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Thoughts on "True Detective" and Gender Issues

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"About as much fun as a bag of weasels"...when I first saw this Irish adage, it made me think of the life of a writer: sometimes perilous, sometimes painful, certainly interesting. My paper journal has always been called "The Bag of Weasels." This is the Bag of Weasels' online home.

Thoughts on "True Detective" and Gender Issues

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Last week, Bobby and I watched the HBO series True Detective. I will start by saying that we were hooked by episode 1 (it usually takes me four or five to settle into a new show) and both really enjoyed the series. I highly recommend it; it was character-driven with a tightly focused, edge-of-your-seat plot. I avoided looking at articles or commentary on the show before watching it, not because I didn't want to be spoiled on plot but because I knew the show was causing a stir, and I didn't want my own opinion or interpretation of it to be biased.

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!

  • I've never seen True Detectives, so maybe I shouldn't comment...but law enforcement and related issues being an old boy's club is a very big issue, that departments across the country are dealing with in different ways. I know just in my area, there's been differing levels of trying to get women to become involved in law enforcement (and various not very well disguised attempts to keep them out under the guise of 'requirements', that have very little sense behind them).

    As far as violence against women, I've written far too many papers that at least touch on this. In spite of numerous efforts to improve things - and I will give various jurisdictions credit for their efforts, because many of them have tried! - we're still in a situation that while in some places domestic violence is taken seriously, in other areas prosecutors have brushed it aside as being a less serious issue and something that is too costly to deal with. And then you have the issues with who serial killers target - primarily women, and primarily women at the fringes of society, where there is no pressure on law enforcement to deal with anything, because "they're just a hooker or a druggie". That's not to say that there isn't also a corresponding issue with men - look at the number of minority males who have disappeared and law enforcement refuses/refused to investigate - but it's still a problem. In some cases it is because somebody important is involved. Hell, it's not even a rural Southern problem, which I sometimes get the impression people think it must be a problem of corruption down there. It's still a lingering problem here in Indiana, and throughout the North, Midwest, and West Coast as well.

    That's why I wish crime shows wouldn't have this optimistic, pleasant view of the world, where every case gets solved and the police in every jurisdiction care about these types of people and want to solve the case. Because for various reasons, it doesn't always work out like that...and complaining about sexism in those shows? That's the real world, except there it's also mixed with classism and racism, which makes it even harder to combat.

    ...I'll just get off my little soapbox.
    • One thing I liked about TD is that it didn't represent every cop as a good guy in law enforcement to protect the vulnerable: The majority, rather, were depicted as finding political expediency or blind obedience easier or favorable to investigating crimes involving people on the fringes of society that you describe. The powerful fed their perverse urges on the lives of those people, and no one cared. The main characters, Marty and Rust, only solved the case because they took it on privately, once both had left the department, often using questionable tactics in their pursuit of truth. Even though they solved this particular case, I was left feeling like it was just a drop in the bucket, perhaps because the society that had allowed this to happen in the first place hadn't changed.

      What I didn't like was that, like many programs in or skirting the horror genre (which I think TD did), it relied heavily on the idea that rural people have a tendency to be disturbed, i.e., The Hills Have Eyes. Even though the corruption was at the top, much of the emotional whallop came from the notion of the disfigured redneck psychopath.
  • Very nice analysis, Dawn.

    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.

    Well, I would not hesitate to name myself a woman and a second-wave feminist, yet I concentrated more on the character development of Marty and Rust, because (to me), that was a central focus of the series. However, the role of women undeniably was a key component of that.

    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.

    Thank you. Yes, I favor the latter as well. Naturally, we all view art, whether it is written fiction or through visual media, through the lenses of our experience, but when I read opinion pieces castigating Nic Pizzolatto (the novelist turned screenwriter who wrote Season 1 of True Detective) for his treatment of women in the series, I had to wonder if the opinion piece writer and I watched the same show, because my take was (and is) entirely different. It was with no small relief I found that I was not alone when I came across the following article by Willa Paskin in Slate:

    The Horrible Things That Men Do to Women: Yes, True Detective treats its female characters badly. That's the point.

    Ms. Paskin articulated much of what I was taking away as I watched the series: the sexism and misogyny were very deliberate, very aware. We saw how women and children disappeared and were disregarded by an entrenched male establishment. We saw how marginalized women struggle to get by (one of my favorite scenes occurred at the prostitutes' trailer park when the "madam" with one quip handed Marty his ass).

    Then we see how Marty relates to women (god, sometimes I wanted to bleach my brain after those scenes; Woody Harrelson was superb in the role) and how Pizzolatto employed these interactions to examine the character.

    Here's a contrasting view from Janet Turley from Salon: True Detective has a woman problem. This elicited a strong reaction from me, i.e., "Are we watching the same show?" and "Use your brain for a moment, would ya!?"

    I love House of Cards and Claire Underwood's character, but Ms. Turley's comparison of True Detective with House of Cards misses the mark by about a parsec. Claire Underwood comes from the elite, the powerful. Many of the women in True Detective are from an entirely different sphere. One that is dark and scary. There's a stench of classism in Turley's essay.

    I totally disagree with her assessment that the female characters are not memorable. Maggie is fantastic! Like Claire Underwood, she wields power, but within the constraints of her world. Maggie is just as complex character, too. Heck, Lisa has plenty of dimensionality as well. Could they have been developed more? Sure, but were they more than supporting characters? No. The show ultimately is about Marty and Rust, their character arc, and their relationship with one another, and that was brilliantly achieved.

    There is nothing supernatural about that, and that's what is truly frightening.

    Exactly. I found the conclusion immensely satisfying: evil resides in humans.
    • Thank you much for the links! They made for intriguing reading during my break today. :)

      This elicited a strong reaction from me, i.e., "Are we watching the same show?" and "Use your brain for a moment, would ya!?"

      I think the instinct too often, in representing women in media, is to strap a gun on her side and throw her in as the badass on the force. But as you note ...

      Like Claire Underwood, she wields power, but within the constraints of her world.

      That, to me, is what makes writing about gender issues so fascinating. Because it is not as simple as a woman deciding to simply insert herself in a "man's world" and wield power. It is much more complex and interesting.

      Turley suggests that the women characters in TD need more detail. She suggests something like Maggie shooting ducks as a hobby (??). This reminds me of what I thought good characterization was when I was about 12 years old, and I thought that if you just piled a bunch of eccentric details onto a person, then you made someone who was interesting and a "good character." To pile those kinds of details onto peripheral characters would have been distracting and possibly absurd.

      To the contrary, I think that the fact that Maggie so often plays within narrowly prescribed boundaries is part of what makes her character believable. She still comes off as wicked smart, and one can't help but lament that one who is that smart would be constrained to such traditional roles. Paskin's essay makes the interesting observation that Maggie also expresses tacit approval of Audrey's progressive ideas. I can't help but think that Audrey got those ideas from somewhere ...

      Incidentally, one could make the same arguments about the two detectives who interview Marty and Rust that Turley makes about Maggie and Lisa. (In fact, I'd argue that Maggie and Lisa have far more character development than the other two detectives do, perhaps evidenced by the fact that I am calling them "the other two detectives" because I can't even remember their names. ;) So is it a "woman problem" or because, as you note ...

      The show ultimately is about Marty and Rust, their character arc, and their relationship with one another, and that was brilliantly achieved.

      Yes, exactly. I remarked to Bobby that I loved the eight-hour length of TD. It was long enough to allow for character building that would have been sacrificed to cram a rather complex crime drama into even a lengthy feature film, yet it wasn't so long that it could sprawl off into a dozen different directions. (Yes, looking at you, True Blood ...)

      Btw, on your recommendation, we are now watching Top of the Lake. :D We are on episode 3. (Right now, I am off to catch the first episode of GofT, since we were apparently among the hoards that crashed HBO Go trying to watch the first episode last night!)
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