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Female Bodies and the Philbrosophy of "True Detective"

Television
by Sam Adams
February 24, 2014 11:19 AM
14 Comments
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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.

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14 Comments

  • Swanky | April 15, 2014 10:33 AMReply

    Just finished the finale, and am reading about the way the show portrays women, and I must say, it was something I was often thinking about while watching. Now that it's over, it's very interesting to see others' take on the portrayal of women on this show. I respect the difference of opinion on the purposefulness behind the show's treatment of female characters, but I truly think that it's quite obvious that Paskin article is more on point. The idea that this show could contribute to the negative stereotypes portrayed by women in media is really hard to swallow, as it is so clearly a noir thriller about the male fantasy. If you think that a show deserves to be denigrated because of it's artistic choices, then that is your prerogative, but it sounds a bit like somebody can't have fun unless it's on their terms.

  • Devin | March 15, 2014 9:14 PMReply

    I agree that the women are undeveloped psychologically while physically, they are 'brought close' in every episode: I've seen more nude women on that show in one hour than I've seen my own body--so that's weird. Plus, all the violence, the 'crazy pussy' who doesn't want to just date a cheating husband than gets 'crazy' when he invades her space & beats up her lover like she's disobedient chattel (that'd make me crazy) and the little girls bouncing around with gang rape drawings as if that's what they expect their initiation to sex to be (against our real backdrop of closing Family Planning clinics in rural areas for impoverished, exploited women)
    Yeah, where's the fun for this 50 year old feminist? Even the 'Horned One' gets exploited, when ironically, his roots are in the God Who Dies For Our Sins (Attis, Dionysius, Mithras--whose birthday is Dec. 25th) and we all fall in line with the Catholic representation of this long suffering God when, ironically, he was the sacred scapegoat. What happened to this Dude? The living dying God of Paleolithic times with the scythe over his shoulder and crying tears--our OLDEST God was SWEET.
    And his Goddess, well, I have yet to see an 'occult' anything that doesn't wash the Great Goddess who ruled our world with gifts such as: language, agriculture, the up-right, walking position, animal husbandry (how about a woman suckling a pig to illustrate our close link with nature) Innana and her long suffering Sister, Ereshkigal and the real priestess who wrote used the word "I," for the first time ("I, Enhueduanna,...")
    Nope, all these Goddesses are thrown into the bin of 'fertility goddesses' along with our modern talent of women who have brains but no 'bouncing breasts.'

  • lcirile | March 10, 2014 1:29 AMReply

    This is so great. Thank you and Nussbaum for this. Representation is important. How we depict people, what messages people take away from the art/media they consume. That's what makes art so special and powerful.

  • robertg | March 4, 2014 4:35 PMReply

    I couldn't disagree more. Why you people want to make things so complicated? IT'S A FREAKING TV SERIES COMING FROM IMAGINATION.!!! acusing TD of misogyny, gender discrimination and the likes? people incapable of feeling joy!!!
    i was very pleased to see Lili Simmons breasts and buttocks and how she moaned,also pleased when i saw Maggie's rack in Cohle's house..and watch Daddario's beautiful titties,what in the hell is wrong with that? don't watch TD then.

  • Reggie | February 27, 2014 4:03 PMReply

    I too hope " the writing team finds a a way to inject strong and less sexualized female characters
    come next season." However, this season their story is of two very flawed and emotionally stunted males.
    Not a pretty picture.
    A story none the less.

  • Lynn Camino | February 25, 2014 6:38 PMReply

    Love this article - couldn't agree more. I was enthralled after the first few episodes, but after watching the last episode I couldn't help but to think that the female presence has become seriously warped. So much so that I lost that insatiable urge to watch on. Hope the writing team finds a way to inject strong and less sexualized female characters come next season.

  • Jake Bart | February 25, 2014 1:50 AMReply

    "'True Detective' takes Cohle and Hart exactly as seriously as they take themselves."

    Let me start off by saying cultural conversations like these are an essential part of parsing through a work like TRUE DETECTIVE even if I tend to disagree with the argument that the program is misogynistic. I'd also take issue with the line I quoted above. Both Cohle and Hart are portrayed as somewhat diluted throughout the course of the series thus far. Why else include the unreliable narrator elements? It communicates a blurred/fluid sense of morality that is perhaps necessary in heroic detective work, but also that these men's words cannot be taken at face value. Rather, their actions reveal their character. Cohle behaves as if his philosophy is rock-solid truth, yet it has brought him little in the way of peace or contentment. Hart expounds on the values of family, honor, etc., but clearly he's an aggressive, unrepentant asshole. It's a show about the lies people tell themselves to get through the day.

  • NotTuttle | February 24, 2014 11:47 PMReply

    If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself.

  • Sochooo | March 1, 2014 7:39 PM

    Why bother? Watching this series is like experiencing a slow,painful death.

  • Ramon | February 24, 2014 11:35 PMReply

    I can't reiterate how much I feel people missed the point of this episode. I thought it held the most important plot point in the entire series so far since the Dora Lange murder - Maggie's affair with Rust.

    While the Lange murder first immersed Rust and Cohle into the hidden conspiracy of ritualized female killing which both detectives are dealing with it was the affair which forced them to come to grips with their the shallowness of their own values. Both plot points dealt with women, the issue of sexist patriarchy, and how the two main protagonists chose to deal with that hypocrisy.

    Maggie, knowing Marty was too macho to ever forgive her for sleeping with his partner, used Rust's own inflated sense of heroism to her advantage by seducing him with her tearful story of betrayal and lowered his defenses. By playing to both men's vulnerabilities she was able to extricate herself of her unhappy marriage and force both men to come to grips with their own inner conflicts. Marty had to confront his own sexist patriarchal attitude and Rust had to confront his own ambivalence towards fostering any meaningful human connections. Marty chose to ignore his problem while Rust just decided to leave mainstream society altogether.

  • Boris | March 5, 2014 6:29 PM

    That you would refer to what happened as "the quasi-rape of Maggie" negates yours sochoo

  • SOCHOOO | March 1, 2014 7:43 PM

    And the fact that you would consider the quasi-rape of Maggie by Rust "an affair" sort of negates your whole comment.

  • Ramon | February 24, 2014 11:18 PMReply

    I think its become very cliche for critics to level the Nussbaum critique of misogyny whenever a show does not pass the Bechdel test. It especially becomes cliche when such a show is garnering critical acclaim and a contrarian argues against public opinion to show how she is above the hype. Unfortunately, Nussbaum missed the point of Episode 6 when they dismissed the show for its inherent sexist misogyny and this critique is now being parroted by less thoughtful admirers like Sam Adams here.

    I personally think this critique is all bark, no bite, and misses the point of True Detective which takes the issue of everyday female violence and repression very seriously. So much of the show forces us to take a look the underlying hypocrisy of our contemporary civilization - that although Judeo-Christian society publicly claims to respect the laws of universal compassion it privately engages in practices whereby the strong take of advantage of the weak, most of whom are poor, female, and underage.

    So much of the existential horror at the heart of the show deals with both Rust Cohle's and Marty Hart's realization of this underlying hypocrisy in the twelve years since the Dora Lange killing through their personal interaction with women. Hart seems to perpetuate this type of hypocrisy in his patriarchal objectification of the women in his life from his oversexed mistresses, to his psychologically scarred eldest daughter, to his emotionally neglected wife. Cohle, on the other hand, decides to increasingly disengage from society's conventions altogether, first by convincing the Midland Madea to kill herself as an act of compassion and later by quitting his job altogether after his affair with Maggie.

    I may be wrong, but the show is definitely exploring the dehumanizing effects of societal sexism and how it comes degrade Cohle's and Hart's lives. In this sense, Maggie's decision to seduce Rust was a very important character point in the series drama. Her initiation of the affair as a clever way of appropriating male patriarchy to serve her own ends. Maggie was shrewdly perceptive in manipulating Rust's and Marty's male egos towards the end of emancipating herself from a dysfunctional marriage. Rather than continue to remain a passive participant of a loveless union with an unfaithful partner, she made an active decision to exploit her partner's double standard attitude as means towards liberation when she tells him of her sexual encounter with Rust. Knowing that Marty's macho double-standard and warped sense of honor won't allow him to be cuckolded by his own partner she used the instruments of his patriarchy against him to drive him away. And knowing that Rust has an overdeveloped need to protect a damsel in distress she used his own enlarged sense of moral righteousness to draw him into an emotional snare.

  • Fiona L. | February 24, 2014 10:33 PMReply

    I'm so glad people are finally writing about this. I was really sick of all of the gushing online about how amazing and groundbreaking this show is. While it seemed to take a long time, I felt slapped by misogyny by episode 2 but the opening credits already had me going. Very early on I realized the females had nothing to say or do but function as plot devices and/or sexual decor. Thank you. Cutting women's bodies with cameras over and over, crafting porn like sex scenes and sprinkling an endless array of sex workers seems like a lot of work and effort so I'm not really buying Mr. Pizz's argument that 8 episodes weren't enough for ONE female character who has some layering. Seeing his fantasies acted out by young beautiful women was a much more important use of his 'genius'.

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