Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Constructing and Deconstructing Masculinity in HBO's The Wire

Some background info: The Wire is a series which ran on HBO from 2002-2008. It has been hailed as “the best show ever” by many media outlets, is being taught at colleges all over the United States, and is President Obama’s favorite TV show. The series represents what happens in the city of Baltimore, MD, and while it primarily revolves around drugs and crime, other elements include but are not limited to: government, the public school system and media (specifically, newspapers and journalistic "ethics"). David Simon, the creator, producer and writer, has stated that the show is "really about the American city, and about how we live together. It's about how institutions have an affect on individuals. Whether one is a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge or a lawyer. All are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution they are committed to." I think that quote speaks volumes about upholding social constructions of masculinity, and the privilege (and problems) that come along with it.

I didn't realize the problem with doing a television show -- especially one that is as layered and intricate as The Wire -- would be to determine whether I would discuss the series as a whole, select an episode and analyze from there, or specifically discuss a few characters. After realizing that folks have written dissertations on the show and this was to be a 500-1,000 word review, I’ve chosen to focus on two specific characters and how they each ‘perform’ masculinity. While The Wire is an amazing look at masculinities -- specifically, black masculinity (and possibly female masculinity as two of the most prominent females on the show are involved in male-dominated fields and don’t express a high level of femininity) -- I don’t know if I could adequately cover everything I’d like to in such a short amount of space, so bear with me.


Whenever I attempt to convince someone to start watching The Wire, I always start by talking about Omar Little and the myriad of reasons I love him. Omar, played by Michael K. Williams, is one of the “bad guys” that you’re probably not supposed to love, but he’s one of the ‘good’ bad guys, really. He’s a stick-up man who only steals from dealers, and he is feared among the streets as he parlays wearing a trench coat with shotgun in hand. Everything about Omar’s appearance is reminiscent of some kind of warrior (and made me think back to our readings about “warrior narratives” from Men’s Lives). By outwardly expressing such a masculine presence, Omar upholds the idea that men -- especially black men -- must do everything they can to fit into the “Act Like A Man” box by appearing tough and powerful. He uses his macho exterior as a scare tactic by asserting his power on the streets and makes it known that he is feared, and with good reason. While all of these things add up to represent a brand of masculinity that is sometimes right, Omar also defies stereotypes by being openly gay. I can think of multiple scenes where he’s affectionate with one of his partners (as he has a few throughout the series -- always monogamous), and he doesn’t seem to care who knows it. There are also moments where we see what Susan Bordo refers to as the “double bind of masculinity” -- tough but sensitive -- as he escorts his grandmother to church. Though I think that double bind represents a heteronormative view, I still think it’s applicable because so often media representations seem to put men into a category of being tough and aggressive or sensitive and caring, but never allowing the two to intersect. By going against the grain of being a ‘chivalrous’ kind of guy who is also feared in his community, Omar represents an incredibly layered view of masculinity.

To take another look at a hyper masculine representation on the show, I’ll point to Jimmy McNulty, played by Dominic West. He’s a detective for the Baltimore Police Department. As someone in a position of power, McNulty also exerts his stereotypical masculine qualities by proving to everyone how arrogant and, well, sleazy he is. He’s a womanizer, has issues with his ex, and would probably rather spend his money at the local watering hole than to pay child support. While he tries to reconcile these issues by proving that he’s a good detective and a good father, he struggles. This could be another look at “the double bind of masculinity” as well, but it’d be a stretch. McNulty exhibits many of the characteristics tied into the “Act Like a Man” box -- confusion, resentment, anger, isolation, and externalizes the emotions he fights to show through drinking and casual sex.

The interesting thing to me about McNulty's character is that, as one of the few white characters on the show, he isn't held upon a pedestal solely because of his race. Sure, he's in a position of power as both a white man and as someone in law enforcement, but he's a drunk and a loser, and is sometimes painted in a worse light than the criminals he's busy tracking down. I’m sure we’re all aware of how popular media likes to perpetuate stereotypes not only about gender, but also about race and class, as well, so I appreciate the fact that David Simon doesn’t attempt to prove that the (white) cops are all “good guys” that we should trust and/or respect. The audience isn’t supposed to like McNulty, or even feel sorry for him, and while his behavior isn’t a stretch from a normative “alpha male” figure, it also isn’t sold as part of his appeal.

While I find the representations of Omar (and McNulty, to be fair, but like I stated: you aren’t supposed to like him) to be incredibly realistic and believable, I’m bothered by the fact that it’d be highly unlikely to see a character like Omar on primetime television. I believe I stated in class one evening that the only openly black men I can think of on TV have all been featured on HBO shows -- Six Feet Under, The Wire, and True Blood -- and these shows are typically observed by more “progressive” audiences (I’d wager they’re maybe a little less homophobic than the rest of America? Although that might be a stretch, and I have no data to back that up.) All in all, the two characters examined are a nice contrast of fitting into a stereotype of constructed masculinity, and another that both adheres and defies it.

1 comment:

Wendy Lee said...

I definitely agree with your statement about how openly gay black men are rarely featured on public television and HBO is definietly one of the more "open-minded" pay-per-view channels that I have watched at least. I have never seen The Wire but I am a big fan of TrueBlood and the way you described Omar is a lot like how I would describe Lafayette from TrueBlood. He is very masculine in the sense that he is very violent and a drug dealer on top of it. But he dresses feminine and is very openly gay yet none of the men in the show really criticize him for that. It is interesting how HBO is one of the only channel that is so open about this idea and breaking out of the masculine box, if only a little. The public channels like The CW, ABC, and CBS need to make the effort to step out of this box if we are going to really change the way the media reinforces the ideas of masculinity.