Why Men Should Want ‘True Detective’ To Have Great, Nuanced Female Characters


Slate senior editor Dan Kois joked this morning that “TRUE DETECTIVE’s trial begins!” with the publication of two pieces on the HBO anthology series, which this year follows two detectives investigating serial killings in Louisiana, by Slate’s TV critic, Willa Paskin, and the New Yorker’s TV critic, Emily Nussbaum. True Detective arrived in January to rapturous reviews, with critics and fans alike falling for the gorgeous cinematography, courtesy Cary Fukunaga, who is directing the entire first season, and terrific performances by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as Detectives Marty Hart and Rust Cohle. But as the season has progressed, and questions about how deeply the show has rooted its mythos and how seriously it’s in conversation with its chosen tropes have become ever-more dependent on the ending, True Detective has inspired some more critical takes.

Paskin and Nussbaum’s views are in less violent conflict than Kois would make them out to be. And I agree with elements of both women’s pieces. Nussbaum, I think, is right that True Detective could stand to prick the balloon of its self-importance, particularly with regard to the actual profundity of Rust’s musings and the ways in which the show mistakes darkness for meaning. And to a qualified extent, I think Paskin is correct that True Detective understands man’s inhumanity to woman as one of its subjects, though the show is wildly inconsistent in its application of this theme. The contradictions between Marty Hart’s sense of himself and the actual cruelty he inflicts on his wife, on his daughters, and on his lovers are far better developed than any overarching concerns about the subordinate position of Louisiana’s poor women to its powerful men and their outrageous appetites.

But I come not to adjudicate between Paskin and Nussbaum, but to address another complaint that seems to come up whenever critics, particularly women, talk about the handling of female supporting characters in shows that prioritize male leads. I refer, of course, to the argument that this is just feminist carping, a demand that these shows be something they’re not, and the insistence that shows about men and masculinity don’t have to spend serious time and attention crafting the female characters who surround those male leads. This may not be a widely popular idea, but it is a persistent one, raised with predictable swiftness whenever a critic of any gender ventures to suggest that a show could benefit from venturing past female characters’ bodies and into their brains.

And it couldn’t be more wrong. If you want to make a show about men, and about masculinity, spending more time and care on your female characters isn’t an inevitable tradeoff with those themes. It’s a critically important enhancement to them.

Masculinity, particularly in the United States, isn’t sealed off from femininity in some sort of Wardian case. “Past a certain age, a man without a family, can be a bad thing,” Marty tells us. Rust talks about how his daughter’s death “spared me the sin of being a father.” Marty justifies his womanizing as a service to his wife and children, saying: “You gotta take your release where you find it, or where it finds you. I mean, in the end it’s for the good of the family.” In the car, Marty asks his partner, “You wonder ever if you’re a bad man?” “No, I don’t wonder, Marty,” Rust tells him. “The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.” The other bad men, of course, are the ones who hurt women. When Marty beats the boys who were caught in a car with his daughter, he tells them that “A man’s game charges a man’s price. Take that away from this if nothing else.” Sex with women is a man’s game. And in this case, Marty’s charging other men a price for infringing on the daughter he sees, in a muddled way, as both deserving of protection and badly in need of being controlled. It’s utterly impossible to separate Marty and Rust’s senses of themselves from their interactions with women.

And like so many shows before it, True Detective is often more interesting when the interactions between men and women are more specific and developed. Marty’s inability to accept that Lisa, his first inamorata, sees him as a placeholder, someone to have sex with until she finds a more permanent partner, says a great deal more about the his vast and yawning need to be loved than his hypocritical dalliance with Beth, who used to be a sex worker, complete with angelic and demonic figurines that would be an obvious joke if True Detective had a stronger sense of humor. The show’s utter lack of interest in Rust’s failed relationship with the doctor he dates before his life falls apart is a missed opportunity to explore why he’s more able to care for dead women than for living ones. And, as I wrote at Women And Hollywood the week before last, if True Detective is trying to conjure up a toxic miasma of male privilege out of warm waters of the Louisiana coast, showing us a bit more of what Maggie and Lisa see in their world, and exploring the ways Rust and Marty either listen to or glide over those revelations might have taught us more about both these men and their milieu.

It’s not as if there aren’t precedents. The time The Sopranos invested in Carmela Soprano’s (Edie Falco) agonizing over whether or not to leave her husband paid dividends in our understanding of Tony’s (James Gandolfini) charm, his sexual appeal, his ability to drape a fur coat over her shoulders like a shroud. The Wire may have been more interested in men than in women, but the minutes women spent on screen on that show were often cut like diamonds. Is there a better illustration of Stringer Bell’s (Idris Elba) cruelty than the emotional ruin of Brianna Barksdale (Michael Hyatt)? Of Jimmy McNulty’s (Dominic West) limitations as a man than the willingness of his wife and a brilliant female political operative to use him for sex, but not to keep him around as company and conversation? Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), the owner of the Gem Saloon in HBO’s frontier drama Deadwood is a rich and fabulous character not just for his cussing and conniving, but because of his relationships with his cleaning woman, Jewel (Geri Jewell), and his former prostitute, Trixie (Paula Malcomson), with whom his normally abusive nature is a cover that allows him to protect them without losing face. Ridding these shows of women might satisfy the demands of some viewers who are eager not to think about gender, to retreat to the twenty-first century equivalent of cigars and brandy after dinner. But without these women, our anti-heroes would be decidedly shrunken men.

Asking that the time a show like True Detective spends on women be sharper isn’t some sort of attempt to redistribute the precious minutes of prestige television in service of some notion of artistic justice. It’s a gesture of respect, an attempt to hold the show to the standards of seriousness its set out for itself, to dream that every minute of it could have the tension and self-awareness of the gap between the narration of Rust and Marty’s advance on Reggie Ledoux and the reality of the event itself. And it’s a reminder that on television, as in life, what’s good for men and what’s good for women doesn’t have to be a winner-take all proposition.