Tube Tied: The Wire, Mad Men, and the Ideal of Inclusivity in Popular Culture
I've been following the discussion about the representativeness of The Social Network, about whether it accurately depicts women and “toxic masculinity” in technology particularly—a conversation which, as I said last week, I've been sort of surprised we're even having. Such a jaded feminist have I become, I guess, since I'm now actively surprised when people actually care about how women are depicted in this culture, but I digress. Personally, I thought the movie was sufficiently infused with internal comment on the misogyny of its characters that I wasn't as upset as I might have been by it's flat depiction of femininity.
I’m hardly the first to observe this sort of thing, of course, but I am, lately, obsessed with this question of how you reconcile your politics to your art. Rather than wade into the discussion on The Social Network particularly, though, since I'm only supposed to be blogging about television here, let’s just situate some of these issues in that context. If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you might be growing tired of my continual references to Ta-Nehisi Coates's work, but I'll go ahead and make another anyway: he had a post a few weeks back that was somewhat a propos, about recent complaints that Mad Men's address of race is somehow insufficient. He added a footnote:
It's worth noting the last "Great American Television Show" The Wire, was very much about race, and almost never addressed gender.
That line struck a chord with me, because for some time I'd been thinking about writing in this space about The Wire—and Lorrie Moore even went and wrote me a nice springboard to talk about a now-cancelled show by examining it anew in the New York Review of Books last month—you should go read that—but it's a show I find very difficult to address from a feminist angle. That's largely because I could write a post that makes some kind of complaint about the show not having enough women, or not understanding them, or keeping them in secondary roles. I am sure I could find evidence to support some of those claims, and here is Coates agreeing, from the get-go, that this was not a show About Gender. And I could, probably, construct an argument that the lack of address of gender impoverished the show. But increasingly, the longer I do this kind of writing about feminism and television, the less I become concerned about blunt concerns like airtime or numbers and the more I become convinced that the only way we will have a culture that is broad and participatory and doesn't erase experiences is if we focus on rewarding shows that are carefully written and considered.
In other words, the strange trajectory of my writing on women in television is that it has made me care less about statistics than it has made me care about substance. I don't quite know what to make of this, personally. I recognize that at the level of abstract theory, it may be something of an "intersectionality fail" on my part, since there’s no reason that any one axis of interest, in a television show—say, either of race or gender—is necessarily exclusive of another. And yet, it seems, I am unable to really object to a “good show” even where it does not reflect all of my political interests.
Because let's face it: whatever else you can say about The Wire, it was a good show. More than just being technically well-executed, it had an aspiration to broad social commentary that was just admirable in and of itself. The only well-founded leftist criticism I can think of (and that I would be interested in some commentary on but I’m not the person to do it necessarily) about the sort of fetishism I sometimes see of it among a certain section of the white educated upper middle class. Said obsession makes me a bit uncomfortable—for some fans of the show it seems to have a voyeuristic quality. But I don't think that would bear at all on the quality of the show itself. The same goes most of the time for Mad Men, too, though I’d personally be open to an argument that it is nowhere near as deft and smart as The Wire.
So how does one reconcile the ideal of “quality drama” with the ideal of inclusivity? It’s something I’m still working through. But you could say I’m starting to wonder if it’s as straightforward as I’ve formerly thought.
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