The Wire’s Dead Prostitutes/McNulty’s Hilarious Two-Hooker Caper

Here and across the country, sexual misconduct by police officers is a hidden crime, poorly investigated and often unpunished. An Inquirer review found more than 400 examples over the past five years of police turned predators. From New York to Los Angeles and in this region, from Bucks County to Burlington County, rogue police have used their badges to exploit women and extort sex. The cases form a chilling pattern: The abusers tend to target vulnerable women such as prostitutes, drug users or those who have been drinking, knowing the victims probably won’t be believed even if they complain. Many victims never come forward at all.

That’s from an investigative piece The Philadelphia Inquirer ran in 2006 on police abuse of prostitutes.

Three years earlier, you might have seen Season Two of The Wire, a season whose catalyst is the discovery of thirteen dead prostitutes, all apparently killed because one of them refused to have sex with the men on board. Put another way, a prostitute died defending her right not to have sex for free—in fact, refusing to be raped.

Seems like an important topic for an important show that takes its policing and its ethics seriously and which looks at the plight of the victims of sex traffickers with apparent sympathy. McNulty works hard to humanize the woman who died defending her right not to have sex with people who didn’t pay her.

Then we get to “Stray Rounds,” where a duck dies and it becomes clear that McNulty’s reverence for the dead—a product of his boredom—doesn’t extend to the living. In that episode, the show takes a peculiar and schizoid turn. Midway through the investigation, McNulty gets to play. He’s brought onto the detail. In celebration, and maybe in order to lighten the mood after D’Angelo’s funeral, the writers decided to stage a sitcom, with McNulty dressing up and going to bust a brothel and then actually having sex with the very victims of sex trafficking the show is about. The prostitutes just couldn’t keep their hands off him, you see. Everyone thinks this is hilarious. Kima shakes her head. McNulty’s a little embarrassed, Bunk smiles indulgently and tells him he’s going to be pervy legend.

It is in sober disbelief that I find myself having to write the following sentence about a show that has received so much praise: Cops having sex with prostitutes is not funny.

Police threatening to arrest sex workers unless they have sex with them is one of the most common abuses of police power.

The show seems to know that sex trafficking is serious: it knows that the “girls” are big moneymakers and that they’re not allowed to go down the block without being supervised. That they live in what amounts to a prison, where they are sentenced to a life of performing sex acts on paying customers with apparent enthusiasm.

The Wire staged its little comedy of errors around just such an event. When a cop deprives a kid of his  eye with the butt of his gun in Season One, we’re given to understand that the police think this is serious business—Daniels is up at night worrying. When a cop has sex with two victims of sex trafficking, no one worries. In fact, we’re quickly reassured—as the piece I linked to above says, they “won’t be believed.”  As for coming forward, well, where would they go?  To the police? Prostitution is sufficiently unimportant that “it’ll never come to court.” Rest easy: they’ll be deported, and anything they know will go with them.

The fact that no one in the show takes this seriously, that it becomes the equivalent of Ziggy and the duck—a mythologizing moment that shows McNulty at a pleasantly unhinged extreme—is indicative of the show’s tonedeafness when it comes to women.

This, writ large, is the problem I keep coming up against as I watch The Wire. Commenter Fundunggus wrote this in response to The Guardian‘s discussion of the show, and s/he said it best:

My point is not that women are shown as having worse lives than men, but that the writers never really let us into the internal struggles of any of the female characters in the way that they do with many of the male ones. As a drug-addict, Bubbles is marginalised by society, but it is a point of pride for the writers that they dont marginalise him, instead giving him a sympathetic hearing and asking us, at least at times, to see the world through his eyes. I dont think we ever get a properly equivalent treatment of any of the female characters. Instead, as Sap says, they are almost always used as foils or mirrors for the men.

This is not necessarily sexist in itself but in a show with such a large ensemble cast, and considering that women presumably make up about 50% of Baltimore’s population(!), it does seem like a rather large oversight and is at the very least a shame.

Misogyny is a strong word but I do think that the ‘foil’ role that the female characters often play, very often has a negative effect on the man, for example by tying him in to the institution of the family (Marla, Donnette) or the drugs trade (Brianna). This seems to me to betray some level of misogyny.

Whilst we’re on the subject, the level of casual sexism shown by the cops in the show also makes me a bit uncomfortable. As you say, JayBay, it may be that Simon’s simply showing us the truth of the matter, and I dont doubt that the constant references to ‘pussy’ and ‘whores’ are straight from his observations as an embedded journalist in the Homicide unit. But by inviting us to share in, and laugh along with, these attitudes, without showing the negative effects they might have (the grinding, dispiriting effect they must have on female cops like Beadie or Kima, for example, or the effects of this prejudice on the way that the cops investigate crimes involving prostitutes), isnt the show in effect condoning them?

Yes: the show is condoning them.

4 Responses to The Wire’s Dead Prostitutes/McNulty’s Hilarious Two-Hooker Caper

  1. Pingback: The Wire vs. Reality « WordsThatMeanThings

  2. I think the very point of the episode, though, was to highlight the research you mentioned at the start of the article. I found the scene sickening, gross, and even horrifying — just like I find most of McNulty’s drunken or sexual adventures. This scene, after all, comes only shortly after he got behind the wheel blind-drunk after his wife wouldn’t take him back. And I don’t think the show was in any way endorsing drunk driving.

    Instead, I think what the show was doing was providing insight into how not-shocked, angry and disgusted most of his co-workers were. The only person who reacted appropriately was Rhonda — the lawyer (and, yes, his former lover).

    What I’ve really appreciated about The Wire is the way it exposes a lot of inappropriate police behavior. How many times have we seen the cops get way too violent with suspects? And nobody bats an eye. It’s not because we’re supposed to think it’s funny or cool — it’s because they’re making a clear statement that, unfortunately, this really is the way it can be in a corrupt town with some slightly-to-very corrupt cops.

  3. JenBK says:

    I love this show but I find many of the sex scenes unnecissarry over the top and gross to the point of offensive. how about the crazy sex scene with Kima greggs when she cheats on her spouse? That was totally unneeded and disgusting.

  4. JimmyP says:

    McNulty didn’t force himself on the hookers which is why they weren’t victims. He even tried to slow things down to allow for the sting to unfold, but the hookers were too aggressive in wanting to have sex and so he had no choice but to play along so that the operation wouldn’t be jeopardized. He had to take one for the team.

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