Is the HBO crime series too hard on its women?
Reading New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum’s feminist attack on HBO’s True Detective, I found myself thinking, “That’s really interesting, honey, but could you get me a beer, I’m trying to watch TV.”
Oh, all right, I’m joking. But come on. Leftist critics are always hailing art that’s “transgressive,” until it transgresses against their own small-minded, conformist political views. Then they get as offended as a Westboro Baptist watching an episode of Glee. Nussbaum doesn’t like that the neo-noir True Detective partakes of noir conventions like sexy femme-fatales and put-upon wives, or that it delivers the sort of mind-blowingly titillating nude scenes that HBO should probably patent at this point. (HBO-O-O, a registered trademark. And by the way, lads, if you missed the nude scene with torture porn queen Alexandra Daddario, it’s in the second episode about fifteen minutes in, and worth canceling a meeting for.)
What was I talking about? Oh yeah, Nussbaum doesn’t like the way the show treats women.
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... 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.
Meh. Who cares? The story is told from the point of view of two guys. The women are seen pretty much as guys experience women: desirable, vexing, loving, essential, annoying as hell. The macho vibe is where a lot of the show’s cool energy comes from. You don’t like it, sister, change the channel. Instead, you can watch Jane Campion’s incredibly soporific Top of the Lake.
“Campion jolts the viewer with actual taboo nudity: she films the saggy bodies of middle-aged women, members of a feminist encampment,” Nussbaum says.
What piety! What cant! What imaginary America does she inhabit, I wonder. Taboo nudity? Hasn’t she heard? There hasn’t been any such thing in years. Saggy older women going naked is not taboo. Why, it earns your sleepy aimless story good reviews in the New Yorker, doesn’t it? The people who make these programs live for good reviews in the New Yorker. So where’s the taboo? And who does Miss Nussbaum think is being jolted? Believe me, it wasn’t the sagging breasts that made me stop watching that snoozer. It was the sagging pace, absent all narrative drive.
Let’s talk about some female characters who would really be taboo in a film or TV show. How about a heroine who crusades for the lives of unborn children? I wonder what sort of reviews that would get in the New Yorker. How about a dame who refuses to have sex with anyone until he marries her because she believes that’s God’s will? I’d like to see Nussbaum sing the transgressive praises of that! How about a woman who finds it rewarding to make a home for her husband and children. Whoa sorry, I got carried away. I don’t want to try to expand Nussbaum’s consciousness too far, it might break.
The fact is: you don’t see too many women like those on TV precisely because Nussbaum wouldn’t appreciate them. She’s the critical establishment. She’s the person the filmmakers are trying to please. She, to put it plainly, is the person who needs to be transgressed against in order for art to be truly transgressive!
Just for the record, however, while True Detective is definitely told from a male, and yes macho, point of view, its women are actually far more complex than Nussbaum gives them credit for.
For instance, there’s the child-peddling madam who makes a speech about prostitution as a feminist institution: “Girls walk this earth all the time screwing for free. So why is it you add business to the mix and boys like you can’t stand that thought? Because suddenly you don’t own it the way you thought you did.” Is that pure self-serving rationalization or does she have a point?
And there’s the underaged hooker Beth. Detective Marty Hart tries to “save” her by slipping her some cash and solemnly telling her to “do something else.” Then later, after the girl seems to have reformed herself, Marty sleeps with her (in another eye-scorching nude scene, episode 6, about 18 minutes in). The girl’s sexual degeneracy stands as an accusation against both the feminist self-justifications of the madam and the baloney white knight heroics of Marty.
Finally, there’s Michelle Monaghan’s Mrs. Hart who, when pushed to the limit of her endurance, does something terrible out of a heart-breaking mixture of innocence, hurt, romanticism and justifiable rage. To get back at her philandering husband, she sleeps with his partner Rust — because she’s too conventional to sleep with a stranger, and because Rust is in love with her and therefore both morally and physically safe. Her morality, isolation and yearning lead her to do something incredibly cruel to Rust, who’s more or less innocent of her pain. That’s a pretty complex character by my lights. I won’t speculate on why Nussbaum can’t see Mrs. Hart’s inner life.
Not that she, or anyone else, should give a rat’s, but, just so I’ve said it, I actually think Nussbaum would be a smart, insightful critic if she could free herself from the narrow-minded political prejudices of her elite caste. But, of course, if she did that, she wouldn’t be writing for the New Yorker!
Anyway, I have critical problems with True Detective, as listed in my first two blogs, but the female characters aren’t one of them. In fact, even though they exist in the minds of the men telling the story, they’re pretty multi-faceted and diverse.
That said, I didn’t like the penultimate episode much. Kinda slow. But I’ll wait till the last episode to deliver a final review.
Previous Blogs on the Series:
Part II: Who Is The True Detective?
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