"The Game the Same. Just Got More Fierce."

An Interpretative Analysis of the Stereotypical Representation of African Americans on the US Television Program "The Wire"

Master's Thesis 2014 98 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography



1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Background
2.1 Representation and Discourse

3. Stereotypes
3.1 Origin of the term
3.2 The Definition and History of the Concept
3.3 Stereotypes in the Media

4. Race
4.1 Race as the Basis for Stereotyping

5. The Changing Depictions of Blacks in the U.S.
5.1 Depictions of Blacks in Cinema and on Television
5.2 Stereotypes of African Americans today
5.3 African Americans on TV in the 21st Century

6. The Wire

7. Analysis in Regards to Representation and Stereotypes
7.1 The Simultaneity of Transformation and Recurrence
7.2 Transformation of Stereotypes in The Wire
7.2.1 Discursive Practices of Representation
7.2.2 Changes in the Representations of Blacks
7.2.3 Character Analysis with Regards to Changed Stereotypes
7.3 Recurrence of Stereotypes on The Wire
7.3.1 Reappearance of Stereotypical Representation of Blacks
7.3.2 Character Analysis with Regards to Reappearing Stereotypes Uncle Toms and Coons Brutal Black Bucks

8. Conclusion

Works Cited

Appendix A
The Development of Race in the U.S.
Race as Justification for Slavery.
Race as Justification for Social Exclusion After Slavery

Master Thesis

American Studies

"The Game the Same. Just Got More Fierce."[1]

An Interpretative Analysis of the Stereotypical Representation of African Americans on the US Television Program "The Wire"

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 1[2]

Submitted by

Eike Rüdebusch

Universität Duisburg-Essen

1. Introduction

The Wire, David Simon's and Ed Burns' HBO show about the war on drugs in Balti­more and the de-industrialized American economy, has been praised by critics, au­thors and scholars. It was called the “best show since the invention of radio” (Brooker as quoted by Toscano) and compared to 19th century classical literature of Balzac, Dickens and others, and even Barack Obama named the show to be his favorite.

The Wire was broadcast between 2002 and 2008 and thus is part of the cultural repre­sentation of the years before Obama became the first African American president of the Unit­ed States of America. That might seem to be just a chronological fact on the side­line, but can be considered quite important instead. That is, because media mirrors a soci­ety's de­velopment and its recent state of mind. With Obama in office, it might seem that America has had a significant change of mind in terms of its conduct toward African Americans. The Wire was widely praised to be a multicultural show, if not even a post-ethnic show, that avoided all forms of negative, stereotypical depictions of Blacks and in­cluded Blacks in num­bers never seen before on TV.

Until today, the representation of Blacks in the media is something academics and journalists, political activists and authors write and discuss about. It is stained by the American past of slavery and segregation. Certain stereotypes and preju­dices about Blacks have endured time and can be found in American society, among all races and all classes. Howev­er, The Wire with its huge number of Black characters along with their quality and depth, is seen as an exception from the usual TV program. The show was praised for its politics of representation, for putting Black characters in a drama, for in­cluding them in all de­picted classes, all levels of hierarchies – Blacks are part of the street, the law, politics, the harbor, the media (Buehler 55) – and for the sheer range of Black roles that was said to make stereotyping nearly impossible (Morsch 216).

[ The Wire ] might be considered essentially as a black series; the bulk of its cast is black, drawing on scores not only of underemployed black actors but also on local nonprofessionals, as well; just as Baltimore itself is a predominantly black city. But as has been observed of its predecessor series, Homicide: Life on the Streets (1993 – 99), this very preponderance means that you see so many differ­ent types of black people (social, professional, even physical) as to utterly dis­solve the category. Here there is no longer any such thing as “black” people any longer, and by the same token no such thing as black political or social solidari­ty. These former “black people” are now in the police; they can be criminals or prison inmates, educators, mayors and politicians; The Wire is in that sense what is now called post-racial […] (Jameson 370).

Hence, it is said that The Wire has been a breakthrough in the representation of Blacks on TV.

On one hand, Frank Kelleter claims that popular serial narration, such as TV shows like The Wire, have worked as a category to observe groundbreaking social and technological transformations since the 19th century (31). With The Wire being described as a Black show, dominated by Black characters in all classes and in all possible posi­tions, it might be argued that the show has been an indicator for a change in the depiction and perception of African Americans in the media and in society.

On the other hand, it is argued that race still matters in the U.S. That is also valid for the media and their representation of Blacks. Since racism has not yet been overcome, it can be assumed that a show like The Wire can not yet avoid a mass medium's politics of racial representation without failing commercially. But The Wire turned out to be a huge success. How does its acclaimed groundbreaking changes in racial representation and its success go together? Although heavily praised for that, has The Wire really turned its back on stereo­typical representation of Blacks? This is what this thesis is going to ana­lyze.

In order to find out how far The Wire has maintained a negative and stereotypical representation of African Americans, I will first briefly explain what representation means and how it works in regard to television and the depiction of minorities on TV programs. This goes along with a short explanation of the terms discourse and hegemony. Both will not be actively used in the further analysis but are a sufficient introduction to stereotyping and to the analysis of stereotyping on U.S. television shows.

Second, I will give a summary of the history of stereotypes, its definitions and its ap­plications with a special focus on stereotypes in the media. Stereotypical depictions in the media, especially in the U.S., are significantly influenced by race and its perception in society.

The perception of Blacks as racially inferior since the times of slavery has been influential on the history of African Americans in the U.S. until today. Race was made a justification for slavery, segrega­tion, social exclusion of and disadvantages for Blacks.[3] That is closely connected to Black rep­resentation in the media. What has been thought about Blacks was also reflected on air. Media, vice versa, has been influential on people's opinions ever since. With that in mind, the history of Black representation in American media will be dis­cussed. In order to do so, American movies and TV shows since the in­vention of the cinema, and that of television, respectively, will be taken into account. This will be concluded with a de­scription of African American repre­sentation in the me­dia in the 21st century and a psychologi­cal study about prejudices and stereotypes about Blacks in the 21st century.

When the path of stereotypical depictions has been shown from the start until the present, The Wire will be introduced in terms of its story and its themes and topics. After­ward, The Wire will be defined within the threefold discourses of African American me­dia represen­tation according to Herman Gray. Also, The Wire will be analyzed for stereo­typical depictions of Blacks as defined by Donald Bogle.

Frank Kelleter has argued that serial narration depends on a twofold structure which includes recurrences of well-known structures in order to have a familiar setting for the view­ers, and transformations of structures in order to built up excitement. Since The Wire has been praised for its new approach toward the depiction of African Ameri­cans, it will be ana­lyzed for positive, changed aspects as well as for negative, reaccuring aspects in regards to those two criteria mentioned above as well.

In the end, this thesis will prove that David Simon's monumental 60-hour-long show may be an exceptional TV show but nevertheless works with long-known and well-es­tablished schemes of representation and stereotypes of African Americans. The praise it has received will be made understandable on one hand, but will be shown as in­complete and ignorant on the other.

While this thesis tries to give a fully comprehensible and coherent analysis of The Wire 's use of stereotypical representation, this has to be done using examples from the show. The show in its huge quantity in characters, storylines, developments, back­grounds and its sheer length cannot be analyzed in its entirety. Also, the theories and his­torical background information used to develop this thesis, cannot be regarded as com­plete. That is, because he information used has been adapted to the question asked in this thesis. Other focuses might change the theories and information needed. This thesis gives the best an­swer to the question posted with regard to its allowed extent.

2. Theoretical Background

2.1 Representation and Discourse

Representation is a term that goes back to the linguist Ferdi­nand De Saussure and his model of langue and parole. While parole is considered the act of speaking itself, langue is considered to be the system of signs that language is made of (Hepp 28). In the abstract system of language, Saussure distinguished two basic parts. One is the signified, the concept of something that is described by speaking, and the other is the signifier, the sound by which it is described. Together they form the sign itself. Saussure pointed out the arbitrariness of representation in language in which the signifier, the word, has no di­rect connection to the signified, the concept, it de­scribes (Hepp 29). The meaning of signs depends on culturally specific conventions (Hepp 29).

De Saussure's model works as a basis for cultural me­dia analysis because it shows that signs and meanings have a relation within a certain struc­ture, a specific system (Hepp 27). Their meaning depends on the structure, the culture, in which they are used. Signs such as linguistic signs do not reflect an ob­jective reality, rather, they construct re­ality and mirror their specific culture (Hepp 30). We give meaning to things by how we present them – the words we use about them, the stories we tell about them, the images of them we produce, the emotions we asso­ciate with them, the ways we classify and conceptualize them, the values we place on them (Hall 2003 3).

Meaning is found to be similarly produced in specific cultures. “Culture is about shared meaning”, Hall argues (2003 1). Meaning can be shared through our common under­standing of signs of language and their interpretation.

The process through which members of a culture use linguistic and other signs in order to produce meaning is called representation (Hall 38). There are two approaches of how to look at representation. One is the semiotic approach, the one that is concerned with the “how” of representation. It is known as the poetics of representation. The other one is the discursive approach which is more concerned with the effects and conse­quences. It describes the poli­tics of representation (Hall 2003 6). The latter approachexamines not only how language and representation produce meaning, but how the knowl­edge which a particular discourse produces connects with power, regulates con­duct, makes up or constructs identities and subjectivities, and defines the way certain things are repre­sented, thought about, practiced and studied (Hall 2003 6). Representation and its politics have to be studied and seen in connection to their histori­cal and cultural specificity (Hall 2003 6), their specific 'web of meaning', their dis­course (Hepp 32). Originally, discourse is a linguistic concept, referring to passages of con­nected writing or speech (Hall 2003 44). In re­gard to Foucault's definition, dis­course refers to “a group of statements which provide a lan­guage for talking about – a way of representing the knowledge about – a particular topic at a particular historical moment” (Hall 2003 44). This discourse, this web of meaning of a specific culture and time, influ­ences represen­tation. Representation is not a reflection of society but rather a sociocultur­al construc­tion of a reality. This, again, is dependent on the so called discur­sive forma­tion and the con­cept of the subject or subjectivity (Hepp 38f.). The discursive formation describes a totality of discursive statements that have the same strategy and re­fer to the same object. The matter of subject or subjectivity describes the position the subject has in the repre­sentation. Foucault argues that subjectivity itself is a discursive construction. No one can ex­clude his position from the context of the discursive regime he is part of. The subject itself is less important and less influential than the discourse in which it works (Ruoff 92). Therefore, representation is influenced by discursive forma­tions as is the subject that the object of representation is presented to (Hepp 38f.). As an example, Hepp says that although porn must not necessarily be made by or for men specifically, the underlying male perspective could not be dismissed from the genre (Hepp 39). The same goes for American films and TV shows which can hardly be sepa­rated from the point of view of a predominantly white American society that contrasts numerous minority groups.

Reading sings is always connected to and influenced by power. Foucault says that ideas could only gain power through discourse (Hall 2003 48). He defines knowledge as pow­er and argues that power grows out of the application and effectiveness of knowl­edge, not out of truths. The former derives from its historical circumstances and its sur­rounding discursive regime. Knowledge and power are thus dependent on historical and discursive circum­stances only[4] (Hall 2003 48f.). Foucault thinks of power as a circle. Power, he says, permeates all levels of society and existence and is “a productive net­work which runs through the whole social body” (Foucault 1980 119, as cited by Hall 2003 50).

A dominance of certain groups on discourse can be explained with Antonio Gramsci's definition of hegemony (Hepp 52). Gramsci says that hegemony is a complex state of social authority which is won through a combination of force and agreement by a so called historic bloc, built from all powerful layers of society (Hepp 52). This authority is said to lay founda­tions for the representation of all intellectual and moral questions and thereby constructs a so­cial identity through a collective will of a majority instead of de­stroying differences (Hepp 52). This definition is used by Stuart Hall in order to define racism and its representation.

Racism for Hall is a “historically specific articulation of different eco­nomical, political and cultural elements in a discourse of exclusion of certain ethnici­ties” (Hepp 54). This leads to a definition of one's own cultural identity through the dis­tinction from a certain “Other” (Hepp 54) and in return to a self definition of this defined “Other” (Hepp 55). This is also ar­gued by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk, and Charles Cooley with their theories of the Double Consciousness (Du Bois 3) and the Looking-Glass-Self theory, respectively. Both describe that a group's self-percetion is influenced by the way it is seen by others.

“Representation involves processes of 'speaking for' and 'speaking of' those who are represented.” Through representation, the discursive definition of a group gets spread through society, and also through the media, depicted as mirroring the “real world” (Rayner 61). Media is a crucial means to gain knowledge about the world. While it can help to gain understanding, it also shapes our attitudes and beliefs about the world (Rayn­er 61). Television, as part of the media, is not an objective and trustworthy medium. It uses iconic images in combination with language in order to represent a three dimension­al world in a two dimensional form (Rayner 62). Hence, it simplifies the world it tries to show. Media are formed by discourse and, at the same time, influence it. What they de­pict is part of a reality constructed by them and by cultural conventions that are arbitrari­ly defined. This is the general frame in which every sign of every text has to be read. Whatever is shown through a medium has to be seen in the context of its spe­cific histori­cal and cultural circumstances and the majorities forming the discourse in their so­ciety and hence defining who the self is and who the so-called “Other” is.

Every representation of minorities does not only show the current state of a soci­ety's discourse, but also influences the direction in which it is going. Difference is al­ready stressed by it being shown. Hence, the representation of minorities is of crucial rele­vance to understanding a so­ciety. With representing difference,with making it visi­ble, it always attains meaning as well (Hall 2004 112). This is created through an accu­mulation and repetition of such meanings. Only when certain connotations appear repeat­edly in different contexts, depictions appear that de­liver a certain stereotypical meaning. What a stereo­type exactly is will be explained in the following chapter.

3. Stereotypes

3.1 Origin of the term

The term stereotype derives from the Greek words stereos and typos which mean 'fixed' and 'characteristic', respectively (Six-Materna 246). The term was originally used as a metaphor in printing and typography, “where it refers to text cast into rigid form for the purposes of repeti­tive use” (Pickering 9). From there, the term has been transformed from a technical term to one used in psychology and cultural as well as media studies and has been used in various ways with various definitions (Pickering 9).

3.2 The Definition and History of the Concept

The concept of stereotyping is mostly used in psychological studies and media and cul­tural analysis. In psychology, “the concept has been subject to extensive research that goes back to the 1930s” (Pickering 9). Walter Lippmann, a political columnist and writer for the New York World and the New Republic, introduced the term stereotype to social sciences, publishing the volume The Public Opinion in 1922 (Six-Materna 246; Picker­ing, 18). He described stereo­types to be beliefs and schemes positioned between the outer world and our consciousness (Six-Materna 246). In the 1930s, stereotypes were defined as fixed impressions not neces­sarily corresponding with reality that develop out of a judgment that lacks a closer examina­tion (ibid.). More current definitions say that stereo­types are beliefs about traits of people of a certain group (ibid.). While that can be con­sidered common sense, it is, however, not clearly defined if stereotypes are to be seen as per se negative, the way prejudices are (ibid.). Further, stereotypes are said to be a cogni­tive structure, an association, or a highly organized social category (ibid.). But stereotyp­ing cannot be seen equal to categorizing. Lippmann describes stereotyping in a twofold manner: Stereotypes are giving orientation for the one actively stereotyping, and they are condemning the one that is stereotyped.

The psychological definition, however, is more precise. Categorization creates orientation. When categorization fails, this leads to stereotyping, which can be negative. In contrast to categories, stereotypes carry “quite definite ideological views and values” with them (Pickering 2). Although stereotypes, similar to categories, may bring a sense of or­der to the social world, they lack flexibility in contrast to categories (Pickering 2). According to Six-Materna, categorization is an identification of stimuli. The broader a category becomes, the more stimuli can be put into it. But the more stimuli fit into one category, the less distin­guished the categorization becomes. Thus, broad categorization leads to imprecise categoriza­tion and, ergo, to stereotyping (247). Categorization is a central cognitive tendency that may lead to stereotyping. Certain categories are also shared in specific cultural spaces. The stereo­types deriving from that are called 'social stereotypes' (Six-Materna 246). People grow up with those social stereotypes and find it hard to avoid them. They belong to the realm of culture as a shared meaning as described by Hall and, more­over, to specific cultural discourses. The tendency to discriminate or prejudice, though, depends on the individual person (ibid. 247). Hence, categorization is in itself a neutral process without any judgment, which after all can lead to stereotyping, discrimination and racism.

In 1954, the psychologist Gordon Allport defined stereotypes as “an exaggerated belief associated with a category. Its function is to justify (rationalize) our conduct in re­lation to that category” (Pickering 10). This implies that all images and notions connect­ed with those gener­alized individuals or groups are shared in the interest of the social group among which they are used. Mostly, these notions and images are rather “simplis­tic, rigid and erroneous based on discriminatory values and damaging to people's actual social and personal identities” (ibid.). Pickering points out, that this is the case because those discriminatory views make it easier for groups to reduce specific cultural or behav­ioral features of other groups which might be hard to understand or even contra­dictory (ibid.). Another reason, as mentioned by Pickering, is that such a view of outstand­ing groups makes it easier for the inside groups to feel as one entity without making any dif­ference between inner subgroups (ibid.). If a social group or category is stereotyped as inherently lazy, stupid, child­ish, or dishonest, the ascription acts not only as a marker of deviancy, making it marginal to the moral order, but also a revalidation of that which it is mea­sured against and found wanting. This twofold movement is integral of the ways in which stereotypes function as a term of social control (Pickering 5)

Stereotyping is a matter of marginalization of groups against normative values and estab­lished conventions. This includes a mostly negative judgment about differences (Picker­ing 5). Those judgments are an expression of power. Stereotyping as a form of exclusion leads to an auto­matic inclusion into the structures of power and dominance of those liv­ing on the margins of, but still within a society (Pickering 5). Stereotyping is a way of re­ducing outside groups to basic traits in order to make it easier to make up one's mind about them, and this can be done by a group of individuals functioning as one entity unit­ed by the difference to the other one. In ba­sic terms, stereotypes unite one group by means of judging and excluding another.

Regarding stereotypes as easily erasable and thus hardly harmful, trivializes them and their effects on society and people's lives. The definition of stereotypes as beliefs about groups and their traits may give the impression that stereotyping is connected to a lack of knowledge or education, or to an imprecise representation, and that it could be erased with a correction thereof. That is not necessarily true. Even an empirical falsifica­tion of existing stereotypes does not consequently lead to a vanishing of them (Pickering 12). Politically and socially, stereotypes constrain people of ethnic and social groups from being able to fully engage them­selves in a society of a dominant group spreading and using those stereotypes. Stereotyping may thus easily and oftentimes lead to or in­volve hostility and discrimination.

Stereotypes are easily trivialized due to their simplicity. Quoting Teresa Perkins (1979), Pickering points out that “'all typifications are simplifications since they select com­mon features and exclude differences'; to this extent 'all typifications are undifferen­tiated (and in that sense they are also erroneous)'” (13ff.). Perkins goes on to say that while stereotypes such as that of the 'happy-go-lucky Negro' of colonial times seem to be simplistic, they are rather abstract and operate on “a higher level of generalization” (Pickering, 13). That is be­cause the obvious description of the stereotype of the 'hap­py-go-lucky Negro' includes the African's assumed simple mindedness and warmhearted­ness but implicitly led to the assump­tion of his general inability to be serious and able to gov­ern himself (Pickering 13). This, back in colonial times, was used as justification for the British imperialism and colonial­ism. Thus, the complexity of a stereotype and its im­plicit meaning can lead directly onto the path of po­litical ideology and economic ex­ploitation, human cruelty and racism.

Such practices of stereotyping have increased when the encounters with other cultures have as well, through “industrialization, ur­banization, and massive popula­tion movement, or through overseas European expansion and the development of colo­nization and imperialism” (Pickering 7ff.). This will be seen later on in re­gards to African Americans, who have suffered from the dichotomy of being de­picted as either an obedi­ent “Uncle Tom” character, or a hyper-masculine and violent “Brutal Black Buck.”[5]

Pickering offers an insight into two basic features of stereotypes that might be for­gotten when reducing it to its mere simplistic definition. First, stereotypes are not only simple, they also have a complex side to them. They tie together contrary features under one ideologi­cal umbrella that depends on its discourse. Second, the extent of the conse­quences of a stereot­ype such as the one about the 'happy-go-lucky Negro' in the imperial­ist times, shows what devastating effects it can have.

3.3 Stereotypes in the Media

Stereotypes can be seen as especially crucial for they are enhanced by the media. In times that are more and more complex and complicated, there is a growing need for objective, unprejudiced depictions of facts and events. This need is compromised with the increased per­ception of the world through the media (Pickering 19) which does not erode stereotypes but rather enhances them (ibid.). Lippmann says, that stereotypical me­dia depictions are “a serious problem in opinion formation and reproduction.”

The “inadequate and manipulated media representations” are, according to Lipp­mann, not necessarily that way “because of 'any malevolent plan', but because for sound, commercial reasons they follow 'the line of least resistance' in relation to existing preju­dices”, as for in­stance in the journalistic amplification of stereotypes about foreigners (Pickering 18). Thus, it is not only hard to change an existing stereotype, it is rather im­possible when the media avoids taking economic chances by trying to change it. Al­though this may be regarded in relation to Marxist theories of capitalistic interests, this could only be verified concerning pro­duction and advertisement.[6] But apart from the lat­ter, the media also depends on people, their opinions and their agreement with the me­dia. So Foucault's or Gramsci's definitions of discourse and hegemony, respectively, have to be considered for both of them in­clude society in its entirety and not just economic in­terests of producers.

Pickering points out that “it is pointless trying to gauge whether or not [stereo­types] are accurate”, in regards to Lippmann's differentiation of necessary categorization and instru­mental stereotyping. “What counts is how they circulate, and with what conse­quences [...]” (Pickering 25f.). In order to analyze those questions proficiently and suffi­ciently, it is needed to bring back the historical concept and context of stereotypes to re­cent analysis. We need to overcome the obsessively present-centered orientation of much of the work on stereotyping […]. Such critical treatment seems at times to be imprisoned within a view of the world bounded by its attention to the present, permitting no view from its narrow cell of the sweeping panorama of the past (Pickering 49).

This is especially needed since we have already heard that stereotypes are resistant to change. In order to find stereotypes in a current context, as intended in this thesis, it is crucial to point out stereotypes about specific groups in the historical contexts in order to see how, when and why they may have changed or if they are still intact and in use.

Stereotypes are hard to change, they are part of a specific social memory and they are inter alia transmitted via media. Still, they do not necessarily depict what is real or what can be found in society. They are a matter of what people or institutions in power want to be seen in contrast to what is wanted as the norm in a society. Thus, the depiction of stereotypes is not so much with the theoretical question of a knowable social or his­torical 'real' as with the ex­perientially knowable consequences of symbolic representa­tion.” Rather it is a “questions of who is speaking of whom, at what cost and in what terms” ( Pickering, 50f.).

In order to be able to properly identify the possible use of stereotypes about African Americans on The Wire, or the lack thereof and the reasons for both, it is neces­sary to analyze the American history of race in regards to Africans, African Americans and other people of color that can be seen as Black and stereotyped under the same con­ditions.

4. Race

4.1 Race as the Basis for Stereotyping

In regards to stereotypes, especially when focusing on a topic concerning the United States, the concept of race has to be mentioned and put into historical context. Race is a rather mod­ern idea and even a modern term. It did not exist in the English language until William Dunbar used it in a poem in 1508 (PBS, Ten Things, 2003). Race, as defined by Hazel Rose Markus and Paula M. L. Moya in their 2010 volume Doing Race, is a complex system of ideas and practices regarding how some visible characteristics of hu­man bodies such as skin color, facial features, and hair texture relate to people's character, intellectual capacity, and patterns of behavior (22).

Character as well as behavioral traits in races are mostly considered negative. They are inter alia put upon certain groups in order to justify their exploitation or denigration (ibid. 21). Simi­lar to stereotypes, as defined above, the concept of race was and is used to sub­ordinate groups and secure a certain organization of power. The traits assigned to and be­liefs about cer­tain races can be seen as stereotypes in use, both socially and politically.

The idea of race was invented in the 16th century in order to justify the exploita­tion of west African slaves (Metzler XI; Weizmann 10). Until today, the idea of race is in use, even in official institutional documents and data such as the American Census that de­mands Americans to categorize themselves into one or more of at least five racial cate­gories which are: “White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander" (Census.gov). Race in the U.S. has always been a matter of power. The concept of race has been used to create a contrast to the dominant group of people with white skin. The American nation and its culture have both long been regarde­d as white. Especially the Africans have been important to the notion of whiteness. Blackness has been constructed as an opposite to whiteness as well as in order to enable whiteness and vice versa (Smethurst 563). Until today, race re­mains a crucial aspect of life in the United States, especially for African Americans (Meagher 237). In Appendix A, I will summarize the African American experience in the US along the lines of their social situation which would go into too much detail for the thesis itself.

All in all, regarding the historical development of African Americans in the US, it has to be considered that their encounter with North America and its inhabitants and im­migrants was a forced one, and one that was based on their exploitation. Until today, Blacks carry the weight of their exploitation and discrimination economically and social­ly and in regards to certain ste­reotypes about them. Blacks have long been seen as less in­telligent, less able to live by them­selves and more criminal, violent and animal-like, espe­cially in relation to sexuality. In how far such stereotypes have found their way into our media, especially TV and films, and if they have survived until today will be analyzed in the following.

5. The Changing Depictions of Blacks in the U.S.

Racial difference, as constructed as it is, is part of the core of American society (Mittell 2010 314). The definition of and the conduct toward race are always in a state of flux. Racial representation in the media plays an important role in the study of racial differ­ence. The representation of difference is always a representation of identity, for represen­tation of minorities or subordi­nate groups always shows how they are positioned in rela­tion to the dominant group which is mostly the white, heterosexual male adult (Mittell 2010 306).

Although empirical falsifications of stereotypes do not necessarily change them (Pick­ering 12), the depiction of African Americans has changed significantly throughout history. These changes reflect the changing social climate for Blacks in the U.S. (Ben­shoff 78). As de­scribed in Appendix A, African Americans have gone a long way from slav­ery and a status of lesser humans to their constitutionally guaranteed status of de jure equality in American soci­ety. Nevertheless, stereotypes and stereotypical depictions of Blacks in the U.S. have not com­pletely vanished. Stereotypes that have been implement­ed for centuries can hardly be erased by a few laws and amendments and some political campaigns. Stereo­types that have been that consistent could even rise again, as Pickering explains: The degree to which stereotypes of black people [...] have proved resistant or respon­sive to change has depended on the social and historical circumstances in which they have operated, their rhetorical status in cultural processes of mean­ing-construction, and the extent of the self-rewarding emotional, moral, political or other investments which their perpetrators have had in their long-term preser­vation. Stereo­types remain fairly stable for quite considerable periods of time, and tend to become more pro­nounced and hostile when social tensions between different ethnic […] groupings arise (Pickering 12).

According to Pickering, it should thus be possible to find long lasting stereotypes about Blacks in the media, even until today and especially on the rise in times of racial crises.

Tele­vision, as a cultural product, depending on institutional structures and the au­dience's attraction to it, is a medium highly involved in discourse on every level of soci­ety. This is also mirrored in its politics of representation. In general, Gray argues that [...] contemporary television representations of blackness are linked to the pres­ence and admittedly limited influence of a small number of highly visible black producers, writers, directors [and other Blacks involved] […] along with the struc­tural shifts, cultural discourses, and institutional transformations of the television industry […] (Gray 2000 282).

Also, shows produced or written by this limited number of Blacks do not necessarily have 'Black topics' and shows with 'Black topics' mostly have white producers, writers, and directors (Gray 2000 282f.). Television productions construct a point of view. “Not sur­prisingly, this point of view constructs and privileges white middle-class audiences as the ide­al viewers and subjects of television stories” (Gray 2000 283).

In the following, I will analyze the historical development of Black stereotypes throughout the history of movies and TV in order to afterward search for remains of those stereotypes in The Wire.

5.1 Depictions of Blacks in Cinema and on Television

The depiction of Blacks in mass media begins with the invention of mass media and their widespread availability. In the 1830s, tabloid newspapers and theater shows became af­fordable for the poor masses. Production-wise, Blacks were completely excluded, and as con­sumers and audiences they were not the target group and hardly present. Blacks were included as artists in shows, although only at the price of being made fun of. If Blacks were not playing other Blacks on stage, whites were mocking Blacks in the fa­mous and popular Minstrel shows (Wilson II 72f.).

With the appearance of the first movies at the end of the 19th century, the first­stereotypical depictions of Blacks could be seen on screens (Wilson II 74). From its in­ception, U.S. cinema has worked within a dominant ideology of “white patriarchal capi­talism” (Ben­shoff 78). American movie productions reflected the dominant attitudes to­wards Blacks in the U.S. Blacks were victims of stereotyping in movies as early as 1896 and 1897, when Thomas Edison's The Watermelon Contest and Sambo and Aunt Jemima were published (Ben­shoff 78). Back then, after the end of slavery, the old derogatory and exaggerated images of Africans from the antebellum South with which slavery had been justified for over 200 years were still in use. The first stereotypical depictions in the first movies appeared in the same year in which Plessy vs. Ferguson was dealt with by the American Supreme Court, 1896 (King 101) which legalized segrega­tion and second class citizenship of Blacks in the South.[7] The change from the system of slav­ery and complete subordination to the constitutionally legalized segregation in the south­ern states of the U.S. ruled by Jim Crow laws, and the informal segregation in the northern states did not necessarily mean that depictions and stereotypes changed (Hall 2004 187). Mostly, simi­lar to the minstrel shows beforehand, Blacks were enacted by white actors with black faces. These blackfaces and the stereotypes put into films basically remained unchanged for the first half of the 20th century. In retrospect, the era of Plessy vs. Ferguson is the era that basically shaped the upcoming years in regard to the status and the representation of Blacks. The social consensus on the role of Blacks, the discourse, did not change from slavery to its end and to segregation thereafter, the Supreme Court ruling and the media depictions of Blacks give a clear impression of that.

There were basically two capacities in which non-whites were depicted inferior to whites: intellect and morale. Wilson II. argues that working-class whites needed reassur­ance of their being part of the superior race. In order to satisfy the audience's needs and make them feel as being part of the society, film producers gave them what they wanted: The clear cut de­piction of Black inferiority. Especially Griffith's Birth of a Nation of 1915 was a strong state­ment on racial differences. Griffith told the story of the birth of the American nation as the story of the founding of the Ku Klux Klan, fighting for the honor and purity of the white race and white women especially (Hall 2004 135). Blacks were clearly depicted as in­tellectually and morally inferior, either as obedient or as “lazy, ignorant, vicious, and rapa­cious” (Ben­shoff 80). Also, The Birth of a Nation implied a strong message against interracial sex (Wilson II 76) since the villain was a mulatto lust­ing for white women (Benshoff 80). Black represen­tation was stuck in the dichotomy of either being obedient and dumb or violent and threaten­ing. Griffith underlined the stereo­typical representation by cutting scenes out of the movie which portrayed Black families that would have made them more sympathetic to the audience. That was a common way of estranging Blacks from audiences and to underline their status as villains, and it still is, even today (Benshoff 79).

Griffith's movie is considered as the birth of modern movie making. Griffith, for the first time in movie-history, used certain techniques of cutting and editing and enabled a whole new way of storytelling with pictures (Hall 2004 135). The birth of modern films is heavily connected to Black stereotypes that were dominant in Hollywood for eras. The stereo­types used by Griffith are some of those that Donald Bogle identifies in his study of 1973, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: an Interpretative History of Blacks in American Films. Bogle speaks of five basic African American stereotypes constantly used in American movies in the first half of the 20th century and even thereafter:

- Uncle Tom is a character that shows the Black man as socially acceptable for and obedient to the whites. Uncle Tom represents the “good Negro”, the good­hearted and loyal servant to his white master. No matter how unfairly and humili­ating he is treated, he maintains his goodhearted, obedient, submissive and selfless behavior. For the Tom the white man is the answer to all of his problems. This makes him very popu­lar with the white audience (Bogle 3ff.).

- The Coon is the “most [...] degrading of all black stereotypes”. He is a charac­ter that represents the Black man as funny and entertaining and an amuse­ment object. Coons are portrayed as “stumbling and stuttering idiots”, as unreli­able, lazy, harmless and good-for-nothing except for eating watermelons, shooting dice and butchering the Eng­lish language. Similarly to the Uncle Tom character, he is obedient and loyal and thus not a threatening stereotype of a Black man (Bogle 7f.).

- The Tragic Mulatto is an attractive mixed-race woman who is shown as lovable and sympathetic. She is a rather emotional and selfish, savvy and seduc­tive nympho­maniac. In the end, her socially unwanted mixed-race heritage and her miscegenistic behavior seal her faith and lead to an inevitable tragic end pre­venting her from an oth­erwise “productive and happy life” (Bogle 9).

- A Mammy is a corpulent and grumbly Black maid. She is a character simi­lar to the Coon but fiercely independent and of a different sex. Mostly, she is mid­dle-aged, desexualized and serves as a mother-substitute. Although she shows a certain amount of self-esteem through her rather rough commentaries, she is a loyal and obedient servant and thus close to the character of a Tom (Bogle 10).

- The Brutal Black Buck is the strong, bad, angry and violent Black male. He is rebellious and equipped with an exaggerated sexual desire and lust for white flesh. On one hand, his physical violence could be an outlet for his suppressed sexuality. On the other hand, he is depicted as “over-sexed and savage, violent and frenzied.” The fear of the Black sexual powers, in terms of stereotypical represen­tation, derives from Griffith's representation of the Brutal Black Buck as a sexual savage. Originally, this myth derives from the times of abolition and the fear of miscegenation and the degen­eration of the white race (Bogle 10ff.).

Hall says that although stereotypes have changed over time, these basic depictions have not completely vanished even until today (Hall 2004 136).

There are two opposing categories of those stereotypes. On one hand there are the characters of the Mammy, the goodhearted Uncle Tom and the comedic Coon, all of them rather obe­dient or at least relatively harmless, who underline the common perception of white supremacy. On the other hand, there are the Tragic Mulatto and the Black Buck which both “suggest a psycho-sexual dimension to social prejudices”(Benshoff 79). Especially the Black Buck reflects the white man's fear of the Black male and the sexual revenge on white women for the slave owner's cruelty and the social and sexual suppression.

As a reaction to The Birth of a Nation, Black film makers produced The Birth of a Race (1918) which failed commercially but foreshadowed a first wave of Black films from the late 1910s to the 1950s. During the years of Jim Crow, political and economic powers took care that Blacks could neither gain knowledge about film making nor raise money.[8] Since the cheaply produced Black movies were successful with Black audiences nevertheless, the production companies involved were taken over by whites. Afterward, the films were freed of all social and political implications (Benshoff 81). While the so-called race films that were produced adapted other common genres and featured Black actors, other conventions were not changed at all. For example, the common color code of Western movies was kept. The good ones, here the Black ones, were dressed in white and the bad ones in black. A certain irony can be seen in the switched roles with the reaf­firmed color codes which implicated the established stereotypes (Benshoff 82).

The depiction of Blacks slightly changed during Hollywood’s heyday in the 1930s and 1940s. Especially between 1930 and 1945, Hollywood reacted to new social realities and changed up the depiction of non-whites. Black were no longer shown as criminals and threat­ening, of low morals and low intellect, but instead as obedient char­acters who “knew their place” (Wilson II 78). Mostly, though, the movies were segregat­ed in regards to actors due to the production code mandate against miscegenation of 1934. The mere presence of Blacks, es­pecially of Tragic Mulattoes and Black Bucks, would have implicated the possibility of mixed-race intercourse (Benshoff 83). If any Black actors appeared on screen, they could be seen as “domestic workers, waiters, and porters”, as dancers, singers, or “happy, faithful and sometimes lazy slaves.” (Wilson II 79f.). Hall describes their rare appearance in the movies as playing the obedient and loy­al maids and helpers for whites (2004 136) and hence as Uncle Toms, Coons and Mam­mies.

The 1940s then were the era of Black musicals such as Porgy and Bess and Black en­tertainers such as Cab Calloway (Hall 2004 137). Hollywood produced all-Black movies in order to avoid implications of miscegenation with mixed casts but also to prove its liberal un­derstanding of art. However, all of these movies were produced and directed by whites and showing the same old stereotypes (Benshoff 84).

WWII led to a change in the attitudes of whites towards Blacks that mirrored it­self in the depiction of Blacks in movies (Wilson II 87). In 1943, e.g., the movie The Ne­gro Soldier promoted the inclusion of Blacks in the army. Although it was an army pro­paganda movie, it was so popular that it was shown in regular theaters as well (Benshoff 85). In the 1950s, there was a rising awareness of the race problem, which was only de­picted from one point of view, the white one. Stories about Blacks were told from white perspectives, and whites even played light-skinned Blacks, so that the ban of mixed-race kissing could be avoided (Benshoff 86).

During the Cold War, the “social problem film” quickly vanished. Then, films were dominated by the communist threat and McCarthyism. America had to be shown and repre­sented as a perfect union with the better system and the better people (Benshoff 86). This was the beginning of the era of actors such as Sidney Portier. While Portier was a Black man cast to play the main characters in a number of motion pictures, he was completely white-washed. Portier was shown as a Black man without embodying any Black traits or stereotypes. He was intelligent, educated, conservatively dressed and well articulated (Hall 2004 137). Portier em­bodied a Black man living by white standards who could not possibly be a threat to the exist­ing societal system. Portier on one hand opened the door for Black actors in mainstream movies, on the other hand he was not seen as Black and could thus not consequently advocate for Blacks whose majority's real living conditions were not mirrored by Portier's roles at all.

At the same time, television became the most important medium of the American soci­ety (Benshoff 90). From the start, Blacks were the largest non-white racial presence on net­work television. From 1948 on, Blacks were regularly seen on CBS's Toast of the Town which would later be the Ed Sullivan Show; and also from 1954 on, on NBC's Tonight show. Black presence on TV and in the movies was paralleled by their slow so­cial integration evidenced the Brown vs. Board of Education case of 1954. But a court de­cision did not change society as a whole. The mere presence of African Americans in schools and on screen would not result in a satisfactory TV portrayal of diverse Black re­alities (Wilson II 99). Black history and the current state of society were not depicted at all, so that the African Ameri­can background completely vanished from TV (Mittell 2010 315). However, the early 1950s on TV were far more inclusive than the upcoming eras would be (Mittell 2010 316).

When in 1951, CBS introduced a television version of the radio show Amos'n'Andy, it was a small revolution. It was the first show with an all-Black cast on TV, notably before the Civil Rights Movement (Wilson II 100; Benshoff 90). Even though the actors played Blacks in all possible professions, they were still depicted as objects to mock, mostly “lazy buffoons and cowardly crooks” (Mittell 2010 318). When introduced to a live audience, the male actors were called “boys” by the producers (Wil­son II 100). The term “boy” was reminiscent of how Blacks were spoken to in the days of slavery in which adult Black men were not accepted as adult males. The actors were not taken seriously by the producers and thus not by the audience. The show, although very popular, started a controversy over the depiction of Blacks as having questionable intellects and morals (Wilson II, 100). Amos'n'Andy was removed from TV with initia­tive of the NAACP that sued CBS in 1951 (Gray 2000 286; Mittell 2010 318). The show is representative for 1950's American television in which Blacks could be seen only as maids, cooks and in other lower positions, stereotyped as Mammies, Coons and Toms. Blacks were depicted as obedient characters in order to maintain the social framework of white supremacy (Gray 2000 286). After the end of Amos'n'Andy in 1953, many Blacks who saw the show as an employment op­portunity, feared that this would be the end of Black TV presence (Mittell 2010 318). They were close to the truth. During the late 1950s and the whole 1960s, Blacks on TV were as rare as Blacks in the cinema. And if they were present at all, Blackness was basically ignored, Blacks were depicted as ethnically white (Gray 2000 287). Mittell lists two reasons for that. One was that southern affiliates tried to keep TV segregated, the other was that advertisers feared to have their products being connected to Blacks (2010 319).

Due to the CRM of the 1960s and its political and social accomplishments[9], an in­dependent depiction of Blacks became possible for the first time. This can be seen as the first revolution in the representation of Blackness in the U.S. after Amos'n'Andy (Hall 2004 143). With a radicalization of the CRM in the second half of the 1960s and the for­mation of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in 1966 (King 163f.), a demand for a new type of Black character in films appeared (Benshoff 88). The “sophisticated, heroic Black male character emerged” (Wilson II 87) and came to life in the so called Blaxploitation movies. These movies included a nearly all Black cast and a rather militant posture. Dur­ing the zenith of the CRM, such films showed Blacks taking re­venge on whites. Huey Newton of the BPP called Melvin van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baaadassss Song of 1971 the “first revolutionary Black film” (Benshoff 88). The film tells the story of Sweet Sweetback, a hustler, sexual stud and cop killer. Thus, it tells the story of a Black Buck, told from a Black perspective instead of from a white one. Since whites, still the eco­nomically most interesting target group, had little interest in such stories, the topics cho­sen led to a lack of financial support for independent Blaxploitation movies. The genre was taken over by white producers and exploited for financial reasons. The movie econo­my was in cri­sis back then and Black audiences were considered better than none. Gang­ster movies and crime thrillers with a new Black Buck character, flashy and violent, were produced (Benshoff 88). The NAACP and other Black groups as well as intellectuals in­tervened and questioned the type of Black character represented (Benshoff 89). With the rise of critique and the decline of success, the hype of Blaxploitation movies ended with the end of the 1970s.

Simultaneously to the rise and fall of Blaxploitation on the big screen, more Black presence could be seen on TV, with Blacks being featured in sup­porting and even in leading roles. In most shows, there was only one Black character who was depicted as rather white than Black apart from the pig­mentation of his skin within an otherwise all-white cast (Mittell 2010 320). white critics considered that a sign of an integrated society which would not need any further change while Black critics decried the erased racial identity. They called these Black characters “white Negroes” (Mittell 2010 320).

As a reaction, more “relevant” and “authentic” depictions of Black people were de­manded (Gray 2000 288; Mittell 2010 320). The popular comedy show All in the Family that started in the early 1970s caused a controversy about the depiction of racial prejudices. The show features the racially bigot character of Archie Bunker who often ar­gues with his liberal son-in-law Mike. The producers aimed at a liberal youth target group. Instead, racist Archie Bunker turned out to be the most popular character (Mittell 2010 322). The show's producers argued that the comedic depiction of prejudices would lead to less prejudices and that it would be clear that the show made fun of them. The NAACP even awarded the show for that (Wilson II 52). Psychological tests, on the con­trary, proved that people tend to watch a show and follow its arguments based on their own level of education and prejudice. People, first of all, only watch what suits them and, second of all, they only follow the arguments they agree with. This is called selec­tive perception and selective exposure, respectively. With re­gards to


[1] Taken from a dialogue between the characters Dennis Wise and Slim Charles. The Wire Season 03 Episode 04 "Amsterdam"

[2] Retrived from http://www.g33k-e.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/The-Wire.jpg, March 9, 2014

[3] A detailed historical account from the times before slavery until today will be available in Appendix A.

[4] For detailed information about what controls and forms discourse, see: Foucault, Michel. Die Ordnung des Diskur­ses. Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag. Frankfurt/Main, 2003.

[5] Referring to the terms of Bogle which will be explained in detail later on.

[6] A further analysis based on Marxist theories may be interesting as well but would neither fit my theoretical ap­proach nor the supposed amount of pages given forthis thesis.

[7] For further information see Appendix A.

[8] A strategy that was also common in the colonies and former colonies of European powers in Africa. For further information see Manthia Diawara. African Cinema: Politics and Culture. Indiana University Press,1992

[9] See Appendix A for further information.


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Title: "The Game the Same. Just Got More Fierce."