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A Southerner's Defense of Bayou Gothic 'True Detective'

by Matt Brennan
February 27, 2014 3:56 PM
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Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in Nic Pizzolatto's "True Detective"
HBO Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in Nic Pizzolatto's "True Detective"

Emily Nussbaum may be my favorite critic working today -- her New Yorker column is my North Star of trusted opinion in the televisual wilderness. But she gets "True Detective" wrong, wrong, wrong. (SPOILERS BELOW if you are not up to date with the series.)

HBO's twisted police procedural, written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, has assumed a toehold in the zeitgeist, and Nussbaum's is the most trenchant among proliferating critiques. Yet supporters and dissenters alike are battling over terrain -- the role of women, and especially women's bodies -- that circumscribes the debate from the start. "True Detective" appears shallow only when you view it through a single lens.

That's not to say the series' depiction of women is not fair game. In the gape-mouthed gauntlet of traumatized girls through which Det. Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) passes to pursue his line of questioning, or the undressed curves of Det. Marty Hart's (Woody Harrelson) extramarital paramours, "True Detective" assumes a leering gaze out of sync with its troublesome subject matter.

But on the whole, Nussbaum's claim that "every live woman they meet is paper-thin" is overstated. What are we to make of the proprietress of a "hillbilly bunny ranch," who counters Hart's hypocritical, holier-than-thou condemnation with defiance? Or of Marty's wife, Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), who revenge-fucks Rust and reports back to her husband, knowing full well he'll fly into a rage? If there is, to the series' discredit, a queasily anonymous quality to the women whose deaths prompt Hart and Cohle's investigation, the live women of "True Detective" are in fact anything but mere backdrops for the action: they talk back.

It's worth remembering that the lion's share of "True Detective" occurs in rural south Louisiana in 1995, not Lena Dunham's New York. Underemphasized in lamentations about the lack of diversity on "Girls" is the notion that Hannah Horvath's refreshing brand of young womanhood is class-based and site-specific. The same could be said of "True Detective": the sum total of the (admittedly small) female roles -- women who work in exurban strip malls or chemical processing plants, pray at revival meetings or hang out at bars, wear prim dresses or punk-inflected jewelry -- reflects their respective struggles against constraints of time, space, and circumstance. The tough madam's response to Hart may not be as satisfying to our ears as Amy Jellicoe's revolutionary aphorisms, but it's nothing if not honest. "Girls walk this Earth all the time screwin' for free," she says. "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."


  • Vera | March 2, 2014 12:25 PMReply

    Why do we applaud when Maggie happens to dislike her husband cheating on her? She stands up for herself?? Well, what were we expecting??
    So, you're saying that women of the south are being portrayed accurately for time period and place? Ok so that means that even though they're abused, used, exploited, etc...they sure seem to be loving it. Maggie only divorces her husband, not because he's a jerk but because she wants more of him, Lisa breaks up with him because she wants more of him, not less. And, Beth just can't get enough of him. Wow, I didn't know our expectations of women in the south should be soooo low. Marty doesn't even show interest in any of these women, he barely looks at them, they all come to him, offer themselves up and want his exclusive attention. Misogyny must have mysterious aphrodisiac-like powers. According to this acclaimed show anyway.

  • Olivia Gibson | March 2, 2014 7:27 AMReply

    Mac, you make some good points. I agree that the men of S and the C are through the female perspective and I have laughed and rolled my eyes at their protrayal many times. But it's a silly, fun show, I would be interested to hear if you feel degraded by the show or just annoyed.
    I've heard the perspective that these women in TD are just through our protag's viewpoint. I know a lot of viewers see it that way, I don't think TD does a good enough job in that respect. One of the themes of the show (besides the men's relationship with each other and with themselves, masculinity, etc) is sexual exploitation and murder, of women. It's like 'look how badly women are treated but here's some boobs and ass for your viewing pleasure' "oh look how badly men treat women but I guess they enjoy it because she sure looks satisfied (cue writhing, ooh and ahh of Beth while on top and then her begging for anal).

  • Olivia Gibson | March 2, 2014 7:58 AM

    Oh and's a matter of opinion...she just reeks of an old, tired stereotype, I think she has some good moments too...
    I think partly it was my high hopes for a show with A-list actors called "True Detective" Maybe if its title had been something more accurate. I'm also disappointed because the actors are good! I love true crime and good acting-damn! Nothing about this crime rings true...I know it hasn't finished but the lines we're supposed to connect with these crimes seem unrealistic, which makes me wonder if it's about solving crimes at all. Nic himself admits the murders are peripheral...which makes me wonder if the whole show isn't really Nic's fetish for ass and his desire for almost all women to be reduced to sexually available props wrapped up in atmosphere, philosophical ramblings, etc Fine. Then call it something different!

  • Olivia Gibson | March 1, 2014 1:17 PMReply

    To address your applause for the whorehouse madam: Men DO own prostitution, they make the most money off of it and experience the least risk. Men don't have a problem with prostitutes because they benefit the most from its existence, ie gratification, license to degrade with no consequences and money. It's NOT a woman's game. Prostitutes are marginalized, they are often trafficked or runaways, with nowhere to turn, they have almost ALWAYS been sexually abused as children. The only thing men don't like about prostitutes is having to look at them after they've achieved gratification. Patronizing prostitutes is having access to a piece of flesh, get off on it and not have to have a conversation with "it" (the flesh)
    If a whorehouse is actually run by a woman, it's a rare occurrence. Did those women look like they were raking in the money? Happy, clean, well taken care of? NO.
    And, the women talk back? That's laughable. They do more to create hatred of them. Either they're throw away sex toys or whiny, pissy wives. The show only created the two forms of women: the throw away sex toys, Lisa, overalls girl, Dora, hookers, the drug dealer who opened her legs in offerance, the asses in the opening credits and in the strip club...and the other form: the pissy, whiny ones, Lisa once she decided to share her mouth with someone else, and Maggie who is just a destroyed, pathetic nothing reduced to getting it from behind from smelly, unsexy Rust.

  • Mac | March 1, 2014 6:01 PM

    Not to be rude Olivia, but it seems that you have seriously misunderstood the contextual / socioeconomic factors at play. The story itself is rooted in southern gothic/noir tradition and like Faulkner and Cain it favours a male-centric view of the world. The frame of reference we are given is that of the two male protags and as such we are given an insight into their perception of women. Firstly, in the case of Cohle, his view of women seems affected by his experiences with his wife and pessimistic philosophy on humans in general. Marty on the other hand is a product of the whore/madonna complex that seems prevalent in many baby boomer southern men. As such the portrayal of women in the show reflects the frame of reference of the two men. You a getting a story and representations coloured by the two men at its heart. Moreover, how is Marty's wife whiny? I think she was quite the contrary. How was she a pathetic nothing? And when were you able to smell cohle through your screen? Last I checked, his sexiness was a matter personal taste. The extent that women are portrayed as what you describe them is more about revealing its main characters. Also, have you complained that sex and the city portrayed men accurately? Both shows are grounded in the constructed reality of its protags.

  • Fallon | February 28, 2014 5:15 PMReply

    Trailer park whorehouse manager refers to 'it'; so does True Detective. Female characters sell 'it', they have sex with 'it', they use 'it' vindictively and sadly, they get killed, raped, possibly molested (?daughter) because of 'it'. "It" is front and center, primary motivations for female characters. Is there ONE female character who exists outside of 'it'? Personhood is so far in the background it doesn't even exist. So, Maggie hurts Marty / uses Chole with 'it' because she's mad at her shitty husband? Wow, that's really deep. The poor daughter is now 'of age' and fair game to be defined by her 'it' also. Let me ask the females out there: do YOU exist as a HUMAN BEING or are you just ass, tits, vagina? Or, in Maggie's case you only exist to illustrate the male characters in your life?

  • Kit | February 28, 2014 2:45 PMReply

    Full disclosure: I have not seen True Detective, though I'm interested. And so I can't exactly take issue with your arguments in context of the show. But the arguments themselves are troubling. I wonder, have you spent any significant time in the South? Others parts of the nation and world have a certain idea of it that is not precisely true. And 1995 was not so long ago. I was young, being raised in a rural town of women who were vibrant, strong, and multifaceted. Is my experience unique? I don't think so. Fiction has long ignored large swaths of women who did not fit into the conventional roles prescribed. Your comparison with "Girls" is troubling as well. A big hole in every critic's argument of this kind: SHOWS CAN BE MADE ABOUT ANYTHING YOU WANT AND TAKE PLACE IN ANY ENVIRONMENT (EVEN AN IMAGINED ONE). The fact that so many of our shows end up in these locations or time periods that so conveniently preclude limited roles for women isn't just an accident--it's an evidence of the industry's systemic denial of women's voices and stories. Why not make a story with two female detectives? There have been rumors that the next season will be just that. But why not begin the show that way? Have there not been enough stories about men? Maybe consider that all shows are constructed with intentionality before writing another article.

  • JimmyJack | March 4, 2014 12:14 PM

    Nina Seavey - You are dead on and so is Matt Bennan in his analysis. Disclosure - I 'm a native NYC girl who spent two decades in the South with a great deal of time in Louisiana, currently in Texas, so I'm not speaking at a distance. The TX/LA banter that goes back and forth rings true as well, something I wouldn't have understood until I lived in TX and and seen first hand how close the cultural connection is, especially in East Texas. I appreciate how true this story rings. It also gets the complex connection between law enforcement officers correct.
    From a literary standpoint, the author nails the Southern Gothic genre and history in a modern telling. Anyone with even a small background in American literature - Southern literature - will get references left and right. This series - regardless of how it ends - will stand the test of time for that reason alone.

  • Nina Seavey | March 1, 2014 8:07 PM

    I was born and raised in Missouri so my knowledge of rural "flyover" states is extensive. The men in "True Detective" ring so authentic in their bravado and the women so terminal in their oppression that it doesn't feel like a fictional drama at all. You should leave your preconceived notions behind and see it. It will help you open your mind to the possibility that not all people are "ennobled" by those who choose to tell their stories, indeed, those are the least interesting, most contrived, predictable ones in their historical revisionism. The most jarring, interesting, and multi-layered subjects are those that lay the truth bare, just as it is, in all of its complexity and darkness.

  • Becca | March 1, 2014 1:21 PM

    YES!! It's quite intentional.

  • KIt | February 28, 2014 2:49 PM

    Which is not to say True Detective or any other show shouldn't tackle or portray women limited by outside circumstances--that's life, and these women are just as valuable as any others. But your arguments are faulty--stories are constructed, they're chosen. You should ask yourself "Why was this story chosen? Why was it made?" before anything else.

  • Kit | February 28, 2014 2:46 PM

    *include limited roles
    *evidence of

    Quickly typed.

  • Nina Seavey | February 27, 2014 4:49 PMReply

    I don't know why there are women, including Emily Nussbaum, who find it difficult to understand that there is a whole history when women didn't matter, except to procreate. That there are still hundreds of square miles on this planet today where women still don't matter. That women are in "True Detective" mere cut-outs is because that's frequently the way it actually was and frequently still is. The women of the Bunny Ranch, the scorned irrational wife - these are real people who don't have too much more to offer than the story affords. Nussbaum can decide not to like it, but she's foolish to try to deny its veracity. "True Detective" is about the dark, deep, recesses of Southern men. It is brilliant in every way. Not everything has to create a character where there is none. This is actually the way that many people live. A lot of women in places all over the world and all through history are just like that. No matter how one might feel about it through one's educated, hyper-intellectualized, overly-psychoanalyzed New York lens, it's really not a subject for a value judgment. Great art allows us to go into the most interesting of places even if we don't want to live there.

  • Olivia Gibson | March 1, 2014 12:57 PM

    When you mistreat women in your show without any commentary, and the women are paper thin victims, sex toys,'re celebrating and glorifying the mistreatment of women. If Nic and Cary are really trying to say something about mistreatment then they shouldn't mistreat their female characters unless they can be responsible enough to not just make it simply titillating. The female characters are in TD purely for masturbutory purposes and the ego building of men, they all get naked, bend over, beg for anal sex, ooh and agh while bouncing on top of Marty. You can not argue that women in the 1990's were nothings. Nobody is a nothing. Were slaves nothings too? Just because society saw them as nothings doesn't mean that they were.

  • Sarah | February 27, 2014 8:14 PM

    Well and succinctly said, that about sums up the opposition to Nussbaum's criticism.

  • yankee | February 27, 2014 4:34 PMReply

    The show does a good job of portraying the "dirty south", as these parts of the state are. Louisiana's only real city is New Orleans - Baton Rouge scrapes by due to film incentives. I commend the show for exposing the gritty truth of an ugly place.

  • Hector | February 27, 2014 4:25 PMReply

    An SPOILER ALERT in this article would have been nice to start with...

  • Thomas J | February 27, 2014 8:47 PM

    You're probably best off not reading anything about any show you aren't caught up on if you missed that Spoiler Alert...hard to miss!!!

  • Philip | February 27, 2014 6:13 PM

    "SPOILERS BELOW" was in the first paragraph.

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