STUDENT SAMPLE – Gender and Sexuality Roles in the Top 3 Rated HBO Hour Long Dramas

Research Report by Nicolette (WRTG 3020 – Spring 2011)


For better or for worse, television is an integral part of American society. Drawing in millions of Americans day and night, people become invested in specific television series, often following the development of characters throughout the duration of a program’s air time. With the development of premium cable networks, many have turned from major basic cable networks’ family friendly programming in search of something less censored and with less commercial interruptions.

The largest of these premium cable networks is HBO with 41 million American subscribers as of 2011 ( Original programming on HBO has been much of the allure in purchasing access to the channel, producing many highly acclaimed TV series throughout its existence.

I was most interested in examining the top three most highly rated original hour long dramas on HBO and each show’s messages regarding gender and sexuality roles in American culture. Acknowledging HBO’s lack of corporate sponsorship and freedom in producing programs that would otherwise be considered explicit, I expected the top three dramas to have a great deal of highly sexualized, graphic, traditional gender and sexuality roles portrayed.


To determine which of the shows I would examine, I looked to the website which breaks down all television programming by either genre, decade of broadcast, or network. The website listed the top three most highly rated HBO dramas as first, Six Feet Under, second, The Wire, and third, The Sopranos.

I focused on the first season of each series which was comprised of 13 episodes. 25% of the episodes were examined, which was three episodes from each series. Randomization was achieved by examining every fourth episode in the season, those being the first, fifth, and ninth episodes.

By selecting every fourth episode, a strong comparison could be made in the development of characters throughout the first season.


I found there to be some very consistent, strong messages concerning gender and sexuality throughout the progression of all three shows. First, gay men do not need to feel comfortable with nor fit the narrow roles our society has prescribed to them. Next, women do not own their sexuality. Finally, relationships that do not have a dominating male presence are unavoidably tumultuous.

Gay men can be masculine

Six Feet Under:

This show differed from the others in that the primary character, David, is a gay man. He works for his father in their family business of running a funeral parlor, setting a dark background for the series. Episode one begins with his father’s untimely death as the result of a car accident. This sets the stage for a number of conflicts David experiences due to his loss. He struggles with coming to terms with his homosexuality and often thinks about what his father would say if he knew about his relationship with an African American LAPD officer, Keith. He has a great deal of shame for his homosexuality and goes to great lengths to disguise his relationship with his boyfriend as simply a friend he plays racquetball with.

David keith sixfeetunder
David and Keith (Hall, 2001, June 3rd)

During episode 2, he has a dream during which he wakes up in bed next to Keith and the two start kissing only to be interrupted by his dead father sitting on the edge of the bed, asking which one of them was the wife. David wakes up in a panic, rushing to leave his Keith’s home. This represents a conflict that many gay Americans struggle with on a day to day basis due to the social construction that gay men are feminine and that a homosexual relationship requires a masculine and feminine presence. The question of David possibly being the “wife” is deeply upsetting to him, leading him to grow more distant to his boyfriend who eventually cannot deal with the secrecy of their relationship and leaves him.

HBO did a surprisingly good job at breaking the stereotype of what a gay male looks like and what constitutes masculinity. Society has constructed an overly feminized image of gay males, leaving them constricted to a flamboyant lifestyle of partying, fashion and promiscuity. In the show, David can’t be farther from this construct, dressing in conservative suits and having a deeply introverted, serious personality. His boyfriend also breaks these constructs and is a very masculine presence, a strong cop who is unafraid to stand up for himself. Though later in the show, David tries to date someone who perfectly embodies the image of a young, trendy gay male, he finds himself uncomfortable and irritated by the shallowness of the clubbing lifestyle. This portrayal revolutionary in the development of a gay character.

Traditionally, gay characters have been limited in their depth, leaving societal perceptions of the gay male incredibly superficial. This is really one of the first instances of a gay character being the primary character in a main stream television show, let alone a complex, strong, traditionally masculine presence.

The Wire:

This show follows multiple characters on both sides of the “war on drugs” in inner city Baltimore. The majority of the shows primary characters are men, most of which consistently attempt to prove their masculinity. An interesting facet to this show regarding a non-traditional view of masculinity and homosexuality is the character of Omar introduced in episode 4, a gay drug lord.

Omar wire

Omar(center) and lover (left) (Hubbard, 2010)

While other powerful dealers prove their masculinity through their multiple sexual relationships with women and use of violence, Omar conducts business differently. He is open and proud of his sexuality, leading him to be targeted by rival dealers who kill his boyfriend. The culture that surrounds him views homosexuality as nothing short of a weakness, any mistake or oversight is quickly attributed to being a “faggot” or “pussy”.

The portrayal of one of the drug dealers as a powerful, African American gay man breaks all preconceived notions of what it means to be an urban male. Traditionally represented as hypersexual, heterosexual men, Omar doesn’t fit the stereotype of a black man American society has been force fed in pop culture. Instead, he has a serious, monogamous relationship with another gang member and insists on keeping his language church friendly.

Though his counterparts berate him for his homosexuality and talk about him as though he is a weak presence, it is evident they still maintain a sense of respect and fear of him. The murder of his boyfriend causes him to take action against the assailants, cooperating with police throughout the season and using any information he is provided by them to take revenge. He eventually gathers all the information he needs to find his rivals’ hiding place, a strip club, and attempts to kill the lead gang member.

Rather than being passive and submissive in his actions, Omar is incredibly proactive and refuses to be bullied. He doesn’t allow other men to intimidate him and challenges the view that gay men are easily frightened and unable to stand up for themselves.

Women do not own their sexuality

Six Feet Under:

The character of Ruth, the mother in this show, is most representative of this theme. Initially being presented as a doting mother and wife, she hears news of her husband’s death as she prepares Christmas dinner in an apron. Soon after her husband dies it is apparent that she does not necessarily fit this neat image. She admits to her son about having cheated on her late husband with another man, using the excuse that she was “going camping” to deceive him. She had been tired of the ordinary life she came to live everyday, being viewed as only a mother and wife, feeling a deep sense of loss for her sexuality.

Ruth views her middle aged life as a construct she never wished to fit and was instead pushed into by the roles dictated to her by society. I think that many women who watch this series can relate to Ruth as there is no externally obvious pressures on her to fulfill her roles. Her husband is not abusive nor is she uneducated. She is simply victim to the societal expectation that women surrender their sexuality once they are wives and mothers.

Men are sexual beings throughout their lives, being portrayed in the media with partners half their age. They have the availability of various prescription pills to further their sexual abilities beyond middle age. There are little to no portrayals of older women as sexual. Societal constructs not only limit a woman’s sexual expression but tell her that any such sexuality that ever existed in her youth must be forgotten once she is a mother, wife, or middle aged. This notion is quickly challenged here, allowing the character to explore her sexuality and side to herself she disregarded for so long. Rebelling to the Madonna/whore complex that has been so engrained in our ideas surrounding female sexuality, Ruth’s attempt to reclaim that aspect of self came by embarking upon an affair.

The Sopranos:

The hyper masculine context of this show leads to a distinct pattern in male influence on female sexuality. Male presence in the show is characterized by the embodiment of a stereotypical, Italian mobster. Tony Soprano, the main character, makes up in traditional masculinity what he lacks in refinement. He has power in the mafia, two children, a wife, and attractive young girlfriend on the side.

Tony soprano
Tony Soprano (Gandolfini, 1999, March, 7)

Most interesting to me is that despite the fact that he is somewhat unattractive, middle aged and over weight, he manages to be surrounded by thin, attractive, younger women. Should someone watch this program who is unfamiliar with gender constructs, it would seem apparent that women do not need men to meet any physical requirements of attractiveness. Rather it is money and power that are necessary for a sexual relationship to develop. Men do not need to care about their looks, nor should women care.

Just like Six Feet Under’s character Ruth, there is the problem of women being sexually invisible as they become older and fit into the role of wife/mother. Throughout the season Tony’s wife Camilla expresses her anger towards Tony’s lack of sex drive. In the 5th episode she confronts Tony about it and he casually cites his loss of desire for sex as a side effect of his use of Prozac. He gets irritated when the issue is pressed and insists that the “mother of his children” shouldn’t be concerned with sex. Camilla is angered by this statement, insisting she is more than simply a mother and has needs that are unfulfilled. Tony seems taken aback by this statement, never having thought that while he is out with his young mistress his wife might be feeling sexually frustrated.

One interesting moment concerning women not owning their sexuality is in episode 9 when Tony’s uncle, the head of the family, is in bed with his girlfriend. She compliments him at his skill at performing oral sex on her, a statement which is met with a demand for extreme secrecy. He explains that it is a sign of weakness to commit such an act on a woman and would greatly jeopardize his reputation as a leader among other men in “the family”. Society has constructed a very one sided view of sex between a man and woman, limiting it to a woman’s presence solely being to pleasure a man. Women can only be sexual when it is appropriate and on the man’s terms.

The Wire:

Suppression of female sexuality comes from a different angle in The Wire. Rather than addressing the topic through wives or mothers who are unsatisfied and left silenced by society, imagery of women as solely objects for male sexual gratification is highlighted. Women are consistently used and abused for sex and then left as if they are nothing more than trash. This is most highlighted through the story of the gang members who consistently talk about women as “hoes” and “cunts”. Using a strip club as a legitimate front for their illegal dealings, women are consistently used to make money and provide entertainment. Their sexual desires or needs are never addressed.

The only strong female character on the show is a lesbian police officer who remains very quiet about her sexuality due to the stir it causes among male officers. Society has taught us that women are not to discuss their sexuality and should they discuss it, they are “sluts” or “whores”. Sexuality is based on a man’s needs and desires and is to be only addressed by women in order to keep the man in their life satisfied with them.

Successful relationships require a strong masculine presence

Six Feet Under:

The most notable relationship highlighting the ongoing theme of a male/female power struggle is Nate’s relationship with Brenda, a strong willed woman he met on the airplane coming home for Christmas eve. In episode one, the two have sex in a stock room at the airport as Nate awaits his father. After receiving a phone call that his father has been killed, Brenda offers to drive him to the hospital, sparking a relationship to develop over the course of following episodes. Brenda’s character is only further developed into a dark, dysfunctional presence in Nate’s life. Though she is brilliant in her intelligence, she is reckless and detached. The two seem to have a role rehearsal in terms of traditional standards of a male/female relationship. Though Nate embodies a modern, sensitive man there is still the sense that he wants her to act more like a traditional girlfriend. There is constant turmoil in their relationship despite how understanding Nate attempts to be.

The message here is that despite a man’s attempt at allowing the woman in the relationship to be the more dominating presence, this shift in power consistently yields struggle. We are told that women should be subservient to their male partner, more emotionally involved and sensitive.

The Sopranos:

Due to the fact that much of this show revolves around the construct of masculinity and the characters’ desire to embody the prototypical image of an Italian mobster, the primary relationship I found most interesting is between Tony and his female psychiatrist. Dr. Melfi. Tony is accustomed to being in control of all his relationships with the women in his life, whether it be his mother, wife or daughter. He has the final say in all discourses between them, fulfilling a traditional role of head of the family.

His relationship with Dr. Melfi begins in episode 1. He is visibly uncomfortable at his first session with her, cracking sexist jokes at her expense and addressing her as “honey”. She does not allow him to conduct himself like this when meeting with her and instead instructs him that she is a competent physician from whom he is seeking help. Though following episodes show that Tony truly tries to accept her authority in their patient/physician relationship, there is still unrest. He has her followed by one of his men in episode 5, another example of his deep need to control women in his life.

His wife Camilla is deeply troubled that his therapist is a woman and feels threatened by her presence in Tony‘s life. She insists that he must be having an affair with his doctor and even goes so far as to lash out at Dr. Melfi over a phone call in episode 6. This is interesting because it sends the message that not only can men and women not have a purely egalitarian relationship but that women feel more threatened by other women than they do men. While Camilla is completely under Tony’s control, subject to following his every will and desire, she is less concerned with her lack of say in their relationship and more concerned with the woman who is free of him.

As a humorous twist, the 5th episode shows Tony as somewhat of a bumbling idiot as he confesses his love for Dr. Melfi, a common client misinterpretation of their feelings while in therapy and traditionally represented with a male therapist/female client. The subject of not only having a man find himself romantically helpless but in the submissive position in a relationship with a woman is interesting. Tony struggles not only with the fact that he is in therapy, which he interprets as a sign of weakness, but that his therapist is a woman. Society has structured male/female relationships so that women are expected to look to men for aide and comfort and any deviation is abnormal and weak.


I was very pleasantly surprised as I wrapped up my viewing of the top three rated HBO dramas. While I had previously expected there to be many highly traditional images and portrayals of sexuality in the shows, I found that there were many characters that challenged the norm. Rather than pandering to mainstream America by creating predicable characters who could easily fit into categories of masculine, feminine, straight or gay, complex individuals were introduced and developed throughout the course of the season.

Three distinct messages concerning gender and sexuality in popular culture were observed throughout the critical examination of Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and The Wire. Breaking free of the image of gay men as trendy and superficial, there were a number of gay characters who were much deeper, more serious and masculine individuals. Quite simply, we can learn from this that gay men are not simple and not always easily visible in society. They are just as complex as any other man and can possess many personality traits that seem contrary to their gay identity due to how our society has glorified a specific, superficial image.

Women not owning their sexuality is a message that is quite evident in all the shows. The dictation of when a woman can and cannot be a sexual being is largely dictated by men, either directly or indirectly through societal expectations. This suppression creates a great deal of unrest, confusion and sadness in women. Forced into the hyper sexualized life of an attractive young girl or the celibacy of a mother, women have little control in their sexual expression. Female sexuality is only addressed when it is comfortable and convenient for men to acknowledge it.

Finally, we can take a great deal from these shows about the balance of power in male/female relationships. The message most consistently portrayed was that relationships need a masculine dominance otherwise they are doomed for turmoil. In all relationships that attempted to challenge this notion, a great deal of arguing and instability was observed. We can perhaps learn that men cannot forfeit the dominance in a relationship, despite any efforts to allow for a more equal balance of power.

Further studies might consider expanding the number of seasons being examined, allowing for a better grasp on the character development throughout the show.


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