4 min read
So I'm probably the last person on Earth to watch "The Wire", and I'm starting from the beginning at the urging of Jim Groom and #wire106 . I'm coming to it pretty cold, from an understanding of police/crime drama that extends largely to "The Sweeney" (I usually do this kind of critical review in literature and/or music)
Jim had primed me to see a cop show being subverted, and indeed that is largely what happened. Really it seemed to be more about bureaucracy, and the need for the individual to avoid expressing emotions or instability in order to better play a part in a corporate body. With D'Angelo chastised for losing his cool when attacked in high-rise lobby, and McNulty seeing the piss flow downhill after he subverted reporting lines to press his pet case onto a judge, it was about a man against a machine, and the logic of the machine winning over.
The sense of place and division was heightened by frequent reference to a sub-section of each organisation: Narcotics and Homicide were two almost rival factions within the Baltimore Police Department, both answerable to the whims of the Deputy (who liked dots) and could banish anyone to Marine if he so chose (I liked the use of door signs and office decor in conveying the status of each part of the force). And D'Angelo was demoted from having a tower block as his patch to "the pit", which was clearly of lower status and a "lesser" role after his mistake
And yes, it was, always a man. We counted two fully-drawn female characters - Kima Greggs (a senior detective in narcotics who seemed like she actually knew and cared about what she was doing), and Rhonda Pearlman (an assistant state's attorney who near enough walked out of a fractious meeting/confrontation between Narcotics and Homicide).
Nearly all of the rest of the women we saw worked at "Orlando's" - a strip club "front" for the Barksdale organisation. Yes, a strip club. I'm not sure what we were seeing subverted there, but The Sweeney did a strip club as a criminal signifier in 1974. (in Supersnout, and she was called Brandy DeFrank - two more names than any of the women in Orlando's got).
Now, let's be frank about this: Women have bodies. But unless I am misunderstanding the HBO audience for complex cop show noir drama, people don't need to look at them all the time to remain interested. And maybe drug-dealers do have meetings in strip clubs, I'm not sure. But - as lovely as it always is to hear Bill Withers' "Use Me" - the lengthy establishing shots simply established Women! Getting undressed! To Soul Music! and did nothing to add to the nicely nuanced rebuke that "Stringer Bell" was offering D'Angelo.
So - why? Laura Mulvey's theory of the "male gaze" would be one answer: television and film is often made from the perspective of a heterosexual male viewer and tends to linger on the curves and contours of the female body in the way a heterosexual male would. A friend of mine who lectures in such matters has primed me to always notice that a male character is usually introduced with a straight, still, facial shot (or maybe some purposeful walking), where as the camera will generally move across the body of a female character - especially one presented as "desirable".
A conversation between Kima and her partner nudges episode one past the bechdel test, but it was looking like a close run thing for a long while. So, despite there being a lot to enjoy in The Wire so far, I'll be keeping my eye on the way it portrays women.
Image Lee Nathan at the Noun Project. CC-BY-3.0