Ladies’ Night

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.

SNCC

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.)

caged

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.

Auntie

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?

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30 Comments on “Ladies’ Night”

  1. Shoals Says:

    did you mention brianna? i know it’s not much, but during the first season she had several lines where she’d talk about “what we fought for” or “we’re a family,” implying that she had some standing in the organization. would be interested in hearing how others interpret her character, or at least how they saw her fitting in to the barksdale group.

  2. Shoals Says:

    also i suspect that, even more so than the male children, girls in those neighborhoods have no options and thus no real decisions to make.

  3. christycash Says:

    No options does not equal no decisions. Michael Randy Dukie Nay are making choices all the time: Do I box, Do I go to school today, Do I work a corner, Do I do my homework, Do I care for my siblings, How do I deal with my foster mom, whatever. And on top of those decisions, girls are asking, Do I get in with a corner boy, Do I sleep with him, Do I keep the baby, Do I drop out of school, Do I do drugs, Do I hook, Do I… whatever.

    I always thought Brianna was no good.

  4. Aaron Weber Says:

    The character that made me think most about this issue is Caroline Massey, (see http://www.hbo.com/thewire/cast/characters/caroline_massey.shtml ) who (although funny and a good cop– remember the cell-phone sales thing? That was great.) has the stereotype pretty well down. Maybe we’ll see her character developed more, and maybe it will prove to be just a front.

  5. brains Says:

    Slightly off topic – “Girls are in the background, slashing each other with razors, but they’re not getting much dialogue.” – http://www.wmtw.com/news/9946336/detail.html – I would love to believe the show is this pervasive

  6. jetsetjunta Says:

    yikes. i sure hope the show isn’t suggesting strategies for fucking people up. i imagine that kids and razors are not a novelty, sadly enough. i do think that the principal’s explanation of some of the background to prez on his class disturbance was illuminating. at the same time, the event was still presented just as a momentary flash of violence and chaos in the classroom. it would be nice to see a little more agency at work.

  7. ReverendDrGladhands Says:

    I also thought that Brianna was a very powerful figure in the Barksdale organization. If I recall correctly, she didn’t tell D’Angleo to take the fall. She gave him a choice: take the fall or take the helm.

    The fact that she showed up to Avon’s trial with Marlo (or did she merely make a gesture towards Marlo that indicated that they may have formed some sort of alliance?) implying that we have yet to see the last of Brianna as a player.

  8. christycash Says:

    I’ve always read Brianna as a “bad mother” — she put the business before the good of her child, which is not something that, culturally, women are rewarded for doing. And we’re not talking about leaving a kid in daycare. Brianna had no problem with D’Angelo serving time, when she knew that he was too weak to carry it. I don’t think that we’re supposed to see her as shrewd and tough, but as shrewd and tough at someone else’s expense — which is, of course, a terrible crime for women to commit, or so we are told.

  9. PDGirl Says:

    I never really thought of Brianna as a “bad mother” b/c what I got from her was that she was sincerely thinking of the business as the family business, and she had no idea of anything outside of that. And it so happens that being a soldier and doing time is part of the business. I don’t think that means she wasn’t looking out for D’Angelo. The Barksdale family, at least as far as Brianna and Avon were concerned (obviously Stringer is a whoooole other story) was NOT the kind of Godfather-esque thing where the don was trying to keep his kids out of the business/raise them up/make them doctors, lawyers and politicians.
    Of course, Brianna *isn’t* doing the soldiering herself, but that’s a gender issue apart from her being a motherf. I never got the impression for a second that she wouldn’t sacrifice for the family. She sacrificed her only son.
    I got the impression she’s still sort of on the scene–based upon what happened at the end of Season 3–but I dunno if we’ll hear much from that story line again.

    Regarding Donette–I have never once thought of her as “sweet.” She is as opportunistic and greedy as anyone on the show…she’s hustling just like everyone else–just in a different (and, frankly, more offensive-to-women) way.

    A final character I find interesting in this discussion–bringing it back to Season 1–is Shardene. Remember (to over-simplify) the stripper with a heart-of-gold who lester Freamon “saves”? I always thought she had so much potential as a character, but in the end, they just decided to make her a hot girl gone wild and just throw in the coke bottle glasses as a little twist. Then Lester got to “save” her.

    The more I think about the way African-American working and lower-class women are protrayed on the show, the more annoyed i am🙂.

    Finally, regarding Shoals’ comment that the girls in West Baltimore have “no options and no real decisions to make.” The sociological research/data really says otherwise. From what i’ve read, the trend over the last 10 (or more?) years in the black community–over all economic demographics–is that young women are achieving academically, financially, career-wise, etc. at a *much* higher rate than young men. As for the community depicted in “The Wire,” I’d posit that if a young girl can avoid getting pregnant, she’s got a better chance of getting out than the boys.

    Good topic!🙂. I’ll stop now though.

  10. Shoals Says:

    yeah, i realized today that i was completely neglecting the fact that african-american women have a far easier time getting an education than young black men. hopefully this will come up at some point in this season.

  11. Jonathan Says:

    I would like to know a little bit more about the teacher who keeps bailing out Prez everytime is classroom erupts into chaos. My guess is that the kids listen to her because she goes to church with all of their Grandmothers. Which brings me to another missing element of the wire: the real parents for most of these kids if they are being raised by kin is being done by their parent’s parents. Where is there point of view in this story? You kind of get a sense for their importance in the shooting of Omar’s mother or grandmother in season 3. Their lack makes me wonder…

  12. doug Says:

    Snoops is less of a woman and more of a creature — she’s androgynous.

    I agree, but have to wonder: Is it possible that, because she’s so capable, we tend to associate those qualities that make her so adept with something masculine.

  13. Kenya Says:

    I think there are two phenomena that mitigate against sustained, thoughtful female characters on the wire. First, The Wire seems to have bought into the “endangered black male” thesis which argues that the starting point for what ails the black “underclass” must be remedying the problems of black males. Accordingly, it argues that black males experience the brunt of American racism (institutional and otherwise) and of the dysfunction of educational, social service and community institutions. So a fictional starting point for a very real discourse about the ills of American ghettos, like The Wire, focuses on black men and boys not on black women and girls. (BTW, I tend to disagree with the endangered black male thesis.)

    Second, The Wire seems to be about “the game,” which is fundamentally conceived in terms of masculinity especially toughness and hardness. In order to be relevant to the game, women have two options (1) be indistinguishable from men or (2) use their feminine wiles to extract as much from the game without being a “soldier” in it. In order to be respected, option one is really the only choice. I started thinking about this based on Kima’s character last year. Typically, she is complimented by saying she’s as tough as any of the male cops. When she was experiencing problems with her girlfriend, Herc said to her what he would have said to any of his male cop friends, i.e. that she was whipped. Snoop is conceived as even more distinctively masculine (at least so far). Meanwhile, women who stand in the middle between the two extremes find themselves in The Wire only to advance the plot, not as interesting characters.

    At this point, I wouldn’t say that The Wire is misogynistic. I think that accusation requires active hostility to women in the show. I don’t see that. Instead, I think the show is a bit near-sighted focused closely on particular problems without seeing, or telling the story of, the familial and social dynamics that contribute to them or their ramifications beyond the guys on the corner.

  14. Simonsbitch Says:

    Great topic and it gets short shrift too often. As a fan and as a woman, I’m disappointed in the way women are portrayed. Someone somewhere said that Simon writes women as “men with tits”, which I agree with (especially Kima). Maybe it’s that write what you know maxim that keeps The Wire stuck on guys. Simon characterized the writers room as testosterone laden and limited in their abilities to write women. I think that’s an accurate assessment. Not misogyny but ignorance. On the other hand, these guys spend a lot of time and effort to get OTHER details right, so why not spend the time on the female characters?

  15. Spawn Says:

    I don’t have a problem with this show focusing mostly on men. Most of the cops, criminals, dealers and even users will be men. And its not as if they are just exclusively ignoring black women, its all women. The second season didn’t have any prominent white females with the exception of Beadie who was the inferior, white version of Kima in some respects. Simon and Co will admit that they are not as good writing female characters but, hey, at least the don’t exploit female characters either.

    Lets look at it this way…if I pick up a “serious” novel by a black female author that has a story rooted in the black community (whether the present or past), the focus is almost exclusively on the women. The females are three dimensional and interesting while the black men are far more one dimensional background characters who serve a particular purpose (the root of all problems, the unfaithful lover/husband who doesn’t act like a man, the wayward son who needs to heed a woman’s guidance, the lone “Good Man” in the world who does everything right). I wonder if the female who wrote the post that started the discussion ever had any such problems with the types of books I’m referring to.

  16. christycash Says:

    A lot of really good ideas raised here in the comments. I would just add that of course not every story has to fulfill certain requirements, or be every story to every people. However. I do think that The Wire, by neglecting women, has made itself less interesting — it’s not just about having a problem for a political reason, it’s also about wishing that the story were fuller, for the story’s sake. I hope that this season we see some movement, especially towards the girls in school. And again, a lot of women are involved in the drug game, so I have to disagree with Spawn: I think that’s not a good excuse. I agree with Kenya that the “endangered black male” thesis, which is ALL OVER the Wire, as well as all over a lot of popular culture, doesn’t tell the whole story. The Wire is supposed to be the story of Baltimore, after all. And are there really more drug users who are men than women? That doesn’t seem right to me.

  17. Shoals Says:

    can this be explained away with the 58:30 clause?

    (i’m not being sarcastic; i want to hear if people think this explanation works as well here as it does in reference to users)

  18. Spawn Says:

    If you don’t think more men are far more involved in this drug business than women and if you don’t think there are more male users then perhaps you should try looking at the number men locked up during this “drug war” as compared to women. Big difference. And if it turns out that women are nearly as involved but men just happened to be locked up far more often then that would give credibility to the “endangered black male argument” now wouldn’t it?

    Speaking of that argument I never thought Simon ever had any a goal of putting a spotlight on the endngered black male theory. He is simply writing about the failure and corruptions of institutions in a dying city through the guise of a cops and robbers storyline. Whether you like it or not that primarily makes it a male-centered story. And because Baltimore is a mostly black city and therefore most of the men are black it just happens that there end up being more black male characters and more storylines involving them. If the city was mostly Hispanic I suspect it would have been Latino men who were the focus. And considering the time spent on the mostly white working class characters of season two, its apparent the series is more interested in the economic class of the people rather than the color of the people.

    Saying The Wire could be more “interesting” if it focused more on women may be a valid opinion but ithat doesn’t mean that’s the case. After all one could argue that The Godfather would have been a more interesting movie too if the women of the family actually got more screen time and development. Certainly I’m sure there are female viewers and perhaps male viewers who feel that way. But, guess what, the film is a classsic regardless and I can’t see how adding the female perspective would have made it any better. And the same goes for The Wire as far as I’m concerned. Its as good as any TV series I have ever watched despite the fact that it deals more with the actions and deeds f men than it does with women.

    But I can understand how some of the female viewers feel. Over the years I have felt that some of those Alice Walker and Toni Morrison books could have been more interesting and more fresh if they had included more three dimensional male protagonists. But that’s not the story those women wanted or felt capable of telling. So why hold Simon and Co’s feet to the fire if they were more compelled to ake their “visual novel’ essentially about the good and bad of men? Great art is great art regardless.

    If you want to see more of a female presence in Simon and Burns’ work go check out the wonderful “The Corner”.

  19. Sean Says:

    Great point about “The Corner”.

    Cutty’s ex is great. She demands respect from students and showed real skill disarming the girl with the blade. She’s a lot in the background though, and perhaps she’s the exception that proves the rule. Carcetti’s assistant is too much about sex, as is Pearlman (her lasting impression on me in four seasons is that she’s attracted to men in failing marriages). I never understood Bell’s relationship with D’Angelo’s girl, and I think it has to do with the portrayal of the girl. Brianna is interestingly hard to read. I don’t have too much of a problem with Wee-Bay’s wife: she’s just someone a little too assured of her status, someone too unattentive. I see the point about her character, but I think overall she fits as a character as spoiled as her son. Kima I think is a “man with tits” to the degree that that is part of Kima’s personality and agency.

  20. christycash Says:

    1. No one is disputing that there are more men locked up in women due to idiotic drug laws. However, as I said in my post, women in the 90s were actually incarcerated at a faster rate than men.

    2. I find it fascinating that macho classics like The Godfather are deemd beyond reproach. How could history or popular culture ever possibly benefit from telling the stories of women? Gosh I just don’t know. Those stories must not have universal resonance. Is The Wire so beloved by men in spite of the fact that it doesn’t tell female stories, or because of it?

    3. I think it’s true that Kima fits the “man with tits” mold. Something that struck me watching yesterday’s episode (#42) is Kima’s strange naivete about the politics of the homicide department. It seems that Kima, who was so smart and tough in Major Crimes, is now a bit at sea. And interesting, too, that this happens as she starts looking a lot more feminine — nice hairdos, makeup, jewelry, v-cut shirts. Of course there’s a dress code in homicide, but she is definitely looking more womanly — more femme, more straight? — as she is acting more naive.

  21. Shoals Says:

    i don’t think she’s more naive, just maybe somewhat willing to go along with the culture of homicide. she does respect the traditional notion of PO-LICE, after all.

  22. christycash Says:

    I don’t know, Fat Man had to practically hit her over the head with the hammer to explain to her what was going on with the case. It seemed like after all the politicking she had seen wrt to the wiretaps, she should be used to it.

  23. Shoals Says:

    “what the fuck” can be defiance, not confusion. that was meddling city bullshit, which she’d certainly seen before, and which contrasted sharply with the office silliness.

  24. Shoals Says:

    new blog: FAT MAN’S HAMMER

  25. christycash Says:

    I still read it as confusion.

    Fat Man’s Hammer = Hilarious.

  26. Simonsbitch Says:

    Don’t have on demand, haven’t seen 42. Jonesing pretty bad.

    When I’m critical of the way females are portrayed, it’s not an argument that women should be the focus of the story. And I’ll read/watch anything Simon puts together anytime. I just think they haven’t done the due diligence so evident everywhere else on this show. To say that The Corner covered it is pretty demeaning in and of itself. The Wire communicates depth in seconds on so many levels about so many other topics that to see the glaring lack of depth when it comes to the female characters is pretty fucking disappointing. And I say that peeping over my reading glasses, in my best “father you never had” voice.

  27. Spawn Says:

    No one wrote that Godfather is beyond reproach. What i intimated was that it is such an outstanding piece of work that adding a stronger female voice to it wouldn’t necessarily make it better or more interesting. Also I never implied that The Corner covered all the bases of the lives of females in the urban areas or even had enough time to cover them all. Instead my point was that that was a piece of work by Simon one could seek out if they were looking for a more equal handling of characters amongst the sexes.

    Let me go back to Alice Walker. Since much of The Color Purple’s thrust was about women overcoming the cruelty and ruthlessness of some brutal, thuggish men, couldn’t one make an argument that the book and therefore movie would have been more insightful and even-handed if Walker had created some interesting, three dimensional male characters who could give readers/viewers some clue what made them tick? I mean if The Wire was simply another cop show in which we got to see the cops portrayed as saints who had to save the inner cities from the one dimensional drug dealers, it wouldn’t be as good, right? Instead we get to see what these “bad guys” are made of and what makes them human. But Alice walker does, in some ways, take the good and evil approach whe it comes to women and men in The Color Purple. Now with that being said isn’t the book still a classic? And would giving men more of a voice in the story make it any better to those of you who ready it and really enjoyed it? If your answer is “no” then please try applying that way of looking at things to The Wire. Its not about what we want ;its about what the author/director/producer wants to explore. Its their story to tell and when they do an exceptional job at it I for one can’t complain. I wish there were more interesting black characters in Martin Scorcese’s films but there aren’t. And yet many of those films are masterpieces regardless.

  28. Kenya Says:

    I’ll pop back into the conversation, again. I don’t think that The Color Purple is a good example to make your point, Shawn. First, one man is essential to the plot. Without Mr., there is no Color Purple as we know it. I’m hard pressed to say that any one woman is essential to the plot of The Wire broadly, or for a particular season. Second, the process that made Mr. into who he is is revealed both in his relationship with his father and Mr.’s relationship with his son. By the end of the novel, Mr. can be seen as a “victim” of a cyle of behaviors. We know quite a deal about what and who he loves through Celie’s eyes. Third, Mr. is not simply the bad guy. As Celie’s story is one of redemption, so is Mr.’s who put crudely finds some piece of his own humanity by helping reunite Celie and her sister. It’s just not a good fit to suggest that the Color Purple’s treatment of men is similar to The Wire’s treatment of women.

    >>Speaking of that argument I never thought Simon ever had any a goal of putting a spotlight on the endngered black male theory. He is simply writing about the failure and corruptions of institutions in a dying city through the guise of a cops and robbers storyline. Whether you like it or not that primarily makes it a male-centered story…

    I don’t think the writers began with the idea of developing a screenplay for the purpose of proving or demonstrating the endgangered black male thesis. Rather, I think that there approach to the storylines seem to be influenced by the thesis However, if the idea is largely to focus on dysfunctional institutions, then women would probably be a greater part of the story, not less. At any rate, I still watch and like the Wire, I just think it’s rather near-sighted as a I said earlier.

  29. christycash Says:

    kenya thanks for talking about the color purple… i myself read it about a decade ago and so have no memory of the plot whatsoever. i think when talking about this kind of thing — representation of women on male-dominated shows; representation of minorities on shows like Seinfeld — the purpose is not so much to say that the show under consideration (in this case the wire) is not wonderful as it is to try to understand the choices made and what they speak to the ideology (for lack of a better word) at play. and as a woman, it is impossible for me to watch a show that consciously limits the role of women and sit quietly and say, Oh well, That’s how the world is. Because that’s not how the world is.

  30. matt bird Says:

    Great thread. I myself have long felt the show’s portrayal of women was a little underwhelming, mainly because ofTerry D’agostino, who always seemed to me to represent “Temptation” in Carcetti’s drama. And Kima has also seemed to be very deliberately conceived as “just one of the guys.” I wonder if the ideology at play here — to pick up on christycash’s last post — is the same ideology that also seems to me — and this might be a hasty (and defensive) misreading on my part, but I’m not so sure — to mock academically inclined characters like David Parenti and that fellow from the university who was possibly going to hire Colvin (the one who referred to going to the bathroom in some amusing way I can’t remember). These characters — who are decidedly not “manly men” — are portrayed as respectively silly (the potential hirer) and ineffectual (Parenti). Maybe these are the “real” homosexuals in the show — Omar and Rawls being “honorary heterosexuals” in the same way Kima in an “honorary man.”


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