A little while ago one of our readers posted this comment:
I would love it if you would spend some time on the female characters on the wire. It just dawned on me recently just how male the show really is and how black women are portrayed. Aside from Shakima, her girlfriend and Daniels’ wife every other black woman on the show is seen as grimy, selfish,cold,desperate,(Cutty’s women)oversexed, greedy or murderous (Snoop and Omar’s girls). Since I’m a black woman who lives in the inner city, I obviously reject that depiction on some level. I’m not saying that women like Wee-Bay’s mother don’t exist, although that scene had my mouth wide-open in disbelief. I’m saying that the overall portrayal of black women is pretty bleak. On 39 we had even a professional sister in a sexually compromising position. Have you given this any thought? Is this a bias that Simon and his writers have allowed to creep into the show?
I’m glad this issue was raised. This post will in no way begin to deal with it definitively, but I hope it starts a good conversation about it.
A few questions come to mind when dealing with the broad theme of female characters on The Wire: 1) Are there enough characters (ie, is the portrayal of women realistic in terms of how many there are in each setting), 2) Are their roles as complex and deep as the role of men, and 3) What do the answers to 1) and 2) mean for the show and our viewership of it?
It strikes me as believable that there would be only one lady (Kima) doing this work on the force — and we’ve certainly seen Kima in a lot of depth, from being shot to (I would argue) not being fair to or honest with her girlfriend. I got no complaints about Kima or about how women are portrayed in the police department. (If anyone out there knows more about female police, then please speak up and correct me.) And there’s Rhonda Pearlman, a great character, as well as Theresa D’Agostino (Carcetti’s consultant), and Marla Daniels — all great, strong, flawed women. (True, D’Agostino is a women who is cannier than Carcetti who’s helping him behind the scenes (typical) and Marla isn’t as interesting as Royce, but those disparities seem to me to be acceptable and to reflect some measure of the unequal reality in which we live. Please disagree.)
What I do have a problem with is how Simon & co. portray women on the street. Drug organizations routinely depend on women — girlfriends, wives, daughters — to act as mules, carriers, whatever. (Not in any way to minimize the way that the justice system punishes black men, but the number of women incarcerated in state facilities for drug-related offenses rose by 888% between 1986 and 1999—actually outpacing the number of men imprisoned for similar crimes. See this site, where I ripped this stat from.) The Barksdale organization seemed to be entirely male run, which is not only a bit unbelievable, but actually contributes to the very negative way that black women have been portrayed: As greedy and opportunistic. Donnette’s a sweet girl, but went for Stringer when D’Angelo was locked up, and let’s not forget that D’Angelo’s mom wanted him to carry the time for the team, and why? Because Avon reminded her that all the nice things she had depended on it. And let’s not even get started on De’Londa. I hope we see her more in Season 4 because what we’ve seen is not three-dimensional.
By being denied a role as players in the game, women are denied a chance at honor. They are reduced to being consumers of the profits of the drug trade, instead of operators in it. We’ve had some comic relief from this — remember what’s her name, the girlfriend who was always yelling when buying up the mobile phones? — but it’s comic relief that depends on enforcing stereotypes of black women instead of subverting them.
Omar works with ladies, which is nice, but everything Omar does exists in its own world and veers almost into fantasy (He can’t die). Snoops is less of a woman and more of a creature — she’s androgynous. I’m hoping now that we’re in the school, we’re going to see the teacher and principal characters develop more. But that still doesn’t explain why The Wire isn’t interested in considering women as part of the street system, because they are. I’m not willing to go so far as to call the show misogynist, but it has some serious blind spots. Even if you argue that the show is telling the story of young black men in jeopardy (again, notice all the main kids are black — girls are in the background, slashing each other with razors, but they’re not getting much dialogue.), it has to actively erase women from the landscape in order to do that. I find it hard to believe that the choices 12 year old girls make on the street are less interesting or difficult than the choices 12 year old boys make, and I find it hard to believe that the lives of women in their twenties trying to make it work in poverty are less interesting — they are usually more interesting, as they involve balancing the needs of children. Simon & co. are brilliant, and so what I fear is that this erasure may have been on purpose. If so, why? What end does it serve to tell the story of one-half of the ghetto?