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Friday, March 7, 2014

27

A Certain Amount of Suffering: On the Women of True Detective

Something happened last week in the True Detective response ether: up to this point, online discussion had mostly rotated around the McConnaissance, the aesthetics, or the thickening mythology. But we woke up last Monday to a slew of pieces on the treatment of women on the show—see Grantland’s Molly Lambert, Slate’s Willa Paskin, and The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, all grappling with the same overarching question: the women on this show are treated like shit. But what does that mean?

AHP: For me, this comes down to a tension I see pulsing through a lot of contemporary media: when you present a misogynist environment, are you fetishizing it or critiquing it? I always think of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo here—in the books, Stieg Larsson paints a world of incredible violence, physical and cultural, against women, but his goal, as a feminist writer, is to implicitly critique that world. The Swedish title of the original book was Men Who Hate Women, and the narrative was intended to manifest the extent of evil that extends, in all directions, from the viewpoint. The movies, however—especially the American ones—neglected the critique in favor of Fincher-style aestheticism, effectively evacuating the politics.

So what’s happening with True Detective? Is the narrative so beautiful that we forget that its in service of the exploitation of women’s bodies? Or is the dystopia itself a polemic against misogyny? Put differently, do the ends justify the means?

SES: Mainly, it's that McConaughey's knife-edge cheekbones are so beautiful that I'm just now emerging from the stupor they put me into. (AHP: Preach.) When Marty flew into his rage at Lisa's apartment was when I started to pull back. If you're going to make a dead sex worker the inciting incident for your story, if one of the central characters is defined by his rage about the sexual purity of the women in his life, it needs to pay off in the form of story advancement and character development, otherwise it's just gratuitous, sensational, "edgy." And for the last several episodes, it's become clear that the only satisfying way for the mystery to end is for Rust or Marty to be the killer. But we're gonna get some dumb conspiracy of Louisiana good ol' boys who worship the devil, which is going to be unsatisfying and also not give the proper payoff to all that violence against women, which then becomes just so many witchy antler decorations with no clear meaning.

So, are we getting that payoff? If Marty's rage about the sex lives of 1) his mistress 2) his daughter and 3) his wife change him, we do. 

AHP: I just watched the penultimate episode and I don’t know what to do with Marty now that we’re so thoroughly in the present. He’s seemingly reformed (he drinks green tea; he’s stopped hound-dogging) but it’s also clear that he’s completely shirked his responsibility as a father and the only reason he’s not exploiting women is because he’s too old to get play (thus: desperate Match.com-ing). Plus he resisted Rust for all of ten minutes: sitting in his crappy apartment, eating microwave dinners, doing PI work, he’s totally impotent, and Rust offers him a way to return to his dick-swinging days of yore. His visceral reaction to the videotape is meant to remind us that he’s a guy who can’t bear violence against women—but do we also remember his own violence against women? For me, it’s a question of narrative amnesia: when the series is done, how will we understand Rust and Marty? If, as you (I think properly) predict, it’s a bunch of evil cultish white dudes, won’t that provide Marty, Rust, and all of us with too clean of a catharsis?

SES: Yes, and a total copout. I need one of them to be the killer, so bad, and I need it to be Marty, because of of mental illness or supernatural causes or because he's been drugged by the evil ring of church men. But I'm right with you, the present Marty having to reap what he sowed does pay off some of his behavior. It's not just that Marty's sadly clicking on Match.com while eating microwave dinners, it's that Maggie's in a nicer, bigger house and that the girls are off living their adult lives while not speaking to him for months at a stretch. They're better off and he's worse off (statistically not usually the case for women and children after a divorce, also, maybe there's going to be some crazy twist in the form of who Maggie took as a second husband). But he's still the same raging dude, as shown by his immediate reversion to avenger of innocents.

AHP: Marty’s paradigm/ worldview doesn’t change just because he’s 15 years older—and, in line with Rust’s declaration that “time is a flat circle,” I do appreciate the way the show refuses our characters any sort of growth because, in real life, most people don’t grow out of their ideologies; if anything, they become more entrenched in them. Any text (HI CRASH) that suggests that people lose their racism/ classism/ sexism /homophobia over the course of a single season, let alone an episode, is blinding its audience to the way that systems of oppression actually work. In other words: it takes A WHOLE LOT to change people’s understanding of the world, and the ease with which Marty slips back into his innocent-avenger role reminds that even church, sobriety, divorce, and the disintegration of his career can’t change that.

One of the main complaints about the show concerns its lack of fully developed characters. What do we do with that?

SES: I am less concerned with an overall lack of female characters of any depth, maybe because it's a bro detective show and so I'm just not expecting that much of the supporting characters to begin with. Nobody else in the show really gets fleshed out; should we be expecting anything else for the women?

AHP: Any woman in America has been trained to find points of identification in bro genres. I’m not making an excuse for TD so much as stating that it’s but one of dozens of programs, many of them “quality” texts, without fleshed out female characters. I find myself identifying with Rust’s intense cerebralism and asocialness (WHAT DOES THAT SAY ABOUT ME?) (SES: Probably that you are a writer), but I also find Marty’s daughters fascinating.

Granted, all of our female characters are foils for our protagonists’ development, but I do think that we’re meant to read this patriarchal world as broken. In last week’s Grantland’s Hollywood Prospectus podcast, Andy Greenwald decried those who argue that a flaw on a show (such as Girls’ lack of diversity, of True Detective’s dude-focus) is “on purpose,” thereby immunizing the narrative from critique. I think we should always draw attention to the lack of representation, but I also think that a show’s lack of diversity can function as its own critique. The whiteness of Girls is just one component of its postfeminist dystopia; the dead women of True Detective are the logical extension of Marty’s internalized misogyny. But again, the season finale has the potential to put that reading to bed.

SES: I agree with you and am of the opinion that we can talk about these problems of representation and still enjoy entertainments without having to rationalize their problems. And I am probably bothered more than anything by the fact that a murdered truck stop prostitute is a lazy-ass inciting incident—why couldn't she have been a waitress, for the love of god.

I do not think that a narrative is immunized from critique because some troublesome aspect of it also happens to be crucial to its development. Who thinks you stop a conversation that way, anyway? You can have purposeful and systematic harm done to women and have it advance your story and characters and still talk about it being ugly. It's ugly in the actual world and any story worth a damn will get you to thinking about that eventually.

Or maybe only women think that, and men are able to see it as so much aesthetics and storytelling, which is a distinct and bleak possibility, and I suppose that's the most depressing conclusion I could come to; that it's maybe too close to a reality where a certain amount of suffering is a tangible reality for women and an abstract concept to occasion shows of bravado for men.

AHP: The amount that last paragraph makes sense to me is terrifying—especially since it effectively renders the ending inconsequential. Feminist scholars examining the history of film have suggested that for women, watching movies is a continual process of masochism—of willfully identifying with and experiencing suffering. By contrast, cinema forces (straight) men to identify with the sadistic pleasures of punishment and revenge. For various reasons, mainstream television has always functioned somewhat differently—the male gaze is more diffuse, for one, but so are the narratives themselves and the way we consume them. But I fear that the rise of “filmic” television, for all of its addictive qualities, doesn’t also reproduce the same schemas of those who cause and those who feel suffering.

SES: As I fantasized about satisfying endings for the season, I thought that watching the young girl who was rescued from the meth lab kill some guys would be solid. There's a reason that BAM put together a whole festival of female revenge films: it feels good to identify with the avenger, and women shouldn't be denied that or have to enjoy it through a male proxy. But to quote Rust, "I'd consider myself a realist, but in philosophical terms I'm what's called a pessimist," so I'm not holding my breath.

 

Susan Elizabeth Shepard has two jobs and lives in Austin, TX.

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here, and you can read the Scandals of Classic Hollywood series here.



27 Comments / Post A Comment

xxAnniexx

Have been waiiiiting for an AHP analysis of the women of True Detective!!

mlle.gateau

I think for me, it's kind of a given that Dora Lang would be a prostitute. There's a sexual component to the killings, and beyond that, I think it reflects real life killers like the Green River Killer, who was able to carry on for a very long time specifically because he targeted prostitutes. It's part and parcel of Marty's concern about purity; it's Rust who's really interested in keeping the Lang case. It's Rust who spots the "Have You Seen Me" and starts looking into women being kidnapped/murdered. Marty only gets really emotionally involved when the victims are young children. He engages in violence, but Marty's violence is directed primarily at the men with whom women violate their purity; most of his violence with his mistress is directed at her date, the same way the violence of his response to his daughter is directed at the young men involved. He sees women as essentially passive, capable only of reaction; that's what innocence is in his mind. It's what makes him go after what Rust calls "crazy pussy"; those women pursue him, but in his worldview they pursue him as a reaction to his maleness and masculinity. Even with Maggie, his rage is directed at Rust. It's not so much that Marty hates women, it's that he dismisses them as actors. I see that as the sort of central tension between Rust and Marty; Rust's rage at the CID is wrapped up not only in the complicity of the organization in the conspiracy, but in the larger social conspiracy to dismiss the damage done and being done to women. On some level, he realizes Marty is part of this, but at the same time, he can't go it alone.

On the flip side, I would throw out there that I think Maggie is the most complete character on the show. She is the one who knows what she wants and creates a plan and acts. What does that mean in the context of the narrative? I don't know. I guess we'll find out Sunday.

Danzig!

@mlle.gateau Maybe it's just me, but I don't get the sense that Rust really cares about the victims of violence to any great extent. There's that line he has in the first episode about "programming" (which I guess you could read as being broadly thematic to the show but that's), and that sort of detachment really defines him as a character. His skill as a detective is in large part tied to his detachment, right? He was undercover 4x as long as he should have been, he casually tears into his interrogation suspects (and worse). I mean, Rust is the guy who pursues the case but he only ever talks about their relationship to it in terms of principle ("debt" and all that), as opposed to empathy. I don't recall him ever expressing empathy for the victims. He certainly doesn't give a shit about any of the people he interviews. It's a puzzle to him, he's like the main character of Sherlock minus all of that Moffatt schmaltz.

A big part of Nussbaum's critique is that the main characters are meant to be heroic, and that has to be true - while the show is clearly critical of Marty's bullshit masculine delusions, shows about masculinity can critique it about as well as war movies can critique war. But at the same time, this isn't a Sorkin show, Marty and Rust aren't redeemed by their commitment to the case (nor do I think the "bad men keeping bad men from the door" line should be taken at face value). It's just something they do. They're both lost. Then again, maybe I'm full of shit!

Danzig!

@Danzig! whoops, that was supposed to be "but that's beyond my faculties as a critic". So is writing blog comments, fwiw.

simone eastbro

I need one of them to be the killer, so bad, and I need it to be Marty, because of of mental illness or supernatural causes or because he's been drugged by the evil ring of church men.

I'm gonna be totally bummed if Marty just turns out to be Leland Palmer.

madeleineld

I would just like to say that, although I think AHP is a genius, I will never EVER be on board with calling Stieg Larsson OR Girl With a Dragon Tattoo feminist. Never.

Anne Helen Petersen

@madeleineld Do you see how HE thought what he was doing with the books was feminist, though? He saw a culture of "Men Who Hate Women," and wanted to illuminate it.

madeleineld

@AHP I don't know if I'd use the word "feminist," unless there's evidence of he himself using that term--but absolutely, I would agree with the second statement. I think he fetishized the idea of women being brutalized and him (or a very obvious narrative stand-in for himself) stepping in, rescuing them, and having them be grateful for it.

mlle.gateau

@madeleineld I don't know that I agree that the Larson books feature that much of women being rescued by men. In fairness, it's been a while since I've read them, but I think part of what I found appealing about them was that Salander consistently rescues herself against a backdrop of disbelief or unconcern from men, especially male authority figures. I also felt like the heavy plot emphasis in the second and third books on human trafficking was a direct commentary on this same issue; the idea that these women are invisible and therefore disposable. I thought it also did a good job of showing that men who seem perfectly ordinary and who are harmless in certain contexts can be sadistic in others. That's not to say that I agree with the depiction of all men who attack women as profoundly twisted (they are depressingly ordinary and common), or that I think the novels are flawless feminist manifestos, I just don't know that that particular critique is accurate.
The book is highly dramatized, of course, but I felt like Larson managed to get at some interesting points, especially the isolation that women who seek their own autonomy face and the challenge of balancing a desire for power against a desire to be feminine.

chickpeas akimbo

@mlle.gateau The first book ends with Salander rescuing what's-his-face from the evil Nazi brother, in fact. And there's a brief moment in the book, but I believe not in either movie, where evil Nazi brother attempts to sexually assault what's-his-face. Larsson doesn't spend a lot of time on it, but I think it's an efficient demonstration of the idea that rape is about power, not sex.

Given that Larsson wrote the novels for his own enjoyment and died before they were published, I'm a little more willing to let him off the hook for the obvious middle-aged dude wish fulfillment aspects of the plot. I'm sure we would all like to fall in love with a beautiful, mysterious stranger; many of us might choose to express that a little differently in a work intended for publication than in our own journals or other private writings.

or Elsa!

I need one of them to be the killer, so bad, and I need it to be Marty, because of of mental illness or supernatural causes or because he's been drugged by the evil ring of church men.

I feel that need so acutely, too; it's something of a relief to hear that's not just me. The show seems to establish that suspicion right from the first scenes, but in the last episode or two, it moves away from the likelihood.

If Marty, who is so pervasively objectifying, casually abusive, and terrifying in his assurance that women exist for his pleasure and comfort, isn't complicit in the posing of the body and the construction of the elaborate crime scene (though not necessarily in the deaths or the acts leading to them), then the show has been one long mislead. Even worse, all the tension and meaning will drop out into nothingness.

But I'll say this: if Marty is complicit, I would wager it's not through some psychosexual or religious angle; it's because he believes the powerful men doing [blah blah blah] know best. Marty's paternalism tints the show from its very first moments [self-link] and poisons his whole worldview.

TaffetaDarling

Too bad it's definitely not going to be Marty. There's nothing in the show to support that conclusion, and Nic P. has come out said it's not him. Barring a twist, we'll have to deal with the fact that he's not complicit (except morally), and is simply one of the bad men keeping other bad men at bay.

heroicdestinysquad

I'm actually going to be really disappointed if its the cult OR if its Marty or Rust. Like, obviously, Marty as the killer is the only thing that makes sense if the show is actually purposefully treating women like shit. But my preferred ending would be if we somehow found out that it was just a shit ton of men being fucking violent and hurting women and there was no conspiracy at all. Just man after man hurting women they think of as disposable because that is actually what real life is like. I think that is actually the main flaw of all shows like True Detective (except for maybe SVU). By making there be some mastermind behind the deaths/rapes/hurts it downplays (and in a way I think contributes to our culture's fuckedupness about violence against women) the sheer numbers of men committing individual acts of violence against women.

TaffetaDarling

@heroicdestinysquad That's really intelligent, and I totally agree. TD probably won't go in that direction, but, yeah, the cult aspect effectively elides the systemic mistreatment of women in our culture in favor of a showy—carnivalesque—mask—...time...is...a...flat—circle—okay I'm done. Good point.

astauff

Pizzolatto says pretty explicitly here that it's not Rust or Marty. He also comments on the misogyny thing:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/kateaurthur/true-dectective-finale-season-1-nic-pizzolatto

nerdshares

"...it needs to pay off in the form of story advancement and character development, otherwise it's just gratuitous, sensational, "edgy." And for the last several episodes, it's become clear that the only satisfying way for the mystery to end is for Rust or Marty to be the killer."

I wouldn't find it gratuitous at all - the whole idea the show is getting at is that Marty and Rust are bad men hunting worse men. There are no "monsters" in the world - darkness and evil aren't otherworldly, they're very real and very human. The terrible shit Marty and Rust have done only underscores that they're not out killing and assaulting women NOT because they're good, saintly men who aren't capable. They're both very capable of that kind of violence. And they certainly don't - at least not really - believe in any form of karmic justice that "punishes" evildoers. So what stops them? Choice. To straight up steal from Angel - "if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do." So finding the people responsible and trying to bring them to some kind of earthly justice is what they've decided matters.

The question is: if the Yellow King acolytes are in EVERYTHING, will Marty and Rust be able to dole out any kind of satisfying justice? I'm not sure how far even vigilantism will take them, if the conspiracy is large enough in scope.

I wouldn't dare call True Detective "feminist," because the reality is that it does indulge in a lot of objectification - but I think it's equally clear that it is doing that in order to comment on objectification of women. I mean, it starts with the LITERAL objectification of a woman ("a paraphiliac love map") and all of the violent actions done by men against women are condemned by the show.

Ultimately, I'm most concerned that the show will wrap up with our heroes convinced that even small-scale human justice is impossible when you're dealing with people whose power enables them to abuse, rape and murder with impunity. But I hope not. I hope in some small way, the bad men make the worse men pay.

blixie

Apparently one woman's "satisfying" is anothers "utterly ludicrous", which is how I would feel if either Rust or Marty are revealed as the killer. It's too trite, it's too neat, it ignores the nuance and banality of evil, that I think Pizzolatto is going for. Just because they're not green eared spaghetti monsters, they're being championed? (Yes I know Pizzolatto said they were heros, that ain't text) Everyday dude bros are hurting women (and themselves) in all kinds of ways that don't involve antlers and paraphilic love maps. Rust and Marty are GUILTY, regardless of how this ends. They've participated in this vast continuum, this flat black circle of misogyny, and not just in the over obvious ways of having corruptly meted out vigilante justice, that ultimately enabled/failed to stop a murder cult, but in these every day abusive and neglectful ways, that have damaged the women they've claimed to care for, and they won't buy redemption by avenging the ones they never knew.

Lord knows the world doesn't need any more white man's burden stuff but I find it easier to embrace stories that are so obviously critiquing that (or trying to) rather than just presenting it unchallenged.

Michelle H. Sellars@facebook

Rust or Marty being the killer would be the least satisfying ending. I have to agree with the show's creator on this one--in a world where we've all seen The Usual Suspects, Rust or Marty as the killer would be lazy and obvious. I also don't think it makes any sense in the world of the show--Rust states that they are bad men in a way, but their purpose is to keep the worse men in check. Marty is an asshole, but not the murdering kind of asshole. I've got to go with the Jezebel reviewer on this one. I see the show as critiquing misogyny and Marty's actions.

Bretley

@Michelle H. Sellars@facebook I completely agree. The idea that the only "satisfying" conclusion would be for either Marty or Rust being the killer is so mystifying to me I wonder if I've been watching the same program.

mlle.gateau

@Michelle H. Sellars@facebook I have been in the "It was Marty" camp off and on--not in the sense that I want to be him, but in the sense that I feel like he's implicated in it. Having read the Pizzolato interview on Buzzfeed, I realize that Pizzolato on some level wants you to think that it at least could be Marty. Marty is implicated by his inability to conceive of women as fully fledged, autonomous human beings. This contrasts with his efforts to solve the crime, which sort of redeem him, along with the fact that his ideas about women have led him to a place of such deep (and not undeserved) unhappiness. So I mean... yeah, it kind of is Marty, in the sense these crimes take place in a world where Marty's view of women is sadly common among men and enables these kinds of crimes to go unchecked. But is it Marty who's actually killing women? Nope.

whutt

There are assumptions galore here. Isn't it possible that True Detective isn't really about identifying with the characters, or about literal-minded realism, or even about satisfying your cherished TV expectations?

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mistersister

Way too late to this thread for anyone to respond. But I've been thinking about this a lot. Maybe because I started to watch The Killing, season 3 and had to stop because the violence against young girls was just too much, and felt too gratuitous. It's disturbing to me that these shows always, ALWAYS, focus on the killing of young women. We just accept that is the way it is in the world and these shows are reflecting that. Is it? Men get murdered all the time. And if you're doing a serial killer show, why not use as inspiration John Wayne Gacy or Wayne Williams, historical killers who targeted young men? Why the focus on women as victims? To say it's a representation / commentary on real life just doesn't cut it for me. True Detective is a great show and I've enjoyed it … but if it doesn't have something significant to say about all of this, I will be very disappointed.

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