The first season of True Detective was arguably the finest moment of television in 2014. Its nods to surrealism, Lynch and Twin Peaks easily made it a unique addition to the tired ‘detective’ show. Moreover, its A-list acting talent further solidified the role of television as a medium potentially equal to feature films. However, despite the show’s originality, some commentators felt that it unfortunately fell into the trap of using regressive genre clichés in its portrayal of women.
Now, despite the Internet’s inclination to complain about pretty much everything, I can definitely see where the backlash came from in terms of the show’s fairly one-dimensional portrayal of women. The first, and most obvious, gripe that many people had was that the women that do appear in the show seem to only play very superficial, cut and paste roles. For example, Willa Paskin of The Slate commented that the first season “treated the women who appeared on the show [as] prostitutes, corpses, mistresses, [and] a nagging wife”. These observations definitely have grounding in the show.
There were very few moments when a female character was included in one of the strange, existential (and possibly pretentious) philosophical discussions between Rust and Marty, and even when a woman was involved in a moment of emotional nuance, it was often brushed away by a huge focus on their sexuality. To go further, despite the show’s very progressive presentation and themes, it still remained very grounded in ‘detective’ genre clichés. The focus was on the two male central characters, investigating a long-gestating case that involved the murders of the ‘vulnerable’ people in society: women and children (the “corpses” that Paskin refers to).
even when a woman was involved in a moment of emotional nuance, it was often brushed away by a huge focus on their sexuality
While one side argued that True Detective’s adherence to genre clichés left the female characters with no sense of substance, a number of articles made the argument that its portrayal of sexist male archetypes helped to illuminate female characters’ individuality. Writing for Time, Eliana Dockterman, implored viewers to “stop assuming [that] TV writers endorse the bad actions of their flawed characters on television”. Her argument went on to cite that the show used Marty and Rust’s very alarming and regressive worldviews as a means of revealing the flaws of both characters. The portrayal of misogyny, she argues, functions as a self-reflexive tool through which the show’s male-dominated world can be put into question. Hence, the show’s use of cut and paste female characters then becomes a comment on the show’s regressive society that does not allow for unique female voices.
It was a very interesting debate at the time, and despite these slightly ambiguous moments, audiences of the first season couldn’t wait to catch a glimpse of the next. Ultimately, now it has finished, I am personally left with a sense of disappointment. It wasn’t too bad a season, but it seemed to suffer from ‘second album’ syndrome a little bit. But, that’s another debate for another time. One thing that interested me this time around was whether Nic Pizzolatto and company could create a show that appeased the viewers who felt slightly isolated by what they deemed to be a questionable portrayal of women.
the show’s use of cut and paste female characters then becomes a comment on the show’s regressive society that does not allow for unique female voices
Ostensibly, they did. This season gave top billing to Rachel McAdams and Kelly Reilly, both playing fiercely independent women. McAdams’s Detective Bezzerides displayed a piercing stoicism that didn’t let up the entire season, and used men for gratification, but did not rely on them. At the same time, even as Frank’s wife Reilly didn’t need him to make up her mind, and spent a good portion of the season going against her criminal husband’s decisions.
At the beginning of the season, this formula certainly worked. The strength of the female protagonists helped to highlight the absurdity of some of the male characters manic adherences to masculinity. For example, Ray (played by Colin Farrell) and his attempts to avenge his ex-wife’s abuse only served to heighten his inability to function as an effective father figure to his son. Masculine roles continued to be questioned, as Vince Vaughn’s Frank once again slips into his criminal past like a drug relapse, much to the dismay of his very logical wife.
However, despite a change of pace in True Detective’s portrayal of women, by the end of the season those who were left perhaps offended by the first season may have been left a bit disappointed once again. Or perhaps not, as on the surface both Kelly Reilly and Rachel McAdam’s characters are left to be the ones to leak the harrowing case to the media. One of the final shots of the season shows both McAdams and Reilly striding off in disguise in Venezuela, having potentially risked their lives for the greater good.
I, on the other hand, felt that actually this sudden change of pace harmed the show more than it helped it. Despite the this final shot, having spent most of a season developing outwardly tough female characters, the creators chose only to adhere to typical conventions towards the end of the season. Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams fall for each other, Colin sacrifices himself to save Rachel, Vince Vaughn convinces his wife to go to Venezuela ahead of him, and she agrees despite her original protests. I feel that by focusing on creating outwardly tough female characters, the show only watered down its own moral complexity.
In the first season, yes, the women were highly sexualised and not at the forefront of the story. However, this allowed for more nuance in the perspectives of the show’s central male characters. The very portrayal of women in the first season was a reflection of Rust and Marty’s narrow-minded view of the world, one that eventually leaves them isolated while others prosper. The second season’s flip-flopping between tough female characters and male-centric genre conventions only left a dirty taste in my mouth. Let’s hope the creators come to the same realisation that made the first season so great: you have to explore the dark depths of society to extract a moral conclusion, rather than simply cutting and pasting your characters.