Inner city pressure – Race and representation in The Wire

Sorry for the massive slacking off on this blog. I won’t promise to do better in the future – I’d like to, but I can’t guarantee that it’ll happen. I can promise I’ll try though!

In the meantime, the below article was something I had to write for University (which I’ve recently started, eek!) It’s nothing hugely special, but at least I’m posting again!

Inner city pressure – Race and representation in The Wire

Television series The Wire is set in the predominantly African-American city of Baltimore, Maryland in the United States. The majority of characters in it are African-American, and encompass a variety of personae, including drug dealers, Police officers, drug addicts and politicians. While the show has been praised by critics for offering a more realistic view of crime and policing than most other police shows (Metacritic), the African-American characters in the series cannot be classed as showing anything approaching the full range of experiences of African-Americans in the United States, especially for African-American women.

Unlike many other TV series based on crime and policing, The Wire blurs the lines between good and bad characters. Characters normally shown as good, such as Police officers, are frequently shown to be corrupt and/or brutal, while normally bad characters such as drug dealers have their background stories and social circumstances fleshed out, allowing you to see the reasons they engage in anti-social activities and the lack of choice in their upbringings. Despite this fact, African-American characters in The Wire fall into two broad categories: those engaging in illegal activity and those whose job it is to prevent it. In doing so, the writers have neglected to show what life is like for the vast majority of African-Americans in Baltimore – people whose lives are not bound up in one way or another with the trade in illegal narcotics.

In attempting to show reality for urban, African-American poor in a modern American city, The Wire falls short, largely because there is no one reality that applies to the everyday lives of such a large, heterogeneous population (Branston and Stafford, 156). African-American women are shown even more poorly than men in The Wire. Very few are shown in any of the seasons, leading to a burden of representation for those that are, especially Detective Kima Greggs, the sole female African-American character in the principal cast. To compound the difficulty of representing such a large population on screen (Branston and Stafford, 153), Greggs is also the sole lesbian character. The character of Greggs is shown to be a strong-willed, confident and intelligent tomboy, who, other than her long-term partner, predominantly has friendships with male characters. Due to this, she is seen by the male characters as “one of the boys”.

African-Americans, especially those in urban centres similar to the Baltimore portrayed in The Wire, are likely to find some resonance in at least some of the characters in the series. Anecdotal evidence exists of drug dealers watching The Wire to learn more about Police monitoring of their activities, allowing them to improve their level of security. Similarly, it seems likely that those same drug dealers have criticisms of the realism of the portrayal of their fictional counterparts in The Wire’s Baltimore. This process of implication and extrication (O’Sullivan et al, 125) shows a pattern that would be familiar to other groups who see themselves portrayed on the screen, such as Police officers.

For African-American women, a marginalised subset of a marginalised community in the United States, there is little of themselves for them to see in the series. This lack of representation could result in a reinforcement of a lack of self-worth, which may only be able to be rectified with increasing variety of female African-American characters on television, similar to the process African-Americans as a whole have gone through since the 1980s (O’Sullivan et al, 129-130).

While The Wire succeeds in creating a more realistic picture of both sides of the illegal drug trade, it fails to escape the stereotyping of African-Americans as either belonging to an underclass involved in illegality (the “bad ones”) or a ruling class involved in policing it (the “good ones”). There are still large sectors of the urban African-American population who will fail to see anything of themselves or their lives in the series, a problem that further contributes to the reinforcement of the aforementioned stereotypes.

List Of Cited Works

Branston, Gill and Roy Stafford. The Media Student’s Book. Fourth Edition, London: Routledge, 2006. Print.
CBS Interactive Inc. “Wire, The (HBO) – Reviews from Metacritic.” 1 October 2006. Web. 3 April 2009.
O’Sullivan, Tim, Brian Dutton and Philip Rayner. Studying the Media: An Introduction. Third Edition, London: Arnold. 2003. Print.

3 Responses to Inner city pressure – Race and representation in The Wire

  1. not really says:

    Did The Wire ever claim to be an account of African-American life, or even urban African-American life? The writers acknowledge that it isn’t even representative of Baltimore as a whole. I thought its intent was, in the words of David Simon, a depiction of the post-industrial America that “was left behind.”

    You have set up a straw man. Now you are in battle against same.

  2. Asher says:

    edit – edit – edit – edit – Asher removing stuff – edit – edit – edit – edit

    FWIW, The Wire is one of my favourite shows of all time.

  3. Luckbox says:

    You arrogance offends me.

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