly is the greatest TV show ever made. Set in Baltimore, Maryland, in the early 2000s, The Wire explores the relationships between the city’s police department, drug dealers, crime and law enforcement. Each of the five seasons focuses on a different institution of Baltimore society: the drug trade, the docks, the city government and political bureaucracy, education and the print industry. It was written and produced by David Simon, an author and former police reporter, and Ed Burns, a former homicide detective and schoolteacher. There is no one “main” character to the series, but the show mainly focuses on the power-play relationship between the police, Jimmy McNulty, Bunk Moreland, Cedric Daniels, Lester Freamon and Kima Greggs (to name a few) and the drug dealers, Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell, Bodie and D’Angelo (again, to name a very small number – I read somewhere that there are about thirty-six regular characters in the show’s five seasons).
It is in this balance and juxtaposition of good/evil, police/street, law/illegality where The Wire succeeds. It reveals the cyclical nature of institutional failures, an “endless, self-perpetuating cycle” in which the powerful generally remain powerful and the weak generally remain weak. There is no fixed measure of morality and as Frankie Faison, who plays DC Burrell puts it, “sometimes the ‘good’ people are not so good and sometimes the ‘bad’ people are striving to be good.”
I could spend plenty of time writing about the successes of The Wire: its complexity, long-reaching narrative arc, engaging characters and extensive attention to detail are widely discussed in articles, YouTube videos and books. Charlie Brooker has written on it, made a short documentary, travelled to New York for the season five premier to meet the cast and has praised it as the “best TV show since the invention of radio”. Even Obama has named it as “one of the greatest – not just television shows, but pieces of art in the last couple of decades”. Just thinking about it now, as I’m writing, has led me down many internet Wire-shaped rabbit holes. It is really hard to concentrate without knowing the best character endings on The Wire, ranked.
My point still stands that The Wire is the best TV show I have ever watched. But as I was watching it, I couldn’t help but notice the one thing that makes it quite dated and that it lacks is: the representation of women. The one (and only) flaw of The Wire is a pretty significant one: there are hardly any well-rounded or important women characters, and of the women characters that do exist, most of them lack any real or complex characterisation or interrogation. It is not simply the case that The Wire only depicts the lives of white, straight men (much like many other crime dramas). Most of the characters are Black, and Omar Little, who serves as the Robin Hood gun-toting stick-up man (who is Obama’s favourite character), is an openly gay Black man. Omar subverts traditional and heteronormative depictions of Black gangsters via his sexuality: he is a visible, proud and monogamously committed gay man, who “is able to reconcile … issues of masculinity and homosexuality [and present] the idea that black men can be gay, and masculine”.
The Wire successfully weaves Omar’s sexuality within the narrative, offering a refreshing and unforgettable perspective of a character usually under-represented in media and culture. Yet, the women characters remain rigidly stuck in stereotypes, especially in the first few series. They fill the roles of the bitch girlfriend, the nagging girlfriend, and the demonic “bad” mother. There is a multitude of complex male characters – we see inside their homes, we understand their motives and we follow their narrative arcs from the first episodes. But for the women, they primarily serve as stereotypes or auxiliary characters or domesticated auxiliaries: girlfriends, mistresses, mothers and sisters. McNulty has a string of ‘nagging’ girlfriends and wives. There is Elena McNulty, recently separated (due to his infidelity), there is Rhonda Pearlman (one of his lovers – who ends up leaving him, despite McNulty’s drunken booty calls), and there is Beadie Russell, perhaps the ultimate supporting character to McNulty, first introduced in season two. McNulty, everyone’s favourite womaniser, alcoholic and all-round pretty awful guy, decides his life is ‘missing’ stability. He reconnects with Beadie, gets his life together (somewhat), before swinging back to his season one ways of lying and cheating – what a loveable rogue! Throughout the whole process of McNulty’s immorality-cum-redemption, Beadie is only there as an opportunity for McNulty to sort himself out, but we see nothing of her character outside of this context. Without McNulty, there is no Beadie.
The portrayal of motherhood in The Wire also fulfils boring and damaging stereotypes. On one hand, there are the disapproving and/or deserted mothers – the innocent women who are left to look after their children whilst their cheating husbands run amok (this is mainly directed at McNulty). Then, a more problematic stereotype, there are the demonic, “bad” mothers. Unfortunately, this tends to be split across race: white woman are portrayed as motherly and domestic, whilst Black mothers are depicted as villainous, uncaring and irresponsible. Despite a generally successful and progressive discussion on inner-city politics and racial tensions, The Wire falls short when portraying Black motherhood, instead sticking to racist and sexist stereotypes. De’Londa Brice, mother to Namond (a schoolboy and the focus of series four), is painted as a dragon-lady gold digger as she pushes for Namond to get involved in the drug trade. Yet, Namond’s father Wee-Bey, one of Barksdale’s soldiers, a seasoned drug dealer and a literal murderer who is in prison for multiple homicides, is somehow depicted in a more positive light. For example, his humanity is developed through care and affection for his pet fish, but we see no such back-story for De’Londa. Why is De’Londa a bitch whilst Wee-Bey is a sympathetic father, ensuring the best for Namond’s future?
This, I would say, is where the gender politics in The Wire are most lacking. The Wire is a heavily political TV programme: it shows Baltimore’s institutional failures and deeply investigates why and how young people end up in the drug trade. Male narratives and storylines dominate all five series. In season four, we are shown this through the stories of Namond and his three friends, Michael, Randy and Dukie. These are four boys all caught up in the same racial, economic and political circumstances, where the odds of ending up on the street as a drug runner are high. Yet in this series, we are offered a resolution – we see the four boys take very different paths, and we are given a glimpse of how the cyclical institutional failures can sometimes be broken. But we are never offered this with female characters, despite the fact that this series could have easily been told through the eyes of young girls. There are so few complex women that the ones we are presented with just fall through the gaps, stuck in cyclical and economic circumstances without hope or resolution. That is what makes the example of De’Londa and Wee-Bey so important: both are products of their environments, yet we feel sympathy for Wee-Bey in a way we do not for De’Londa.
Aside from the main female characters, there is also a cast of unnamed, unimportant women who are simply there to carry the story. Season two sees the discovery of thirteen dead women in a crate, trafficked from Eastern Europe. These women serve only as a plot point: introducing us to the Greeks and whole army of (named, important) men. The women remain Jane Does. There are endless sex workers, heroin addicts, women left to overdose at parties, young schoolgirls getting shot in the midst of a turf war. Their lives are disposable; they are the lost women who are failed by the institutions.
There are, however, examples of women who break out of their stereotypes. Rhonda, for example, despite being McNulty’s plaything for the first couple of series, is a successful prosecutor and becomes a judge at the end of series five. Rhonda’s characterisation develops as the series progresses, and she is given the same level of character complexity as the male characters. There is also Felicia ‘Snoop' Pearson, a solider under Marlo Stanfield (a rival drug lord of Barksdale). With her crime partner Chris, Snoop’s main role in the Stanfield’s crew is as the assassin. She is hardened, androgynous and ambiguous, easily slotting into the traditionally masculine drug trade world. There is one hint towards her sexuality (a reference to “thinking about pussy”) representing another example of visible black queer representation in The Wire. Snoop is not a supporting or auxiliary character, nor does she reflect stereotypical gender roles – in fact, she rejects the typical gendered assumptions about the gangster and drug world. Perhaps the reason for this is grounded in reality. Actress Felicia Pearson, who was part of Baltimore’s inner-city drug world, plays Snoop. She was the daughter of two drug addicts, spent her childhood in foster homes, and worked as a drug dealer as a teenager. Not a trained actor, she met Michael K. Williams (who plays Omar), in a Baltimore nightclub, and he invited her to meet the cast and crew. Within two weeks, she was cast as her namesake, Snoop Pearson. Perhaps Snoop’s complex and rounded characterisation is based on the fact that her character is derived from reality, not fiction – Snoop is not written as a gendered stereotype because she is not written at all.
Kima Greggs is another example of a main female character. Played by Sonja Sohn, Greggs is a detective who works alongside McNulty to bring down Barksdale’s crew and is also one of the only women police officers. Kima is a lesbian – a butch and hardened lesbian whose success in the police force does ride somewhat on the fact that she emulates normative masculine traits. She is incredibly determined and intelligent, but there is a sense that the other police officers respect her because she, based on her sexuality and demeanour, is just really “one of the guys”. However, perhaps this is actually indicative of a positive representation – as a Black queer woman, Kima challenges the status quo of the police force and represents an alternative to (mainly) white, male and heterosexual policing. It is fantastic that The Wire depicts such open and detailed queer relationships – especially black homosexuality, as in the cases of Kima and Omar – and it was certainly rare, as it is now, to see such a level of black queerness on TV. Kima’s arc throughout the series does become more detailed and she becomes one of the most likeable characters of the series and one of the few “natural” police. Yet, Kima was supposed to be killed off in the first series. Carolyn Strauss, an executive at HBO, persuaded David Simon to keep Kima in as a consistent character. “Girl Power”, Sonja Sohn said, after finding out that Carolyn saved her character – a fair appraisal, considering that the male writing team would have written her off.
Nonetheless, despite some character progression over the series and the rare complex and representative depictions of certain women, The Wire remains a mostly masculine and male-based show. Its lack of gendered analysis and the under-representation of women is a shame, especially given how successful it is in every other aspect. It so effectively and sharply deals with race, class and politics, but it could have been even more powerful with a gendered approach too. More screen-time, female characters with real agency and motivations, a bigger glimpse into women’s back stories and lives – there is a range of ways in which The Wire could have allowed for a better representation of women. It’s fictional, sure, and every TV show has its stereotypes – but that doesn’t explain or excuse why the majority of women in The Wire are either lazy tropes or unnamed plot-fillers. And, as the example of Snoop has shown, women exist and work in Baltimore’s inner-city drug trade in real life, so why was there only one “street” woman in the show?
I firmly stick to my earlier point – The Wire really is the greatest TV show ever made. I urge anyone who hasn’t seen it to watch it – what better time than Christmas/eternal lockdown? The problems it portrays are still as relevant today, including immoral politics and politicians, the war on drugs, police brutality and racism, and institutional and systemic failures. The Wire undoubtedly produced some of the best quotes, narrative arcs, themes and characters in television history, and undeniably deserves its mythical status.
But women’s lives and decisions and viewpoints – separate from their male counterparts – are never granted the same exploration or attention as other themes. None of this detracts from the show at all, and I do not think that TV shows necessarily have to equally represent all spectrums of identities and politics in order to be well-regarded or taken seriously. I do think, however, that this show, which is so realistic and representative in all other aspects, should apply the same treatment to women, in particular Black mothers. The Wire cuts so deeply across politics, race and class, and so accurately represents crime, inner-city life and the criminal justice system, that the lack of gender representation feels like an anomaly. Culture, despite the fact that it is often a fictional production, informs our understanding of society and how we view our place in the world – the show’s Baltimore should be representative of reality. The Wire is a progression in terms of the representation of queer people, especially Black queer people, men of colour, inner-city drug dealers and gangsters – but the general lack of representation of woman, particularly Black woman, is a disappointing pitfall which deviates from the show’s excellence.
** Further links and sources
Alyssa Rosenberg, “Let's Not Pretend ‘The Wire’ Has Great Major Female Characters, Or, Expanding The Golden Age of TV” https://archive.thinkprogress.org/lets-not-pretend-the-wire-has-great-major-female-characters-or-expanding-the-golden-age-of-tv-51f84095e10/
Hillary Robbie, “The Subversion of Heteronormative Assumptions in HBO’s The Wire” http://www.darkmatter101.org/site/2009/05/29/the-subversion-of-heteronormative-assumptions-in-hbos-the-wire/
Jennifer DeClue, “Lesbian Cop, Queer Killer: Leveraging Black Queer Women’s Sexuality on HBO’s The Wire” https://cinema.usc.edu/archivedassets/31_2/6_declue.pdf