Jun 30, 2015

Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife S4 cast
Call the Midwife
In case you haven’t had enough of me writing thousands of words about a TV series after last week, I’ve done it again — and this time I invited a friend over for extra fun. Jodie and I finally got around to discussing Call the Midwife in detail. Most of our post is about the latest season, but as we’ve never really written about it before we also use it as an opportunity to talk about why we love this period show in general. Be warned that there will be some spoilers.

Jodie: We have been avid fans of Call the Midwife since the doors of Nonnatus House first opened, yet somehow we've never gushed about the show in a lengthy public co-review. As we've never talked about it together before, maybe we should talk about why we like the program so much. What has made this program about the daily lives of midwives, nuns and the women of the East End stick out for you?

Ana: Well, the first reason is what you once called the “basic feminist act” of centring a story on a girl of woman. Call the Midwife is almost entirely centred on women's stories — not just because many of the plots revolve around pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, but also because the central characters are women whose lives, relationships and professions are shown to matter. I love that — I never, ever get tired of that. I especially like series like this, with a large cast of female characters who relate to one another in a variety of ways and who remind us that “there's no wrong way of being a girl”.

Secondly, the series has been called “a love letter to the NHS”, and yes, it kind of is one. Call the Midwife has a political sensibility that is close to my heart, and the stories it tells repeatedly remind us that free public services improve people's lives in tangible, concrete, human ways. They're not a drain on us all; they're a common good and they help tackle inequality. This is an important narrative to put there in these troubling political times, when people in positions of power talk about “reducing dependency on services” with a straight face, as if the people who make use of them have an addiction they need to recover from. Several critics have pointed out that the series could do better — it's still primarily centred on the mostly middle or upper class nurses, after all, rather than the working class woman of Poplar. While this is absolutely true, I still appreciate the series' political subtext, and also the fact that it tells its stories in a way that feels organic and is never heavy-handed.

Finally, I love the characters. As a character-oriented reader/viewer, this is something that's always important to me. I adore Chummy, I love Patsy and Trixie and Shelagh, and sisters Julienne, Evangeline and Monica Joan. I loved getting to know them over the course of four seasons, and I love how the different storylines have continued to reveal different sides of them. What about you? What do you like about Nonnatus House and its inhabitants?

Jodie: Pretty much everything you already said. I know that when Call the Midwife first came out I felt an especial need for a new show that put women firmly in the spotlight; not just a woman but a whole cast of women. I can't remember specifically why I needed this kind of show at that time but I definitely remember feeling like Call the Midwife was an important show. And when critics talked about it I was happy. Even when they didn't exactly understand it, at least I saw regular column space given over to a show about women.

And of course, I love the characters. My absolute fav has to be Trixie (because obviously) closely followed by Patsy, Shelagh, Sister Julienne, Chummy, and Jenny. Barbara is growing on me too though, which is extraordinary considering she's only been in the show for one series.

Ana: Yes, I grew to like Barbara a lot too over the course of this season, and I hope they'll continue to spotlight her more as the series continues. Having her around more helped me cope with my sadness at the fact that Chummy wasn't as present (I'll admit she'll always be my favourite).

Jodie: In your 2014 in Review post you talked a little about your hopes for Series Four:
...with Jenny moving away and the supporting cast being given a chance to shine in terms of character development — perhaps the series will become a real ensemble show, much like Orange is the New Black in its second season. Likewise, I’m excited about the introduction of a lesbian character, who I hope we’ll see much more of next year.
Did you feel like the wider cast came out from under Jenny's shadow in Series Four?

Nurse Phyllis, Trixie, Barbara and Patsy
Ana: Yes, in most important ways I did — it was great to see the various characters get more backstory and subplots dedicated to them. I felt that they did an especially good job with the older woman: I really liked the episode about sister Julienne and her past, I enjoyed learning about Nurse Phyllis, and I loved Violet. Also, I felt that the strong emotional links between the nuns were brought to the foreground, and I really appreciate that. These women are important to each other, and Call the Midwife is unapologetic when it comes to telling stories that hinge on that. Bonus: we got to see a lot of Shelagh this season.

However — and this is an important however — I still feel that the series underutilises many of its characters and needlessly sticks them in stereotypical subplots. This is particularly true of Trixie and Patsy, but I expect we'll have plenty more to say about that in due course. Before we move on, how do you feel the new Jenny-less, ensemble approach worked?

Jodie: It worked a lot better than I expected. Even though I love all the secondary characters, I thought the show would struggle without Jenny. Lots of shows struggle once they move away from their founding concept or central character. And, because I'd seen Miranda Hart say we were going to see less of Chummy this series too, I was worried I would feel a bit at sea as I waited to get really interested in other new characters like Barbara and Sister Winifred (who I wasn't much interested in when she was first introduced).

In practise though, I didn't miss Jenny that much because I was so caught up in what the other characters were doing. I wouldn't say the show is better without Jenny - I really like what Jenny brought to the show, especially when it came to her friendship with Trixie. However, I didn't feel like there was a Jenny shaped hole in each episode. I'm not even sure I can imagine this series with Jenny. What that shows me is that Call the Midwife has developed its secondary relationships well and given the viewer great secondary characters to care about. Even if, as you rightly say, the show often doesn't quite seem to know what to do with those characters.

Speaking of characters the program kind of dithers around, what did you think about Cynthia's storyline? Cynthia, I feel, has been one of the most under-used characters of the show, and I was keen to see if they'd manage to make something more substantial out of her character once she felt called to become a nun.
Sister Mary Cynthia with one of the patients she supports in S4
Ana: One of the interesting things about Cynthia, and about the other nuns in the series as well, is that their stories are reminders that faith is dynamic rather than stale or immutable. I'm an atheist and so is everyone in my immediate family, and I feel that it's often much too easy to default to an understanding of faith as the end of questioning if you mostly hang out with people who aren't religious. But as I grew older and made friends with (plus starting engaging with art by) people of faith, it became increasingly obvious to me that people have rich, dynamic and varied relationships with their beliefs. It's extremely simplistic to portray faith as a set of easy answers to life's big questions that prevent true intellectual engagement. These days I know a lot of people of faith who share my values and who ask the same question I do about how to live a meaningful life. And even if the framework of understanding within which we engage with these questions is different, very often the practical ramifications of our answers actually aren't.

Cynthia's story, like Shelagh's previously, showed this dynamic side of faith at work, and also illustrated said ramifications. I really liked how these two characters' stories complemented each other, particularly in light of Sister Julianne's relationship with each of them. The head of Nonnatus House is unwaveringly supportive, and her attitude is a reminder that there's no one true way to live a good life, or a life that feels right in light of your beliefs (can you tell that multiple truths are my favourite?). Shelagh doesn't lose her faith, though she prioritises things that require her to move away from her life as a nun. Sister Julianne understands this. Cynthia, on the other hand, becomes more and more drawn to this life, and sister Julianne gives her room to make what is quite a big decision in her own time.

I liked all these aspects of Cynthia story, but one thing that was just as important to me was that the series showed that becoming a nun didn't require a complete break with the person she was before making that decision. Obviously her choice represents a lifelong commitment that is deeply felt, but it doesn't erase her personality or trump her relationships. In some ways S4 does show us that: Cynthia continues to work as a midwife, a kind of work that was always important to her, and you could even say she becomes more confident and deliberate. I really enjoyed all the storylines around her relationship with her patients, like the one with the mother from a group of Irish Travellers she helps (bonus points for Mrs S from Orphan Black's appearance :D). However, it made me sad to see her friendship with Trixie suffer some setbacks. I can understand why the two would feel shy around each other, but I really wanted to see them sit down, talk it through, hug it out, and go back to being close friends. The fact that Cynthia was there for Trixie in the final episode gave me hope: fingers crossed that we'll see them interact a lot more in the next season. How about you? Any thoughts on Cynthia?

Jodie: My one problem with Cynthia's storyline is that I feel like her decision to become a nun was inspired more by the creative team's need to find something for her to do, rather than by any kind of natural character development. Cynthia's desire to become a nun is revealed and then before you know it she's off to The Mother House. She gets a few episodes to mull over her feelings, and the viewer is offered at least a chance to adjust to and genuinely connect with her deliberations, but it still progresses extremely quickly. It's so sudden and feels like the kind of about face decision a soap might introduce rather than a plotted series.

I mentioned that the show doesn't quite know what to do with some characters and Cynthia's individual development has definitely been left aside. The show sometimes struggled to work out how to develop her as an individual rather than as a member of a supportive group. Like Trixie and Jenny, Cynthia is involved in medical cases which develop her character and deepen the viewer's understanding of her background. However, unlike the other midwives, she doesn't really get much development as a person when she's away from midwifery. She stays stuck as one of the original three midwives; ready to get to work and always available for a slightly risque night out. She never looks much like moving into a new, independent personal sphere until she quickly goes off to become a postulant, returns as a nun and begins on that new (slightly forced) character journey.

Becoming a nun is a great storyline for Cynthia, and I think the show is developing her story well now, but I wish it felt less like the initial decision to send her down this story path was a bit slap-dash. Especially since Cynthia is the only (straight) midwife who doesn't have any kind of romantic relationship. We're going to talk about Patsy, the only lesbian midwife included in the show so far, later and I think her romantic storyline needs to be discussed separately. So, for the moment I'm going to focus on the romantic lives of the straight midwives.

There's no getting away from the fact that all the straight midwives, apart from Cynthia, get involved in romantic relationships. And then Cynthia becomes a nun. When I look at that chain of events it looks like the showrunners throwing in a plot vindication of Trixie's remark that if Cynthia had only kissed a boy she'd put this nun stuff right out of her head. While the show has its characters dismiss that remark, the setup of its midwive's personal lives seem to prop up the idea that if a straight character don't got a man then that character needs to be 'solved' somehow; there needs to be a 'reason' why they're not in a romantic relationship. Loose women roaming the streets by themselves - heaven forbid! And that's a little hard to take from a program which is basically all about women roaming the streets by themselves. It kind of says 'it's all well and good to bicycle through the neighbourhood alone, as long as there's an expiration date on that status'. It makes me worry about what they're going to do with Phyllis who is so unapologetically single. Don't pair her up with a man, show - just don't do it!

Otherwise, I'm really enjoying Cynthia's faith storyline so far. I hope the connection between her and the other midwives is going to allow the show to bring her and the nuns into the program even more. And I love how her new state as a nun lets the other Sisters talk frankly about issues like celibacy.

Ana: That's an excellent point about the narrative feeling the need to “explain” why a woman wouldn't have followed a culturally normative life path, in this case by being single. And yes, fingers crossed that they don't feel the need to pair up Phyllis!

To carry on with the theme of characters the story doesn't really do justice to, what did you think about the subplots surrounding Trixie this season? We've talked before about how sometimes the series seems to be punishing her for being fun, and I'd really love to hear what you have to say about that.

Jodie: Series Four really focused on Trixie's relationship with Tom, her cute but dorky priest boyfriend. Trixie and Tom's relationship is set up as a pairing of opposites. Trixie is fun and flippant. Tom is quiet and patient. Trixie likes to dance in clubs while Tom is terrified of dancing in public. Trixie wants a big wedding while Tom wants something more restrained. Yet, despite their differences they bond over their shared interest in helping others. Oh, the hilarious conflicts these differences will inspire, but at the end of the day they'll come back together because of their heartwarming common purpose!

Except, their fights stops being funny pretty quickly - right around the time the pair start discussing their wedding and their future. I was not a fan of Trixie and Tom's relationships because it allowed the show to shame Trixie at every turn. The program sets up situations where she's expected to compromise or inevitably lose Tom, the pure and darling priest, because she's standing in the way of his calling or asking him to do something that conflicts with his very nature. Like actually help to plan an extravagant wedding… I know, she's so unreasonable.

This chain of events ends with Trixie validating the show's subtle hints that she's not cut out to be a curate's wife because she isn't willing to sacrifice as much as he is. Essentially it shames a midwife who works and lives in an incredibly poor part of Britain - a woman who works long hours delivering other people's babies - for saying 'I'd quite like for our own children to live in the countryside'. Which is just a ridiculous way for the show to behave. Trixie once climbed a rope ladder to deliver a baby on a trawler - back off, show.

Trixie in scrubs and gloves preparing for a delivery
And then the program has the audacity to give her a drinking problem and call that 'character development'. In the context of the show, Trixie's reliance on alcohol makes sense. Trixie's father was an alcoholic. Trixie is losing her self-belief and her support systems. So, there's an argument that she employs a coping mechanism she learnt from her father. And I do think that cracking open Trixie's happy go lucky exterior adds a lot of realistic depth to her character. However, in the context of Trixie's treatment by the show, it does look like just one more way for the creators to 'bring her down to Earth'. She can never just be happy - there's always got to be something waiting around the corner to bring her down.

Ana: I absolutely agree that some of the storylines have tended to frame Trixie as kind of selfish or shallow, which is completely absurd in the context of everything we've seen her do. And yes, the power imbalance between Trixie and Tom bothered me a lot too. She's always the one who's shown to be coming short — to be failing to commit sufficiently or to sacrifice enough — and there's no reason why that should be so except for unspoken assumptions about how women should be the ones to give things up. Again, I'm interested in stories about how lopsided power dynamics affect personal relationships, but like you I never got the sense that the show was actually questioning this. It's presented as The Way Things Are — Tom is a perfect angel who simply wants to do good, and if Trixie's wants or needs get in the way of that they're simply framed as self-sabotage.

Jodie: Now it's time to talk about Patsy. Call the Midwife is well known for looking at relationships which were considered taboo in 1950s - 60s Britain but Patsy & Delia are the first lesbian couple the program has ever shown. Hey Ana, just wondering, how did you feel about Patsy & Delia's storyline? >.>

Patsy and Delia standing side by side and looking adorable

Ana: HAHA WHERE DO I EVEN START? Perhaps a five minutes-long wail of “WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYY, WRITERS, WHYYYYYY” will do?

Patsy and Delia's fate in the finale caught me at a particularly bad time: I had just watched Heidi Thomas' older series Lilies, and while I really liked it overall I was enraged about the storyline concerning the three girls' brother, Billy, and his romantic relationship with another man. It ends (you guessed it) with a Sudden Tragic Death that is in sharp contrast with the thoughtfulness and nuance of some of the series' other subplots. Coming across the same thing in Call the Midwife, then, was a vivid reminder of the pattern these stories contribute to.

In the case of Call the Midwife, though, it's not even just the pattern I have a problem with. “It's not each individual story, it's the overall trend” is something you've probably heard me say a million times in the past, but you know what? Here it is the individual story. I would say that about, for example, Angels in America: this is a series I love and adore; a series that explores a dark chapter in lgbtq history (how the community was affected by AIDS) in humane, thoughtful, and ultimately hopeful ways; and one that I found moving and necessary. However, you could rightfully argue that there's a problem with the trend of elevating AIDS narratives above all other lgbtq narratives — this knowledge and my love for the series can and do exist simultaneously.

Unfortunately I have no way to describe how Call the Midwife treats Patsy and Delia other than as exploitative, emotionally manipulative, crass tragedy porn. Delia doesn't die, but her sudden accident and subsequent loss of memory result in her being taken back home to Wales and removed from Patsy's life. I suppose the writers were going for social commentary here, because it's the fact that Patsy and Delia couldn't be open about their relationship that separates them. They couldn't acknowledge how close they were, how central they were in each other's lives, and so Delia's parents don't think much of taking her to a place where Patsy can't visit and don't know to send her news. However, all of this unfolds over the course of what, half an episode? It's a footnote in a story that comes across as predestined for tragedy, and so any sort of commentary on the realities of inequality is forced and halfhearted at best.

If you want to explore the consequences of homophobia in the early 1960s, you have to do better than that. It's possible to tell a good story about this, but to do that you also have to acknowledge that there was survival and resistance: that there were people who were lucky enough and found the necessary support to live happy, fulfilling lives as queer couples within a socially hostile environment. Homophobia was and is awful and we mustn't minimise it, but we don't do people's lives justice if we pretend it has always won. It hasn't. There were women like Patsy and Delia who moved into their own home and smelled the coffee in the morning and had private moments of happiness while continuing to fight for equality in ways big and small. They didn't live in a bubble, unaffected by society's homophobia, but my point is that they lived.

Lastly, when I say manipulative what I mean is that the way Delia's accident was set up in the episode was designed to be a facile tearjerker: their brief moments of happiness in the house they're about to move into, the promise of future happiness snatched away too soon, the music and camera shots in the accident scene itself — it all feels cheap, and it all hints at the inevitability of tragedy for young lesbians in love. That's too troubling an implication for words. It made me furious and was genuinely awful to watch.

Jodie: You've covered exactly why this storyline was THE WORST. It was painful to watch the story take all control out of Patsy's hands and then stretch its narrative control to the absolute bounds just to pile on the dramatic tragedy. Delia has told her parents Patsy is the 'lady she helps with the cubs'? Why wouldn't she have covered by telling them they were best friends or at least friends, which would have made Delia's mother more likely to let Patsy see her? Unthinking dramz is why. And Delia's parents don't even have a phone and don't want her to visit? That's not just a program attempting to show the reality of life in the 1960s. It's a program piling on dramatic obstructions because it thinks they make a situation more heart-jerking for the straight viewer. And without presenting another lesbian couple the show pushes the viewer to see 'tragic 1960s lesbians' as the One Truth, furthering a dominant media representation that insists lesbians can't be happy in the long run; in fact that there is no long run for lesbians.

How did you feel about the storyline from Episode Three of Series Four where an expectant father is caught attempting to pick up men? Did you think that skirted closer to social commentary than melodrama for straight viewers, and how did that storyline sit in the context of Call the Midwife so far?

Ana: I would say that yes, it skirts a little closer, but at the same time, no — it definitely wasn't enough. My feelings about this storyline were inevitably influenced by my feelings about Patsy and Delia's fate: if they were telling the story of a man trapped by the circumstances of a homophobic society alongside a story about a lesbian couple who were able to live together, that would be one thing; it's quite another to tell Tony's tragic story and then pile even more on with the gratuitous tragedy that befalls Patsy and Delia. It's also worth mentioning that there have been no other significant lgbtq characters in the show's four seasons. There's no counterbalance — there's either erasure or tragedy.

When I say there was a more cogent attempt at commentary in this episode, I mostly mean that Tony's story at least took the whole episode and was given a little bit more room to breathe. But considering what we're comparing it to, that's still not saying much. The episode gave viewers who might be unfamiliar with this side of history the chance to learn about agent provocateurs, about homophobic laws, about community backlash, and about the horrifying chemical castration "treatments" gay men were forced to undergo.

However, it's important to note that Tony's story is very much still geared towards straight viewers. It's a story told from the outside, not only because it assumes ignorance but also because the way the episode handles the narrative makes it less about Tony and more about giving other characters an opportunity to air their views — from Dr Turner to Fred to the inhabitants of Nonnatus House (Patsy not included, for obvious reasons), who sit around the table and discuss whether homosexuality is a sin they should condemn. And this — the fact that at the end of the day the story is about them, their feelings and their views, and not really the person they're discussing — is a form of marginalisation I'm very tired of seeing. Obviously the point of the episode is that homophobia ruined people's lives and that it's good that we've started to move away from it in the past few decades, but… we can tell much better stories that still acknowledge this history. A progressive central theme alongside more insidious forms of marginalisation is not good enough. It's more than about time we start to do better.

How about you? Any thoughts you'd like to share?

Jodie: Tony's storyline sucked and I have pretty much retconned it in my head by believing that Tony eventually runs away with a man he meets in a travelling circus. I feel like Tony and Patsy's storylines were the creative team's attempt to rectify the show's previous erasure of lesbian and gay history (they included so many other underrepresented groups in previous episodes but had never had an LGBTQ storyline). Unfortunately, they completely screwed it up. It must have been rough for LGBTQ viewers watching Series Four.

Ana: You'd said before that Shelagh is one of your favourite characters, so I was wondering if you'd like to talk about her a little bit, perhaps including her challenges this season concerning her obvious passion for her work and the expectations surrounding married women with children?

Jodie: Shelagh is amazing, partly because she's had such a great character journey, partly because of her friendship with Sister Julienne and partly because I'm a Sound of Music fan. Nuns who find love is a great trope! Nun BFFs - help, I died.

Again, I think this series the creative team have struggled to know what to do with her, especially as she has such a supportive husband. The show can't make a strong point about the problems of mothers who work without compromising Patrick at least a little (NO ONE WANTS THAT) so Shelagh has something to push back against. So, instead it's made her storyline mostly about her not knowing how to define her purpose when she doesn't want/isn't able to go back to full time midwifery. As a consequence, and because we haven't had much access to Shelagh's thoughts, her storyline has been a little wishy washy.

I actually think the show has made a better point about working mothers in Chummy's storyline. Chummy has struggled to balance motherhood and work. Peter, though supportive, has had issues with helping out at times because he's trying to develop his career while helping out with his first small kid who won't sleep. In contrast, Dr Turner is established in his career and well used to being a parent (and a single one at that). So, there are more sites of traditional conflict for the show to work with in Chummy and Peter's partnership than in Shelagh and Patrick's relationship.

The show almost needs to tap into a new language about career women and motherhood to tell Shelagh's story and I think it's struggled to do that in a strong way this series. Probably the best moment it set up was when Shelagh put her nurse's uniform on again in order to gain the patient's trust and re-establish her medical authority. Even then, the show doesn't really dig into what that means for women - how important wearing a costume is for professional women even when you've all the necessary credentials and how quickly people forget your work when you move from being a midwife to a wife.

Ana: I completely see your point about that not being explored enough, but I still found that moment really powerful — the fact that Shelagh found so much joy in slipping back into an authoritative role, plus her competency and obvious enjoyment of her work, really resonated with me. Of course, there's plenty more that could be said about people's need to separate Shelagh-the-wife-and-mother from Shelagh-the-professional, and like you I'd also have really enjoyed a story that digged into that properly.

Jodie: Is there anything else you want to talk about before we close?

Ana: Why yes, yes there is. However did you guess?

In episode four of this season, Sister Winifred meets a young sex worker who is pregnant and who suffers from syphilis. This woman is also responsible for caring for an older woman, a mentor figure who obviously means a lot to her and who is struggling with the final stages of the disease. These two cases inspire Sister Winifred to educate sex workers about contraception and protection against STDs.

I think this episode is another good example of Call the Midwife setting out to do something really good but then not quite going far enough to be completely satisfying. It's important that the series depicts sex workers without shaming them, and that we see someone like Sister Winifred (who hasn't always been the most understanding of characters, like in the episode where she makes homophobic assertions about Tony) spreading the word about contraception because she's a trained nurse and the health of her patients is more important than any sort of moral high ground. However, I couldn't help but compare this to Borgen's sex work episode in my head, and I have to say Call the Midwife fell short. Borgen acknowledges that there's a long history of sex workers being patronised by people who profess to have their best interests at heart; of being spoken for instead of listened to. Call the Midwife makes no such acknowledgement, and in fact perpetuates these dynamics in a way.

The most promising moment in the episode comes when Sister Winifred, who is out distributing pamphlets about contraception, talks to one of the sex workers she approaches. This woman tells her that as much as they'd like to have safe sex, the men who come to them would simply refuse to. If they insisted, they'd simply take their business elsewhere, which would make it impossible for women in strained economic conditions to make ends meet. This moment is a crucial acknowledgement that the balance of power is tipped against these women. As long as they remain marginalised, they have no recourse. In an ideal world, they'd work without fear of either public shaming or criminal charges, join forces in a union, and make use of collective bargaining to ensure that safe sex became the norm. None of them have the power to change the rules on their own, and unfortunately other courses of action are barred to them.

However, despite this key moment, the end of the episode still shows us Sister Winifred giving a lecture about safe sex to a group of sex workers. I'm not saying this isn't important — we absolutely can't assume that women in the late 1950s and early 1960s would have had access to this information otherwise — but it's an insufficient solution of its own, and one that puts the responsibility solely in the women's hands. The episode's final montage frames it as an unqualified victory, though, which is something that could easily have been prevented by having a scene where Sister Winifred (or perhaps someone else) also approached the men who seek out sex workers in the East End.

Sister Winifred sitting by a diagram about contraception
Jodie: I remember almost nothing about this episode - probably because it wasn't handled that well. I really struggle with Sister Winifred. I think she's been brought in to be a site of conflict - a nun who hasn't embraced Sister Julienne's overwhelming non-judgemental attitude - but without being a monstrous character. She comes off kind of preachy, but is also sweet and wise in her handling of some situations. Again, I don't think the show has really gotten to grips with her character. I realise this is pretty much my repeated party line in this post. I swear I really do like this show!

Ana: Yes, same here. It's because we love it that we expect more! As always, it was a pleasure to discuss all the reasons why this series both delighted and frustrated us with you. Thank you for sharing your smarts, and I look forward to swapping impressions about season five with you when it premieres early next year. I'm so glad we'll get to go back to Poplar and find out what all our favourite characters are up to. Any particular wishes for the next season?

Jodie: Delia should get her memory back. Trixie should meet a boy from the wrong side of the tracks with a kind hearted nature, and he should be cool with supporting her determination not to drink (I am all over a good stereotypical male romantic lead). Shelagh should go back to midwifery and Dr Turner should get a practise secretary. Barbara should get her own story before the show does something weird to her. And Cynthia and Trixie should bond again, and not just over her drinking. I think that's everything if I really can't have Trixie/Patsy which it seems I cannot.

Links of interest:

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Jun 28, 2015

Sunday Links

The Lola Quartet by Emily St John Mandel, Austerity Bites by Mary O'Hara, Binny in Secret by Hilary McKay, Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Recent reading, on which more soon (she says hopefully).
Sunday Links

Hello, friends. I’m happy to report that I’m doing much better than when I last checked in, and as you might have noticed I was even able to finish a few posts last week. Hopefully this trend will continue. Also, this week I got Edinburgh Book Festival tickets, and I’m so thrilled that I’m going back. I won’t be there for long and I’ll only catch the tail end of the festival, but still — I had such a wonderful time in 2011 and 2012 that it will be great to just be there again. This year I’m seeing Naomi Shihab Nye and Caroline Lucas, and of course hanging around the festival bookshop and trying not to be too tempted.

Here’s what grabbed my attention in the past week or so:
  • I haven’t read any of the books Gerry Canavan covers in this LA Review of Books piece, but the title caught my eye on Twitter and before I knew it I had read the whole thing. I like the point about ‘lifeboat ethics’, and especially this:
    The truly radical kernel in both of these books is the notion that as we drift through space in our tiny pocket of air and water and warmth, much too small and much too fragile, leaping together into an unknown and frightening future, maybe the best choice we can make is to try to take care of one another as best we can.
  • The essay above makes reference to Cory Doctorow’s “Cold Equations and Moral Hazard”, which I’ve probably linked to before but am leaving here again because it’s so great.

  • These photos of celebrations outside the US Supreme Court after the marriage equality ruling make me incredibly happy.

  • A few more great images from the celebrations: rainbow colours over landmarks, rainbow crosswalks in Seattle, and (my favourite) the first gay couple to be married in Dallas (George Harris, 82, and Jack Evans, 85. Don’t read the responses under the original tweet.)

  • From Roxane Gay’s Confessions of a Bad Feminist TED Talk:
    I am a bad feminist, I am a good woman, I am trying to become better in how I think, and what I say, and what I do, without abandoning everything that makes me human. I hope that we can all do the same. I hope that we can all be a little bit brave, when we most need such bravery.


  • #Charlestonsyllabus: a comprehensive reading list for developing a better understanding of systemic racism. Many thanks to everyone who helped put this together.

  • I loved Liz Bourke’s “How Do We Talk About Strong Female Characters?”:
    Some people never go out and Do Deeds of any active kind. Their heroism—if we may see it as heroism in a narrative sense—is surviving under strain, mental or emotional or physical or all three. Sometimes intolerable strain. Survival is a quiet ongoing necessity, and living under circumstances that one can neither abandon or substantially change has historically been the lot of many women. Because their struggles were domestic—because their choices were, and often still are, significantly more constrained than the men around them—they are overlooked as heroes.
    I spend a lot of time thinking about this.

  • On social justice and library cuts.

  • Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and the Gendering of Martyrdom. “We martyr our women because we fear their greatness. We do so because we fear women who are living out of bounds.”

  • Lastly, I haven’t read Lies We Tell Ourselves, but as a reader who has long since been frustrated by obscure hints about “secrets” in plot summaries, I really like what Robin Talley says in this interview about making the jacket copy of the paperback edition plain and clear about the fact that the two main girl characters fall in love with each other.

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Jun 24, 2015

Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters and Brooke Allen

Lumberjanes by Shannon Watters, Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis and Brooke Allen

Lumberjanes by Shannon Watters,  Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis and Brooke AllenLumberjanes is a comic book series about a group of close friends spending the summer at a scout camp (official name: Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types). April, Jo, Ripley, Mal and Molly are five young teens determined to have fun and to live up to the camp’s motto, “Friendship to the max”. When it becomes apparent that the woods surrounding the Lumberjanes’ camp are infested with supernatural creatures, well, they don’t let that get in their way. Together with their beloved camp counsellor Jen, the girls face giant wolves, yetis, velociraptors, dangerous mazes, and Greek gods run amok. They run into the mysterious Bear Woman who lives in the woods and try to understand their enigmatic camp director, Rosie — all while enjoying the enormous pleasure of each other’s company.

I waited until the first trade paperback was out before I started reading Lumberjanes, even though I’d been hearing great things about the series since last year. This was mainly because I’ve never been in the habit of reading comics as single issues, and also because I like to binge on stories. You’ll notice, however, that this isn’t a post about Lumberjanes Vol 1 (which collects the first four issues of the comic): as soon as I finished the book, I knew I needed more. So for only the second time ever (the first time having been for my beloved Carol Danvers), I treated myself to some digital comics and devoured all 15 issues of Lumberjanes. This, it turns out, was absolutely the correct life decision.

Lumberjanes:  April, Jo, Ripley, Mal and Molly saying 'We can explain!'
Writing about Lumberjanes has turned out to be a bit like writing about Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries last year. I started out thinking that I probably wouldn’t have much to say beyond “yay, this comic is so much fun!”, but slowly I began to realise that the reasons why I was able to relax into this story were worth discussing (you’d think I’d have learned by now). Like Miss Fisher, Lumberjanes is restful largely because it’s “devoid of constant reminders that girls can’t do or be certain things”, and this will never not be a big deal for me.

Lumberjanes is a fun story about girls having adventures. It represents a wide variety of girls who enjoy different things, have different body types, fall in love with each other (or not), adopt furry critters, are terrible at frosting cakes, are excellent at making scrap books, are impressive arm wrestlers, like hugs, outsmart dinosaurs, solve elaborate riddles — in short, remind us in every page that there’s no wrong way of being a girl. The world of Lumberjanes takes it for granted that girls and women are human beings, with all the complications and infinite variations inherent to that — a fact that shouldn’t be worthy of note, but still is in our cultural landscape. Again, the power in numbers principle applies: in a series with such a large cast of girls and woman, none of them has to carry the weight of representing their gender as a whole. Whatever they like, whatever they do, whatever they excel or fail at is allowed to belong to them alone.
Lumberjanes: April, Jo and Ripley hold a scrap book.
I’d seen Lumberjanes referred to as a young version of Rat Queens, and I can see why the comparison is apt. I also think the series would appeal to Buffy fans, especially for the snappy dialogue and the girls’ quick and witty comebacks. Lumberjanes is a more egalitarian kind of story, though, which is yet another thing that made me happy. There is no chosen one: instead, there’s an emphasis on collaboration and on girls with different skills coming together to defeat the threat of the week.

Lumberjanes and unicorns
Also (spoiler), the moment when Ripley uses her newly acquired universe-destroying powers to make sure nobody is allowed to do any harm (after, that is, magically conjuring kittens for everyone) was a powerful subversion of common assumptions about human nature. It’s not true, Lumberjanes reminds us, that the siren call of power will corrupt everyone. The girl who says she wants to spend the summer with her friends and make sure the world is there for them to enjoy isn’t saying that simply because she hasn’t had the chance to treat others as pawns. Perhaps she genuinely means it — perhaps many of us do. Equally important is the fact that a rejection of power we’d inevitably read as gendered in most stories doesn’t have that connotation here simply because there are women everywhere. There are women who do want to rule the universe for dubious purposes, women who do yield power and do it sensibly, women who just want to hang out with their friends — women everywhere, making the myriad choices human beings are bond to make.
Lumberjanes: Mal explains her plan
Lastly, have I mentioned that Lumberjanes is fun? There’s an enormous sense of joy to these stories, plus they’re full of pop culture references (anything from Indiana Jones to Jurassic Park to Frozen), hilarious exchanges, scenes with humour and heart, and dorky jokes that are exactly up my alley (“Dinosauria Minutulus Jerkfacius” cracked me up more than it probably should have). In short, I’m a proud Lumber Jumbie: this series makes me incredibly happy and I’ll continue to buy each new issue the moment it becomes available.

Lumberjanes: 'The cold never bothered us anyway'

Lumberjanes: Jen says 'Friendship bracelets'

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Jun 22, 2015

A Problem with Many Angles: The Wire

A Problem with Many Angles: The Wire

The Wire main cast
Editor: The word I’m looking for is... Dickensian. I want to depict the Dickensian lives of inner city children, then to show clearly and concisely where the school system has failed them.
Staffer: Not to defend the school system, but a lot of things have failed those kids. They’re marginalized long before they walk into class.
Gus: You wanna know who these kids are, you gotta look at the parenting, or lack thereof, in the city. Drug culture, the economics of these neighborhoods...
Editor: Yet the schools are something we can address.
Gus: Yeah, sure, we can beat up on the schools—God knows they deserve it once in a while... But we’re just as irrelevant to these kids as the schools are. It’s like pointing out some bad shingles on a roof, while the rest of the house gets knocked over in a hurricane.
Scott: You don’t need a lot of context to examine what goes on in one classroom.
Gus: Really? Well, I think you need a lot of context to seriously examine anything.
Editor: No, Scott is right. I think we need to limit the scope, not get bogged down in details.
Gus: To do what? To address the problem or win a prize? I mean, what are we doing here?
Editor: Gus, I know the problems. My wife volunteers in a City School. But I want to look at the tangible. Where the problem and solution can be measured clearly.
Staffer: There’s more impediments to learning than a lack of materials or a dysfunctional bureaucracy.
Editor: But who’s gonna read that? What is this series about in a sentence? What’s the Budget Line?
Gus: Johnny can’t write cause Johnny doesn’t have a fucking pencil.
Editor: Augustus... I’m not as simple-minded as you might think. Now what do you want? An educational project or a litany of excuses? I don’t want some amorphous series detailing society’s ills. If you leave everything in, soon you’ve got nothing.
The above exchange takes place early in the fifth season of HBO’s The Wire, at the offices of local newspaper The Baltimore Sun. It’s a humorous scene, and the joke is in the fact that it’s obvious to viewers that the conversation works as meta commentary on the series itself. There’s a lot that could be said about whether or not The Wire succeeds in “leaving everything in”, but it’s clear that this is a series deeply concerned with context — with the many angles that surround the social problems people in positions of power keep trying to solve with quick-fix solutions.

The Wire aired from 2002 to 2008; the series is known for the different focus of each of its seasons, which build up to a complex picture of the city of Baltimore and its institutions. Season one is mainly concerned with the Baltimore police and the drug organisation it’s investigating. Importantly, the story is told from the point of view of the drug dealers themselves (from teenage boys at street level to organised crime leaders) as much as from that of the investigators. In season two we keep following the Barksdale drugs organisation, but we’re also introduced to the Port Authority and the plight of the workers unionised in the International Brotherhood of Stevedores. The third season adds another layer of complexity by focusing on the race for Mayor of Baltimore and on the political tension at City Hall. Season four explores the Baltimore school system through the stories of four middle school students from West Baltimore, and the fifth and final season brings the previous storylines together and introduces another perspective: that of the journalists at The Baltimore Sun.

I knew about the premise of The Wire before I started watching it, but the execution turned out to be considerably different from what I had imagined. The five seasons are more closely linked than what the above description might lead you to expect — we follow a core group of characters from start to finish, and new plotlines build up on the previous ones. The show is expertly written: this isn’t, of course, to say it’s without flaws, but each season impressed me more than the one before; by the time I finished The Wire, I had little doubt it would be a new addition to my list of all-time favourite TV series.

As I hinted above, I don’t necessarily agree that The Wire’s creators succeeded in leaving everything in, but there’s no doubt that the series is sociological in its approach. That, plus the fact that creator David Simon called it “a show about how contemporary American society—and, particularly, ‘raw, unencumbered capitalism’—devalues human beings” makes it a very good match for my interests and concerns this year. I’ll talk about this in more detail when I move on to the various subsections of this post — suffice to say, for now, that this was the right story at the right time for someone who’s become preoccupied with the force circumstances exert on people, and with how we can, or sometimes can’t, resist them.

The last thing I want to comment on before I move on is the series’ use of perspective: it’s important for me to disclose that I’m in no way qualified to make a pronouncement about whether or not a fictional portrayal of the lives of mainly people of colour in Baltimore is authentic, however you define that. Still, it was obvious even to a less than knowledgeable viewer such as myself that the series avoided the traditional trappings of the white middle class gaze. Here’s how David Simon described his approach to Nick Hornby in a Believer interview:
I decided to write for the people living the event, the people in that very world. I would reserve some of the exposition, assuming the reader/viewer knew more than he did, or could, with a sensible amount of effort, hang around long enough to figure it out. I also realized—and this was more important to me—that I would consider the book or film a failure if people in these worlds took in my story and felt that I did not get their existence, that I had not captured their world in any way that they would respect.
This deliberate decision to tell The Wire’s story from the inside more than paid off. I’m a white European woman, yet I had no trouble keeping up with The Wire even though the context was not being spoon-fed to me. In fact, piecing it together bit by bit, as the series took us deeper into the interconnected issues affecting Baltimore and its people, was one of the pleasures of watching it. There’s probably a lesson here for storytellers everywhere.

I spoil everything from this point onwards.

The Wire Omar and Brandon

1. David vs Goliath

Any attempt to capture the key theme of a complex piece of storytelling in one sentence is bound to be reductive. The Wire is about many things, yet it’s undeniable that at its centre is the tension between individual action and systemic problems. In other words: can we make a difference?

In the same Believer interview I linked to previously, Simon compares The Wire to “a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces”:
It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason. In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millennium, so to speak. Because so much of television is about providing catharsis and redemption and the triumph of character, a drama in which postmodern institutions trump individuality and morality and justice seems different in some ways, I think.
This is actually a big part of why I was drawn to the series: as I said in my introduction, I wanted a story about more than individual heroes taking on the world and proving themselves superior to the rest of us in the process. Even more than that, I wanted a long and careful look at the contexts in each of us acts. However, is saying we’re restrained by our circumstances the same as saying we’re rendered helpless? What are the situations in which we are, and what are the ones in which we aren’t?

This is one of the many questions the series explores. The Greek tragedy comparison is apt in a sense — yet I don’t think The Wire portrays the defeat of individuals by institutional forces as quite as inevitable as it might suggest. The Wire tells a story about subversion as much as it tells one about crushing defeat: time and again, in ways big and small, characters like Bunny Colvin, Detectives Sydnor and Greggs, Major Carver, the incomparable Lester Freeman, Cedric Daniels, or Rhonda Pearlman go against their institutions and do what they believe to be right. They defy the systems that constrain them, with varying consequences and degrees of success, or they work within them towards meaningful change.

The question of what allows us to make a difference is explored in many ways, but I want to focus on the contrasting paths of two characters who start out as peers: Carv and Herc, who we first meet as narcotics investigators detailed to the Barksdale investigation in season one. Towards the end of the series, the two have a conversation in which Carv tells Herc: “We thought it didn’t matter, what we’re doing, but it does”. By then, he’s seen firsthand the horrible consequences of failing the people you’re supposed to serve and protect simply because you don’t believe your actions can make a difference. Due to a series of slips initiated by Carv, Randy, one of the middle-school boys we meet in season four, loses the foster mother he’d begun to love and trust and is placed in a harsh group home that crushes his spirit. The scene in which Ellis Carver cries in his car after leaving Randy there is one of the most heartbreaking in the series (and believe me, it’s not like there’s not some serious competition).

There is, of course, a strong element of racial inequality to these two character’s paths that the series never allows us to forget. Herc is a white man, while Carver is black. He’s therefore far more likely to have experienced the consequences of systemic inequality firsthand. But another thing that makes a difference is the fact that Carver is able to hold on to hope: he believes that what he does matter, and to a large extent that allows is to matter. Again, the difference is far more than individual: while Carv stays at the Western District and continues to get involved with community policing, a context in which it’s easy to see the impact of your actions and remain hopeful, Carv chauffeurs the Mayor around. In the end, Ellis Carver becomes what Cedric Daniels was: an honest police Lieutenant determined to do the right thing within a corrupt institution. Herc, on the other hand, becomes a private investigator to corrupt drug layer Maurice Levy — a force for everything he’d previously fought against.

To go back to the question we started it, then, here’s how Steve James puts it at Slate,
The Wire says to us all: Without the individual attempt to do good in the world, all is certainly lost. In the end, all any of us can do is try to do something that allows us to look at ourselves in the mirror each day.
However, for all its attention to context, I sometimes still felt that The Wire favoured narratives that celebrated the lone maverick hero fighting corrupt forces all on his own. I’d really have liked to see a fifth season where instead of making up a serial killer, Lester and Jimmy joined forces with other sympathetic voices in the police department to restore proper funding through collective action. I do of course realise the point the season is trying to make is that any such efforts would have been crushed — you have to operate outside the system because any channels within it have been neutralised. But there’s more than just one way to circumvent this, and my heart (and indeed my knowledge of history) makes me biased towards collective democratic solutions rather than daredevil heroics.

In the end, The Wire offers no definitive answers to the questions it poses — but then again, that always seemed to me an unfair thing to expect of any piece of storytelling, or indeed any discourse, critical of the status quo. Asking questions is a valuable endeavor in itself, and The Wire leaves us with several that are worthy of our consideration.

2. Power in a Union

The Wire Ziggy and Nicky
Frank Sobotka, secretary treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Stevedores, is one of the key characters in The Wire’s second season. He’s a man who says at one point, “I knew I was wrong, but I thought I was wrong for the right reasons”. This statement merits its own essay, and as such I’ll refrain from delving into it for the time being, but I’ll say that despite all the corruption we learn Sobotka allowed his union to get involved in, I still found the destruction of the International Brotherhood of Stevedores at the end of season two one of the most distressing moments in The Wire. A potential site of resistance and hope was destroyed by a system that wanted it to fail all along.

Frank Sobotka’s story is a good example of how a contextual narrative is not, like the Baltimore Sun’s editor puts it in season five, “a litany of excuses”. The Wire never encourages us to see Frank Sobotka simply as a helpless victim of class inequality: he made decisions regarding what he was willing to overlook; what he would turn a blind eye to as long as the money kept coming in. It doesn’t come as a shock when this turns out to have consequences. A different man (such as his brother-in-law, as we see in the series) wouldn’t necessarily be willing to make the deals Frank makes. And yet these cumulative ethical compromises don’t take place in a vacuum, and this too is something the series also doesn’t allow us to forget. Frank doesn’t want money for himself, but so he can play the dirty game of political lobbying his opponents are playing. He’s fighting the development of luxury waterside apartments (which, heartbreakingly, we watch Mayor Tommy Carcetti inaugurate in the fifth season, while Nicky Sobotka heckles him from the crowd) which would effectively put an end to the way of life he’s always known. It’s impossible to tell his story while leaving this context out — and yet Frank’s deal with the devil cost a group of women their lives.

This brings me back to the question of whether The Wire is far more cynical about institutions — even progressive ones like unions — than I tend to be myself. There’s no shortage of evidence to support this argument, but then again, we also have Stringer Bell. Throughout the course of seasons two and three, String essentially establishes a drug dealers co-operative. He enlists the help of Proposition Joe, an East Baltimore kingpin, to put an end to the rule of violence that we saw take so many lives in season one, and his efforts are successful: East and West Baltimore drug organisations agree to share a supplier and divide their territory without violence.

It would be absurd to suggest that this solves all problems surrounding the drug trade: this storyline coexists with the one centred around Bunny Colvin’s Hamsterdam and the many issues it raises concerning access to support and services; and also with the stories of characters like Bubbles and Johnny Weeks. Together they paint an obvious picture: the only way to give people struggling with addictions the support they need to turn their lives around is to decriminalise drug use and possession and to invest in services and social programs. This is a point supported by plenty of research and case studies worldwide, but it’s good to come across a fictional illustration all the same.

The Wire Dennis Cutty
Nonetheless, String and Prop Joe’s co-op makes a strong case for collectivism. Both remain ruthless men, but we watch them slowly move away from a reliance on violence as their go-to solution. Perhaps even more importantly, the very establishment of the co-op demands that they ask themselves a question: how much is enough? Can we be content with what we have and work to improve our communities? Being in a co-op means they give up on being the absolute kings of the drug trade. It also means they give up some of the projected profits they might have if they were solely in charge of the supply line and the territory, but these men conclude that they have enough money as it is and that the trade-off is more than worthwhile. This is no small thing, especially considering that as the series develops we watch the devastating consequences of being unable to say “I have enough” (be it power, influence or money) from increasingly up close.

The fact that Marlo Stanfield comes to a different answer is what makes him one of the most terrifying characters in The Wire. Marlo’s main concern isn’t necessarily money — he seems to be more focused in making sure his name continues to ring out across Baltimore, and that he gets to “wear the crown” — but he’s still a perfect illustration of the aforementioned “raw, unencumbered capitalism [that] devalues human beings”. His approach is individualistic to its most extreme consequences: every price seems worth paying to make sure the legend of Marlo Stanfield continues to grow.

3. Absent Women

The Wire Kima and Cheryl
When trying to create a series that “leaves everything in”, how do you define everything? The five seasons of The Wire had a handful of female characters that I loved — Kima, Beadie and Rhonda Pearlman most of all — but they also had many, many absences where women’s presences would have made sense. As this post at The Cranky Sociologist explains, this isn’t simply a matter of the series focusing on male-dominated organisations and institutions. There are more women in both the police and Baltimore drug organisations than The Wire acknowledges. If the series had been simply “following reality”, it would have included more female characters than it did.

I’m tempted to put this down to a systemic blind spot on the creators’ part. It’s not that The Wire is unaware of sexism, exactly — the moments when Jimmy and Bunk behave in horrifyingly misogynistic ways, for example, are too over the top to be unselfconscious — but it’s deeply unconcerned with women and blind to gender inequality as a systemic force. It doesn’t paint sexism as part of the picture in the way it merits: it fails to acknowledge that gender inequality is one more force perpetuated in ways big and small and deeply embedded in the fabric of unequal institutions.

The series’ female characters, even the ones I loved, are all underutilised at best. Detective Kima Greggs is perhaps the only one I’d describe as a main rather than a supporting character, but even then her story fades into the background for long stretches of time. We watch her relationship with her partner Cheryl disintegrate, but her struggles are not given the spotlight in the same ways as Jimmy McNulty’s. There’s no reason for this to be the case other than our cultural bias to privilege straight white men’s stories and treat them as if they were inherently more interesting.

The Wire Beadie Russel

Then we have Snoop, Beadie Russell, Rhonda Pearlman, Brianna Barksdale, Shardene Innes and Elena McNulty. All are women I desperately wanted to know more about, but they remain supporting characters, only highlighted in the context of how their actions affect the men whose stories take centre stage. I was particularly disappointed that we never learned more about Brianna, especially after her promising introduction at the end of season one. She’s obviously a woman who played a key role in the Barksdale organisation, and not only because she was Avon’s sister. She was smart and resourceful and in control, and I wanted to know what it felt like to be her. Unfortunately this was not something the series was ever really interested in exploring.

Equally disappointing was Beadie’s disappearance. She’s temporarily detailed to what is to become the Major Crimes Unit in season two, only to go back to her rounds as a port police officer at the end (and thus disappear from the story). Worse than that is the fact that when she’s eventually brought back, it’s only as a love interest for Jimmy McNulty. Beadie continues to be a police officer, but she’s never referred to in her professional capacity. We don’t learn anything new about how she feels about her job or the challenges of being a single working mother after the end of the second season — we see her only as a motivation for Jimmy to fight his slide back into excessive alcohol consumption and casual hook-ups. She’s a prize to be won if our hero gets his life back together, not a person with her own struggles. She deserved so much better than that.

It’s probably obvious that none of this really prevented me from loving The Wire, but I wanted more from a series that is otherwise so good at exploring inequality and fully acknowledging the complexity of its context. The women it introduces us to deserved to have their stories told with more nuance.

4. “Be a Man”

The Wire Stringer Bell
Despite its shortcomings when it comes to representing women, I would still say that The Wire is a series deeply concerned with gender. As several scholars have argued, this is particularly the case when it comes to its analysis of hegemonic masculinity and violent behaviour. At various points in the series, we watch characters struggle with what is expected of them if they are to “be men” and gain the associated social capital, especially in an environment where boys and men perceived as weak are seen as liabilities and therefore disposed of. We also watch the boundaries of hegemonic masculinity be constantly negotiated: the concept is dynamic and ever-shifting, and the men of The Wire reshape it even as they fight to assert it.

In the second season, Frank Sobotka’s son Ziggy comes to a bad ending partially due to his desire to be respected as a “real” man. Ziggy, less physically imposing than most of his peers, is a young man adrift. He waits around the Union’s offices to see if there will be any work for the day (all the stevedores appear to be on zero hours contracts), but because he lacks seniority it’s very rare for there to be anything for him. He tries to make a quick fortune by dealing drugs, and we also watch him try out the identity of the group jokester, but nothing seems to make much of a difference. The other stevedores pull constant pranks on Ziggy, and this is something he clearly resents. Although it would be reductive to try to make his story about a single factor, a sense of wounded pride and a desire to assert himself through violence are clearly among the reasons why Ziggy shoots Glekas. All around him there were men resorting to violence acts to rise to the top — when all else fails, Ziggy does the same.

Ziggy’s are only one among the many possible sets of circumstances where male violence is constructed. Namond Brice, the son of Barksdale key player Wee-Bey, is one of the boys we get to know in season four. Bunny Colvin seems to be the only adult to understand that Namond’s misbehaviour at school is all bravado: he swears and acts out, but he feels deeply ill-at-ease with the drug trade’s culture of violence and shrinks away from physical confrontation. At home, his mother constantly urges him to “be a man” like his father, but it’s obvious that this narrow and very specific definition of masculinity he’s being encouraged to live up to goes against the grain of Namond’s personality. Namond is offered an escape route when the Colvins adopt him, and when we see him briefly in season five he’s become the creative, thoughtful young man he always wanted to be (though there’s plenty that could be said about lifting him out of poverty by having him be adopted by a middle class family, instead of creating the conditions where a family like his could have looked after him). It’s important to highlight, though, that it’s not a “natural” aversion to violence or a more sensitive nature that allows Namond to escape. Michael and Randy are also sensitive boys when we first meet them, yet by the end of the series they’ve been hardened by circumstances. Namond is given a lifeline while his peers are not, and in the end a complete lack of options pushes the latter towards the kind of behaviour whose consequences they’ve suffered.

Omar, Cutty and Stringer Bell would all also make interesting case studies in how The Wire engages with the concept of hegemonic masculinity. In their stories we see variations related to race and sexual orientation — all of which influence and interact with gendered expectations. For example, the fact that Omar Little is a gay man puts him outside the dominant heteranormative definition of masculinity, yet even though his opponents make derisive homophobic comments about him, in other ways Omar performs “manliness” in normative violent ways. At the end of season five, Marlo Stanfield goes out of his way to make sure no one in Baltimore thinks he was afraid to come out and confront Omar. Omar’s name is known and feared, and Marlo doesn’t want to be outdone.

Stringer, whose collectivist tendencies I already wrote about, is revealed to be interested in and knowledgeable about racial inequality. His desire to be seen as a legitimate business man, Avon reveals, is deeply tied to his knowledge of how black men like themselves are disadvantaged (“The time when you got into all that Black Pride stuff,” as Avon puts it). Finally, when Dennis “Cutty” Wise is released from prison he’s offered a role within the Barksdale organisation, but he comes to realise he no longer can stomach the violence he was once a part of. Instead, he sets up an after-school gym programme for disadvantaged kids and works to give them opportunities beyond the drugs trade. When Cutty walks away from “the game” Avon Barksdale and Slim Charles comment that he “remains a man” — his previously established credibility seemingly making his interest in community work and in helping local boys acceptable.

5. Mirror Images

The Wire: Randy, Dukie, Michael and Namond
In the final episode of The Wire, we watch a series of parallels with the beginning be firmly established: Ellis Carver, now a caring and ethical policeman despite his shaky start, is promoted to Lieutenant by Cedric Daniels, just before the latter leaves the force for refusing to be blackmailed into “juking the stats” for political reasons. Carver therefore becomes a note of hope even as dishonesty wins the day. Daniels is forced out, but there are still good men in the Baltimore Police Department who live to fight another day.

Similarly, we watch — in another strong contender for most heartbreaking moment in all of The Wire — a homeless Dukie slip into drug addiction and thus become the new Bubbles. His best friend Mike, forced to give up the care of his little brother, is last seen robbing drug dealers and moving into Omar’s role. Detective Sydnor walks into Judge Phelan’s office in a bold move that clearly marks him as Jimmy and Lester’s heir, while new Baltimore Sun city desk editor Mike Fletcher adheres to the standards set up by his predecessor Augustus.

Because we followed each of these characters’ journeys from the very start, all these mirror images give us a new and deeper understanding of the series’ point of departure. Though the specifics may differ, they function as genesis stories for the key characters. In this way, The Wire highlights the cyclical nature of history. The ending functions as a form of commentary on the beginning that tells us, “Look, this is how we got here”. However, once again it’s important to note that there’s nothing inevitable about such cycles. Because we followed these characters’ journeys, we also got to see where things could so easily have gone differently with a few more resources and a little bit more support. This is especially true of the four “boys of summer” — the middle school students we’re introduced to in season four. Most of them were failed by a system that could so easily have supported them. There’s no real reason why they couldn’t all have had as lucky an escape as Namond Brice’s. Such knowledge makes their fates all the more difficult to accept — and this, this lack of acceptance, is something we must cling to. It doesn’t have to be this way, and it’s not okay that it is.

The Wire Bubbles
***
As per usual in posts about long TV series that cover a lot of ground, I barely scratched the surface of everything The Wire is about. I decided to take a more thematic approach, and doing so means I didn’t get to talk at length about my favourite characters — Omar, Bodie, Lester and Bubbles especially come to mind. I still think about this show all the time, though, and just because I decided I had to narrow my scope if I was going to write about it, it doesn’t mean I don’t want to discuss it forever with anyone who’ll listen. If you’re a fellow fan of The Wire, please feel free to drop your thoughts in a comment. Nothing would make me happier than talking about it some more with you.

The Wire Bodie

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Jun 14, 2015

Checking In

Checking In

I’ve been a bit unwell these past few weeks, and unfortunately one of the first things to go down the drain were all my writing plans, particularly for the two days off I had last week. But I do have a half-finished post about The Wire, and I’ve been reading a lot of excellent books I really want to tell you about — namely Uprooted, Lumberjanes and Gone Crazy in Alabama. I don’t know when that will happen now, but I’m trying not to worry too much and just trust that I’ll get back on track and catch up eventually.

On a brighter note, work has been going well. Last week I got to attend a picture book award ceremony; watching hundreds of children huddle around writers and illustrators to have their books signed definitely cheered me up.


Ella Bailey, author of one of my favourite picture books of last year.

Also, Orange is the New Black, Orphan Black and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries are all back, and the mere thought of their existence is getting me through the days.

Things on my mind this week:
  • Katherine Cross on balancing respect for individual choices with a systemic level of analysis in our attempts to make sense of how sexism affects our lives:
    But if we are all stuck in that system, then surely picking on women making a very particular set of mediated choices therein begins to look suspect. Even the most radically minded feminist is making choices about her body, her adornment, her life that are socially mediated and not entirely her own. Even if she recognizes this — as she surely must — she also doubtlessly acts and comports in a way incompatible with an imaginary feminist utopia, or the ideal typical form of true feminism. Why punish other women for trying to make the compromises their own? Or for finding ways to be joyous in the midst of these narrowed choices even as we fight?
    (…)
    I am certainly not fond of the idea that we should consider every choice a woman makes “feminist” — it puts us well on the road to completely devaluing any affirmative meaning feminism may have. But the real problem with “choice feminism” is its fixation on individual choices, and so the answer to this is not feminist criticism that tries to assign those same choices a negative political value. That’s merely buying into the same binarist, neoliberal logic you criticize.

    This fetish for individualism uber alles is indeed a problem, but it is not best explained — or combated — by attacking women who, say, get married or really enjoy wearing makeup.

    The real death of a collective feminist politics lies there, surely, fiddling the same piddling few notes while our society burns.
    Corset. Dutiful wearer. Things I’ll apparently never shut up about.

  • “I remain irate that the world does not give women a language for prioritizing their relationships with each other.” I liked this essay a lot.

  • Hat tip to Cass for bringing Lindsay Ellis’ series of tweets about how the question “Is this feminist?” isn’t all that helpful to my attention:
    Feminist critical theory is about the reading of texts as it applies to society, not if it gets a gold star pass/fail grade.
    So asking me if a thing is feminist or to give examples of feminist things - they're bad questions, but I understand why people ask them.
    In MY day crit theory was applying feminist or Marxist or race crit theory readings, NOT labeling media as one or the other! *shakes walker*
    One of the clearest articulations of this idea I’ve come across was Lorna Jowett’s in Sex and the Slaywer, a book of Buffy studies. As I said at the time,
    I knew right from the introduction that I was going to love Sex and the Slayer, because Jowett approaches criticism in much the same way I do. There seems to be a certain level of misunderstanding about this, but I’ve always felt that the goal of good criticism is not to declare something either “progressive” and therefore safe for consumption, or “problematic” and thus to be avoided at all costs. It’s not about praise versus condemnation; it’s about asking interesting questions about a piece of media and how it’s in dialogue with the real world. It’s also about acknowledging ambivalence and contradiction and getting to the bottom of the mix of ideas a book or movie or TV series presents, because to do so often makes our experiences with it more interesting and rewarding.
    It’s been useful for me to keep this in mind over the past few years.

  • Lastly, I’m thrilled to announce that I’m helping Simon and Jenny host Shirley Jackson Reading Week in July. It’s taking place the week of the 13th, and the idea is to read and blog about one of Jackson’s stories, novels or non-fiction titles and join the collective gushing (or, you know, be a voice of dissent. Less than enthusiastic posts are absolutely welcome too, even if we have to agree to disagree).
    Shirley Jackson Reading Week
    I second Jenny’s words:
    Lucky for you, the good folks at Penguin have put all of Jackson’s books back into print, so you’ll have the pick of the litter. If this is your first time out, let me recommend We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a story about the two sisters who survived attempted murder and the life they live in a village that fears them. Otherwise, pick your poison! We’ll be waiting.
    Yes, we will.

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