Friday, 27 July 2007

Here's Wire.

Ho-hum. There’s been a bit of a fall-out on Comment Is Free after Umree Khan wrote a piece saying a few nasty things about ‘The Wire’ and it’s audience. The reaction could be cheerfully understated as ‘fierce’, given that the comments posted underneath the article required more moderation effort than is normally spent on a week of CiF blogs. Highlights of the commenting included questioning whether Umree’s degree was in journalism or hotel management and posting quotations from some (to put it kindly) underdeveloped pieces she wrote for her student rag. In fact as someone who participated vigorously in this attempted crucifixion, I can attest to how nice it was to be part of a movement that united all genders, races and creeds in a common purpose. In light of this it might be worth spending a few hundred words working out how she got it so wrong.

Her opening volley launches the charge of misogyny at the Wire, a fairly serious accusation that has been inexplicably overlooked by every critic, male and female, who has ever reviewed the show. I may however be able shed a little light on this critical lapse - ‘The Wire’ is a feminist show. It does not do women the disservice of portraying them glibly, pretending that sexism in Baltimore doesn’t exist and that the men of the institutions depicted have allowed women to progress to a neat 50/50 mix of their respective workforces. In fact it pays women the ultimate accolade my portraying them realistically within the context of their environments.

The female characters, like their male counterparts, are capable of great altruism or base-self interest and are every bit as well-drawn. Witness Kima Greggs - in Season One she refuses to implicate a man who shot her because she can’t satisfy her conscience that he was the perpetrator and yet in Season Four, a variety of forces in her work place and homelife cause her to begin an affair, causing great pain to her partner. A character arc like this raises her character from a tokenistic gender role into the realms of a developed, morally complex character. In a TV landscape where women are less characterised and more designed, like Ally McBeal or Carrie Bradshaw, to please a demographic, the Wire should be applauded for it’s detailed and exhaustive exploration of women’s experience within the American city.

The bits that really landed Urmee in hot water occurred when she moved onto to examine The Wire’s treatment of race and her perception of the sort of audience this treatment attracts. She summarises this in a few neat phrases; relationships depicted are ‘denuded’ of their racial context and the supposed white, male middle class and cerebal(?) audience gain vicarious thrills through observing the 'elemental' violence granted to their Grandfathers, but denied them. To call this arrant nonsense is to run the risk of arguing without sufficient vigour.

Race runs through ‘The Wire’ like the name of a seaside resort runs through a stick of rock. Where the Wire differs from many TV shows is that both overt, subtle and perceived racism are put under the microscope, rather than the easier, but less useful, option of merely including a racist cop. It is true that for Bunk Moreland and Jimmy McNulty race is not a significant factor in determining their interaction, but cast the net a little wider and we find rich race focussed narratives from the Carcetti mayoral campaign to the brutality of Sergeant Hauk. It is a deep shame for Umree that she finds relationships lacking in racial tension implausible, but it may explain why she so readily ascribes such vicious outlooks to people not of her race and gender.

Indeed, finding much to say about Umree’s views on The Wire’s audience is difficult as they are so utterly groundless. She offers no audience demographics to support her thesis, and even assuming she gets this right, no evidence that the attitudes she attributes to said audience exist. The desire to experience the violence of the second World War or the disadvantages of being in a minority is part of no masculine discourse commonly expressed and is so gratuitously hateful, it can be dismissed without further comment.

I happily offer my DVDs of the series for loan to Umree with this sentiment, ‘Don’t let your prejudices deny you this great work of art.’