Archives for category: Art

The Wire came out during a time when television producers realized that they could make shows that were actually good in a meaningful way. The Sopranos sparked a golden age of television, and The Wire was hot on its heels to become arguably the best television show of all time.

I recently rewatched the series from start to finish, and genuinely found it better the second time. The slowness of season two was more compelling because I saw it in a wider context than I had my first time through. Season five is still hot garbage, but the overarching narrative throughout the show more than makes up for it.

The final season of The Sopranos didn’t exactly do much better. I’m still waiting for the Golden Age of Series Finales.

What I found compelling this time around was being reintroduced to Jimmy McNulty. The first time I watched the show, I was convinced that Jimmy was the main protagonist of the series. He’s not killed off, he’s charming and handsome, his character is explored in detail, and he has that infallibility in his detective work that is common across all cop show protagonists – they always catch the bad guy due to their unfailing ingenuity, even if the Bosses do everything they can to get in the way.

The Wire is special because there are no clear “good guys” and “bad guys” in the show. The most sympathetic characters are indeed those involved directly in the drug trade; this could be because they are children which naturally plays to our sympathies, but it can be said more generally that the creative team goes to great lengths to humanize a demographic that is almost unanimously depicted as one-dimensionally violent or evil in every other piece of media. The drug dealer exists as an evil scourge plaguing our world, but in The Wire, D’Angelo Barksdale is far more appealing and likeable than any other character portrayed in season one – except for maybe Bubbles.

One of the few redeemable qualities of season five

So in a show without clear heroes and villains, how can I say that Jimmy McNulty is the villain? Particularly when he’s on the side of police, no less; the side that doesn’t overtly use murder to negotiate their business dealings. I am definitely not saying that Jimmy is the villain because of his infidelity or even his show-polluting atrociousness in season five. That’s the flavour to his character and is irrelevant to his villainy.

Jimmy McNulty is the show’s villain because in his heart of hearts he wants the War On Drugs to continue. He might want it to be fought with more resources and to go after the generals instead of the soldiers, but ultimately, he is so passionately committed to the War On Drugs that the show portrays it as his literal vice. Policing is Jimmy’s drug; he is addicted to the War On Drugs. We are sucked into enabling his addiction because of his charisma and charm, and believe along with him that maybe we just need an extra few days on the wire, and drug crime will be eliminated forever. We’ll shut down Avon Barksdale; we’ll shut down Marlo Stanfield; these are the outcomes we cheer for. They don’t get to win!

The Wire is about the institutions of Baltimore, and in this depiction, speaks about the institutions of America more broadly. We see quite clearly how these institutions function only to perpetuate themselves – through policing stats, through political ambition, through an educational system detached from the realities of the children it is ostensibly there to educate. All of them function in ignorance of the actual problems because all of them are hyper-focused on keeping their heads above the water in an unsustainable status quo. The reality that they all seem to ignore is the reality created by the War On Drugs. This ideology manifests this problematic reality that all of these institutions do their best to dance around because denouncing the actual problem would mean confronting the status quo – likely ending their career.

Or being condemned to the “sympathetic” villainy of modern Marvel movies.

In season three, we see two approaches to dealing with the actual problems of the War On Drugs. The first is put forward by Major Bunny Colvin who creates safe zones where drugs can be sold without police interference. It is a very clear indictment of the pointlessness of the War On Drugs. What is less clear, but equally compelling, is the equivalent mirror being put forward by Stringer Bell. Bell and Prop Joe put together a co-op to try a new form of drug dealing – one closer akin to a normal business than to the “gangster shit” that dominates the Game in most other circumstances. They hold votes, they negotiate territory, they resolve differences diplomatically – all in an attempt to distance themselves from the widely acknowledged problems of illegal drugs: murders, insecurity, unpredictability, and police interference. Both factions want a better way to accommodate the hard reality that drugs will never go away.

Jimmy is mostly ambivalent to Colvin’s experiment. He looks more favourably at fucking over the Bosses than he is at what Colvin is actually trying to accomplish, and in no way sees the connection to what Bell is trying to do. He even resists focusing on the target of Major Crimes who is actively killing people, preferring to fixate on Stringer Bell because he knows that’s where the War belongs. Bell sees the wisdom of what Colvin is trying, and is explicit in this when he comes to Colvin at the end of the season to betray Avon. They both are trying to find a way to get around the dysfunctional status quo. It can be just a business as much as any other; the bodies are created by the War.

All the bodies.

The second nice thing I’ll say about season five is that it showcases the Sisyphean meaninglessness of the War On Drugs. The police win. Marlo and Avon are arrested; their gangs dispersed. But we see as the season ends that Michael turns into the new Omar, that Kima becomes the new Jimmy, Carver becomes the new Daniels, and Duquan becomes the new Bubbles. The pawns have already been replaced so often throughout the show that the bottomless pit from whence they come has already been well-established. The boulder goes up the mountain once again, and the War continues – and for what? A few people got promoted, and many more died. Jimmy’s belief that policing ought to confront the War On Drugs more effectively is only a means of finding a more efficient way of getting the boulder up the mountain.

The War On Drugs is the villain of The Wire. The champions that we’re used to seeing from other cop shows are seen here perpetuating it in all its pointless glory. There cannot be any heroes because all of the characters are produced by a villainous system. There are only survivors, mercenaries, and profiteers. The only reasonable heroics would be to challenge that system itself, and under that rubric, ironically it is Stringer Bell who ends up on a pedestal higher than Jimmy McNulty.

I drive through your town, and while I am the one behind the glass, you are the one under the microscope, a grazing beast on my human safari. I am the looker; you are the looked upon.

I come to your home, my attention rapt upon you, a voyeur with a camera, legitimized by my passport. I am the visitor, you the local, yet you become the foreigner under my gaze. Your normal becomes exotic, your habit queer. Do not forget that this exchange is for the benefit of the intruder.

I watch you live. I see you cook your food and wash your clothes. I see you pray; I watch you grieve, documenting your life under my rapaciously curious gaze, snapping photographs – memories archived for amusing gossip with friends upon my return. Having witnessed it for a few days, I stake ownership over your story and tell it now as the expert, the wisdom of a worldly traveler.

You endure my objectification, smile at my unencumbered white skin, because more than you are here for my enlightened diversion, I am here for your necessity. The scraps you live on are viciously insufficient, forcing you to beg for some off my own gluttonous plate. I chafe at the expectation, indignant that the price of a beer has outrageously ballooned to three dollars a bottle when in the last town it was only two. If you are lucky, I will remember I pay eight dollars at home, and tip you the difference. Do you feel lucky?

You are examined, inspected, scrutinized, and then you are abandoned. You are left in your poverty. You remain without. I return to comfort, and declare your life “interesting.” Your role as an item on my bucket list has been fulfilled.

We the tourists are entitled to the world, colonizers with fanny packs.

Yet those who never leave their home cannot see. They are limited by a provincial myopia, and the world revolves without them. Your story is forever elusive. If you are seen at all, it is through the distorting prism of media gloss and political bombast. You are both monster and victim, your humanity buried under self-serving spin.

Is this an improvement? Are you better off ignored? Must I remain detached from your existence to avoid exploitation? How can I see you without looking? How can I engage with you equitably when my very status as visitor privileges me over you?

I aim to exemplify the virtues of the guest. I engage with you on the terms of your household. When there is discomfort, I tolerate it, recognizing the privilege of your hospitality and embodying the humility of one out of their element. You are my host, receiving me with gratitude and generosity. No longer taking, what I gain is what is shared.

We are no longer detached, observer and the observed. We embrace across borders. I do not return to a different, more comfortable world, recalling you as an alien Other. We persist in the same world, unfair in my favour. I seek you in solidarity, a global fraternity. May we remain united.

Thematically, the Hulk is an overwhelmingly masculine character. He’s the personification of the masculine urge to break your hand punching a hole in the wall because you don’t know how to otherwise process an insecurity. When a domestic abuser says that they “lost control” leading up to their violent outburst, they are channeling the Hulk. Any strong emotion pushes Bruce Banner into a destructive rage, a literal manifestation of the toxic pressures on men to limit their “weaker” emotions and only project strength. These are all quite blatant masculine tropes. Now, obviously the Hulk is “one of the good ones”, so his horrifying superpower is always ultimately directed at the villain. He becomes Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s sheepdog, utilizing the viciousness of the wolves against them, all in the name of protecting the sheep. We all know mindless brutality is bad, but when it’s channeled in opposition to evil, then it becomes good! Don’t you feel safer knowing that the dude punching holes in the wall is the same dude with a gun protecting all of us from faceless terrorists?

I’m so sorry baby, but you know what happens when you make me angry!

Despite its palpable presence in the character, an exploration of gender within Hulk media has not yet developed. Maybe it has in the comics, and I would appreciate anyone sharing that with me if it has, but at least in the media I’ve consumed, I haven’t come across it. Despite the reticence to explore gender with the Hulk, however, Marvel and Disney+ decided to take it for a spin by adding a pronoun with She-Hulk: Attorney at Law.

With the Hulk being so obviously masculine, it was always going to be a struggle using Hulk-ism to analyze gender through a female lens. The writers at She-Hulk seemed like they were trying to take radical feminism into the corporate mainstream, but ended up espousing the backwards ideology of Caitlyn Jenner: the hardest part of being a woman is figuring out what to wear. The show makes multiple references to some of the struggles of women, but these only exist for the main characters to role their eyes, and are never really confronted. Toxicity presents itself passively as an immutable constant from which to derive superpowers, not as a social ill to be addressed. The show tells us (literally verbatim) that it exists on the fringes of the reluctant superhero trope, that She-Hulk isn’t there to mindlessly smash a villain in an epic CGI battle (perhaps because rage is associated with a different pronoun). Unfortunately, that leaves us with not-so-scintillating conflicts like: needing a new outfit, dating in your 30s, and being a reluctant bridesmaid – tropes reminiscent of those romantic comedies about women trying to have it all, but then realizing they still need a man to feel complete.

This blog is really just an excuse to play around in photoshop

In addition to failing at feminism, it also fails at portraying masculinity. Each new episode seems to have a new skeezy dude, and even “some of the good ones” turn out to be manipulative by the end. These aren’t traditional villains that want to take over the world, but guys who mansplain, that are lecherous to the point of absurdity, men who are unable to commit, predatory strangers, etc. She-Hulk is not the first piece of media to have poorly developed, one-dimensional characters, but it’s the equivalent of having a menstruating woman president firing off nuclear missiles because of her PMS. It doesn’t matter how many positive representations exist alongside of it, it’s still a pointed insult. Just because there is some reality depicted by the skeezy male behaviour doesn’t mean an extreme caricature is the appropriate method of representation. And thanks to the show’s shallow feminism, these caricatures are not seen in any systemic context, so the conflict becomes with the men themselves, with men and male behaviours, rather than with the patriarchy that spawned them.

The weird thing is, the show writers knew it was going to be bad. The main “villain” of the show is a gaggle of internet trolls talking shit about She-Hulk and her gender, a meta attempt to preempt its own criticism. Rather than trying to write a better show, they absolve themselves by pointing to bad faith actors and saying that if you think we’re failing at feminism, you’re just like them. She-Hulk takes an adversarial tone not just within its feminism against its male characters, but against its viewers as well. They wrote the show as a lecture to berate the people watching it without making it good enough that this meta-antagonism would be tolerable.

But it’s okay when Jen herself points out that She-Hulk is derivative from the Hulk – pick your commentary, writers!

Television shows have the ability to discuss gender, even toxic masculinity, without provoking massive online hate. Consider Ted Lasso and the fall of Nate the Great in season two. Season one has Nate learn that strength comes paired with dominance as he is bullied and belittled by the male players, and is rescued by the strength and dominance of another man. In season two, as he becomes more and more recognized, he seeks that dominance in a confused attempt to impress both Ted and his father. His attempts at dominance are not rejected by his well-meaning friends, but are accepted in a way that infuriates him further. He wants to be the big tough guy who succeeds in crushing his enemies because that’s how he learned to be a man from season one – acceptance is not a part of the masculinity he learned. Nate betrays his friends by joining another team, and we at home are heartbroken because we can’t help but see the problems in his behaviour – they have been spelled out so beautifully within the show itself. Toxic masculinity is explored in an illustrative systemic context, is shown why it is toxic, and why it might be appealing to someone engulfed within it. All without backlash from internet trolls.

I mean, nobody liked it because we felt betrayed alongside the rest of the team, but that’s good writing for you.

How could She-Hulk have been better at exploring gender? There are a few ways. It could have picked a toxic masculine trope and committed to it, perhaps with a single villain who gets a chance at character development like with Ted Lasso. But with Hulk-ism so associated with anger, I think the show should have dedicated itself to what anger looks like for women.

When She-Hulk finally loses it, she punches a television and holds a guy up by his shirt. This is enough to cause everyone in the world to freak out and put her in monster jail. In a show that relies so heavily on shallow themes, I was surprised when they didn’t compare this incredibly mild outburst to what literally every male superhero has ever done without any social consequences. In theory, the show could have led with that, and then taken the time to explore why female anger is tamped out in a society that expects them to be meek and demure. This would have been a better show, though I still would likely have had some criticism that a feminism that aims to show that women can be uncontrollable rage monsters too isn’t really the greatest message either.

I don’t remember this part in The Second Sex

I think its best bet would have been to explore anger in a way that didn’t relate itself to rage. As the show highlights, women have much to be angry about, but rampant destruction isn’t the solution to address it. Oddly enough, the show itself is a perfect metaphor for this as it attempts to bludgeon its viewers into its ideology and receives zero converts. She-Hulk was never a rage monster, and there can be value in that. A woman’s anger can manifest itself in something as simple as refusing to change seats on a bus. Jen Walters tells her cousin that women are much better at regulating their emotions because they endure more social trauma, which is false because this ultimately leads to higher rates of depression in women (the opposite of well-regulated emotion) than in men. In reality, anger is a much healthier reaction to injustice than the passive acquiescence depicted in the show. Anger is actually the solution to the problem; it is not to be repressed nor dismissed. She-Hulk could have embraced this constructive use of anger if it really wanted to depict a feminism worthy of its pronoun.

But it didn’t, and I expect Disney to produce a refined piece of critical feminism around the same time they make a show about intimate partner violence and the relationship between Bruce Banner and Betty Ross.