"the Wire"

Scenes from “the Wire” episode we viewed in class today provided images of men, women, and children existing in dangerous, desperate, and frustrating situations in Baltimore, Maryland.  Scenes in which black men occupy numerous roles, police officer, criminal, informant and productive citizen all operating within a hierarchy designed to maintain the station of those in power. Women in this episode are portrayed as lesbian when they are strong, confident, and capable or over-worked, sympathetic, pencil-pushers when heterosexual.  White men were portrayed as bumbling, incompetent Rookies, driven yet sympathetic detectives, or fat, sloppy bureaucrats with tied hands.  If we subscribe to “societies” notions that honesty and hard work are qualities we should aspire to own, “the Wire” doesn’t see things in the same light.  Negative stereotypes outnumbered positive by at least two to one; and even positive attributes were muddled with negative attitudes, denial, and feelings of helplessness.

Can these images be instructive?  Are these images truly representative of Baltimore’s urban reality ?  Harvard Sociologist, William Julius Wilson is utilizing “the Wire” in his black studies course and suggests that the series has provided powerful lessons regarding struggles of  “urban life and the problems of urban inequality” which have not been realized by “any other media even or scholarly publications, including studies by social scientists.”(Fairbanks, 2009Anne-Maria B. Makhulu, assistant professor of African and African-American studies and cultural anthropology at Duke University, asserts based on her own research experience, what is portrayed in the Wire parallels urban realities she has observed in Africa (Ehlers, 2010).  However, Professor Griselda Pollock, director of the Centre for Cultural Analysis, Theory and History at the University of Leeds, cautions we must not take what is observed on this series to be like taking a walk down the street in Baltimore.  “It’s an innovative idea to show sociology students that television can give them an insight, but we must also take into account that it’s not transparent, it’s constructed”: “It’s not raw material”. (Silverman, 2010)

Life on the streets of Baltimore

Professors utilizing the Wire recognize the need to provide authentic opportunities to digital native learners by incorporating technology throughout the process.  Students in these courses are being asked to blog, create video projects, and other authentic communication products to further a discussion of the social issues introduced through this media (Ehlers, 2010).    In Makhulu’s class students do not take traditional tests but are asked to explore a theme of the episodes more deeply for their final project (Ehlers, 2010).

I am left wondering, can these episodes also be mis-educative?  To what extent are stereotypes being perpetuated by the series and others like it?  In the episode we viewed in class I recognized several roles, behaviors, and attitudes typically associated with a urban life, are they truly representative of urban reality.  However, while many images were expected and fit established stereotypes I am familiar with, I was also surprised by incongruities which caused me to wonder…what did I expect to see and what are these expectations based upon?