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All the Pieces Matter: Private and Public Spheres, Gender, and Sexuality in The Wire


“You look good girl.”
~ Michael Lee


In Season 4 of HBO’s The Wire, detective Jimmy McNulty has turned in his days of high-
profile drug trafficking cases, his drinking, his whoring, and his invigorating disrespect for
authority in exchange for a meaningful domestic relationship with another officer, Beadie
Russel. What is remarkable is that despite this character’s developmental zenith, McNulty is
hardly seen at all during Season 4, taking a backseat until he is returned in the next season to
once again chase criminals and cheat on his partner. Why is his role in the public criminal justice
system so privileged? Using Susan Moller Okin’s Justice, Gender, and the Family, I’d like to
investigate how this dichotomy between the public and private sphere is depicted in The Wire,
looking at the constructions of gender among characters, places, the show’s biased assumptions.
Moving toward Okin’s ideals for justice, The Wire can be used to showcase not only places
where this dichotomy collapses, but also examples of Okin’s genderless future. Humanist justice
that Okin writes for about 1989 is partly realized in The Wire (2002-2008), although it suffers
from the show’s unromanticized cynicism.


One of the initial criticisms that Okin gives of political philosophy’s tradition, from
Aristotle through contemporary thinkers, is its division of public and private spheres.
Traditionally the public sphere has been founded on principals of justice and equality while the
domestic, private sphere is left to the whims of overworked females and dominating male heads
of households. Privileging, or more aptly exempting, the private sphere from the public in this
way threatens to neglect the fundamental importance that childrearing and home life have on the
development of the political citizen. Okin writes that political theorists who focus on justice for
the citizen without considering the private sphere “seem to think, to adapt slightly Hobbes
notable phrase, that just men spring like mushrooms from the earth” (Okin 21).


Worse than neglecting the private sphere, such traditional theorists risk excluding the
family from principals of justice altogether. In examination of John RawlsA Theory of Justice,
Michael Sandel clarifies that the private family life can be considered part of “numerous social
groupings in which the circumstances of justice do not predominate” (Okin 27). Okin stresses
the importance of bringing justice into the private sphere because the “contemporary gender-
structured families are not just. But they need to be just” (Okin 31). In this sense, it is not
satisfactory to let McNulty’s home life go unseen in Season 4 because that presumes justice in
the private sphere or, at worst, excludes its necessity. Why should we assume that McNulty is
maintaining a pleasant, peaceful, and static home life and not secretly abusing Beadie Russel
each night? Okin is not one to easily accept that a drunken divorcée can escape into Beadie
Russel’s arms so scot-free. The private sphere should not be happily excluded, she argues
vigilantly, because “viewed realistically, human associations, including the family, do not
operate so felicitously” (Okin 29).


For viewing anything realistically, we can turn to The Wire, and more specifically Jill
Steans
, a political thinker often engaging in gender issues, and her critical analysis of the show.
Steans finds that, much like how political thinkers have separated the public and private spheres,
The Wire marginalizes and “does not explore the institution of the family” (Steans 103).
(Although this exclusion is in part defensible for the fact the The Corner, which creator David
Simon
worked on before his magnum opus, is centered around the family.) Steans uses research
generated in West Baltimore in the 1990s to demonstrate how gender roles support dichotomous
spheres. Research found that uses of the public sphere were structured alongside gender lines,
where “public assistance tended to be focused on the majority of single women and their
children, while the corrections and criminal justice system dealt primarily with boys and men”
(Steans 106).


Steans argues that The Wire errs on presenting the latter, public and masculinized sphere
of social justice. Because the show fails to critically interrogate gender subjectivity, it ultimately
“disappoints,” lacking prominent dramatizations of McNulty in the feminized domestic sphere
(Steans 107). This criticism can be redirected toward society itself. The essay begins by pointing
out the widely accepted critical acknowledgement of the show’s self-proclaimed “authenticity.”
It is not that The Wire falls into the bad habits of traditional political theorists by neglecting the
private sphere. Instead, by focusing its narrative drives on males in the criminal justice system,
the show “effectively naturalizes what is actually a fundamental dimension of social relations
marked by inequality and power” (103). In other words, depictions of a marginalized private
sphere are not because David Simon ignores the work of Susan Okin, but because society does.


Part of this problem can be attributed to the assumed biases of the show’s creators. Steans
is quick to point out the dearth of female writers, directors, or producers behind the scenes;
meanwhile males generally lead the narratives and females act as supporting characters. Steans
supports this with the storyline of the washed up dead girl from the docks in Season 2. Even the
involvement of globalized spaces (that is, including The Greek and transnational human
trafficking
), women are reduced in their capacity to create meaning in such masculinized
spheres. Even though McNulty tries to bring justice to this victim of human trafficking in his
“quest to ‘give this one a name,’” the victim’s identity serves more to simply drive a storyline for
McNulty than anything else (Okin 106).


A similar criticism is made, also regarding Season 2, against the show’s racial biases in
the labor market. Hamilton Carroll points out that the lamentation for the “death of the working
man” (as dramatized through the Sobotka family) neglects to recognize that the characters and
creators’ nostalgia harkens back to an industrial labor market that effectively excluded women
and privileged whites. The tragedy that befalls these working-class white males is “predicated
on the assumption that it should have been theirs to have in the first place” (Carrol 279). Both
Carroll and Steans’ criticisms can be aligned with Okin’s overarching attacks against the neglect
of females within the discourse of political justice as well as the emphasis of fair equality of
opportunity. Instead of asking “Whose Traditions? Which Understandings?” Carrol asks,
“Whose nostalgia?” and Steans asks, “Which spaces?”


Granted these criticisms of the creators’ underlying gender and class biases share
vigilance against an unfair, unjust “fundamentally patriarchal system,” (Okin 7). That being said,
as much as The Wire is at fault for representing and thus reproducing a system that Okin argues
against, the show impressively depicts a progressive neoliberal state that embodies many of
Okin’s ideals. This ideals hinge upon the argument that deconstructs the public/private sphere
dichotomy whereby “the personal is political” (Okin 111). In support of this argument, Okin
stresses the importance of power within the family, the influence of the public sphere on the
family, the role of the family in generating gendered identities, and the barriers against women
caused by the division of family labor.


One character in particular, Briana Barksdale, epitomizes the collapse of the public/
private dichotomy. Briana straddles her role as both mother and financial advisor for the illegal
drug enterprise. The public sphere of criminal justice has an enormous impact on her familiar
ties, particularly when she must convince her son, D’Angelo to take an extended prison sentence
at the end of Season 1. She does this by invoking the family’s role within the drug game,
reminding D’Angelo “without the game, this whole family would be in the fucking Terrace
living on scraps.” Augmenting Okin’s challenge against the traditional dichotomy, Steans
summarizes that Briana’s importance in both the family and the game, particularly in shaping
D’Angelo’s gendered self: Steans writes, “Briana’s role in reproducing identities, loyalties, and
attachment to place is explored primarily through her role as a mother, who has, the audience
learns, played a crucial role in socializing her son into the life of the streets and the life of the
game from infancy” (Steans 104).


Steans wants to diminish the importance of Briana’s character by emphasizing her
marginalized role in the public sphere. Despite the fact that Briana manages the enterprises’
finances, her presence in that role is “almost invisible,” especially compared to Stringer Bell
(ibid). Therefore, Steans argues, her predominance off-screen keeps her in the private sphere,
limiting her role to mother. However, the select amount of appearances made by Briana
throughout the series works precisely to collapse the public/private split. Her most important
narrative functions in the series take place during Season 1 and 3, each involving D’Angelo. In
the first season, she represents the drug enterprises and sacrifices her family, convincing her son
not to testify and take the twenty year sentence. By season 3 her role has reversed: she represents
her family and has to sacrifice the stability of the public drug enterprise under Stringer Bell. Her
role as mother undermines Stringer Bell’s ability to placate the Barksdale dynasty, wedging a
deeper divide between Avon and Stringer which results in their mutual destruction. Even though
she is mostly behind the scenes playing her role as financial advisor and mother, Briana is the
linchpin of the Barksdale enterprise. Most crucial is it that her position is that where the personal
and political are one.


Beyond collapsing the dichotomy of public and private spheres, The Wire can be seen to
represent some of the ideals that Okin lays out in her concluding chapter. Okin sees the solution
to female and child vulnerability as an equal sharing of professional responsibilities, private
duties, and wages. More boldly, Okin writes than an ideally “just future would be one without
gender” (Okin 171). Many of the policy implications of this just future, as described thirteen
years before The Wire aired, are already being realized in the show’s depictions.


Before laying out her ideas of policy reform, Okin lays the foundation that, in accordance
with contemporary sociology, “there are no shared meanings…about the appropriate roles of
men and women” (Okin 172). The Wire already embraces this aspect of a genderless society,
opening up the conventionally male-dominated realms of politics, dangerous police work, and
street-level thuggery to female characters like Marla Daniels, Kima Greggs, and Snoop Pearson
respectively. Steans nicely summarizes this point by stating that the show “has not fought shy of
challenging conventional gender stereotypes, nor subverting conventionally defined gendered
boundaries” (Stearn 102).


With the fluidity of gender roles in mind, akin to veil of ignorance in Rawls’ original
position, a more just society protects from vulnerabilities in the workplace, family life, and in
between. Men of The Wire, specifically Roland Pryzblyewski, Jimmy McNulty, and Cedric
Daniels
respectively capture a progressive society. Prezbo brings The Wire to the schools of
Baltimore, an important setting for the generating of society’s gendered identities. Dissuading
students from envisioning a sexually stereotyped idea of a teacher (which would be a woman,
filling a caretaker role similar to mother), Prezbo’s role as a teacher supports a movement to
equalize the proportions of sexes in education (Okin 177).


Within the family, McNulty’s situation of shared custody with his ex-wife Elana appears
emblematic of Okin’s thoughts. She defends that, “it seems reasonable to expect that the
children after divorce woud still have two actively involved parents, and two working adults
economically responsible for them” (Okin 179). Despite his marital infidelity, McNulty’s
children are consistently depicted as equally supported by their divorced parents, at the very least
always enthusiastic to see their father. That being said, it is moreover Elena’s right to testify as to
the fairness of their divorce. The precedent that Okin wants set is that of equality between heads
of households so that they are “entitled to their fair shares of whatever benefits and burdens”
exist (Okin 30). Benefits include an equal distribution of McNulty’s paycheck, were he to be the
sole breadwinner, and burdens include protecting the children from known drug kingpins. In that
sense, Elana is justified for taking McNulty to court when she learns he had their children follow
around Stringer Bell.


Most importantly, marriage equality should be able to straddle both public and private
spheres. Cedric Daniels demonstrates the sharing of duties between his wife with a diligence
rarely presented on television. Because she stood by him during a contentious Internal Affairs
investigation, Daniels believes himself obliged to play husband as Marla Daniels runs for public
office. Their ties of mutual respect appear consistent between home life and Baltimore society
functions. It is interesting to note that within their relationship, the mere performance of gender
roles qualifies as one of the benefits of their marriage.


More often than not, the sexualized gender role is performative in The Wire, lending itself
as an example of a genderless society. For example, when sexuality is exhibited on the streets, it
may simply be a ruse of one of Omar’s lesbian associates, Kimmy or Tosha, using their bodies
to merely distract stash house guards. More than that even is the abundant lack of sexuality in
The Wire, particularly among women who inhabit traditional masculine space. Kima, Snoop, and
even Rhonda Pearlman’s success in their respective trades come about independent of any sexual
debasement or compromises. Women in The Wire do not even seem to consider their gender as
a tool for manipulation in the public sphere. When Beadie Russel, who is introduced alongside
Frank Sobotka via friendly, almost flirtatious exchanges, tries to get Sobotka to turn himself in,
her sexuality is a virtual non-issue. In fact, Beadie completely flips the script by telling Sobotka,
“You’re better than them you got in bed with,” using a sexual euphemism to describe public
infringements of justice.


This scene suggests that the public sphere of The Wire is gender-neutral, but this is a
risky supposition. Despite its claims of “authenticity,” the show appears to exist in a universe
where gender issues within the public sphere have all been solved. There is virtually no
depictions of issues such as domestic violence, sexual assault, or workplace sexual harassment
in The Wire’s public sphere. As much as it embraces Okin’s gender-neutral ideals, the show
subjects human sexuality to its cynical, unromanticized style.


Of course, there is still sex in a gender-neutral society, though it loses its notions of
romance that Michael Sandel might idealize. A prominent sex scene in the Season 3 finale
between Rhonda Pearlman and Cedric Daniels is edited by cross-cutting the footage with that
of Dennis ‘Cutty’ Wise exhausting himself with a punching bag. The uncharacteristically self-
conscious editing technique draws attention to the comparison that sex is a mere physical
release, like exercise, and is therefore unthreatening or inconsequential to public and private
gender roles. Sexuality in The Wire seemingly only exists between consenting adults. One figure
of sexual violence is embodied by Bug’s father, whose looming presence over Michael Lee
suggest a history of molestation between the two. Chris Partlow violently erupts on the suspected
pedophile, and the exception of sexual child abuse seems to prove the rule that sexual injustices
between adults are absent in the rest of the series.


It appears then that conventional notions of love, romance, and sexare mutually
exclusive with gender-neutral ideals for justice. Okin asks this question of herself, if whether
“deep and long-lasted love cannot co-exist with ongoing standards of justice?” While this seems
the case, she optimistically inserts that her idea of justice “need not mean that we cannot hope
and expect more” (Okin 32). Certainly Jimmy McNulty in Season 4 embodies this ideal figure:
loving domestic partner in the private sphere and dutiful, just police officer in the public. His
narrative absence from the series in this season speaks more to the show’s thematic tendencies
than the limitations of societal justice. The show can demonstrate progressive ideals of a
genderless society, but not necessarily by giving equal screen time to both public and private
spheres. Ultimately The Wire will paint issues of justice as gritty because it is a show about what
causes funerals, not what causes weddings.


Carroll, H. (2012). “Policing the Borders of White Masculinity: Labor, Whiteness, and the
Neoliberal City in The Wire.” The Wire: Race, Class, and Genre. L. Kennedy and S.
Shaprio (Eds.) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Print

Okin, Susan Moller (1989). Gender, Justice and the Family. USA: Basic Books. Print.

Steans, J. (2011). “Gendered Bodies, Gendered Spaces, Gendered Places: A Critical Reading
of HBO’s The Wire” Internation Feminist Journal of Politics, 13(1), 101-108. Web of
Science. 16 April 2014. Web.

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