If you google around for critical analysis of The Wire, what you’ll get is less “critical” or “analysis” than it is loyal rhapsodizing. To legitimise their affection, the writers tend to employ lots of words and phrases longer than are usually found in reviews of television shows. “Socio-economic”, “interconnectivity”, or “repressive political mandates” are among the crowd favourites. Many of these pieces state with varying levels of agreement that The Wire is literally The Best Show Ever—a title it still holds over a decade after the first episode aired. Articles trade in talk of exceptional nuance, deftly dealt interrogations of power structures and how unquantifiably badass Omar is (so, so badass).
And look, I totally get it. Even in this golden age of television, we’re so starved of authentic portrayals of non-white, cishet, middleclass folk that when you have a show whose “protagonist is the city of Baltimore”, features a predominantly black cast, and doesn’t demonise or oversimplify the issues it engages with, you just wanna hug the screen (and/or screenwriters) and say thank you thank you so much please never leave me. But hugs limit your perception. Certain head tilts are generally necessary to maintain that mad-satisfying embrace. And what The Wire does get stuck into: oh boy, can it be excellent. Then—because we can’t have nice things slash of course it does—comes this article by Sophie Jones. Not only does it resist the rapture; the piece calls to attention a sustained failure that demands you move the beloved show onto that “liking stuff that is problematic” shelf.
Put bluntly, the way The Wire fails pretty spectacularly is in its unwillingness to treat women as actual people. It consistently resists considering our issues as real, systemic problems that limit how female folk are able to navigate the world. Maybe you already noticed, but I did not, even after multiple rewatchings because the rest was so distractingly rad. This, in retrospect, makes it worse because the writers clearly can navigate some pretty tricky territory when they wanna. For a show that deconstructs race, class, the education system, journalism, and politics like a boss, the invisibility of lady issues feels wilful. Apparently our city of Baltimore—the protagonist—is actually a dude.
We’re at a point now where peeps are starting to click that Strong Female Characters™ do not a feminist text make. And lemme quickly clarify that I don’t hate The Wire now, even though it does need to brush up on bell hooks. It’s just that, for a show lauded for incisive critique of the power structures that dominate our lives, sexism never seems to rate as one of them. Even though it pervasively affects everyone all the time because: patriarchy. Like race and socio-economic standing, gender rewards some and disadvantages others purely because of the circumstances we’re born into. And it sucks.
So yeah, let’s take stock: we get Kima Greggs and Rhonda Pearlman as legit, fully-formed and kick butt characters throughout the series. Later on Brianna Barksdale’s granted more screen time, not a moment of which is wasted. Bonus points for her confrontation of Avon and Stringer in regards to her son’s murder; she refuses to allow legitimate suspicions be coded as hysterical, or her “weakness” as a mother. This is despite repeated attempts by both super-intimidating men to dismiss her in this super-gendered way. After her matriarchal role in the Barksdale Organisation becomes irrelevant with the creation of Proposition Joe’s co-op (all blokes there, by the way), we get Snoop. Our only principle female gangster, she is never for a second overshadowed by her dude counterparts. Oh, except in the credits. That woman is fierce, not in the fabulous Beyoncé way, but in an “I will straight up fuck you up if given any reason” style. Even Stephen King is afraid of her, like, for real. Lastly, in the show’s final season we get Alma Gutierrez whose moral compass and professionalism disadvantage her in yet another male-dominated workplace.
So that’s five significant female characters in five seasons. What happens to Shardene Innis after she hooks up with Freamon? Well, *spoilers* not a whole lot. This is despite the fact that Innis is identified by both Freamon and Greggs as “a citizen”, which is synonymous with “good person” in The Wire lingo (and also, when you think about it, a backhanded insult to the rest of the dancers). She demonstrates wicked bravery against the Barksdale Organisation and her rejection of D’Angelo’s casual sexism deserves a direct quote:
D’Angelo: My mama always said “Don’t let them get to cooking. Once they’re in the kitchen, ain’t nothing left to do but give ‘em a key to your house.
Shardene: I don’t want no key. I don’t want no house. And your mama don’t know shit about me.
Kat Muscat: Oh, SNAP.
More seriously, Shardene is also the only one we see mourn the death of a fellow co-worker. This is a (largely unheard) plea for audiences to extend the same sympathy for sex workers that we do to others whose lives are treated as disposable.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s De’Londa “Dragon Lady” Brice. She is defined by her role as the (now incarcerated) Wee-Bey’s wife and her ability to shout down hoopers and corner lieutenants alike. Brice is shrill and domineering, essentially a shallow and consumerist caricature. However, as Jones points out, The Wire’s writers resist an interrogation of how Brice is “a victim of racial, economic, and sexual circumstance”. In this framework, we are able to understand her more accurately as a powerless player, with excessive bark to compensate for her inability to bite. Her economic dependence on Wee-Bey, then Brianna Barksdale, then—finally, and unsuccessfully—her son Namond demonstrates just how deeply Brice lacks any true agency.
If you’re still unconvinced, check out the slew of articles online already devoted to this topic. I’d like to do something a little different. There is a great internet tradition of rewriting beloved texts. Motivating factors are diverse. They range from fanfic that creates narratives for the next generation of Harry Potter, to nerdgasmic breakdowns of how a show could have been improved. Surprising no-one, the vast majority of the latter has been levelled at George Lucas (in case you were wondering, my favourite is Belated Media’s take on Episodes One and Two). So here, in a similar vein, are a couple of suggestions for each season of The Wire. They’re delivered loosely in the style of those DVD synopses that preceded each episode (for kicks, and for anyone who didn’t download it illegally). In a “filling the silences” type experiment, the following are examples of scenes and strategies that could have been used to write women into The Wire.
S01E12 “Cleaning Up”
After she receives “the gift of corrected vision, courtesy of the BPD”, have Freamon and Greggs casually question Shardene Innes about the economics of her job and why she hasn’t considered contacts before now. This glimpse into her interior life and circumstances forges a bond that asserts Innes as both a “citizen” and a stripper in a way that previously eluded the Major Crimes Unit.
Have Maurice Levy tell Avon Barksdale to walk away from the club. Levy makes an offhand quip about how this will potentially displace many of the current dancers, but that this pales in comparison to the threat of snitching or the police linking Avon to the establishment.
More generally, offset the dynamic Pearlman has with Judge Phelan—in which he grants her favours because he finds her attractive—against the difficulties she encounters because of her gender. Just spit-balling here, but this could include confronting the confounding line between being “assertive” and “a bitch”, whether Pearlman needed to consciously choose career over kids, and the impact a lack of female coworkers has on her perception of the legal profession. And because intersectionality is the best, let’s also get stuck into gendered white privilege (I think I remember seeing one councilwoman of colour? Maybe?).
Engage in the issue of sex trafficking. Do not call it collateral damage. It’s the entire catalyst for this season, but you’re reducing it to a list of Jane Does in the red. Instead of having Innes pop up to reassure viewers that Freamon has got her on the Right Path—taking up nursing—have her call this dismissive behaviour out. I’m pretty sure she’s got a better idea of consensual and nonconsensual sex work, and the complexities and power dynamics at play, than even the good police. Plus, there’s a fantastic opportunity here to get stuck into the fraught relationship between police and sex workers. Also, maybe cut the “McNulty gets a blowjob from a (trafficked) sex worker how outrageously hilarious” gag.
S03E08 “Moral Midgetry”
In a motel room, have Greggs and McNulty talk about infidelity. After listening to McNulty explain the tactics he employed, Greggs questions the gendered double standard when it comes to cheating. She highlights the extent to which it is accepted, or even facilitated between ‘the boys’. As a lesbian with limited moral high ground, she does not preach to McNulty. Instead, Greggs’ primary concern is the lack of respect inherent to cheating in monogamous relationships. While recognising (somewhat tokenistically) her own mistakes, she also calls bullshit on how the behaviour is more socially acceptable for men.
This theme could be used to explore Donette’s character, beyond the money-grabbing nag shtick. While both D’Angelo and Stringer could come and go as they please, Donette has a child to consider and a limited support network. She is generally presented as either a part of the problem (especially for D, who feels oppressed by her demands) or an element to be controlled. Glimpses of vulnerability are shown fleetingly, but don’t do justice to the trials and loneliness of her situation, nor are they recognised as “all in the game”.
S04E06 “Margin of Era”
Cutty attempts to connect with Michael through talking flirtatiously about women. After this, it’s revealed that Spider has stopped attending the gym because Cutty has slept with his mum. Michael insinuates Cutty’s attractiveness to local ladies is solely a result of the lack of better options. It is made clear that many of these women are raising children on their own because of the drug trade. Later, Cutty meets a character called… Linda, who I just made up. She and Cutty form a platonic relationship, built on mutual investment in the gym and keeping young boys off the corners. Despite Cutty’s old-fashioned approach of only teaching boys to box, it is demanded that everyone who attends the gym treat Linda with the same respect extended to their male coach. This brings sexist attitudes among the young boys to light, although it remains a constant struggle.
For the season as a whole: within Randy, Michael, Dukie, and Namond’s little gang there is at least one girl called… Aaliyah. I know they’re just exiting the age where cooties are a thing, but The Wire is full of strange friendships, so I reckon they can manage this outlandish notion. For me, this is seriously one of the greatest missed opportunities of the entire show. The adult characters are already entrenched in the trappings of patriarchy. In contrast, Aaliyah could be a way in which we discover how these structures of inequality are perpetuated or learned. Also, the education system is the only female-dominated workplace The Wire explores, but our main figures here are Prez and Bunny, both of whom I adore, but c’mon. Prez could easily have had a female mentor who was better than him at teaching, given that she has actual experience. Lastly, a bare minimum amount of effort is made to give De’Londa Brice actual depth.
Okay, I stumbled on an interview where David Simon tells Slate “at the end of The Wire, I’ll have said all I have to say about Baltimore… I don’t have another season about Baltimore.” He expresses concern about a potential subject, namely the influx of Hispanics into the Baltimore population. The worry being that it would be too difficult to execute, despite its importance, because of the amount of research required. Maybe that’s his reasoning for underrepresenting women in The Wire. Much like the city of Baltimore, all the major writers/players were dudes. Or it’s just the result of myopic privileging of masculinity. I understand that to realistically render the world Simon wanted to portray, patriarchal structures were gunna have to be reproduced. But they didn’t need to be reinforced. In comparison, racial issues were a consistent theme, because race has a huge amount to do with the identity of Baltimore (duh). The ways in which this deeply affects how different characters are able—or forced—to navigate the world are constantly brought into focus and critique. Why can’t we have some of that same excellent engagement with feminist issues? Ladies are also essential to the identity of Baltimore, after all (and again I say: duh). While women are generally systemically barred from positions like drug kingpin, mayor, or police commissioner, that’s no excuse to relegate them to the roles of wife, mother, or girlfriend.
So, my suggestion for rewriting Season Five is actually to just scrap it. Trade in The Wire’s least beloved ten episodes in exchange for more screen-time geared towards the development of gendered issues and female characters in previous seasons. That’s an extra 2.5 episodes each! Totally doable. Also, The Wire needs to get a writer with a vagina, to remind us, viewers and screen writers alike, that Strong Female Characters™ are not the only kind of ladies deserving of our attention.
Kat Muscat is an editor, writer, and feminist. She just finished her editorship at Voiceworks, and now watches lots of television and wants to tell you allllll about it, clearly.