How True Detective Can Solve Its Woman Problem


Earlier this week, Nic Pizzolatto, the writer and creator of HBO’s True Detective, posted and hastily deleted a Tweet that left fans of the show salivating. In the Tweet, Pizzolatto strongly implied that the next season of series — which, for all its gripping, gorgeous imagery and brain-invading writing, has thus far failed to present viewers with a single complex female character — will feature female detectives.

Depending on who you ask, HBO’s True Detective is either the best goddamn show in the world, highly stylized pseudointellectual muckety muck, or something everyone keeps talking about but that remains unwatched due to a lack of HBOGo password. But amid the buzzy debate, one thing’s clear: the show’s got a strange relationship with the women around which the main characters (as masterfully played by Woody Harrelson as Marty Hart and an almost infuriatingly good Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle) orbit.

There are a few schools of thought when it comes to the curious case of the women of True Detective: Season 1. In one corner, we’ve got The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, who wrote earlier this week that she’s kind of over being handed the same crap smoothie in different packaging. Nussbaum laments the “heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses” motif in the opening credits, which she says she’s beginning to suspect “tell the real story.” In Nussbaum’s view, the show’s dearth of female complexity beyond serving as “wives and sluts and daughters — none with any interior life” is well-trod territory that isn’t offering viewers anything revolutionary or interesting. She’s not blanket anti-female sexuality, just bored of the way it’s presented on HBO’s latest offering. She writes,

[…] if a show has something smart to say about sex, bring it on. But, after years of watching “Boardwalk Empire,” “Ray Donovan,” “House of Lies,” and so on, I’ve turned prickly, and tired of trying to be, in the novelist Gillian Flynn’s useful phrase, the Cool Girl: a good sport when something smells like macho nonsense.

Then there’s Slate’s Willa Paskin, who isn’t ready to pan the show quite so harshly just yet; her fandom has remained true despite a plot that might sound on paper like it was actually flirting with outright misogyny. She posited this week that she thinks the show’s parade of women-as-victims is being presented to the audience deliberately, self-aware sexism presented unflinchingly to an audience that is supposed to realize that what it’s seeing is entirely sick. Paskin writes,

I think True Detective has not triggered my usual response because it is, at least on some level, very aware of how stereotypically and perfunctorily it treats its female characters. When it comes to women, True Detective is undeniably shallow—but I think it’s being shallow on purpose.

Like Paskin, I’m a huge fan of the show. In fact, I’d go further than saying I’m a fan; I’m obsessed. It’s taken over my brain. I have dreams about it; last night, for example, I dreamed that I was Rust Cohle and Ving Rhames was the Yellow King and Ukrainian ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was his sidekick. I bug my friends and coworkers about it. I send my roommate one-word texts about it and then we go back and forth with OMG TRUE DETECTIVE until we see each other in person, at which point we say OMG TRUE DETECTIVE at each other aloud. When I am not thinking of anything, I am thinking of who the Yellow King might be, what is behind Dora Lang’s ritualistic murder and the disappearance of all those invisible women and children, what kind of fuckery Tuttle’s up to, and whether or not Rust already knows who the Yellow King is and is in the process of exposing who it is but if Marty’s pathological lack of self-control will end up sabotaging the entire case. I’m pretty sure my friends and loved ones are starting to get worried that I’m the Rust Cohle of watching and theorizing about True Detective.

After hours and hours and hours spent spinning and respinning True Detective thoughts instead of, say, doing my taxes, I’m not on the verge of dismissing it like Nussbaum. I’m in the Paskin camp; that the show’s about the perceived opacity of the inner lives of women — what they’re thinking, why they do what they do, how they ended up where they are — and how the inability of men to breach women’s needs and motivations can play out tragically. In her critique, Paskin writes that the show explores the horrible things that men do to women and the ways men ignore women; I’d go further and say that if we’ve reached the point in the flat circle of public fascination where we offer our gender criticism, this is a show isn’t just about what men do to women; it’s about how men fail women. Marty fails his wife, fails his mistress, double fails that teen prostitute he ends up graphically fucking, fails his daughters. Rust is driven by guilt over failing his ex-wife and daughter and failing the victims of what he is convinced is a sadistic, ritualistic entity that preys on the vulnerable.

But, like Nussbaum, I sometimes feel a slight, nagging worry that the show is also failing its female characters and its female viewers, especially after this week’s episode featured Marty Hart beating up some young men for touching his teen daughter in the sex-parts followed by Marty Hart having graphic girl-on-top sex with a former teen prostitute followed by Marty Hart’s wife Maggie revenge banging Rust Cohle for 30 seconds and then telling her husband that she hadn’t been fucked like that since before their children were born. Either Rust Cohle has a magical penis that rapidly creates female sexual pleasure in much the same way that microwave ovens quickly heat food or the show is presenting us with a Maggie Hart who is a lying, vindictive, unnecessarily hurtful slutty slut. It was worrisome enough when the women in the show had agency, says the part of my brain that’s concerned I’ll soon be let down by a show that’s riveted and enthralled me, but now that they’ve been given agency, they’re just using it to destroy men’s lives.

Unlike many TV dramas, while subsequent seasons of the show will address overarching issues broached in S1, True Detective’s cast, location, and caseload will change entirely from season to season, which means Pizzolatto and company will have four opportunities over the course of the show’s visualized five-season run to paint a more complete picture of male and female characters. I’m not suggesting anyone picket HBO demanding Nic Pizzolatto tailor his art to a Women’s Studies curriculum, but I am hopeful that Pizzolatto’s errant Tweet was more than just lip service. Handing two actresses badges, a gun, and substantive dialogue in Season 2 won’t jar audiences or threaten the excellent show’s continuity (since the show is jarring by design); it will give writers a chance to create a story out of an entirely different palate, and explore territory beyond Olivia Benson and even Top of the Lake’s Detective Robin Griffin. We’re talking television frontier-type stuff. It would be a shame to let that door close.

Of course, it’s too early for audiences to judge once and for all whether True Detective is misogynist or a show about misogyny, but for now, let’s hope Pizzolatto and company take advantage of the rare opportunity they have to blaze a new trail here. A show that examines the world through both deeply misogynist and decidedly female eyes? Now that would be something novel. And completely obsession-worthy.

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