An essay on the Portrayals of Sexual Desire in HBO’s The Wire and Sex and the City (2011)

In modern day American television it frequently appears that sexual desire is but another character introduced to viewers, albeit a character with numerous angles and motivations revealed and concealed depending on who is embodying it, and who is expected to watch. This essay will take a closer look at sexual desire as it is portrayed in two HBO television shows, The Wire and Sex and the City. When it was first aired in the late 1990s, Sex and the City was considered both a genre maker and breaker for its frank look at female sexuality, and as the comedic show’s name indicates sex is the intended draw. The Wire first aired in 2002, around the time the Sex and the City series was ending; it too was considered a creative breakaway from its parental genre (the police procedural). Sex and the City succeeded in showcasing as a complicated secondary character the amalgamation of female sexuality, dating rituals, and the intimacy of female friendships. The Wire’s portrayals of male sexuality were equally consistent in permeation of episode plotlines, yet the element of psychological complexity was omitted with consistent regularity. This essay will not explore in depth the link between gendered sexuality and race as that is a complicated topic deserving of a wider set of academic parameters; it would be difficult to offer an analysis deeper than mere summary.

The most complicated portrayal of male sexuality in The Wire is to be found with the queer character Omar Little, who is said to be “the first black gay character to so readily and regularly empower himself through the phallic symbolism of the gun.” While Omar and his divergence from the confines of popular character development is certainly to be applauded, there is something unsettling about the fact Omar must still be seen as possessing phallic power to be accepted by the other male characters. He is gay, yet it is a detail that is not seen to be important enough to have it highlighted through relational development or stereotypical televised expressions such as wardrobe, speech inflections, or personal interests. Omar doesn’t have a fag-hag. The other Wire men are frequently seen as embodying the most crass public displays of heterosexual male sexuality, amongst them casually voracious consumers of pornography, participants of marital infidelity, alcohol fuelled attempts to secure sexual partners, and participants in the commodification of women. One may assume that based on these generalities that the intended viewer is a heterosexual male, though in reality the show’s successful ratings give no indication of the exact details of the demographics of its audience.

Sex and the City was a show aggressively marketed to female viewers as more than just a show, but also a fantasy lifestyle worth aspiring to; even the poorest character, Carrie Bradshaw lives in a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan and is able to buy extremely expensive clothing and eat out on a daily basis. During and after the show aired, media outlets were happy to report on the hordes of viewers who aspired to live like the characters on the show, and many saw the potential for consumption. The female-centric show, defined by wealth and access to wealth, and The Wire, a male-centric show permeated by poverty and desperate the measures taken for survival, speak of the underlying and often unconscious perpetuation of the theory that women hold more sexual power than men do. Women will always have access to men who wish to provide for them materialistically in exchange for sex whether they are sex workers or married women; men do not always have access to women who will love them regardless of how much wealth they hold.

The expressions of female sexuality in Sex and the City are largely designed to display how female desire is commonly linked to mating, with the exception of the character Samantha Jones, a woman who sees relationships as dull and timidity in the bedroom as useless to the point of ridiculous. Like Omar, Samantha is a television character renegade, the likes of which audiences have not seen before. In Season Four of The Wire, Episode Two “Soft Eyes,” contains a scene in which the character Hauk, who is on chauffeuring and security detail for the Mayor of Baltimore, walks in on the Mayor receiving a blowjob in his office by a female staff member. Hauk bows out of the room quickly, and soon after begins asking male colleagues as well as a superior on the police force for advice on how to proceed next; he wonders if his career is now at stake. The laughter of his colleagues indicates to the viewer that there is no shame asked of the Mayor, in his abuse of his privileged position in public office.

In Season Five of Sex and the City the episode “Cover Girl” contains a scene showing Carrie meeting Samantha at her office for lunch. She walks into the office unannounced where she is shocked to find Samantha giving a blowjob to a man she refers to as ‘her’ UPS deliveryman. Here, the tables are flipped. Unlike the Mayor of Baltimore, Samantha doesn’t work in public office; she owns her own publicity firm. Though she is the boss, she is giving rather than receiving a sexual favour (and it should be said that she is happy with this). Yet while Carrie is equally as caught off guard and shocked as Hauk, she doesn’t seek counsel about how she should deal with the situation. Hauk takes a subtle route, and he is nervous as the Mayor is in control of his career’s future. Carrie mocks Samantha in front of their mutual girlfriends and then acts passive aggressively dismissive when Samantha displays her offence at being ridiculed and judged in front of the group. While it may be assumed the Mayor wouldn’t describe the staff member who is performing oral sex on him to his other staff as ‘his’ in such an intimately possessive manner, that Hauk remains publicly quiet, saving his opinions for behind closed doors, speaks of The Wire’s general acceptance of the male who ‘can’t help his nature.’ Carrie’s private silence and public ridicule of Samantha says the opposite: Samantha should control herself, no matter if she is her own boss in her own office. In comparing the behaviour of two unabashedly sexually expressive adults, it is clear that female sexuality is capable of causing those who view it at close range enormous discomfort. Female sexuality, unless presented in the form of commodity, is uncomfortable. Even then it is questionable.

In Sex and the City’s Season Two episode called “The Cheating Curve” we see Carrie leaving a lesbian-dominated art opening, having lied to her girlfriends about being ill. In truth she is meeting her ex-lover Mr. Big, who she is dating once again. As she arrives in the lobby of his building, we watch her arrange the scarf upon her shoulders while looking in a mirror, visibly excited and pleased with herself. Her expression is masked once she realizes she is being watched, and presumably judged, by the older doorman, and she covers her shoulder once again. Under the gaze of a man who the viewer now assumes has a weighty opinion, this character feels compelled to hide her exuberance; she is aware that the doorman is aware that sex is involved, and so she becomes respectable once more. It is because Sex and the City features Carrie’s voiceover throughout every episode of every season that we are made privy to her insecurities as a person, and it is scenes such as the one described that may disappoint the viewer: we want her to enjoy being herself. We don’t want her to hide her excitement simply because a man who isn’t her lover observes her exuberance.

The Wire’s charismatic Jimmy McNulty is seen in Season One’s tenth episode “The Cost” in a courtroom fighting the mother of his children for visitation rights. The lawyer he has brought in to represent him is the District Attorney Ronnie, with whom Mrs. McNulty knows Jimmy had an affair. Like Samantha, he doesn’t shy away from his sexual nature. Unlike Carrie, he doesn’t hide his transgressions, at least not very well (Mrs. McNulty had hired a private detective to trail her husband). Ronnie doesn’t appear genuinely conflicted in her role in the affair, and perhaps if she were she wouldn’t use her professional capacity to help Jimmy fight his legal battle with his wife. Still, rather than appearing as a voraciously sexual person, it seems in this context that her affair with Jimmy is of little consequence to her. She scratched her itch. There is no need for the kind of self-reflective faux-demure façade in the face of an observer to sexuality, for McNulty or Ronnie.

While Sex and the City portrays the sexual desire of its female characters as a nearly pathological quest for partnership, The Wire portrays the sexual desire for its male characters as a simple means to the ends; the men have itches that need to be scratched. To be fair, when considering the entirety of the Sex and the City series, this sexual need is portrayed as well, repeatedly. Yet rarely is it without the goal, subliminal or otherwise, of partnership in mind. This cannot be said for The Wire. The characters of The Wire need to get laid, and if their partners are unable to provide this, they will seek elsewhere. The juxtaposition of the two shows’ sexual undercurrents are thus: Sex and the City, generally speaking, seeks to contain sexuality within the realm of relationship; The Wire strives to spill over boundaries. That these differences exist with a gender dichotomy so overtly traced between the two shows speaks of society’s overarching intent to regulate female sexuality, preferably by promoting self-regulation as it better hides social oppression.


WORKS CITED


Anderson, Brad, dir. "The Cost." Writ. David Simon. The Wire. HBO: 11 August 2002.

Television.


Coles, John David, dir. "Cover Girl." Writ. Darren Star. Sex and the City. HBO: 11 Aug 2002. Television.


Coles, John David, dir. "The Cheating Curve." Dir. Darren Star. Sex and the City. HBO: 11 July 1999. Television.


Moore, Christine, dir. "Soft Eyes." Writ. Ed Burns. The Wire. HBO: 17 Sept 2006. Television.


Peterson, James Braxton. “Corner-Boy Masculinity: Intersections of Inner-City Manhood.” The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television, edited by Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2009, print.


© Christy Frisken



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