I know, I’m late to this conversation — a cursory Google search reveals a pile of comments about this subject, most of them unflattering.  Clearly, I’m not the first to notice that HBO just won’t develop shows that have equitable gender ratio or even very interesting parts for women.  Sure, they threw us the half-hour cotton-candy show “Sex and the City,” full of fashion and cocktails and girl-talk about boys (cause we girls luv that stuff), but that show ended in 2004.  Still:  if “The Wire” never could bring its female characters to the forefront, it showed us gender in a way I’ve never seen on TV before.

Yes, it fell down on getting many women onto the show, or even into prominent parts.  David Simon, the show’s main writer and creator, confessed in an interview that he often wrote his female characters as if they were men — “men with tits,” quoting Hemingway — leaving it to his actors to add gendered subtlety.  He directed his true love to fleshing out men’s roles; one need only think of Bubbles, Omar, Bunk Moreland, or Bunny Colvin to see how rich and diverse his male characters could be (and so many of them black:  when have we ever seen that before?).  A quick look at the roster shows a few vivid female characters who were consistently overshadowed by their male counterparts in number as well as vividness: 

  • detective Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn)
  • Ronnie Perlman (Deirdre Lovejoy), the assistant state’s attorney 
  • badass muscle Snoop (Felicia Pearson)
  • officer Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan), who has an ill-fated relationship with McNulty
  • Brianna Barksdale (Michael Hyatt), who keeps her brother and son in check
  • Shardene Innes (Wendy Grantham), the strip club dancer turned informant
  • De’Londa Brice (Sandi McCree), Namond’s dragon-lady mother
  • Nerese Cambell (Marlyne Afflack), the take-no-prisoners City Council prez

That’s right:  eight prominent female characters in five seasons, with almost all the rest a shadowy group of wives, ex-wives, girlfriends, junkies, foster mothers, or middle-school teachers and girls.  I can’t even begin to count the comparable men in the series, but to give you an idea:  when you look at the Imdb.com list of characters, only three of the twenty-nine names that automatically appear on the page are women.

But if they were outnumbered and overshadowed it’s still worth making the point:  what women they are.  I’ve sung the praises of Kima Greggs before, but Nerese Campbell and De’Londa Brice — to name only two — are brilliant, complex characters.  I’m watching Season 5 again right now, when Nerese comes more fully into view as the preeminent power broker during a moment of city-council shakeup.  She never smiles; although she’s one of the most conventionally beautiful women on the show, Nerese resembles the ghostlike, incomprehensible, drug-dealing Marlo more than anyone.  Like Marlo, she uses every opportunity to buttress her own position despite being already the most powerful woman in the city.  It’s a brilliant, unsung performance that shows her to be capable of any form of political maneuvering or corruption so long as it enhances her political armor. 

Take the scene in which Clay Davis (“shieeeeeeeet”) accuses her and her political machine of abandoning him during his corruption trial, and threatens to bring them all down with him.  “You can tell every last one that I do not fall alone,” he whines.  Nerese won’t let this fly.

“Just take a moment and think about what you’re saying here,” she says.  “You can have yourself a pity party, talk all kinda shit to some prosecutor.  You know where you’ll be then?  Out in the damn cold.  No connection, no allies, nowhere to hang your hat in this damn town.”  She softens her voice:   “Or you carry this for all of us.  Carry it as far as you can.  And if the worst happens—they take your seat, if you go away for a year or so to some minimum-security summer camp, so what?  You come back to a town that still knows your name.  Prosecutors come, and prosecutors go.  But win or lose, you’re still going to be back around before we know it.  Am I right, Senator Davis?” 

She’s brutal — it’s hard to capture textually the fierceness with which she delivers those lines to him, right up in his face; it’s like a school principal, a wife, a strong mother all at once.  She’s asking him to be a man in a way he’s not used to.  Davis’ face crumples, like a child’s.  It’s such a good scene because Nerese is so merciless — just like we hoped Hillary might be if she became president.  David Simon might be telling the truth about how he writes these characters, but his first-rate actors convert those lines into subtly gendered performances.  I could go on about De’Londa Brice, too, whom I feel has been wrongly attacked as an ugly portrayal of a black mother.  Come on, people:  just because we didn’t sympathize with her or see things from her perspective doesn’t mean De’Londa was a simplistic character.  Some of this feels like I’m teaching one of those graduate classes in which “but where are the women/class relations/African Americans?” suffices for useful criticism.

 

Okay, so the show couldn’t come up with many female characters.  But it endeared itself to me with its treatment of gender — its rich array of gay characters as well as its portrayal of men’s relationships with each other (and themselves).  To quote Sophie Jones’ nice turn of phrase on PopMatters, “Gay characters on TV are almost without exception stereotyped, ridiculed, or defined by their sexuality. The Wire doesn’t so much tear apart this convention as act like it never existed.”  And it wasn’t just the gay characters.  The drug dealers are obsessed with a particular kind of manliness — to be hard, to “step to,” which ultimately proved the irreconcilable difference between drug kingpins Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell. 

Meanwhile, the cops throw around middle-school level dick and fag jokes — a banter that not only isn’t funny, but signals these men’s broader personal failures.  Those jokes appear so frequently as to become a theme about sorry masculinity.  Unlike similar jokes used in “bro-mances” like “Knocked Up” and “Superbad” that sought to make audiences laugh, these don’t convey the sense that these guys are having a really great time together.  Instead, the stupid jokes symbolize the malaise and decay of the city — they function as a lingua franca between men who have nothing else to say to each other.

McNulty, looking at Detective Sydnor in disguise to make a drug buy:  “Where’s your mic?”
Sydnor:  “Down at my dick, man.  I figured they ain’t gonna go down there anyway, right?”
Carver:  “I don’t know, Sydnor, the way you twirl it around, it might be the first place they look.”

They’re lame, these jokes.  And they’re repeated so frequently as to constitute self-critique — and in this era of buddy movies, when do we ever see this gendered banter criticized?  The show loves those moments when the jokes no longer work — when McNulty and Bunk grow apart, when Hauk gets a new job and can’t find the right lingo to use with his new co-workers.  The jokes take the temperature of the failed personal lives of so many of the characters — McNulty’s pathetic bar pickups, the pathetic way Kima allows her relationship with Cheryl to fail, cops vomiting in the gutter outside their bar, only to go back in and drink some more.

If we want to complain about representations of women and gender on TV, start out with virtually anything else — “Saturday Night Live,” “Burn Notice,” “Two and a Half Men.”  In contrast, “The Wire” looks good for its convention-busting characters, both male and female.  Yeah, it’s mostly about men, and I’m the first to agree that’s a problem with TV overall.  Just don’t use “The Wire” as a punching bag for that larger problem.

Still, as I get ready to start watching Simon’s new HBO series, “Treme,” I wonder if I’ll start to get impatient with HBO again.  As much as I’m delighted to see actors like Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters get more work, there’s a point at which yet another show about guys becomes a problem.

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