My Abuela spent so many nights of the 1980s watching Murder She Wrote and Columbo with me at her side, not to mention some Father Dowling Mysteries and Matlock phases and whatever tawdry murder plots they worked into the novelas and the Dallas nightly news. Other kids clandestinely watched horror movies and Cinemax with those closer to their own age, but despite logging that serious time with old Cubans, butter cookies, and fictional detectives, somehow I didn’t grow up into a crime show watcher. I don’t have the patience or the stomach for pattern murders, casual depictions of sexualized violence and hints at truly destructive patriarchal structure to handle that shit, much less so routinely. But like everyone else in the nation, I can rattle off the leading ladies of gristle and forensics, although I can’t keep straight the titles of their shows: Angie Harmon, classy Republican bitch from my hometown; Jayne Mansfield’s daughter, whom at first appears normal; the daughter from What About Bob; Crossing Jordan, for whom Shoals harbors an enduring boner; and the woman who was in Secrets and Lies. Women’s faces are the reigning currency in crime television- their empathy, patience, and intuition serve as a humanizing force in the fictionalized entertaining crime/court/time cycle of our big prison/industrial racket.
So I was shocked to get so sucked into the last installment of Prime Suspect on Masterpiece Theater a few weeks back. Talk about a classy bitch! Helen Mirren, written as a real-person woman detective, DCI Jane Tennison, not lacking in the whole coercive/stern/lovely/moral element so banally given to her American broadcast counterparts, but also demonstrating the option to numb herself from the repeated shock of crime, and dealing with the reality of being a menopausal low-level civil servant. Y’know, I thought, this admits that it’s not only hard for a woman to prove herself effective in a macho realm of criminal investigation, but it actually depicts what these lady detectives do so well, which is being traditionally feminine, observant and empathetic as real work that takes its fucking toll. (Not to mention the ramifications implied of living in a society where violence is alternately economical and sado-sexual or in navigating civil structures that are macho-hierarchical to the end.) In short, DCI Tennison is a woman detective portrayed with the intellectual, moral, and emotional complexities of Jimmy McNulty.
There has been much talk about the Wire’s uneven development of its female characters. To this I am ambivalent, as Simon et al have hinted enough at the differentiation of gender and sexuality in crime and criminal procedure to make me think that it’ll come sooner or later. Shakima Griggs, whose real life on the show started when she got shot posing as a whore, is somehow assumed to be a character who struggles, despite her confidence and composure, with simply dealing in violence and the male sphere of the police force. Yet that’s simply not true; as a veteran of southern hardcore shows and graduate computer science seminars, I can attest that being in a male space is not hard, but attempting to build something there and get credit is. Kima, whose relationship with Bubbles is at the show’s moral core, spends greater amounts of psychic energy in listening to a tragic junkie and identifying elements of criminal networks from his tips than any other detective’s singular contributions on the street or on the wire. As we all know, Kima hates babies, so the fact that she nurses Bubs’ wounds and manages to emerge with a minimum of fussing and a modicum of credit is a demonstration of how little this achievement is actually recognized. We can’t say the same for Beadie’s work in the second season; all that against-moral-reason empathy she poured out to the dock workers she had grown up with only really won her the fraught prize of roosting with McNulty, which I’m so not looking forward to watching unravel. (Why do you think I was hanging out with Abuela on the weekends in the first place?) It’s as complex of a task to examine the motives of criminals, emotional or legal, as it is to examine their acts, yet the feeling and seeing elements of police work, policy, criminal action, and as we see in this first episode of the new season, reporting, are assumed and uncredited. (Note: Gutierrez, you are my GIRL. It took 5 seasons to get a single Latina on this show, and my chips are on you to be a meaningful character.)
But seriously, read sociologist Leigh Star’s work about nurses and office workers. Medical computing has struggled for 50 years in trying to capture the communication of nurses in hospitals, because no one can accurately gage the complex system of work that is deemed invisible even by the worker herself. It’s not that The Wire’s female characters are too attractive, too sweet, or too simple, it’s that their role in the actions has yet to be fully realized.
Yes, that is Donna Haraway and her dog, Cayenne. Also, read Ruben Castaneda’s Sunday Post magazine essay on being a crime reporter with a crack problem in early 90’s DC.