HBO’s latest tour de force, True Detective, is making waves in America, but hits a major road block when it comes to representation of female characters
Warning: contains spoilers.
Nic Pizzolatto‘s anthological crime drama, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, has only just premiered in the UK on Sky Atlantic but is nearing its denouement across the pond. For those of you who have escaped the fanfare that has surrounded its release, the show takes place across multiple timelines as our flawed heroes Rustin Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson) document their search for an elusive Louisiana serial killer. The series spans 17 years and opens in present day as the two unreliable narrators find themselves relating the story of their biggest case to two cops with video cameras and a hidden agenda.
Press and audience alike have been charmed by the shows cinematic style, stellar acting and stunning Louisiana scenery and I, too, have found the show to be a breath of fresh air amidst the slew of identikit crime dramas that litter the airwaves. The Guardian staunchly declares there are “only good things” about this dark murder mystery, The Daily Telegraph lauds it as “the most ambitious TV drama for a long time” and The Sunday Times’ Culture section calls it “intriguing, smartly scripted and reminiscent to a degree of Twin Peaks”. I initially agreed with them. Then I began noticing a theme running through the series, one that has niggled at the back of my mind and prevented me from soaking in the brilliance of Pizzolatto’s spectacular whodunit: where are all the women? The fully explored women, I mean; meaty characters with personalities that the viewer can identify with, not the parade of naked bodies, forgotten victims, a nagging wife and two neglected daughters that we’ve been given.
From the show’s opening credits – brooding shots of McConaughey and Harrelson interspersed with scantily clad women – through to the plethora of strippers, mistresses and victims that make up the show’s female characters, one thing is certain; True Detective is not going to pass the Bechdel test. Not even close. There’s been a lot of debate already about the show’s depiction of its female characters and their presentation as one dimensional sex objects, most notably Emily Nussbaum’s piece in The New Yorker where she speaks of her disdain and boredom at the show’s presentation of women as “wives and sluts and daughters”. Slate’s Willa Paskin, who agrees with Nussbaum to a degree, has responded with claims that the show’s flagrant sexism is self-aware and conducive to the core plot. She believes it is not the show that is treating women badly, the male characters are.
I find myself between both camps, unable to tear myself away from the mystery at the heart of the show – namely, who is behind the ritualistic murder of Dora Lange (uncredited), found bound, stripped and adorned with antlers in the middle of a Louisiana field – while simultaneously cringing at the continued gratuitous shots of bare arses, jiggling breasts and apparently weak-willed women. No matter who you agree with, there is no denying that True Detective is far more generous with its leading men than its supporting female characters.
McConaughy’s Rust Cohle – one half of our lead detective duo – is a strange beast, with a difficult relationship with both women and men. He’s a figure of derision amongst his colleagues; they call him ‘the taxman’ because he carries an A4 notebook with him and speaks almost entirely in pseudo-intellectual riddles that confuse and infuriate partner Marty. He’s nihilistic and antagonistic, haunted by the death of his young daughter and the subsequent disintegration of his marriage. His partner Marty Harte, played with aplomb by Woody Harrelson, is much more straight-forward. He is your bog-standard misogynistic hypocrite, one who engages in multiple extra-marital affairs while labelling his teenage daughter as a ‘slut’ – not to mention slapping her in the face – when he discovers she has been engaging in sexual activity. He views women as his property and expects them to adhere to the rigid boundaries he places upon them; submissive wife, perfect daughter, faithful mistress. When anything threatens his perfect ideal, he snaps.
In the second episode of True Detective, Rust and Marty find themselves at a trailer-park cum brothel where Marty becomes outraged at the presence of an underage prostitute named Beth (played by relative unknown Lili Simmons). Marty, disgusted, berates the madam, Lucy (Alyshia Ochse) for employing a girl clearly younger than 18 and, before he leaves, stuffs a handful of cash in Beth’s palm and tells her to do something else. Fast forward seven years and Marty is freshly reunited with wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) after an earlier indiscretion with court reporter, Lisa (Alexandra Daddario); however, he is now receiving sexts on his phone from the former child prostitute he was once so desperate to protect while, in a gratuitous scene that serves no purpose save to titillate the audience, she parades around in her underwear stroking her arse and sweetly declaring that she wants Harte to engage in anal sex with her. True Detective is littered with this kind of scene: shots of Woody Harrelson being ridden by nubile young nymphs, lingering close-ups of his various mistresses décolletages and background shots of strippers gyrating on poles, while in the foreground Harte and Cohle interrogate and charm their way through their investigation.
And what of Harte’s long suffering wife Maggie? She’s the closest the show gets to a prominent female character but she disappoints in every way, spending episodes one to five stewing silently in the background as her philandering bully of a husband comes and goes – quite literally – as he pleases. In episode six she gets her vengeance by manipulating Rust into revenge fucking her. Its 30 seconds of unenjoyable thrusting for both parties, but Maggie has got what she wanted; as she tells a shell-shocked Cohle “he’ll have to go you see […] he won’t live with it”. It’s a predictable twist that does nothing to bring any gravitas to her character.
As a die-hard lover of crime shows, I was predisposed to love True Detective, but with two lead characters and a slew of secondary personas who seem to have little respect for women, not to mention the constant shots of female bodies, it’s hard to enjoy the show without questioning its agenda and the damaging effect these types of female characters have on both the viewer and the acting industry. There is hope, though; Nic Pizzolatto recently tweeted (and swiftly deleted) a teasing suggestion that the next series of True Detective would feature a female-led cast. Given that each series of the show will be shot in an entirely different location, with a different cast and a different caseload, Pizzolatto and his team have a unique opportunity here to sketch an entirely different picture of the men and women in their world. If that world is being shown through the eyes of two Olivia Benson-esque gun-toting women, then this time next year we could be exploring a different kind of territory altogether.
Season One, episode six of True Detective will air on Saturday 29 March 2014 on Sky Atlantic HD.
Martin Hart and Rustin Cole (left to right) stand in front of some rushes on a windy day, looking perplexed. Martin looks into the distance on his right, his hand under his tie (which has blown to an angle), while Rustin looks out into the distance ahead of him. Image via Sky and also used and adapted for the forthcoming DVD for Season one (TBC).