Yes, True Detective Treats Its Female Characters Badly. That's The Point.

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Feb. 23 2014 11:52 PM

The Horrible Things That Men Do to Women

Yes, True Detective treats its female characters badly. That's the point.

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Marty fancies himself a protector, but again and again he is an aggressor. He becomes almost as violent when controlling women as he does when protecting children: slapping his daughter, methodically beating the boys she had sex with, breaking down his girlfriend’s door, wrapping his hands around his wife’s throat. His sexual double standards are staggering: Whatever he does is fine; when women do it without him, it’s disgusting. In his interviews with detectives Papania and Gilbough, Marty talks endlessly about the way that a family can ground a man—then we watch him use his married-father status as a cover to misbehave, praising propriety while doing nearly anything he pleases. (If this doesn’t set your Yellow King nerves jangling, you have no Yellow King nerves.)

The show seems cognizant of the gendered nature of perspective, even if the men behind the camera occasionally expose their own. (The actress who plays Lisa is clearly conscious of just how long the camera lingered on her décolletage.) When Maggie arrives at the police station for her interview, the cops say they are looking for her “perspective,” which she methodically, calmly denies them. And while Maggie having sex with Rust seemed inevitable from the moment they hit it off over a family dinner, I was impressed with the way True Detective complicated this particularly clichéd turn of events. Maggie was the one with the agency: Rust and Marty both became, however briefly, pawns in her story.*

Granted, we have had very little insight into Maggie’s character outside the context of men: What are her Marty- and Rust-less desires, needs, wants, wishes? But this sequence made it clear that she does have all of those things, and thus a real three-dimensionality, even if we have not been privy to it, focused as we are on Rust or Marty, who are so wholly caught up in themselves.

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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 deeply. Marty 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.

In a post about the Carcosa–Yellow King mythos’ relationship to True Detective, Alyssa Rosenberg pointed to a story by James Blish called “More Light,” in which a character named James Blish visits a friend named Bill Atheling, who is in poor health because he has been reading The King In Yellow, the mythical play that drives its readers insane. Atheling tells Blish that he hasn’t shown his wife the text, and Blish understands why. “Female common sense would blow the whole thing sky-high in a minute,” he says. True Detective is a man’s story taking place in a man’s world, a world in which ignoring women has been the cause of untold horror—and has probably delayed that horror’s resolution as well. Would fully realized female characters be preferable to these fleeting glimpses, however well those glimpses highlight the limitations of our leading men? Yes, definitely. But I can wait until next season for that.

*Correction, Feb. 24, 2014: This piece originally misstated that Michelle Monaghan never appears topless on the show. She appears briefly topless in an early episode. (Return.)

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