Updated: Aug 30
Editor’s Note: “The Wire at Ten” has thus far featured posts on drugs and the “human ecology” of the show (Stan Corkin, Cincinnati), its logic of “subordination” (Sergio Campos, Miami), and the way it departs form the televisual crime genre norms laid out in the 1970s and ’80s (Carlo Rotella, Boston College). Today we take a different tack and welcome Jack Halberstam, Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Gender Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. Halberstam is the author of, among other canonical texts of queer studies, Female Masculinity (Duke, 1998), The Queer Art of Failure (Duke, 2011) and Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (Beacon Press, 2012). Currently working on a book on Queer Anarchism, he is also a founder of and contributor to Bully Bloggers.
In my recent book Gaga Feminism, I turn to The Wire for wisdom about power, gender relations, sex and violence. If you know where to look,
Omar and Brandon, Season 1
you can find pieces of gaga feminism, gaga-ideology strewn throughout this acclaimed HBO series. Filled with life lessons and hard knock truths about “the game,” or the perpetual struggle between the law and those people it fails to protect, the street and those people who are sacrificed upon it, professions and those people who learn how to work their success while engineering everyone else’s failure, this series has more to say about the inertia of race and class relations in the US than anything else in TV ever.
Set in Baltimore over in five glorious seasons, The Wire explores the warfare between drug dealers and drug addicts, between detectives and city hall, between the fine shades of right and the nuanced areas of wrong. And all of these epic, Shakespearian dramas play out against the backdrop of school, kinship, intimacy, homoerotic bonding, lesbian parenting, divorce, alcoholism, courage, love and loss.
Unlike recent “gay positive” sit-com fare like The New Normal or Modern Family, The Wire does not feel the need to situate its gay, lesbian or queer characters on the side of the right, the good and the true. It does not seek to correct negative images and it does not idealize or unnecessarily heroize those characters, or any characters, along the way. Instead, The Wire gives us magnificently complex, contradictory, flawed queer characters who, like everyone else in the series, kill, maim, struggle, fight and die. Two lesbians in the series are notable: Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) and Snoop (Felicia Pearson). Kima is a tough, butch cop with soft edges, who aspires in the early seasons to get off the street and into the courtroom by studying for a law degree. Her aspirational girlfriend pushes her in this direction but ultimately Kima lives for the gritty struggle at street level. Kima’s struggle with her girlfriend’s ambitions for her are mirrored in the relationship between her boss, Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) and his wife: his wife wants him to make police chief, he revels in the improvisational mode of law and dis-order. Unlike Cedric, who does become chief of police, Kima stays on the crime unit and after one brush with death too many, her girlfriend leaves her and takes their child with her.
Kima is represented in the series as one of the boys, a hard drinker who likes her women and handles guns and superior officers with the same skill and accuracy. Her counterpart on the street/crime side of Baltimore is Snoop, a drug gang enforcer who brings her own kind of justice with a nail gun and steals one season with her hilarious and masterful interaction with a hardware store clerk who explains the nail gun’s majesty to her.
“I see you got the Dewalt cordless. Your nailgun, Dewalt 410,” says the unsuspecting salesman. Snoop answers: “Yeah. The trouble is, you leave it in a truck for a while, need to step up and use the bitch, the battery don’t hold up, you know?” The salesman, not perturbed in the slightest by the language or the gender variance of his interlocutor comes right back: “Yeah, cordless’ll do that. You might want to consider the powder-actuated tool. The Hilti DX 460 MX or the Simpson PTP. These two are my cadillacs. Everything else on this board is second best, sorry to say. Are you contracting, or just doing some work around the house?”
Of course, Snoop is in fact doing both – contracting as a killer and doing her work around the abandoned houses of Hamsterdam where she and Chris are dumping bodies. But she just tells her salesman what he needs to know: “No, we work all over.” Ok, he moves in with the pitch: “The DX 460 is fully automatic, with a .27 caliber charge. Wood, concrete, steel to steel… She’ll throw a fastener into anything, and for my money, she handles recoil better than the Simpson or the P3500. Now, you understand what I mean by recoil ?” Snoop knows recoil and calibers and she tells her man: “Man, shit. I seen a tiny-ass .22 round-nose drop a nigger plenty of days, man. Motherfuckers get up in you like a pinball, rip your ass up. Big joints, though… Big joints, man, just break your bones, you say, “fuck it.” I’m gonna go with this right here, man. How much do I owe you?”
Now that’s a sales pitch and another satisfied customer! Snoop redefines cocky and gives new meaning to the phrase “hard as nails.” Of course, there is no way out for Snoop in The Wire and she goes down swinging like all the other fighters, shot in the line of duty. The lesbian characters in The Wire, in other words, are characters who are not marginalized for their sexuality, instead their sexuality enables and disables certain access; it enables and disables certain alliances; it enables and disables certain action. Sexuality, in other words, is not an identity but a vector here and like all the other lines of flight in the show, it reminds us of the carceral nature of reality for dispossessed populations and orients us towards a very different, much more contingent understanding of freedom and liberation, one in which freedom is as much a formulation of circumscribed mobility as it is a social goal.
You Only do Two Days
Given that liberation is out of reach in The Wire, we are asked instead to ponder the ways in which we play certain games of life, love and liberty. That the game is rigged goes without saying. How it is rigged becomes the material of each season. There are so many great examples in The Wire of how the game is rigged, rigged in favor of white people, rich people, middle-class people, straight people that is hard to pick just one. But if we look at the symbolism of chess that plays through the whole series, we can find a few of the great moral lessons in creative anarchy laid out.
Early on in The Wire, D’Angelo, the ill-fated nephew of drug king-pin Barksdale, tries to teach some of his street soldiers, the drug-slingers, about chess: He shows them the board and explains each piece on the board in terms of their mobility. For example, he says of the king: “Now, the king, he move one space any direction he damn choose, ’cause he’s the king. Like this, this, this, a’ight? But he ain’t got no hustle. But the rest of these motherfuckers on the team, they got his back. And they run so deep, he really ain’t gotta do shit.” One of his buddies answers: “Like your uncle.” Right, like D’Angelo’s uncle, the chess king moves very little, gets good protection and hides behind his army. The knights, the rooks and the bishops of course have their own moves and are as circumscribed and as free/stuck as all the other pieces.
“You can’t be playing checkers on no chessboard, yo.”
But about the queen (who in The Wire comes in the form of the Robin Hood gay character Omar Little) D’Angelo says: “She smart, she fierce. She move any way she want, as far as she want. And she is the go-get-shit-done piece.” Like all queens, she will be sacrificed if necessary for the good of the king but in the meantime, she can wreak havoc and mayhem. And Omar does just that. With his lush mode of speaking and his faux-dandy style of dress, Omar does what he does with panache and style. He robs the dealers and gives back to the addicts; he rats on the gang and he lives by his own queer code, free to come and go seemingly but never straying far from the patchwork urban territory of crime and punishment.
Omar offers one of the most pointed critiques of the law and lawyers in Season 2 when he is put on the stand to testify over a murder. When lawyer Maury Levy accuses him of having no legitimacy because he is a criminal who is “feeding off the violence and the despair of the drug trade” and who is “a parasite,” Omar responds quickly: “just like you, man…I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. It’s all in the game though, right?” Omar, the queen, has the gun and all the moves and as he moves through the hood, ripping and running, he leaves a trail of chaos and critique behind him. When he faces off with Marlo Stanfield who tells him “that’s my money!” Omar reminds him and us and all the players on the board that “money ain’t got no owners, only spenders.” So much for the queen. The queen dies violently like all the other players but she moves without much regard for either personal safety or futurity; Omar makes the moves he needs to make to get through to the next round.
The Queen Ain’t No Bitch
And what about the pawns? D’Angelo goes on to explain how the pawns live on the front lines but move forward all the time trying to get to the “promised land” where they will become rich and protected themselves. “So, how do you get to be king?” asks one enterprising pawn. D’Angelo answers: “It ain’t like that. See, the king stay the king, a’ight? Everything stay who he is. Except for the pawns. Now, if the pawn make it all the way down to the other dude’s side, he get to be queen. And like I said, the queen ain’t no bitch. She got all the moves.” D’Angelo disabuses his audience of the idea that they can win the game – they can convert to queens, they can run wild, but more likely they will be gunned down and “out of the game early.” The king stays the king, the queen lives in glory for short spells but has everyone gunning for her, and the pawns are sacrificed along the way for bigger prizes. And that’s the game.
In The Wire, however, the game is not only played on the streets, it is also what defines the police department, which has its own kings, queens and pawns; in the final season, the press becomes another chess board with journalists and editors positioning themselves on the board ready to make hits, take hits, play the game, leave the game. In the pressroom, a white guy, watched closely by his black editor, begins to make up stories, embellish the truth, invent quotes on behalf of good copy. The black editor calls him out on it but lacking support from higher up, his objections are smothered. In a regular TV show, the bad journalist, like the bad cop or even the bad drug dealer, would go down in a blaze of ignominy and the person who brings him down would triumph and bask in the glory of being right, exposing wrong and having integrity.
But this is The Wire and the king, or power systems, “stay the king.” The renegade hustlers, the queens, have power too, but their power is movement, oversight, knowledge– not necessarily the power to change the game. And so, in the press room, the king stays the king, the white guy who has fabricated the news wins a Pulitzer prize; the Latina who writes true copy at the desk next to him gets punitively transferred to a small local paper; the black editor who could see through the fake stories, who knows right from wrong, truth from lies, he gets demoted and watches the drama of rewards and privilege play its sad script out from a distance. The series ends on this note – kings stay kings, queens do damage and then get neutralized, pawns leave the game early, knights and bishops make the moves they make but ultimately stay in the middle of the board not moving up or down. And that’s the game, the game by which we all live and die; while a few win, most lose and ultimately the game plays us.