The missing women of the wire: Gender and limits of verisimilitude

Dara Z. Strolovitch, Naomi Murakawa

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


David Simon and Ed Burns’s HBO series The Wire has drawn attention and praise from critics, scholars, and viewers for shining a much-needed light on the racial implications of the carceral state in general and of the war on drugs in particular. One sign of the series’s credibility – and one that simultaneously contributes to it – is the mushrooming of college-level courses that have been taught about it at Harvard University, Washington State University, Spokane, Middlebury College, the University of California, Berkeley, and Loyola University New Orleans. And its academic admirers extend beyond scholars and students of cultural studies. Sociologist William Julius Wilson told Slate reporter Drake Bennett, for example, “Although The Wire is fiction, not a documentary, its depiction of [the] systemic urban inequality that constrains the lives of the urban poor is more poignant and compelling [than] that of any published study, including my own.”1 The professed verisimilitude of the series and its alleged groundedness instructural analyses of American inequality are belied, however, by a remarkable absence: female characters are few and far between, and those that exist are remarkable mainly for being stereotypical. As Elizabeth Ault notes in her 2012 essay, “in all the excitement surrounding the show, something – or someone – seems to be missing.”2 The paucity of women is particularly pronounced – and particularly troubling – with regard to the series’s depictions of the effects of the wars on crime and drugs. A regular viewer of the show might be forgiven for believing that black women’s experiences of the war on drugs is mainly as those “left behind” as the mothers, sisters, girlfriends, and wives of the male “soldiers.” Film critic Christopher Wisniewski has gone as far as to note (in a parenthetical comment) that “one of The Wire’s few serious flaws is its recurring tendency to cast secondary female characters as nagging wife figures.”3 Of the sixty-eight characters displayed on HBO’s The Wirewebsite, only nine – or thirteen percent – are female. Of the twenty-one characters who are listed as being “The Street,” only one – Snoop – is not a cisgender man. It may be the last refuge of feminist scholars to ask “Where are the women?,”but really, Simon and Burns, where are they? The dearth of female characters and their relegation mainly to stereotypical and supporting roles is certainly an artistic problem in and of itself, leading to flat and unrealistic depictions. Butthese omissions and reductive portrayals are particularly troubling in light of the actual gendered implications of the war on drugs and of the expanding carceral state. In this light, the show’s female characters are a stark departure from Simon and Burns’s avowed commitment to “nuanced critiques of public institutions and structures shaping everyday life in Baltimore.”4 Instead, as we will demonstrate below, Simon and Burns set up their female characters largely as antagonists to the male ones, which serves to perpetuate rather than to counter the very individualized, not-structural diagnoses of racialized poverty that they aver they are trying to challenge. As Adrienne Brown writes, “The Wire’s construction of gender is the one aspect where the show conforms to preexisting popular culture representational precedents without much resistance.”5 Rather than recognizing gendered structures such as male dominance, the heteropatriarchal family, and the gendered welfare state as key to the very processes and institutions they want to critique, Simon and Burns instead naturalize them. Doing so allows them, in turn, to use their female characters to individualize the problems faced by – or perhaps more accurately, caused by – women, particularly when these problems affect men. Asking where gender and sexuality are in the complex story of race, class, andcity politics depicted on The Wire – what Mari Matsuda calls “asking the other question” – also suggests a second set of concerns about The Wire’s allegedly real and humanizing depictions of poor people of color.6 In particular, denaturalizing the centrality of male protagonists on The Wire reminds us that black men are often the main inhabitants of the poor and struggling African American communities portrayed in the mainstream media. In this way, The Wire is not only a less realistic depiction of these communities than many suggest it is, it is also less unusual and more consistent with conventional media and political racial representations of black men as the crucial story and as the real victims of structural racism.7 Like so much art and scholarship that universalizes male experiences while exceptionalizing and particularizing those of women, The Wire’s gender lens distorts reality and does so in ways that make it less likely we will really understand, diagnose, and alleviate the problems of the drug war and the carceral state.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Politics of HBO's The Wire
Subtitle of host publicationEverything is connected
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781136025921
ISBN (Print)9780415854108
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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