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Female Bodies and the Philbrosophy of "True Detective"

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire February 24, 2014 at 11:19AM

Does "True Detective" treat women badly, or is it about men who do?
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"True Detective": A show about asses?
"True Detective": A show about asses?

It's time to talk about "True Detective" and the female body. Or rather, bodies, loads of them, left naked and chained, stacked high in the morgue, murdered, traumatized or simply stripped bare for the audience's (and the president's) titillation. Early on, Vulture's Margaret Lyons noted how many more dead women than live ones the show made room for, but for me the breaking point was last night's episode, "Haunted Houses," where Woody Harrelson's Martin Hart was once again mounted, cowboy style, by a nubile young woman whose naked breasts dangled pendulously over his all but unseen body. It's followed later in the episode by a scene in which the young woman, a former child prostitute whom Hart once tried to rescue from her life of sin, calls him up and tells him she'd like Hart to introduce her to the world of what Sinead O'Connor once called "the difficult brown." Hart licks his lips when he hears this, and who wouldn't? You can bet that nagging wife of his is an exit-only gal, and for a man as preoccupied with female purity as Hart, the idea of breaking in an orifice that a onetime whore has never had defiled must be something close to heaven. (On Twitter, BuzzFeed's Kate Aurthur raised the possibility this may be a line she's used before, or else she's drawing a line between her former professional duties and her private life. But the way it's staged, with her looking coyly over her shoulder at her own ass in a full-length mirror, plays right into Hart's fantasy, and the audience's.) 

Scenes like this make it awfully hard to accept "True Detective" as the sobersided philosophical inquiry it presents itself as: Phil-bro-sophical is more like it. Sure, there are the windy monologues delivered by Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle about fourth-dimensional perspectives and the recurring nature of evil, but don't worry: It's also got tits.

Perhaps the best counterargument -- i.e. one that doesn't boil down to the notion that anyone who bristles at the way True Detective treats women is a politically correct scold -- comes from Slate's Willa Paskin, who after six episodes has come to see it as a show about the way (some) men view women. It's not misogynist; it's meta-misogynist.

Ignoring women may be the show's blind spot, but it is also one of its major themes. "True Detective" is explicitly about the horrible things that men do to women, things that usually go unseen and uninvestigated. No one missed Dora Lange. Marie Fontenot disappeared, and the police let a rumor stop them from following up. Another little girl was abducted, and a report was never even filed. "Women and children are disappearing, nobody hears about it, nobody puts it together," Rust told his boss Sunday night, outlining what he believes is a vast conspiracy in the Bayou. Rust is haunted by women who aren't there -- his ex-wife and his dead daughter -- while Marty cannot deal appropriately with the women who are.

To be blunt, I find this idea more credulous than compelling, but it parallels the explanation proffered by the show's creator and writer, Nic Pizzolatto, on Twitter:

There's no question that "True Detective" sees its heroes as tragically flawed, driven by and obsessed with their own visions of what women should and shouldn't be. Cohle's own breaking point, or so police-department rumor has it, was the "Marshland Medea" case of a woman who surreptitiously murdered three of her own children; after coaxing her into a confession, Cohle wraps up his interrogation by suggesting, with coldblooded equanimity: "If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself." But the real rupture, we later learn, came when Hart's wife, Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), seduced Cohle as payback for her husband's affair. If she didn't exactly do anal, she at least got Cohle to give it to her from behind, later telling Marty: "I haven't been fucked like that since before the girls." (She's referring to the birth of their two daughters, but the multiple ways that sentence can be parsed leave it open to alternate, extremely suggestive, interpretations.)

On the one hand, this is pure cliche, not to mention a pale echo of an identical revenge fuck on "Breaking Bad," right down to the "I fucked Rust / Ted." (Before Maggie shows up at Rust's apartment, she tries to pick up a stranger, Betty Draper-style, but even her scarlet dress -- the same color as the ceramic devil that watches over Marty's adulterous screw -- can't give her the courage.) But it's also the first time in the show's run Monaghan's been given a chance to do anything but act peevish, and she knocks it out the park, allowing Maggie a moment of pure, even astonished, pleasure, before the guilt kicks in. "In a former life," she tells the present-day detectives in the interrogation room, "I used to exhaust myself navigating crude men who thought they were clever." She, at least, has been able to move on.

"True Detective," however, has not. The show has been exceptionally clever in establishing and then removing a false sense of security, especially on a structural level: It was a show about a murder that happened in 1995, until it wasn't; it was a show told in flashback by characters who made it to the present unharmed, only now it isn't that, either. But it's still a show about men and the bodies of women, either dead or desecrated or both. In '95, Cohle and Hart pull a dead boy out of Reggie Ledoux's backwoods abattoir, and Shea Whigham's ruined preacher recalls finding pictures of naked children, apparently of both genders, tucked into an obscure volume in an ecclesiastical library. The brutalized boys, however, never materialize. They'd just muddy the waters.

The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum, for one, has had enough.

Like many critics, I was initially charmed by the show's anthology structure (eight episodes and out; next season a fresh story) and its witty chronology, which chops and dices a serial-killer investigation, using two time lines.... On the other hand, you might take a close look at the show's opening credits, which suggest a simpler tale: one about heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses. The more episodes that go by, the more I'm starting to suspect that those asses tell the real story.

This aspect of "True Detective" (which is written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga) will be gratingly familiar to anyone who has ever watched a new cable drama get acclaimed as "a dark masterpiece"... [A]fter 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. And, frankly, "True Detective" reeks of the stuff. The series, for all its good looks and its movie-star charisma, isn't just using dorm-room deep talk as a come-on: it has fallen for its own sales pitch.

Nussbaum's "Cool Story, Bro," is probably the first to work the phrase "a nice bouncy rack" and a Grindr subtweet ("six minutes, uncut!") into a New Yorker essay, but it's also important for its polemical rejection of "True Detective"'s self-proclaimed importance, and because of the critics who were instantly willing to award it "Best show on TV" status based more on signifiers of quality than a demonstration thereof. Of course, it's a nicely shot show centered around two great performances, stuffed with Easter Egg literary references and semisweet profundities. But it's also, like a lot of HBO series, mired in a very specific, limited idea of what makes a Great Show, namely the focus on "serious" issues of masculinity rather than its apparently unserious converse. As Nussbaum points out, the "It's not misogynist; it's about misogyny" defense of "True Detective" parallels the arguments (including mine) in favor of "The Wolf of Wall Street," but there's a crucial difference. Even though it was wedded to a single narrator, "Wolf" still gave its audience somewhere else to stand. "True Detective" takes Cohle and Hart exactly as seriously as they take themselves.

This article is related to: True Detective


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