Thoughts on "True Detective" and Gender Issues
Most of the headlines I have seen discussing the show focus on its treatment of women. Since that is an issue I care about myself (being a woman and a feminist), then that is what I concentrated on as I watched the show and where my thoughts will go now. The rest goes beneath the cut because there will be spoilers and also (trigger warning!) discussion of extreme violence against women and children.
The setting of True Detective is southern Louisiana along the bayou, and it is one of profound sexism and misogyny. The question seems to be: is the show itself sexist/misogynist, or is the sexism and misogyny that so pervades it part of the point? I favor the latter interpretation. My conclusion is that the show depicts how sexism and misogyny not only produce a society where violence against women is normative and acceptable but also where the vulnerable (and women become part of this group, in such a society) are also more open to exploitation.
The show is a veritable catalog of sexism and misogyny in all of its forms, beginning with what many would still argue is benevolent: the traditional, professedly benign paternalistic desire of men to provide for and protect women. It escalates through garden-variety sexism (note the lack of women in any job that carries authority and the preponderance of women in jobs that involve serving men) and garden-variety misogyny (the objectification of women and the valuation of women based on their ability to sexually gratify men). Then there is the misogyny that leaves bruises, such as partner abuse or slapping a daughter in the face who talks back. And it ends with a level of misogyny that is heart-stopping in its brutally--the ritual torture and murder of women and children--and a good ol' boys' network at best apathetic and at worst complicit in such acts.
It seems to chance the slippery slope to suggest that one extreme leads to another, yet I think that the show blurs lines in such a way--especially through the character of Martin (Woody Harrelson)--that it does just that. His character spans the continuum I described above, stopping well shy of the final stage; indeed, I would argue that it is his refusal, when presented with irrefutable evidence by his former partner Rust (Matthew McConnaughy) that the case is much larger than he originally thought when they first "solved" it years earlier, to become apathetic or complicit is what redeems his character and allows him to ultimately connect with Rust and his ex-wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) as he was unable to do before.
As noted above, the landscape of True Detective is one in which women are protected in order to serve men. Through Marty's character, we can see that what lies behind this protective urge anything but gallant: It is possessive. When his artsy, rebellious teen daughter Audrey is found in a car with two boys "in a state of undress," his reaction is violent. When Audrey protests against his threat to bring the boys up on statutory rape charges, he slaps her in the face. He later leverages the threat of these charges and his authority as a detective (employing the old boys' network to gain him unsupervised access to the boys in jail, thus benefiting from the same complicity that allowed the disappearance of dozens of women and children in the bayou area) to compel the boys to leave their cells, at which point he violently beats them. Likewise, his reaction when he discovers that his lover Lisa--who laments the dead-end nature of her relationship with him and her desire for marriage--is seeing another man is violent and swift. He breaks into her home and beats up the other man. He employs his authority as a police officer, again, to do this. The implication--borne out when Lisa accuses him of this in front of other officers and nothing is said or done--is that he is protected by the old boys' network from any sort of consequences. When Lisa argues with him, he threatens to "skull fuck" her.
In both of these cases, a protective or possessive urge toward a young woman escalates quickly to violence when that protection is rejected or that possessiveness is threatened. Throughout much of the show, Marty is a likeable guy, and from all outward appearances, he epitomizes the traditional male role: the dedicated husband/father/provider, decorated and respected police officer comfortable in his skin as an authority figure, and traditional Christian. His ability to escalate so quickly to violence seems less a flaw located within his person than it is within the society which, as a police officer, he is sworn to protect. He shows disgust for his actions at times--he asks Rust whether he worries he is a bad man; he vomits in the parking lot after beating the two boys in jail--but yet seems compelled toward them by expectation: In order to maintain his authority over the women in his life, he cannot tolerate transgression. And so fatherly, "harmless" sexism morphs into misogyny and violence, all of it underlined by a winking complicity from others in positions of similar authority.
This is what connects the sexism and misogyny that we observe in Marty to the extreme violence against women perpetuated by a ring of off-the-grid meth dealers and biker gang members practicing a ritualistic devil worship. The existence of institutionalized patriarchy is what allows these acts to continue across decades. Years after solving--or so they thought--a case involving the ritualistic murder of a local prostitute, Marty's former partner Rust uncovers evidence that these murders are far more extensive than they originally thought and, no, the two men they killed in connection with the original case were not the only people involved. The deeper they dig, the more they uncover that points toward the fact that the dozens of missing women and children along the bayou are all connected, and that these cases weren't merely the work of individuals already at the fringes of society--the meth dealers and gang members they tracked in the original case--but involve men in very high positions of authority. They are explicitly told by their supervisor not to pursue this avenue. Rust--already disliked by others on the force and regarded as unpleasantly eccentric--is made out to be unstable and is implicated in a later ritualistic murder that surfaces. I believe it is a turning point for Marty's character when he abandons his own complicity and rejoins Rust to reopen the investigation privately.
When I was in middle school, my best friend was from rural North Carolina. Her mother, a former hippie who first introduced me to feminism, used to volunteer at the rape crisis center in this rural county. She often told me a commonly heard slogan from that region: "What a man does with his wife, his children, and his dog is that man's business alone." As I watched True Detective, I remembered this and found it relevant to the mindset that allowed men in authority to turn away from atrocities not because they approved of what was going on but because of a strong norm of not meddling and of obeying authority. Your boss tells you not to look at a local politician, so you don't. Your boss tells you that the little girl who disappeared actually went back to live with her father in another state, so you trust that; you don't meddle. That the victims are often made vulnerable by the preference given to men makes them easier to overlook.
Yes, the show has no women in positions of power or authority. (Maggie, Marty's wife, is one of the smartest characters on the show but reduced to leveraging her sexuality and using her parents' privilege to flee an unhappy marriage.) That is part of the point. The case that unfolds across the eight episodes is intense and disturbing, reminiscent of some of the satanic ritual abuse cases out of the '80s ... and like those cases, tinged with just enough of the supernatural to make it ultimately incredible. What is left when the preternatural and seemingly unkillable villain Errol is finally dead is the world in which he was allowed to operate. There is nothing supernatural about that, and that's what is truly frightening.
This post was originally posted on Dreamwidth and, using my Felagundish Elf magic, crossposted to LiveJournal. You can comment here or there!