The Wire: The Feminine Equation

[The following piece is a reprint. It was written on December 30th, 2007 on the old FBS message boards by Sandra Ruttan]. At the time it was written BSC (then FBS) didn’t cover television on the front page. With all of the interest in David Simon’s new project, Treme, we thought it would be a good idea to run it again.]

The Wire: The Feminine Equation

Since watching season 4 on DVD in preparation for the forthcoming final season of The Wire there have been a number of things that have struck me about the meticulous planning and consideration that went into the creation of the series, and what is most obvious is the considered use of female characters in the series.

In season 4, the incident in Pryzbylweski’s classroom with the knife attack, is a prime example of the added impact of choosing a female instigator and female attacker. The viewer is conditioned to the boys on corners, the hardening as they turn into men before their time, the street violence. We’re also used to seeing the boxing. It’s also reasonable to think that a majority of The Wire viewers did not grow up attending inner city schools and still are conditioned to think that schools are, generally speaking, safe places. So when there’s a knife fight in Prez’s class it rips that delusion apart, but that’s compounded by the fact that this was a fight between two girls. Although traditionally the fairer sex, the rules of survival for these girls are different.

I don’t even consider myself a feminist: I’m a humanist. I believe in anyone doing anything they’re capable of, regardless of race, gender, religion, IQ. One of my issues with feminism is that it sometimes goes too far to the other side, and starts to become about women being superior to men, not just equal.

We’re equal, but we’re also different. Men will never experience the equality of childbirth, and most are probably grateful. Sometimes, we just have to step down off our soap boxes and come to grips with the fact that it is our differences that make us interesting.

So my reason for beginning a discussion about the women of The Wire was not some bra-burning gesture. It’s also not an accusation of sexism. My interest arises more from the following:

1. As an author, I’m fascinated with choices about characters and their roles and development. I believe we most clearly see the specific nature of selection for each of the female roles in The Wire. Because there are very few women who serve as placeholders throughout the show we can learn a lot by each choice to have a female character in place. When I write I have to consider such things myself, so I find it intriguing.

2. Curiosity. Simple, pure, curiosity. I’ll forever wonder if Brianna could have taken over the Barksdale empire. Maybe she’s secretly banging Prop Joe on the side and really pulling all the strings. But short of David Simon dissecting and explaining how the drug organizations run, and how women fit into the equation, I’ll just be left with my questions and curiosity.

3. Is the show really making a subtle statement, about how far women haven’t come? Most of the women we see show or spread their legs to gain advantage. We see this with Ronnie and the judge, we see it with Donette. We see it with Theresa and her antics. She’s brushing Jimmy off one night and then calling him up with the promise of her room key if he’ll give her some politically sensitive info. Marla Daniels looks to advance herself through her marriage and when her husband isn’t ambitious enough, she proves she doesn’t love him, only the status he could gain for her. (Talk about cold.) The police department promotes based on colour, but obviously not gender. Not that I’m really pro affirmative action, either. (Another story, let’s not go there.) But it’s interesting to note.

Here’s another thing to consider: If women have very little place in the world represented by The Wire, is the show primarily watched by men? Just me being nosey.

In reality, I see The Wire as not even five separate seasons, but one long season. The point is not crime or politics or racism or the education system.

To me, the underlying theme of The Wire is about the flaws within every organization, from the political to the drug empire to the police departments and social services and school boards and newspapers and whatever else. The Wire is a show that runs on parallels, and what we see over and over and over again is how, not matter what side the group is on, every organization has its rules and its flaws and exposing the Achilles heel is what it takes to bring them down. The criminal organizations are run more efficiently than the police department, and when politics intersects it can stifle investigations and let criminals continue to murder and go free. The FBI isn’t interested in looking at drugs or dead hookers because counter-terrorism is all that matters.

Now, in season 5, we’re seeing how a choice made to save face has cost Carcetti, and cost the city of Baltimore, and how it has benefited the criminals. All because one politician wanted to humble another.

Nobody just does what’s right. Better to put Randy in a group home than let Sergeant Carver take him in. This child who was a witness, who should have been protected by the cops.

It’s a show that breaks my heart, because as much as I want to believe I could throw myself into a cause and make a difference, I know how hard that is. I’ve worked in inner city schools. I’ve worked with broken kids. The Wire is shades of my reality. You either have to walk away and let your heart mend, as I did, or you grow cold and indifferent, accepting what you can’t change.

Going back to season 1, consider the female characters featured: Detective Kima Greggs, her partner Cheryl, Elaina McNulty, Rhonda Pearlman, Shardene, Donette and Brianna.

Detective Kima Greggs

Kima is one of the main characters through the entire series. A female detective with a good head on her shoulders where the job is concerned, she is also a lesbian. In many respects, she parallels her male counterparts, particularly Jimmy McNulty. By the end of season 3 Jimmy will be covering for Kima when she steps outside her relationship with Cheryl. Kima shows no weakness, and when cops take knocks from guys on the street she’s in the thick of it, beating the players along with her counterparts. Advancing ahead, during Cheryl’s pregnancy Kima is, again, very male in her responses. She has little interest in the events of the pregnancy, in shopping for baby clothes and other items, or understanding what it is to raise a child or the stages of development (I’m thinking of what she says about the juice box holder, and how if the kid can’t hold a box they’re going to be in trouble).

It’s actually unfair to say she’s a throwback to a male stereotype. I think more men are interested in children than Kima ever seems to be. She’s a woman in a male-dominated world, and comes off in some respects more than the guys do. I don’t get the impression she’s pushing it to try to prove herself. She genuinely seems to be as much the tough guy pussy hound as any male, and then some.

Cheryl, Kima’s partner

Our would-be homemaker who’s trying to get Kima off the streets, to a better career and life “for us” meaning for her. Perhaps it’s taking the longer view here, knowing that she will choose to have a child and start a family, but all the signs of pre-nesting are there with Cheryl. This is a woman who wants to be settled, who wants her partner in by a certain time, who lives for a level of sophistication and class that Kima just doesn’t measure to. Again, I consider how necessary this is. The fact that Kima has a nagging “wife” at home she’s under pressure from is a bonding point between her and Daniels, and her and McNulty. It emphasizes Kima’s masculine characteristics. And it also adds to the tension in the events of season 1. When Kima is shot on the job, Cheryl has ammunition to pressure Kima with. Season 2 begins with Kima trying, and failing, to turn over a new leaf. The choices will become the permanent wedges in their relationship, the obstacles they can’t work past. A partner who has been less of a nester, more tolerant, wouldn’t have pushed Kima to the drinking and womanizing we see from her later.

Donette

If there is a parallel for Cheryl on the street level, it’s Donette. Here is a woman with ideas, in many ways a stereotypical young woman who’s had a baby and isn’t above using that to sink her claws into a man. She’s smart, though. Like Cheryl, she has aspirations, although hers run counter to Cheryl’s in this respect. Donette has gone after a man in the Barksdale family, a man with connections, who will be groomed for a position of control and greater influence in time. She’s produced a son, an heir to the throne, as it were.

She’s also a nester, and a nag, but it’s with a different end in sight. Whereas with Cheryl I believe in her own way she loves Kima, I think Donette only loves herself. D’Angelo is a meal-ticket. Once he’s sent to prison, she takes advantage of an opportunity with an even bigger player in the organization‚ Stringer Bell. I can’t help thinking of the restaurant scene in season 1, where D’Angelo proves himself a fish out of water and Donette blends. She doesn’t feel any sense of inequality, she sees herself as belonging there, has no shame in what Dee does for a living or where his money comes from. Dee is already disenchanted with the business and the killing and the cost. Donette’s lack of understanding only strengthens his feelings for Shardene.

My overall impression of the character is one of those women who will spread her legs for any perceived advantage. It isn’t reaching to say she’s part of the reason D’Angelo is killed in season 2, and her constant pressure is part of what wears D’Angelo down. He doesn’t

Shardene

The girl next door, flirting on the edge of a darker world but still keeping herself clean. There is something wholesome about her, something that appeals to D’Angelo first, and to Lester Freamon later. An honesty and kindness there that suggest someone with a good heart. She likes Dee for Dee, she doesn’t set about trying to sink her claws into him, and it’s almost her lack of pursuit that makes Dee fall harder. It speaks to a certain level of self confidence, she’s not going to just shack up with some sugar daddy who’ll pay her way to make her life better. Donette would in a heartbeat, Shardene won’t. We see Dee played off against the contrasting women, and how much Shardene’s sincerity appeals to him.

It is her honesty that will work against him in the end, though, because when she finds out what he’s involved in, that a friend of hers has been murdered and just dumped in the trash and that Dee lied to her about it, she leaves him. As much as she cares about him she won’t be with someone like that. In reality, if Dee had been a real bad guy, he would have killed her for the way she carried on and things she said to him when she left. This woman knew too much and could implicate him in a murder. It actually speaks volumes about the good heart Dee has, that he let her go and didn’t say a word to anyone, or Shardene would have been killed.

Elaina McNulty

The woman scorned. Jimmy’s ex, as a result of his affair with Rhonda Pearlman, and mother of his children. She is playing the difficult ex putting the screws to her cheating bastard of a husband to the hilt. In many respects, her responses push Jimmy further and further into his own darkness. He drinks more, and we’ll see in season 2 when he fails to reconcile with Elaina that he gets drunk and almost kills himself smashing his car before picking up a waitress and having meaningless sex with her. You can’t even really blame Elaina. After what Jimmy’s done to her, and how he continues to hurt her, she’s protecting herself. Unfortunately, she’s willing to use custody of the kids as a weapon, instead of putting the kids first, but that plays as realistic in a bitter divorce (based on my years of experience working with kids and observing the process, it’s true more often than not).

Rhonda Pearlman

Jimmy’s other woman. Another nester, of sorts, but she plays in different. Nobody told her that nobody buys the cow if she gives the milk away for free. Or that when a guy can’t commit to his wife, the mother of his children, chances are low that he’ll commit to the woman he was having an affair with.

It’s her weakness. Otherwise a capable, intelligent, career-driven woman who wants to do the right thing as long as it isn’t going to get her completely burned, she only falters where men are concerned. In some respects, she’ll repeat mistakes by getting involved with another married man, only he’s split up from his wife first so she isn’t the cause. Her hurt over Jimmy’s failure to formalize a relationship with her, and habit of only turning up for sex when it suits him, niggles at her throughout the early stages of her relationship with Daniels. You see it when he takes her out in public. She wants it, but she’s afraid it will hurt him, and the fact that he’s willing to be with her and have it be public really hits her.

Brianna Barksdale

The third person running the Barksdale organization, more of a concealed player who’s shielded but in the inner circle by nature of being Avon’s sister. This is a tough woman who puts the family‚ the business‚ first. Ahead of her own son, even. The one thing that always stays with me from Brianna is when she’s visiting Dee in jail and he reminds her about when he was being picked on by a couple of boys when he was a kid, and she wouldn’t let him in the house but said he had to learn to take it. And the tears rolling down her cheek as she remembers they beat the shit out of Dee.

I’m often left to wonder about what kind of woman lets her son get the crap kicked out of him to toughen him up. These lessons are ones Dee takes to heart, and learns all too well, and they come back to haunt her later. He tells her he has to stand his own ground, and cuts her lose when she wants to be there for him. In reality, they had a pretty good relationship, her dropping by and bringing him his favourite foods while he was working, schooling him in the ways of women (the scene in season 1 when Dee is telling Shardene his mother’s philosophy on women who get cooking in a man’s house, and Shardene’s “Your mama don’t know shit about me” response).

Season 1 Summary

Would Donette have been in season 1 if it wasn’t for D’Angelo? Or Elaina if there was no Jimmy McNulty? What I note about the women in season 1 of The Wire is that the main reason most of them are there is to provide contrast to male roles, or to advance the storyline of a male character. The role of detective that Kima fills could have been filled by a man, but it would have been just another guy, and harder to distinguish the character. In a unit run by Daniels, peopled with drunks like Polk and Mahon, a screw-up named Prez, and the juvenile males Herc and Carver, the dutiful spy Santangelo, good cops Freamon and Sydnor, and McNulty, it really was necessary to put a woman in there. I’m not certain about the ratios of male-female officers in BPD, but in the same way that minorities often get covered, it’s necessary to have one female cop.

In the same respect, the role of ADA could have been played by a male, but it is to the overall advantage of the show and storyline to have a woman in that role. Rhonda uses her sex appeal and charm to influence Judge Phelan and get warrants they need. As an intelligent, professional woman, she realizes there’s more value in showing leg than in showing your brains if you want to make things happen within the system.

“Ain’t no such thing as free when it comes to pussy.” D’Angelo’s words, and how they ring true for him. Donette wants to bleed him dry getting new furniture and a bigger place, and when Shardene realizes what he’s about she helps the cops get the information they need to make their case.

Yet, again, it is his mother that stays with me in reflection on season 1. I can’t help feeling what a critical choice it was, that Dee have an absentee father and a strong woman as his mother as the primary influence in his life. In McNulty we see a man who is (at that point) truly ruled by his urges. In Dee we see someone who likes and appreciates women, who actually respects them. He can be manipulated by Donette, ultimately, because there is this underlying core to Dee that’s conditioned to do the right thing, and that’s why his mother has more influence on him than the cops do, in the end, despite the years he’s facing in jail. He has been trained to put the family first. While Stringer failed to persuade Dee to stay in line, Brianna handles her son in short order.

I think that’s significant because if we reduce long-held gender biases down to generalizations, we still sort of expect guys to look after themselves, but women to need to be protected. Dee steps up, to protect his mother, to protect Donette and his son, although it’s more about his son. He had no reservations about leaving Stringer or even his uncle on the hook for what they’d done, in part because they didn’t look after him. All his life he’d been looked after by his mother, and that’s why in the end, he comes through for her.

All of these women are very strategically placed within the story, in several cases to emphasize, to contrast, to develop story lines of major male characters. However, unlike other recurring male characters that pop up throughout the series (Dozerman, even Sydnor to a degree) these women are not window dressing or place holders that just perform some basic function that has more to do with the larger story than the individual character. Each of the female characters is carefully measured, precise, deliberate.

No character in season 1 stands out more to me in that respect, however, than Wallace’s mother. In just a moment onscreen she leaves a lasting impression. “Snatch the bright right out of his eyes.” That the police could be more concerned about finding her son than she is, that she doesn’t even stop to wonder why they were worried about him but instead goes on about the small amount of money she thinks he pinched from her‚ she’s a piece of work. “Interruptin’ me while I’m trying to get my drink on.” Another one of those women more interested in numbing herself to reality than anything else.

In thinking about this now, it’s interesting to note the similarity between Wallace’s mother, Elaina McNulty and Brianna. It’s easy to look at Wallace’s mother and judge, not be surprised her son would end up in the game and on the street. She put her time with the bottle ahead of him. And yet Elaina puts getting back at Jimmy ahead of her own kids by using custody to punish him, and Brianna puts her pocketbook and the family business ahead of her son by letting him take the weight of the charges at the end of the season.

The Women of Season 2.

Season 2 has more of a female focus than possibly any other season. First of all, the catalyst for the ultimate investigation is the body of a floater found in the harbor, who turns out to be a woman who’d been in a storage container, and the remaining women in the storage container are found dead. As a result, we will see a little more about the women who are bought and sold as commodities, and the woman who runs the prostitutes is on the periphery, but she is truly a minor character. We’re aware of this aspect of the business, but it is again overshadowed by the drugs and the other criminal activity going on at the docks.

The ultimate insult to injury is that when the FBI is brought in, they’re only interested in waterfront corruption. They don’t even care about all those dead girls.

In season 2, there are really two main female characters introduced that I feel are worth looking at. One is Aimee. The other is Beadie.

Aimee

Nick’s girlfriend/fiance/mother of his child. She’s pretty one dimensional, in reality. Here’s a single mom, essentially, sneaking into the bed of the father of her child to get laid, and has to sneak out the back so that Nick’s mom won’t freak out.

She wants Nick to get a better job so that they can get a place.

In essence, she’s pretty simple. She never really seems to come to grips with the fact that this isn’t about Nick’s job, but about the family business. She pressures him for more, and when she finds all the money he has stashed she’s suspicious, but she never rejects him for what he’s done in the end.

For me, a pretty unsympathetic woman. And Nick treats her like shit, too.

Beadie

Perhaps the best female character of the entire series. Beadie comes in weak. She never set out to be a cop, but she stumbles across those dead girls in the can, and suddenly finds herself on the wrong end of a homicide investigation, with no idea what she’s doing. But Beadie, as she struggles with the new demands to her schedule and what that means for her as a single mom, is willing to learn. She comes a long way over the season, and yet she’s still very much about her kids, her family.

I’ve often thought about the moment at the bar, when she looks over at Jimmy talking to Ronnie, and just the look on her face. Beadie feels her inadequacies. Even when she talks about the father of her kids and says (when asked if he’s dead) something to the effect of “Because nobody would leave a beauty like me?” we’re seeing her transparency. She provided for the family and it was never enough and he abandoned her.

She’s got her head screwed on right, and I suppose that’s why I like her. I mean, Herc was drooling over her in the beginning, but she doesn’t flirt. She’s one of the few women on the show who doesn’t think between her legs.

I’m going to refrain from saying too much more now, because I can see from the start of season 5 that Beadie has the potential to have one of the biggest arcs of the season. I’ll be very disappointed if this is underdeveloped. Just her simple scene in episode 1 speaks volumes. Going to lock up after checking on the kids, turning off the light. Then a moment later, the light goes on. She’s battling inside, knowing how Jimmy is and knowing what’s going on, yet not wanting to believe it. She still wants to have hope.

(And all I can say is, shame on Jimmy’s so-called friends, who after seeing him climb out of a bottle and find happiness didn’t care enough about him to resist the urge to drag him back in.)

Although The Wire features a strong male cast, the roles of female characters in each season have been measured with a precision that isn’t matched with the male characters. It is almost as though the female roles have been used sparingly so that they won’t lose their effectiveness.

Further Reading:

The original discussion thread.

Additional comments on the piece (including comments from John McFetridge).

Transitions: born corrupt or innocent? By DeAngelo Starnes

One beef I have against The Wire: the portrayal of Black women. Black women have been stereotyped as nagging individuals who care nothing about their children or men. Name one positive Black woman on The Wire and not the one who’s sleeping with another woman. And even that character abandoned her lover when she had a baby.

I could be wrong but is the subliminal message that Black women don’t care for their kids? That Black women are responsible for Black thugs? That Black women are responsible for corrupt Black men? Is the following emblematic of how the writers feel about Black women and their kids: “I ain’t paying you to be my mother.” Black women have never been paid to be mothers. They just do it – even when they have to raise kids that didn’t originate from their loins. Sure there are crack mothers, but they don’t represent the majority of sistas. Sistas don’t want the Street-Life for their kids. Believe that!

Could ‘The Wire’ be misogynistic? by Jordan Timm

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Sandra Ruttan

Sandra Ruttan is the bestselling author of SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES, HARVEST OF RUINS and The Nolan, Hart & Tain series. For more information, visit her website: http://sruttan.wordpress.com/

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About Sandra Ruttan

Sandra Ruttan is the bestselling author of SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES, HARVEST OF RUINS and The Nolan, Hart & Tain series. For more information, visit her website: http://sruttan.wordpress.com/

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