How The Wire Fails to Write Women Into the World That Matters

Sophie Jones is so smart that I’m just going to reproduce what she says about women and The Wire here, verbatim, but her whole article is well worth reading:

It’s the program’s instinctive sense of justice that makes it difficult to accept that The Wire has betrayed women, and it’s this that makes the betrayal saddening and important in a way that the inbuilt sexism of most mainstream TV is not. That one of the most progressive TV shows in the medium’s history is also one of the best is deeply heartening. That one of the most progressive TV shows in the medium’s history consistently demonstrates its ignorance of and disinterest in gender politics is utterly depressing. This ignorance almost seems calculated—for every aspect of the program that makes you wish creator David Simon was president, there’s an anti-feminist flipside. Points to The Wire for its tireless emphasis on the circumstances and institutional pressures that make people who they are. Negative points for the encyclopedia of stock female stereotypes the writers lazily peruse whenever the script requires an extra x-chromosome. You want the gold digging girlfriend? You’ve got it—and why not pick up the tyrannical dragon-lady mother or the idealized angelic woman-saviour on the way? The show deserves heartfelt applause for its recognition that activist factions are damaging and artificial, that it is misleading to think about race without considering the economy without taking into account education, and so on. But gender is either excluded from, or a mere footnote to, this sophisticated, expansive worldview. Democracy is at the heart of the program, to the extent that viewers find themselves caring about 20 characters almost equally. But so few of these characters are women, and the female characters that do emerge aren’t at stake. In The Wire, it is boys who are at stake. Women and girls are bit parts in a compelling drama played out by men.


2 Responses to How The Wire Fails to Write Women Into the World That Matters

  1. SLK says:

    I couldn’t agree more and I’ve been arguing this point with people for over a year. They (almost always men) claim that the Wire is the “best tv show ever” and refuse to acknowledge that David Simon and the writers seem just fundamentally uninterested in women. I’ve heard the “well, women aren’t involved in the drug environment Simon’s interested in,” which is of course completely ridiculous since women show up all the time as shallow two-dimensional characters. They’re the mothers and girlfriends and the only characters on the entire show who can be read merely as they present superficially. In fact, their bodies and deaths are sometimes the points upon which the depths of the men are revealed (ex: we learn how truly abhorrent Marlo is, despite his demeanor, when he kills that girl who slept with him to lure him into a track, even though she clearly had just done so for money; the bodies of the Eastern European women in Season 2 which remain just that, bodies without backstory, the passive slates upon which atrocities are committed but for whom we can only care peripherally because we are never allowed to know them well enough to experience loss). Women to Simon are just bodies, unless like Snoop or Kima, they try to incorporate themselves into a masculine register. If they’re not “one of the boys,” they are important only for how they impact men.

  2. Millicent says:


    “Women to Simon are just bodies, unless like Snoop or Kima, they try to incorporate themselves into a masculine register.”

    Yep. Couldn’t have said it better. I just finished Season Two last night and said, “That’s it?” (Which is what I’m told many a girl says the first time she has sex.) This is the greatest show on television? Don’t get me wrong: it does some things exceptionally well. But it left me sore and unsatisfied.

    Thoughts supporting your point about the masculine register: by the end of Season 2, Kima’s character has gotten so masculine that it has actually stopped making sense. The arc they’re building for her—one predicated on stereotypically male insecurities of fatherhood—just doesn’t map onto Kima as we’ve known her. Not that she’s *better* than that; just that she’s different from that. The parallels they’re trying to build between her and McNulty are 100% dependent on making her character bend to his for the sake of an interesting mirror. That’s a net loss, since McNulty is almost sublimely uninteresting.

    As far as the ending is concerned, I kept waiting for the girls in the can to matter. You’re right. They don’t. The brothel doesn’t matter. Nicky’s girlfriend doesn’t matter—the last time we see her she’s watching, scared shitless, as Nicky storms off “to work.” It doesn’t matter.

    Amazing that a show that manages to so sensitively portray Frank’s feelings—that scene between him and Ziggy is just unbelievable—doesn’t have room for the subjectivity of a single female. Russell comes closest in Season Two, but the show isn’t invested in her; I’m confident she’ll slip away soon enough.

    (Is this a male-journalist thing? I’ve known several that seem unable to accord importance to a non-male experience. No idea how representative they are, but it’s a lot of anecdata.)

    What I want, more than anything, is for a female-centric kickass television show to exist. We need to get some writers together and make this happen.

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