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true detective and the absence of women

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Two male detectives arrive at a crime scene. In a small clearing, in the midst of still-smouldering crops, is a dead woman. She is naked and blindfolded, with large antlers atop her unruly hair, and is poised in a sacrificial manner. This is Louisiana in 1995. Merely the beginning of what is to be a tumultuous case and ultimately the uncovering of a heinous crime for Rustin ‘Rust’ Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin ‘Marty’ Hart (Woody Harrelson), so begins Cary Fukunaga’s recently released and much talked about HBO series, True Detective.

While this story set-up sounds pretty routine for a crime drama, I would argue that it both is and isn’t. I sat through all eight of these indisputably gripping, and at times horrifically dark episodes, thinking all the while it was a series of great quality and originality (and yet another feat for McConaughey, who is currently undergoing what is termed by many as a ‘McConaissance’).

But even as I sat curled up with a pillow half-obscuring my eyes, petrified by the goings-on of these gnarly Deep South folk, I was all the while wishing—with a silent, yet determined fury—that there was at least one female character of substance. I wanted to see a female character who wasn’t the doting wife, or the murder victim, or the attractive object of the extra-marital affair, or the vulnerable young girl, or the prostitute, or the drug addict, or the mentally unstable daughter, or just the generally second-rate human being. Unfortunately it only gets marginally better than the antler-wearing ex-prostitute.

‘It’s a detective show.’ ‘It’s meant to have two male protagonists.’ ‘It wouldn’t be the same without them.’ ‘The dynamic is great between them.’ ‘That’s what it’s really like in Louisiana—it’s meant to be realistic.’ These are just some of the excuses someone made to me when I said I was dissatisfied with the lack of female characters in the series. Was I going crazy? Was I being too analytical due to my penchant for feminist critique and was that getting in the way? Was it unreasonable of me, as a young woman, to be disappointed?

No, it was not.

I retorted that my point was not that True Detective wasn’t an accurate portrayal of its location and time period, but that I’m becoming increasingly disillusioned by quality television that consistently fails to represent or construct female characters of substance. The other person then responded with a, ‘Yeah, but Marty’s wife Maggie was a strong character. She has a job – she’s a doctor’.

It is true that Michelle Monaghan plays Maggie with undeniable strength. However, no matter how ‘strong’ her character is in comparison to the other females in the show, and despite the fact that she has a job (does a woman having a job really qualify them to be a multi-faceted character?) she is still ultimately brushed aside as ‘the nagging wife’ and consistently ill treated by her husband.

Tavi Gevinson, the Rookie wünderkind and feminist talks about one-dimensional female characters in her 2012 TEDxTeen Talk. She says the problem with these ‘cardboard cutouts’ that we endure time and time again is that they perpetuate the idea that women must be these characters in real life. Hence women must be nagging wives, forever. What a depressing thought.

I’m not disputing that True Detective is a highly gripping, fantastically acted and directed television series—it is one of the best I have seen in a long time—I am merely stating that it gets tiring watching the same misogynist tropes over and over and over again.  The show just oozes extreme masculinity (or ‘macho nonsense’ as Emily Nussbaum from the New Yorker puts it): the booze, extramarital sex, the overprotective father with a vengeance, and so much chain smoking from McConaughey’s character that I could almost see his tar-lined lungs from the other side of the screen.

The reaction I have had to it was similar to that of when I saw Wolf of Wall Street: even though I knew the director wasn’t explicitly trying to celebrate the antics of Jordan Belfort, I knew that many people would come away from the cinema thinking that no matter how repugnant his character was, he was kinda cool. A recent interview with Cary Fukunaga reveals that he is aware of the widespread criticism and although he is uncomfortable with it, he takes no responsibility. ‘The show is not going to pass the Bechdel test. I considerably doubt that. So is it sexist? I don’t know,’ he said. He has stated that the whole point of the series was to do an intensive character study and it is clear that he has achieved this; it doesn’t, however, have to be to the detriment of female characters.

So with that in mind, my question remains: what is the point of fiction—and fictional television—if we are unable to simultaneously reflect society and challenge it, by providing viewers with unconventional or non-stereotypical characters? Are we destined to watch Girls over and over again for the rest of our lives in order to get our complex-female-character fill? There is only so much Hannah Horvath one can take.

Despite my criticisms, please go forth and watch True Detective and be scared silly. It really is a great piece of entertainment. But like all forms of entertainment, be wary of the messages it is sending to you.

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