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Are The Female Characters On True Detective Supposed To Be Invisible?

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Alright, I finally cracked and watched True Detective. I blame all of you people—meaning anyone singing its praises before—for my reluctance to watch before. It has been treated by most fans and critics like a major league bummer show, the kind you choke down out of guilt and obligation, like Top of the Lake. By the time I’m done with a full day or week of reporting, often on stuff that is really a big time bummer, entertainment whose entire purpose is to make the viewer sad holds no interest for me. But True Detectives isn’t actually bummer “entertainment”. It’s a Southern Gothic, and it’s not about bumming you out so much at getting you to figuratively turn the page to find out what happens next. The two genres couldn’t be more different, dammit. So I’m into it.

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Anyway, the inevitable debate about the role of women on the show has cropped up.  Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker complains about how empty and two-dimensional the women on the show are:

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”: the slack-jawed teen prostitutes; the strippers gyrating in the background of police work; the flashes of nudity from the designated put-upon wifey character; and much more nudity from the occasional cameo hussy, like Marty’s mistress, whose rack bounces merrily through Episode 2. Don’t get me wrong: I love a nice bouncy rack. And if a show has something smart to say about sex, bring it on. But, after 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.

To state the obvious: while the male detectives of “True Detective” are avenging women and children, and bro-bonding over “crazy pussy,” every live woman they meet is paper-thin. Wives and sluts and daughters—none with any interior life.

Willa Paskin of Slate agrees, but says she thinks that it’s intentional:

Presenting women as a parade of scolds, sluts, and the strung-out typically makes me hate a television series. But I love True Detective. While it is possible—by which I mean undeniably true—that I am completely in thrall to the ever-captivating McConaissance, I think True Detective has not triggered my usual response because it is, at least on some level, very aware of how stereotypically and perfunctorily it treats its female characters. When it comes to women, True Detective is undeniably shallow—but I think it’s being shallow on purpose.

She notes that they routinely hang a lampshade on the fact that the male characters are wholly uninterested in the interior lives of the women:

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That self-absorption is typical of all the men on True Detective, who often don’t even notice female insight. Maggie is able to conceal herself from Gilbough and Papania in part because they’re clearly not inclined to consider her very deeplyMarty didn’t even seem to register Jan’s character-flaying speech. Last week, Marty’s daughter Audrey told him over supper, “Women don’t have to look like you want them to.” Maggie gave him a “she’s got you there” look and Marty barely took it in. In an earlier episode, when Marty asked his younger daughter to leave the room, she only did so after Maggie nodded in agreement. (This echoed Beth’s behavior at the bunny ranch: She waited for a nod from Jan before agreeing to show Rust Dora Lange’s diary.) Marty may be the law, but he doesn’t have all the power. There’s an entire female hierarchy he is completely oblivious to.

I’m inclined to agree with Paskin. In fact, I’m going to take it a step further and argue that I think, whatever else happens, this inability of the main characters to really see women is going to be their downfall. Over and over again, the show obsesses about the gap between self-serving delusions and narratives and what’s really going on. Marty repeatedly talks about how detectives frequently overlook what should have been most obvious, what was right under their noses. He calls it the “detective’s curse”. “Solution was right under my nose, but I was paying attention to the wrong clues.”

I am going to offer this prediction, then: The solution will be right under their noses, but they missed it because they don’t really see women.

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Indeed, the internet sleuths are already on it. Remember that all-important yearbook photo that they found one of the victims in? Well, guess what? Other female characters that Marty and Rust have interacted with are in the picture. Here’s the picture with the women helpfully numbered.

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And here they are when they crop up on the show:

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There is a widespread conspiracy involving the women that went to that school. If they could see women more clearly, they would see this. We’ll see. If I’m wrong, I’ll happily admit it.

But I have to agree with Paskin. There are multiple times when the audience is reminded that Rust and Marty are incapable of really seeing the women and girls around them. I’m particularly unsettled by how Marty happens upon his daughter staging a gang rape scene with her Barbies and shrugs it off. He should have seen that, but he didn’t. But the camera lingers on it. We are expected to notice how fucked up that was. I think that’s going to pay off. I think they’re setting up an extremely aggressive example of the cliche of the invisible female characters in order to tip it over. I certainly hope so.

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