Tube Tied: The Wire, Mad Men, and the Ideal of Inclusivity in Popular Culture

Michelle Dean
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I've been following the discussion about the representativeness of The Social Network, about whether it accurately depicts women and "toxic masculinity" in technology particularly—a conversation which, as I said last week, I've been sort of surprised we're even having. Such a jaded feminist have I become, I guess, since I'm now actively surprised when people actually care about how women are depicted in this culture, but I digress. Personally, I thought the movie was sufficiently infused with internal comment on the misogyny of its characters that I wasn't as upset as I might have been by it's flat depiction of femininity.

I'm hardly the first to observe this sort of thing, of course, but I am, lately, obsessed with this question of how you reconcile your politics to your art. Rather than wade into the discussion on The Social Network particularly, though, since I'm only supposed to be blogging about television here, let's just situate some of these issues in that context. If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you might be growing tired of my continual references to Ta-Nehisi Coates's work, but I'll go ahead and make another anyway: he had a post a few weeks back that was somewhat a propos, about recent complaints that Mad Men's address of race is somehow insufficient. He added a footnote:

It's worth noting the last "Great American Television Show" The Wire, was very much about race, and almost never addressed gender.

That line struck a chord with me, because for some time I'd been thinking about writing in this space about The Wire—and Lorrie Moore even went and wrote me a nice springboard to talk about a now-cancelled show by examining it anew in the New York Review of Books last month—you should go read that—but it's a show I find very difficult to address from a feminist angle. That's largely because I could write a post that makes some kind of complaint about the show not having enough women, or not understanding them, or keeping them in secondary roles. I am sure I could find evidence to support some of those claims, and here is Coates agreeing, from the get-go, that this was not a show About Gender. And I could, probably, construct an argument that the lack of address of gender impoverished the show. But increasingly, the longer I do this kind of writing about feminism and television, the less I become concerned about blunt concerns like airtime or numbers and the more I become convinced that the only way we will have a culture that is broad and participatory and doesn't erase experiences is if we focus on rewarding shows that are carefully written and considered.

In other words, the strange trajectory of my writing on women in television is that it has made me care less about statistics than it has made me care about substance. I don't quite know what to make of this, personally. I recognize that at the level of abstract theory, it may be something of an "intersectionality fail" on my part, since there's no reason that any one axis of interest, in a television show—say, either of race or gender—is necessarily exclusive of another. And yet, it seems, I am unable to really object to a "good show" even where it does not reflect all of my political interests.

Because let's face it: whatever else you can say about The Wire, it was a good show. More than just being technically well-executed, it had an aspiration to broad social commentary that was just admirable in and of itself. The only well-founded leftist criticism I can think of (and that I would be interested in some commentary on but I'm not the person to do it necessarily) about the sort of fetishism I sometimes see of it among a certain section of the white educated upper middle class. Said obsession makes me a bit uncomfortable—for some fans of the show it seems to have a voyeuristic quality. But I don't think that would bear at all on the quality of the show itself. The same goes most of the time for Mad Men, too, though I'd personally be open to an argument that it is nowhere near as deft and smart as The Wire.

So how does one reconcile the ideal of "quality drama" with the ideal of inclusivity? It's something I'm still working through. But you could say I'm starting to wonder if it's as straightforward as I've formerly thought.

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15 Comments Have Been Posted


I have been struggling with these same ideas lately when it comes to television (and pop culture in general). When something is of a very high quality, and it's thoughtful, and it draws attention to important issues (i.e., <i>The Wire</i>) but it isn't feminist, does that mean that as a feminist I should feel obligated to challenge it? Or is there room for quality drama (or music, or literature) that doesn't deal with gender politics at all?

I am still working through this stuff too, but for now I'm thinking that as long as something isn't anti-feminist (which I am beginning to fear <i>Boardwalk Empire</i> may be, for example) then I will accept it and even enjoy it, even if it doesn't meet my feminist standards (because it meets my television-viewing standards, which are also important).

Great post!

Gender doesn't equal women.

Gender doesn't equal women. So perhaps people should think about how such shows construct and deconstruct normative conceptions of masculinity and feminity especially as they intersect with race and class. Food for thought.

Post feminist, eh? Or

Post feminist, eh?

Or just~let's get rid of the feminist~especially the working class feminist of color~part of gender deconstructing and criticism altogether, because it is just too depressing?

If you substitute liberal middle class "pop culture" feminist critique (ie what Bitch, Jezebel, et al have become) for authentic feminist critique informed by class, race, religion, etc then you end up at the same dead end the American liberal class has: moral nihilism, where gender doesn't matter because no one really cares about it.

That is how pop culture feminism has resulted in a culture critique ghetto, viewing itself through the Huffington Post/TMZ meat market cult gaze.

Liberal middle class pop culture worshipping feminists LOVE to view themselves through that lens. Especially on Halloween, when they get to dress all slutty and stuff.

I agree with you, Mac. I

I agree with you, Mac. I think there is potential for feminist analysis of masculinity in the Wire. I think it comes back to the academic idea that certain texts are richer than others. I think the men on that show struggle with masculinity in interesting ways. I'm not sure the female characters are afforded the same kind of depth and often kinda fit in as awkwardly shaped puzzle pieces around the male characters more interesting lives. (Lady lawyer who used to sleep with McNalty and lesbians who briefly joined Oma's crew, I'm looking at you.) The way I think about The Wire is also always influenced by my perception that everyone is fixated on how "real" the show is, which is especially true of educated white liberal types as already pointed out. For that reason, I've been a little annoyed with The Wire to the extent that it shows men living really compelling lives negotiating issues of masculinity and sexuality and power. I feel a bit salty that the female characters aren't as dynamic. I also wonder if my fellow liberal educated white friends don't much care that the gender dynamics on the show aren't particularly "real" because they are too busy being stoked with David Simon's depiction of hierarchy and bureaucracy in late capitalism.

Worse Than A Lack Of Inclusivity

"The Social Network", unfortunately, is a window into the some widespread and undesirable thought processes that are prevalent amongst many social cliques, some of which, it would seem, write the scripts for movies and television shows.

"<a href="" rel="nofollow">Is the site's founder <em>really</em> that much of a douchebag?</a>" asks Tracy Clark-Flory in a Salon broadsheet article. The answer is yes. Her subsequent article in Salon titled <a href="" rel="nofollow">Sorkin explains "Social Network" sexism </a> quotes the screenwriter, Alan Sorkin, who wrote: <em>"More generally, I was writing about a very angry and deeply misogynistic group of people."</em>

Sexism seems to be one of many widespread complaints about Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook Team in reality. Googling "Facebook Sucks" will turn up tens of thousands to millions of results and one would suspect hundreds of millions of anecdotes. The misogyny at Facebook is documented on a plethora of blogs like <a href=" rel="nofollow">Wandering Lost</a>, which I found by Googling "Facebook misogyny". This makes for a bad result when the Facebook Team arbitrarily censors (disappears) things based on their biases while letting the hateful ones stay.

It is true that these attitudes are not limited to the Facebook crew. The practice of treating women as objects is widespread. The treatment of non-cis gendered women and trans-persons often takes a much more vicious turn. Portrayals in movies like Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. On Television shows like "Criminal Minds" trans-people are "profiled" as all being sick, deranged potential mass-murderers and psychopaths.

I'm afraid I never watched "The Wire", but what I am taking from reading the related articles is that it took a slow start toward inclusivity, but that racism and sexism were not adequately addressed and that the character roles of those who were not white males had room for improvement.

It would be nice if discrimination's vestiges on television were limited to just insufficient inclusivity. The inclusivity would be a good start. Putting a spotlight on outright hateful misogyny, homophobia and transphobia would be better. There has been some progress in that outspoken racism in the media is more likely to be portrayed as unacceptable now. Making progress towards reducing the actual discrimination and ceasing to glorifying of it would be even better yet.

The Wire + Rape (and lack thereof)

From <a href="">an article in Slate</a> that has stuck with me through repeated viewings of The Wire. Very little is depicted on the issue of rape, despite the prevalence and normalcy of rape among the particular subculture (inner-city - in this case Baltimore - drug gangs). Academics speculate this was a deliberate choice on the part of the show's creators -- while we can identify with, and in fact cheer on, murderers, we cannot find empathy for rapists. It's a compelling argument.

It's an interesting point, especially in a discussion of Mad Men, which did touch on rape, and date rape at that.

From the article --

"For all its vaunted realism The Wire still has a particular audience in mind, and that audience shapes the sort of stories the show tells and the way it tells them.

Take rape... In Philippe Bourgois' book In Search of Respect, an anthropological study of East Harlem crack gangs in the late 1980s and early '90s, one of the strands that runs through the book is what Bourgois describes as "the prevalence and normalcy of rape." Rape is not only common among the gang members Bourgois befriended and studied, it is celebrated.

This is a fact that someone who learned everything about drug gangs from The Wire would be aware of only dimly, if at all. Conscious or not, this was a decision on the part of the show's creators. Faced with a choice between verisimilitude and drama's demand that the audience identify with the characters, the show's creators went with the latter. "If you portrayed these people as rapists you would lose the ability to make them at all sympathetic and human," says Mittell.

Viewers are willing to sympathize with murderers, because there's a sense that they still have a certain code. Portraying them as rapists would make that much harder. Rape is a more taboo and emotionally volatile crime to portray on-screen than murder. "

kinda like asking how you

kinda like asking how you would reconcile the ideal of a quality life with the idea of inclusivity, don't you think? Hope you don't have to think too hard on that, it would disturb me.

gender, women, men

I have to agree with at least part of what Mac says: gender does not equal women. There are very few female characters on The Wire -- and most of the ones that do exist are not as fully fleshed out as the male characters. But the depiction of male characters does explore the difficulties -- and follies -- of trying to live up to some ideal sense of "masculinity." I don't know if that makes it a feminist show, but I do think it's a show about gender. Just not really the female gender. I also just want to say for the record that I am NOT AT ALL post-feminist, but I am interested in critical depictions of masculinity.

Any watcher of network TV or

Any watcher of network TV or popular movies has seen what happens when there are too many cooks trying to stir too many themes into the plot. It is impossible to address the entire world in one piece of art. I think there has to be a distinction between pieces of art that addresses one issue exceptionally well but leaves out gender commentary because it just doesn't fit, and pieces of art that leaves out gender commentary that seems natural and necessary, or presents gender in stereotypical or incomplete ways.

Social Justice vs. Entertainment

I agree completely, Alex.

As a social scientist and a writer, I spend a lot of time watching and critiquing modern television dramas. I also work closely with my brother, who works in the media world (mainstream commercials/advertising and independent films). We talk a lot about casting and I'm always on him about why this commercial or that movie didn't have more women/people of color/disabled people/fat people. But after spending time with him and learning about the marketing world (for both products and television shows), I am starting to understand how little control the writer and even the director have over the end product. I think you can see that again and again with directors like Josh Whedon and JJ Abrams. It is easy for fans who enjoy their work to see exactly where they compromised (or in the case of the series, Firefly, the punishment for not compromising).

Television shows are a slippery commodity. They must engage and entertain the American public enough to sell advertising but they are an amazing (and sometimes uncontrolled) tool for social change. The fear on the business side is that if they push too many boundaries, get too edgy showing real women, real disabled folks, real anything, that it won't be entertaining to the majority of Americans. And this has proven to be true. American viewers generally don't like change. So the networks choose the shows that work.

I have come to decide that using television as tool for social justice is a balancing act. You have to have shows that are similar enough to the past to keep the audience engaged while secretly giving them a new model of what it means to be a woman, a person with a disability, a person of color, etc. But I also think it's important that people like ourselves still sit around and critique the hell out of the media. Someone needs to point out the crappy stereotypes and damaging portrayals so that the artists remember that they are trying to change the way Americans view themselves and each other.

As an anthropologist, I am trained to take a very "long term" view on issues. And in the long term, we ARE all slowly changing the way that media works. Just look at the portrayal of women in television in the 80s or 90s. While there is a lot left to do, we HAVE made some serious progress. We just all have to keep doing our jobs. We keep pointing out the short comings of modern television, the artists keep fighting for their vision (which often includes more inclusive casting and complex roles) and the networks allow for teeny little steps in the right direction. Mostly.

A great work of art shows us

A great work of art shows us some truth about the world. Even if they don't pass the bechdel rule, I'm able to infer some sort of feminism out of most good movies. For example, in 'The Social Network' the (almost) all male cast is depicted as being greedy and backstabbing. Other than a short scene at the beginning, women exist only as trophies of wealth. I don't know how a person could watch that and think that there are any redeeming qualities in the characters of the men portrayed.


Great article, and discussion.

I want to point out that I think that Simon has learned some lessons since The Wire. Treme, his new-ish show on HBO, has women characters which are much more robust than the women characters on The Wire were. The show isn't very much like The Wire, really, except that it tackles race, class and gender more than most shows do. Plus, it's a sadly gorgeous show.


I feel like Simon deserves a little more credit. I agree that the lack of fully developed female characters in the show is unfortunate, however, I think it's partly a reflection of reality. Watching the Wire with my parents was interesting because both of them have worked extensively with police departments and my mom ran a group home for adolescent boys in Baltimore. They were often struck by how realistic the show is. I think Simon writes about what he knows (newspapers, policing, etc.) and unfortunately the female characters reflect his experience.

I would also say that the show deserves credit for not having any "fluffy" female characters. The "lady lawyer" (also known as Rhonda Pearlman) is not simply a love interest for McNulty. She is a key part of the case and is shown time and time again to be very competent at her job. She is shown to be both successful in her career and at the same time sexual and attractive. It would be one thing if her purpose on the show was to periodically walk across a marble floor in stilettos, but she is shown as an integral part of the criminal investigations.

The show is clearly not perfect, but I do think it's refreshing that even the wife/girlfriend characters have depth.

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