The peak of feminism in True Detective is really more of a small hilltop, and we appear to reach it in the second episode, “Seeing Things,” when a weathered madame with some fight left in her sneers at Detective Marty Hart’s feeble attempt at gallantry. “It’s a woman’s body, ain’t it?” she says. “A woman’s choice.” This moment must serve as the most eloquent stance taken by a woman in opposition to a man, but instead of scoring one for women—unquestionably the losing side in the war of attrition between the sexes on this show—it cuts straight to the central weakness in an otherwise excellent story. But let’s start at the beginning.
True Detective’s mystery begins with the lifeless, naked body of a woman named Dora Lange, bound on her knees in supplication before a sinister tree. Dora is supposedly the reason we’re all here. Two detectives, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), take in this grim scene with professional stoicism. Hart snaps a few pics, Cohle sketches her bare buttocks into his notebook, and off they go, ostensibly to seek justice for Dora’s murder. But the story that unfolds is not overly concerned with Lange or justice. The dead girl is merely the fulcrum around which series creator Nic Pizzolatto leverages the true arc of his story, a story that belongs to its powerful male leads, Hart and Cohle, and a story in which women are mere plot devices.
Three-quarters through its premiere season, True Detective has offered us a rich array of complex female characters—if you categorize women by their bra size. If you group them by type, well then, you’ve got three kinds of women: victims, prostitutes (so many!), and the classic female Neapolitan of Mom/Nurse/Nag. Thus far reviewers have been falling over themselves to praise McConaughey’s excellent performance, and in the rush to declare True Detective “one of the most riveting and provocative series I’ve ever seen” and laud “two of the best performances you’ll see in TV or film this entire year” the show’s paucity of women has been briefly noted and quickly forgiven.
Part of the reason for this is that the performances of Harrelson and McConaughey really are enthralling, and their characters feel fresh and real. Rust Cohle is our mystic philosopher, sanctified by suffering and by four years spent undercover wandering in the proverbial and literal desert. Having lost his identity of father, and lived so long under the assumed identity of a criminal, Cohle is left alcoholic, gaunt and haunted, living in monastic white rooms decorated with only a crucifix and a mirror in which he stares into his own eye, presumably asking Who am I? What is ‘I’? Why is this I so damn handsome? “We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self,” according to Cohle. He see signs in the sky and survived a trinity of bullets to the chest; the man walks a foot above the Earth.
If Cohle is the tortured soul of man, that makes his partner Hart—you guessed it: he is man’s pounding, broken heart. (“Hart & Cohle” sounds like a pretty swinging R&B duo to me.) Hot-blooded Hart is knee-deep in the terrestrial swamp, grappling with the mid-life “Is this it?” crisis that so many family men must supposedly contend with. He uses alcohol and infidelity to cope with his confinement. Whether it’s his girlfriends, his wife or his own daughters, women bring out the worst in Hart. It’s only when he’s ejected from his home and forced to join Cohle in his man-cave that real progress starts to be made in their case. Hart has been dulled by domesticity (emasculated even unto to the point of carrying home tampons for his pride of lionesses! Oh, the indignity), whereas Cohle is a blade sharpened by isolation and male contest.
Along their quest Hart and Cohle must contend with many women in various stages of disrepute. True Detective is set in a religious landscape, and the ground is littered with fallen angels. Just look at the women of the most recent episode, “A Segway To Your Skull”: There’s goth slut Audrey, sixteen years old and rebelling by having sex with two men at once. There’s a scab-encrusted woman who conceives and kills babies for the sympathy it brings her. There’s Kelly, the kidnapped child sex-slave rescued by Hart and Cohle, who’s shattered by her trauma and confined to a mental ward. Here’s Beth, who just three episodes ago was an exploited teen prostitute in need of help—oh, but now it’s okay to ogle her naked breasts as she moans ecstatically on top of Hart, and later calls him up to beg for more in no uncertain terms. (Apparently the money he slipped her seven years ago was indeed a down-payment, as Cohle predicted in “Seeing Things”.)
And then there’s Maggie Hart. Maggie is our “strong” female character—you can tell because she’s described as “controlling” by her own mother and a “ballbuster” by Marty. Maggie has had nothing to do in six episodes except talk about her husband, nag her husband, negotiate with her husband, and seduce her husband’s partner in order to free herself from her husband. Oh, and once she tried to get Hart to pay attention to his daughter, a doll in a pink-tutu with a trapper-keeper full of explicit doodling. But he failed to intervene effectively, and without the strong guiding hand of her father Audrey grew up to be a slut.
True Detective’s superficial treatment of its women would be less annoying if the same women did not then have to submit to being the lust objects of HBO’s high-definition male gaze. This network loves flesh (and honestly, we love HBO for loving it so well) and this series is no exception—from the tender belly of the murdered Dora, to the taut skin stretched over Maggie’s ribs, to Lisa’s Jessica Rabbit-esque proportions—Lisa, who does not just possess but is in fact herself “crazy pussy” according to our Spiritual Leader, Cohle. (Possible fourth lady category there?) The camera doesn’t linger on so much as cup and squeeze these women. It’s an icky juxtaposition, to demand such sexual intimacy from female characters while leaving their interiors largely unexplored.
My nagging ick-factor is not lessened by showrunner Pizzolatto’s appearances after each episode. Leather jacketed and besmirked, he insists (in his commentary following the rescue in the fourth episode) that Cohle and Hart are not anti-heroes—they’re just plain heroes. As the show’s auteur, I fault him for declining to add nuance to the hard-boiled noir stereotypes at play, where dames are trouble and men have jobs to do. I was further annoyed when Pizzolatto purloined and perverted feminist language by having a woman deliver the line, “It’s a woman’s body, ain’t it? A woman’s choice” as an argument for underage prostitution. I know it’s a detective show, but that was just a dick move.
In short, every plot point and storyline involving a woman seems to be not so much about the woman as it is about her body—who wants it, who’s had it, and how she uses it to get attention from men.
I get it: This show is about Cohle and Hart, their partnership with each other and their individual struggles of Man vs. Cruel, Modern World. Can’t it just be about them? What obligations does a story or a TV show have to equally represent every gender, ethnicity, profession, weather phenomenon and shoe size? None. I’m not concerned with numbers or quotas. It’s just too bad that in this rich exploration of men and masculinity, women are reduced to sad, sexy cartoons.
Hart and Cohle are virile, strong-jawed, flawed, bad-ass men, and their struggles to coexist with women echo a very contemporary hand-wringing playing out in think-pieces across the land right now—that America is suffering from a “mancession”; that sharing household duties is ruining marital sex,; or the assertion of many in the ranks of the armed services the very presence, let alone the equal involvement of women, interferes with the space that men need to be real men.
I really like this show; in fact it’s fair to say I’ve been eating it up with a spoon. It’s very well done, and Pizzolatto deserves all credit for his achievement. But that didn’t alleviate the jarring stab of sympathy I felt for Alexandra Daddario, the exceptionally shapely actress who plays Hart’s mistress Lisa, when she pulled off her polo shirt to let the world get a good look. Asked about the nudity required of her, Daddario replied “I saw it as an interesting challenge,” begging much of our definitions of “interesting” and “challenge.” But what else is the poor girl going to say? “I really wanted to be part of the show,” she continued. She had to take her clothes off in order to get cast on an HBO show with A-list co-stars. Yes, she’s a professional actress, and her body is her instrument. And there were likely a thousand women standing in line behind her who were ready to get as naked as HBO wanted. As naked as we, HBO’s audience, wanted.
Which brings me back to the first of True Detective’s naked women. Our victim Dora Lange is just a pawn in this story about the Yellow King and the knights who combat him—and that’s not such a crime in the crime-serial genre. Nor is it asking much of us to pile one more dead girl in the catacombs of our violent TV psyche. But at least Lange has an excuse for being a lifeless female character—she’s dead. All she can be in this show is a body. But why do even the living women in True Detective lack lives of their own? In Season Two, when it comes time to tie something up, to titillate the audience, to create tension, to bid for sympathy, to provoke a fight or to kill something, I’d like Pizzolatto and director Cary Joji Fukunaga to further impress me by remembering this: It’s not just a prop. It’s a woman’s body. Ain’t it.
A.C. DeLashmutt is a Virginian living in New York. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's, The Washington Post, theNewerYork, Flash magazine, and elsewhere. She also writes plays. Follow her on Twitter @acdelashmutt.