This isn’t about the Bechdel test. This isn’t about groundbreaking narratives, six minute long unedited shots, or how we may be entering the best years ever for quality television. This isn’t about satanic murders in southern America inspired by true events. This is about how one of televisions best shows in years highlights a binary egocentrism that exists in society, and negates to tell the story, or feature any kind of character development or levels of dimension to its female characters.
True Detective follows Rust Cohle and Martin Hart as they investigate rural satanic crimes in southern America. The show is notable not only for great writing which juxtaposes two parallel timelines to form a coherent story, but also for bringing film stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson back to television. Two cops who don’t get along but have to work together is an overused cliché, yet has been the foundation for some of the best films, shows and novels. What makes True Detective so breath-taking, then? Perhaps rather than a group of television writers thrown into a room to create the most gags or the most commercial product possible, True Detective was created by Nic Pizzolato, a novelist and writer by nature, as was Dennis Lehane of The Wire – another critically acclaimed cop drama.
Yet, this begs the question that if we can have a television show that is acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, why do we praise certain aspects of it, but ignore the issues surrounding representation of women characters? Now, this isn’t to suggest that every character has to be fully developed. It’s not as if we expect Harrelson’s cheating Martin Hart to uncover a stripper with a heart of gold with every marital affair that he has, and characters that are featured for a single scene don’t necessarily need the same level of detail in their backstory as recurring characters do. But this isn’t an excuse for True Detective to be exempt from using the male gaze.
Mart’s wife, Maggie, appears in multiple episodes. She’s the wife of an alcoholic, cheating cop struggling through a tough case, but is only truly defined by the actions that happen to her rather than her own actions. Maggie’s actions are defined by her physical interactions – in that she sleeps with people who aren’t her husband. More often than not, she is portrayed as an angry housewife, always wagging her finger disappointedly at the actions of her husband, and this becomes annoying in the same way some viewers grew tired of Skylar in Breaking Bad.
There is no doubt that True Detective is a work of art. While it doesn’t necessarily appeal to just men, it doesn’t exactly challenge gender roles in ways that other shows do, or feature a variety of ethnicities like Game of Thrones. True Detective is a powerful and entertaining show, that will be remembered decades after it’s time. After finishing it though, one can’t help but wonder why we consider art before we consider women.
The best line in True Detective comes from the mouth of Jan the prostitute to a holier-than-thou Marty in the second episode:
“Girls walk this earth all the time screwin’ for free. Why is it you add business to the mix and boys like you can’t stand the thought? I’ll tell you: it’s cause suddenly you don’t own it the way you thought you did”.
This is the relationship of men and women in the South in a nutshell, at least the way True Detective is portraying it. Women inevitably are seen not only as broken, but they’re portrayed as having something to break in the first place. Repairing broken things is not the realm of men, especially cops, on this show. They’re busy protecting women from being broken in the first place. Those they deem worth saving that is: Marty hands the underage prostitute he is so offended by some money and tells her to ‘do something different’. As if it were that easy. Marty probably doesn’t think of himself as sexist, but that’s because he is a product of a patriarchal society where he has only ever been taught to shoot first, ask questions later, and reflect never. Rust is just as complex, if a more subtle, can of misogynistic worms.
The only female who comes close to being a valid character is Maggie, and she is as strong as a woman from Louisiana with two children can be in the 90’s. When the tables are turned and Maggie cheats on Marty like the countless times he has cheated on her, it ruins him when it doesn’t break her. Really, she needs to see if she can do it. It’s self-affirmation: she’s telling herself that she exists outside of her husband and does not need him. Maggie is expected to try, to forgive her husband his infidelities, and to keep her family together. Marty is expected, and does, avenge himself in every possible way. She tries to make it work with her piece of shit husband, he continues being a piece of shit. She leaves him the only way she knows how. That takes strength. Maggie has a story we aren’t being exposed to because this is unfortunately not her story. She is a complex character in the snapshots we are allowed of her, but ultimately we don’t care about her. We want to know about the man with the scars, Carcosa, and the Yellow King. Maggie is not a part of any of this.
True Detective is a pseudo-crime show, dabbling in the occult and heavy (handed) on the character study. It’s a show about two men, but it’s also a show all about women. Yes, it may seem like the Marty and Rust Show, like, all the time, but they’re our male protagonist-pawns used to tell a story about women and little girls. I don’t think this show is ignorant with respect to women, it just doesn’t expend or have time to get to know any of them intimately. The women are forgettable, but they’re supposed to be. That’s what the show was critiquing. Who remembers all the missing girls in the bayou? No one. Who is looking into the murder of prostitutes? No one. Investigating the murder of women? Unless they’re antlered and potentially satanic, no one cares. Socially internalised misogyny is in turn internalised into the narrative of the show. At no point are Rust and Marty free of women, they are haunted by their failures and mistreatment of them. Most of the women on the show are cast-off characters or corpses to the detectives, who are too busy trying to get the bad guy instead of helping the little girls