Friday, February 28, 2014

The Wire: Rewriting Stereotypes

Ben Lev
February 28, 2014

The Wire: Rewriting Stereotypes


            Mainstream media in America is a reflection of what most of society values.  Most of the media that we consume reinforces hegemony in terms in sexuality, identity, race and the concept of family.  However, HBO’s The Wire goes against much of the mainstream heteronormativity that is reinforced to us on a daily basis.  Queer theorists interpret heteronormativity “as the discursive power granted to the heterosexual matrix in western contemporary society”.  This matrix “relies upon fixed notion of gender, sexuality, and identity, and veils its constructedness and anomalies by feigning universality and rendering the heteronormative discourse hegemonic” (Dhaenens & Van Bauwel, 2012).  That sentence had a lot of big words in it, so in more basic terms gender, sexuality, and identity, are fixed meanings and that anything that deviates from these fixed meanings is abnormal and queer.  Also, The Wire reconstructs how we see the concept of family and breaks down these heteronormative and hegemonic assumptions and reconstructs them in its own way.  Three characters on The Wire Omar, Kima, and Snoop, defy dominate stereotypes and in turn recreate a new image on what it means to be black, gay, lesbian, and queer on television.
            When queer characters do appear, they almost always are in the form of a white, middle-class homosexual male (Dhaenens & Van Bauwel).  The character Omar on the show rejects this dominant image and in turn represents a new kind of queer character.  “Omar is a rare example of a character that is able to reconcile these issues of masculinity and homosexuality on screen; he is groundbreaking in presenting the idea that black men can be gay, and masculine, and masculine without being purely sexually driven” (Robbie, 2009).  On the show, Omar is somewhat of a ‘gangster robinhood’.  He robs the drugs dealers of Baltimore and distributes the drugs out to the people in the community in exchange for them to keep quiet of his whereabouts.  Furthermore, he is feared throughout the community (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZ9PaGeXyfY).  In the clip we see Omar going to the store to get cereal.  We then see people running away yelling, “Omar’s coming”.  The funny thing is that Omar is wearing silk green pajamas while at the same time has a gun tucked in his waistband.  A prime example of his queerness in a masculine black male body.  In the clip we also see Omar with his partner Renaldo.  “…The relationship of Omar and Renaldo mostly represents a domestic arrangement that on the one hand transgresses rigid notions of ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality, and on the other hand meets their longing for intimacy, care and stability” (Dhaenens & Van Bauwel, 2012).  In other words hegemonic heteronormavity is rejected in the show as the relationship between Omar and Renaldo shows that relationship dynamics that are experienced by a homosexual couple are not all that different from heterosexual relationships.
            Similar to Omar, the character Kima also resists dominant stereotypes in terms of her sexuality, gender, and the idea of what a family should look like.  Kima is lesbian, but then also is portrayed in a sexual way that makes her more masculine and one of the guys.  “Kima’s lesbian love life with Cheryl and her dominate role in the relationship produce a queer female masculinity that reinforces her position as ‘one of the guys’ on the detective’s squad…Kima is masculine enough to make her inclusion within the old boys club believable and feminine enough that she remain alluring when climbing on top of her girlfriend” (DeClue, 2011).   Kima redefines how lesbian characters are portrayed on a TV show.  Not often are characters portrayed as being masculine and feminine at the same time.  Likewise, Kima and Cheryl’s relationship is complicated and they end up separating with Cheryl taking custody of their son Elijah.  However, later in the show Kima wants to be a part of Elijah’s life and by doing this the concept of family dynamics are rewritten.  “Kima engages in a ‘parent’ relation without having to be ‘a mother’ nor having to raise her child within the constraints of heteronormative domesticity” (Dhaenens & Van Bauwel, 2012).  When we think of a “family”, most of us will imagine a mother and a father raising their children in a stable household.  They also might live in a nice neighborhood with a white picket fence in the front yard.  Not only does Kima redefine and go against what we see from most lesbian characters, but her relationship with Cheryl also reconstructs the way the family dynamic is broadcast in mainstream media.
            Then there is the character of Snoop.  Similar to Kima, Snoop redefines what is means to be black and sexually queer.  Unlike Kima, Snoop is a hustler.  She sells drugs and acts as an enforcer for a local gang.  “Snoop’s character does not dictate sexual expectations, instead she seems to represent a rare inclusion of the female into the world of the corner” (Robbie, 2009).  Even though Kima is a cop and Snoop is a drug dealer and a murderer, the way their characters are portrayed is unique.  Not only is The Wire among one of the first fictional TV shows to depict queer black women, but also the way Kima and Snoop’s queer masculinities are portrayed has many times been seen as taboo in the writing and production of quality television (DeClue, 2011).  Kima is unique in the way the show places her masculinity as more of the dominant, heteronormative role in her relationship with Cheryl while at the same time being a part of the “old boy’s club” in the police department.  On the other hand, “Snoop’s gender presentation fits solidly in the realm of masculinity.  When characters refer to Snoop as ‘she’ a dissonance occurs that forces Snoop’s masculinity out of a presumably male body into a gender ambiguous one” (DeClue, 2011).  Rarely do we see a character that is so captivating while at the same time is almost gender ambiguous and impossible for the show to fit her into one category.  Furthermore, because Snoop is portrayed in such a masculine way we assume her to be lesbian.  However, the show rarely mentions her sexuality and for the most part leaves it up to imagination.  Snoop, similarly to Omar and Kima, reconstructs how we see gender and sexuality in a black body.
            By taking a closer look at the way these three characters are portrayed on The Wire, I believe that the visibility the show created can change attitudes audiences have towards queers and homosexuals, as well as the way in which we see race and define sexuality and gender.  Ed Schiappa agrees.  He states, “Television has an opportunity to influence beliefs about groups with which individuals typically may have little or direct social contact” (Schiappa 15).   Furthermore, the parasocial contact hypothesis put forth by Battles and Hilton-Morrow states that positive contact with a character can lead to positive attitude change.  So for those who watch the show, maybe they came away from it with a different viewpoint on the beliefs, values, and lifestyles of queer characters not typically represented in mainstream media texts. 

            

2 comments:

  1. I agree with your assessment of Omar's character in The Wire. He is one of the most unique characters I have come across on television, and really is vastly different than the typical representation of homosexuals. As time as gone on its becoming more and more apparent that homosexuals vary greatly in their personalities, way more so than their average representation on television. Jason Collins and Michael Sam are examples that homosexuals aren't all hyper feminine.

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  2. I believe Omar is the most badass character on the show. I love how he was portrayed. Being a very hyper-masculine dangerous black man in an environment where gayness is usually absent or on the down-low. Characters were not fearing him because of his gayness which was awesome. They feared his shotgun. Definitely a step up for gay media representations. I do encourage you to dive deeper into the implications of Snoops character. An example would help define what you mean by a queer black woman and how she fits this role. I love how this show is so subtle with queer, lesbian, and gay representations too. Characters we would have never thought to be gay or lesbian shocked me. When I saw Bill Rawls in the gay bar, I was shocked. I honestly didn't even think of Snoop in terms of her sexuality because I just believed she had the hardass mentality needed for her job function like Kima does in the police force. The Wire definitely shocks you and offers new representations that have been shaping the way other television makers portray their characters as well.

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