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True Detective and misogyny as storytelling

I have a lot of ideas about True Detective, and most of them aren't fully formulated — I'm going to wait until the finale to pin them in their final forms. One thing I'm sure about is I love the show; another is that it leans on quite a few misogynistic images and tropes. This has led to some people dismissing it as yet another show about noble, troubled men on a quest that tramples over a multitude of female bodies. On a thread yesterday I put forth a few ideas as to why that's not the case — but I want to take a little space here to more fully suss that out, and explain why I think that True Detective's use of gendered tropes is actually a step toward undoing some of the problematization of men as subject/women as object storytelling. (ETA: Maybe this goes without saying, but spoilers ahead.)

For right now, I'm going to use Marty's infidelity as an example. There are three key scenes of Marty being actively unfaithful: 1) a scene where he goes to see Lisa, the court clerk he's got going on the side; 2) a scene in which he barges into Lisa's apartment in a fit of jealous rage and starts beating the man she's brought home (after breaking up with him); 3) years later, after a lengthy period of "reformation," Marty bangs a former teen prostitute in her apartment.


1) On its own — if we saw nothing else to do with Marty's adultery, this scene would be most ripe for criticism. It reads like standard HBO gratuitous nudity: we don't see very much of Marty, but we get a lot of long, good looks at Lisa undressing and naked.

Illustration for article titled True Detective and misogyny as storytelling

Incidentally, the actress who plays Lisa is also in the Percy Jackson movies, a fact which is still blowing my mind a little. Anyway! On its own, I absolutely agree that this scene is over the top. We're not really watching from the POV of Marty — the camera is in a disembodied, third party location, putting us in the best possible place to see every inch of this woman's body.

2) One episode later, we're back in Lisa's apartment, but this time it's awful — Lisa's just broken off the affair with Marty, and has brought home another man. In a drunken rage, Marty breaks into her apartment violently, grabs the (naked) other man and throws him into the closet, and begins beating him. Here, unlike in scene #1, we do see Marty — and all too clearly. The camera is close on his angry, terrifying face as he starts whipping this innocent guy to a pulp. As a counterpoint to the first scene between him and Lisa, it's incredibly striking — now we see what Marty really is, a man who is violent, possessive, and myopic when it comes to the independence of the women he fucks (I'm not going to talk about episode 6, but anyone who's seen the show knows exactly how this plays out in the case of Maggie). This scene unsettles the previous adultery scene — it's at the same location, same kind of lighting, same time of night, but this time we get a good look at Marty. We aren't allowed to be that floating third party; we're right in the thick of it. This scene throws it in your face — HOLY FUCK, THIS IS WHO HE IS. And then HOLY FUCK, THIS IS WHAT I WAS LOOKING AT.


3) Marty goes through a years long period of reformation, during which he "finds religion," and seems to be trying to be a good father (if you're paying attention, though, you know nothing essential about his character has changed — for example, he joins a men's religious group renowned for their strict patriarchal view). But fast forward: eventually, in a moment when he's feeling particularly emasculated, he runs into a former teen prostitute (Beth) he had previously encountered, and he winds up going back to her apartment and fucking her. The scene is remarkably similar to the first scene with Lisa: lighting/color scheme, hair color of the woman in question, girl-on-top. But tonally, everything feels different — for one thing, we hear Lisa's moans first, juxtaposed with a weird close shot of small, childlike figurines. It quickly becomes apparent that we are seeing that shot from Marty's perspective. The scene is over quickly — we catch the very end of them fucking, with none of the drawn-out, teasing foreplay (which is all scene 1). It's a discomfiting, disorienting scene, shot from a couple of odd angles (we see two reflections of Beth before we see Beth herself), brief but intense, and when I watched it I felt nauseous and full of dread. Marty doesn't even seem to be enjoying himself — as soon as it's over, his gaze returns to the figurines. They are one of a few childlike hallmarks in Beth's room, but they are most prominent.

This scene closes the loop, doubling on the earlier scene and resonating against all the themes about cycles and the inescapability of certain awful patterns. Once we have seen that second and third scene, the first becomes more sinister — and further, as viewers, we are pushed to reckon with what we are really looking at. This show is not shy about showing you things multiple times in different lights — the two appearances of the lawnmower man are a prime example of this, as are the double figures of Rust and Marty in the first six episodes, the past haunting the present. The show also understands that there is a moral weight to seeing things, to the position of "viewer" — look at how Marty reacted to the tape Rust showed him of the cult at work on a little girl (mostly we see Marty, the viewer, not the tape). This means that you, the viewer, aren't off the hook, aren't that disembodied, uninvested eye — you, too, have a moral responsibility, one at which you can succeed or fail at upholding, depending on your response to the story.


I'm not saying the show is perfect or is hitting all the notes correctly. While I think Maggie is a fantastic character, there's no denying that this is, like most buddy-cop shows from which it's pillaged its elements, a story about two men. But if it arrives in a field of shows dominated by male characters — characters who sometimes or often do violence to women — it arrives knowing its moves. This show is trickier than it appears, but not in the ways you think it will be. It won't let you get away with the shallow, visceral thrill of the camera panning over a naked woman, it will also put you in the face of the violence men do in the name of owning the woman, her sexuality, her body. In the end, it will show you how hopeless and ugly the whole thing really is, and the inextricable ties between misogyny and brutality.

As a closing note, GT, I like you guys so much and wanted to say this so much that I just rewatched two awkward Woody Harrelson sex scenes like five times each.

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