pure lust


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.

Explore posts in the same categories: crime, gender, Police

10 Comments on “pure lust”

  1. christycash Says:

    pizzawhale, you my hero! here’s an article about flight attendants & emotional labor.


    if only someone would study what female subordinates have to provide to their male bosses. laugh at their jokes, wake them up from naps, validate their lunchtime clothing purchases… but enough said.

  2. Mal Says:

    Interesting you bring up Tennyson – I presume you’re US based, as Prime suspect started in the UK about 15 years ago. Yes, Mirren plays a strong female character, but the show (at least the first one) is very much about that. Her struggles against the inherent sexism in what is still assumed to be a male vocation was the central point of the plot, alongside the murder of course. I don’t wish to take away from Prime Suspect – it’s a great show and was the starting point for Helen Mirren’s career, but it was also written by Lynda La Plante, who I believe (i’m not massively familiar with her work) almost always writes strong male character for a lead. I’m not trying to dismiss La Plante or PS – Tennyson is one of the best crime characters of the last 20 years of any genre – but the aim of the show is different. I for one think that the women in most parts of the show are well portrayed – characters like Kima, Beadie and Pearlman are as rounded, complex and important as any of the men in the show. It could be argued that there should be more women in the show with ‘starring’ roles, but I think as much is done as possible while still being fair.

    While writing this i’ve been trying to think of female roles in the show, and at first, it was tricky. The Police department is, understandably, mostly male, and other than Kima (and Pearlman if she comes under the police heading) I can’t recall any female police officers with speaking roles, certainly in the first season. On the Barksdale side, there’s Brianna, but no one else in the actual organisation. The ports? Blank except for Beadie. Carcetti’s team? Only Theresa, and she leaves after the win. The schoolkids? Our main group of four are all male, and none of the mothers are exactly brilliant rolemodels. One could argue that in each main group featured in The Wire, female figures are either singular, token additions, or ineffective, unimportant or decorative sideline figures.

    However, when looking at the series as a whole, it strikes me how many roles are played by females which, if this accusation of sexism were true, probably would not be. The school system is full of women in meaningful roles, not only as teachers and principal, but as the officials deciding on the fate of the corner boy project. The townhouse is full of female political figures, usually those with dignity and some streak of moral value (in comparison, Clay Davies and his crooked mob seem almost entirely male). When a role is female in nature, the writing always gives the part stength. Look at Marla Daniels, Jen Carcetti, Theresa D’Agustino, Naymond’s mother – these people could have been one line, distant figures for the men to pontificate over, but they play a role as important and meaningful as any male.

    I’m sorry for the long post – I’ve discussed this with my wire loving gf and I think it’s unfair to give The Wire an ‘unfair to women’ tag (again, not suggesting that this is what the article was doing). Yes, many female characters are unpleasant, but that goes for anyone in Simon’s Baltimore.

    One final point – the representation of the strippers and prostitutes. The one (whose name escapes me) who helps Lester and Major Crimes in s1 after her friend is brutalised is an obvious example of depth being given to a role which in most shows would probably avoid, but others – the one Kima meets with Cheryl at Orlando’s, the ones in Jail that McNulty asks for a name – are also fleshed out suprisingly well in their few scenes.

    One final, final point. SNOOP!

  3. NCuba Says:

    True, there hasn’t been all that much screen time for women, but that certainly has a lot to do with the institutions being examined. The game, docks and politics are and have been male-dominated, with an Omar or a Snoop filling a traditionally hetero-masculine role serving to spice things up. Maybe season 4 could have been different, a female character could have been swapped with Prez, just as Alma seems to figure significantly in 5.

    As for minor roles, I loved any scene with Brianna and D’Angelo’s widow. While I think Kima and Snoop are almost interchangeable with the men around them, the stories of those two seemed to me to probe the more interesting aspects of a woman’s relationship to the game.

  4. Joe-El Says:

    New wire blog i found…pretty much the complete opposite of this one:


    (Season 5 Episode 1 IRRELEVANT SPOILER):

    Was anyone else kind of surprised that the writers re-used the “Wonder what its like to work for a real (newspaper/PD)” line not just twice in one episode, but that it was repeated by MCU in an extremely similar situation to the first time it was used (S3 i think)?

  5. pizzawhale Says:

    As far as I’m concerned, Snoop as a character and Felicia Pearson as a persona are another matter entirely. Speaking of which, how can I get a reader copy of “Grace After Midnight”?! One Amazon review compares it to Mary Karr!

  6. Gary Says:


    I thought when the guy at the Sun said that, it was a great throwback to when Sydnor said it in S3. Then when it was repeated in the same episode, it was totally off balance to everything the Wire has been in the past. Long term fans already get it. No sense in pandering after we’ve come this far, right? I felt that was totally out of place.

  7. Jim King Says:

    I see the repeated dialog not so much as sloppy writing or too much exposition, but as a signature of the show, much like the jump-cut triple take was a signature of “Homicide: Life on the Street.”

  8. Joe Bruneel Says:

    I appreciate the symbolical importance of showing Jimmy McNulty on the show, but he was always my least favorite character. Not that I didn’t enjoy his character, I love everything on The Wire, it’s just that he pales in comparison in character depth to heavyweights like Prop Joe and Mayor Carcetti. As an extension of that, I was never terribly amused by McNulty’s womanizing, but he is probably the most popular character on the show, and people enjoy seeing McNulty pick up a waitresss at an all night diner. However the show makes up for McNulty’s womanizing ways by actually giving a voice to a stripper, and giving a damn so much about what she has to say that they gave her the important task of letting the audience know that what is happening with the loss of jobs on the docks, isn’t isolated there. She described how local strippers were being replaced by strippers imported from overseas for much cheaper costs. The show basically gave part of the thesis of the entire season, as well as the show through a stripper’s mouth! The Wire doesn’t compromise the intelligence of anybody on the show because it stresses out the fact that each character is very aware of their place on the show and the situation facing them.

  9. pizzawhale Says:

    These discussions of the depiction of the sex trade on the show (and therefore, the american sexual character? okaay) between bourgeois young women and overinterested males would enrage me if they weren’t so BORING.

  10. Simon's bitch Says:

    Felicia Pearson as Mary Carr? Hmmm. I think not.

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