David Simon’s The Wire: A Study of Women

by Amanda Seybold

David Simon’s The Wire, which aired for five seasons on HBO from 2002 to 2008, is possibly one of the most probative and insightful shows that has ever graced the small screen.  While some would describe it as a show about police in Baltimore who investigate and apprehend drug dealers, the show actually presents thoughtful and in depth examinations of many aspects of urban life, which would otherwise be ignored by middle-class America.  Despite being outside the regular scope of the show, The Wire, perhaps intentionally, perhaps unintentionally, uses the juxtaposition of two female detectives, Detective Kima Greggs and Detective Beadie Russell, to illustrate a discourse on gender norms, racial implications, sexuality and motherhood.

At the end of her text No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women, Estelle Freedman takes a moment to reflect on the changes that have occurred in both the public and private sectors with regards to women’s issues.  She notes “[w]omen and men are demanding new social policies that allow them to choose both caring and breadwinning rather than choose between them.”[1] It is apparent from The Wire’s depiction of both Russell and Greggs, however, that the show is a bit behind the developments that Freedman lauds in her text.  Ultimately the show’s story arc stays with Greggs while Russell is relegated to a secondary position after just one season.   Greggs’ character seems to illustrate Simon’s argument that in order for a woman to succeed in the high energy and exciting world of crime fighting in Baltimore, she must essentially align herself more closely with traits we have come to regard as part of the male gender, rather than with the female.

For four out of the five seasons, Detective Kima Greggs is the show’s only featured female police officer.  She is African American, career-driven and a lesbian.  It would seem that Greggs personifies what Freedman labels the “call for female sexual self-determination” that “resonated strongly among lesbians.”[2] The writers, however, undercut Greggs’ self-determination, particularly as it pertains to her sexuality, by associating her behavior with males.  Initially Greggs is shown in the home she shares with her partner Cheryl, a writer.  In one telling scene Greggs accidentally gets marker on their new sofa.  In a stereotypically male-female dialogue Cheryl expresses upset and frustration at Greggs’ clumsiness, while Greggs expresses benevolent amusement at Cheryl’s preoccupation with something as silly as a couch.   This alignment with “male” behavior is further displayed in an encounter Greggs has with her male partner detective, McNulty, who has a notorious reputation for infidelity.  While out in pursuit of a tip, Greggs expresses to McNulty her feelings of discontent at home, which stem almost directly from Cheryl’s desire and plan to have a baby.  Greggs asks McNulty how he dealt with his overwhelming home life and he responded that it was the impetus for many of his extramarital affairs.  Greggs then asked, seeming to consider infidelity a plausible solution for her own feelings of discontent, how he managed to conceal the affairs from his wife.  McNulty then explains an elaborate scheme of lies he used to implement, with the assistance of whomever was assigned as his partner at the time.  As a result of this dialogue, the viewer is led to associate Greggs’ actions with those of a man, rather than view the actions as inherently female.

In Season Two Greggs is juxtaposed with Detective Beadie Russell, who enters the scene after being promoted from harbor patrol.  Russell is white, a single mother, and heterosexual.  Upon her promotion to the homicide unit, Russell quickly learns that she must reconcile her new, more demanding position with her role as a single mother.  Russell illustrates the point that Estelle Freedman makes, that “given fathers’ absences after divorce and separation, the overall tasks of parenting still fall primarily to mothers.”[3] Russell is her children’s primary caretaker; indeed, her former husband is mentioned but never shown.  At the end of the season Russell chooses to return to her more sedate life as a harbor detective, which affords her the time she needs to spend with her children.  When Russell is shown in later in the series, it is in a domestic capacity as the live-in girlfriend of one of the show’s main male detectives.  Russell’s character embraces the traditional practices that we have come to associate with “female”.  First and foremost, Russell is a mother, and Simon and the other writers use that fact almost as a character flaw.  Russell cannot be the cool and hardcore detective that Kima Greggs is shown to be, because Russell must tend to her children, and at times lets that devotion come before her commitment to the job.

One of the pivotal moments between the two women is a debate they have in Season Two about the implications of motherhood on their lives. Freedman notes, in No Turning Back, that when it comes to mothers in the workplace, there is a “tension between difference and equal rights legal strategies.”[4] Freedman refers specifically to the progression of strategies that have surrounded the treatment of pregnant women in the work place, but that same tension is evident in the conversation between Russell and Greggs.  At the time of the discussion, Greggs is considering the effects that motherhood would have on her life, as her partner announced that she plans to conceive a child via in vitro fertilization.  Greggs asks Russell how she balances having children with “the job” and balks at Russell’s response that she does what is necessary but knows that ultimately there will be times when she must stay home for the sake of her children.  Greggs expresses intense displeasure at the thought of potentially missing the important drug bust or take down for the sake of a child.  While neither woman is judgmental of the other, they represent opposing views of priorities. Based on their previous character development, the viewer cannot help but feel that the discussion is a continuance of the male/female dichotomy, which had been created between the two women.  This discussion, in conjunction with the ways each of the women had been portrayed up to that point, illustrates the belief that a woman can either be successful as a professional or as a mother, but ultimately neither can do both.

In the end, The Wire’s story line remains with the character of Kima Greggs, while sending Beadie Russell back to the sidelines. Although the show does not deliberately argue that Greggs’ character is the preferred rendering of the female police officer—homosexual, single, non-parent—the viewer cannot help but leave the show with the feeling that in the end she had what was needed to make it, while Russell did not.  What it took to “make it” as a female police officer, it would seem, is a rejection of the typical “female” characteristics, in lieu of those the viewer has come to associate with “male”.  While some may laud David Simon and the other creators of The Wire, it seems that Estelle Freedman would express disappointment at the show’s inability to create a female police officer who can encompass the new feminist ideal and standard of not having to choose between breadwinning and caring.[5] Perhaps it is the nature of the police department as an institution, or perhaps it is merely the views of the authors that prevent the kind of progression that Freedman praises in her text.  One thing remains certain about The Wire, however: in order to succeed as a police officer on the streets of Baltimore, you must be able to run with the big boys.  ▢

Amanda Seybold is currently a first year graduate student at the Sarah Lawrence Women’s History Master’s program. She is also a second year student at Pace Law School.  She lives in Brooklyn.

[1] Estelle B. Freedman, No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2005), 345.

[2] Freedman, 264.

[3] Freedman, 133.

[4] Freedman, 191.

[5] Freedman, 345.

3 thoughts on “David Simon’s The Wire: A Study of Women

  1. I don’t think the show chooses a side. It seems to me indisputable that someone who gives up having “a life” to be dedicated to a particular job is going to end up with more investment in the job than someone who doesn’t. Beadie is a perfectly competent cop; certainly it’s never indicated that she has career problems. She’s probably a better cop than McNulty is a dad.

    I would submit, instead, that there’s a flaw in Freedman’s implication that someone doing a job is “being a breadwinner.” People like the cops in “The Wire” are “being detectives” or “being doctors” or “being artists”; what makes professional dedication is that breadwinning is secondary to the pleasure in fulfilling the specific role. If anything, I think “The Wire” goes too far in implying that these motivations are maladjusted, psychologically suspect and, in any case, illusory beside those of family life; something I have not found to be the case thusfar.

  2. IT is clear from the start that Kima wanted to be a cop and was willing to deal with all the shit that came her way to be one.
    Beady, early in the second season, explained to Lester and Bunk that she basically became a harbour police for the money and the benefits. (she was a tollbooth operator before).
    I think that may be the difference between the two as to why won stuck it out and the other one did not.

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