As great a series as The Wire is, one of its major shortcomings is its lack of attention to women and girls. This does not mean The Wire fails to cover gender in the areas of crime, politics, education and work. But within those spheres, The Wire is more or less a drama involving heterosexual males. Hence, we get an array of stories illustrating various pursuits towards hegemonic masculinity.
Research on gangs in the United States shows that women are not absent figures, and under certain circumstances can achieve prominent gang status. Fortunately, at least two significant female characters emerge in The Wire whose attitudes, behaviours and positions within their respective workplaces reflect empirical gang research – Snoop, a gangsta in Marlo’s crew, and Kima Greggs, who isn’t in a gang per se, at least not in the way we normally think of gangs; Greggs is police.
A 2001 study with 369 gang-affiliated youth across 11 American cities (Peterson, Miller, & Esbensen) found that organisational sex composition within gangs influences how much power females and males attain. This study revealed that in youth gangs where there was a more balanced sex ratio, that is where there was a more even number of boys and girls, the female gang members engaged in significantly less levels of delinquency on 12 out of 14 measures.
In contrast, in youth gangs whose composition consisted of predominantly males and a proportionally smaller number of females, female gang members’ involvement in illegal activities were not significantly different from males’. In fact, findings from the study showed that for 12 out of the 14 delinquency measures there were no statistically significant differences comparing the male and female delinquency rates, including the measures for violent offenses.
The authors purport that these contrasting trends reflect organisational theory tied to gender and majority-minority relations:
…minority-group threat hypothesis suggests that as the proportion of the lower status group (i.e., females) increases, the higher status group (i.e., males) increases negative attention and control in an effort to maintain a dominant position. Thus, it would be in sex-balanced gangs – those with a sizeable proportion of female members – that the greater sex differences would emerge with regard to participation in delinquency. Our findings are in line with this prediction. Males and females in majority-male gangs did not report significantly different rates of offending, whereas males and females in sex-balanced gangs did. Thus, it may be that males in sex-balanced gangs, in which the percentage of females in nearly equal that of males, feel a gendered status threat and respond by narrowing girls’ opportunities for involvement in “masculine” activities such as delinquency. (p. 432).
To this end, although The Wire is probably inaccurate in portraying so few female characters, it is spot on in showing how female characters rise in prominence within largely male institutions. Take for instance Snoop, the only visible female gang member within Marlo’s crew. Snoop assumes masculine characteristics verbally (see her purchasing the nail gun, below; video can’t be embedded), through her attire, and behaviourally via her vicious criminality (Snoop shooting from the motorcycle, 2nd video).
Following Peterson, Miller, & Esbensen’s (2001) research findings, one would argue that Snoop is granted ascendance within the gang not only because of her masculine demeanor and brutal tendencies, but also because the sex-composition is so imbalanced in favour of males. As the only female within Marlo’s gang, women do not pose a gendered threat to the gang’s masculine order. Hence, Snoop is allowed to become “One of the Guys”, partake in work (i.e., valued criminal acts) along side males, and earn her way up within the organisational hierarchy.
Of course Kima Greggs is not in a gang the way we traditionally think of gangs. However, she also works in an overwhelmingly male institutional setting – the police force – where the law isn’t exactly always followed. Like Snoop, Kima assumes a traditional masculinity, which earns her peer respect and positions of power. And again like Snoop, Kima participates in workplace business along side her male counterparts. See the 2 clips below, where Kima clearly demonstrates highly masculine conduct (click on links, vid’s cannot be embedded):
One might argue that because the police force is similar to a gang in terms of its organisational, gendered composition and in terms of its masculine, violent inclinations, Kima is permitted to work at the detective level. If more women were in the police force and posed a greater numerical threat to the patriarchal stability, it is possible that even with Kima’s masculine attitudes and behaviours, she would be severely hampered in her career trajectory.