True Detective’s Objectification Of Poor White Southerners


I am going to talk a little bit about my problems with the end of True Detective, with the caveat that, if it weren’t such a good show, I wouldn’t have found the ending so meh.

Here’s the thing: I did want the Lovecraft story. I’ll admit it. I wanted the real monster at the end of the story. And I get that’s not what Nic Pizzolatto was going for. He said he wanted to tell a mundane story about the relationship between Hart and Cohle. Fair enough. But he didn’t get far enough away from the Lovecraft story or close enough to the world of real Southern white people to do that. At the end of the day, after the series seemed to be pointing to a conspiracy of the elites that implicated the wealthiest and most powerful community leaders, we still ended up with a story populated by creepy poor people who corrupt with their bizarre pagan ways. It’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but it insists that the people really are people, not monsters.

I’ve never met people like the people on True Detective. And I think Becky Banks has a good explanation over at as to why:

Creator Nic Pizzolatto, who grew up in the Lake Charles, La., depicts his hometown as a post-apocalyptic landscape in which the rapes and murders of women and children are covered up by kin connections. He follows what I have deemed the three rules of a Southern horror story: Close Family Relationships, Weird Sex and Malicious Rednecks.

Important note: The more overlap between the above three elements, the better.

In other words, we’re still in a fairytale. And, as Banks points out, the name of that fairytale, in this case, is Deliverance. I find that disappointing. If the setting of True Detective is going to be fantastical, why does it have to be the fantasy that reaffirms the ickiness of poor Southern whites?

Those aren’t actually real poor rural Southern white people in True Detective. Not even in Louisiana. I have had just about every kind of experience you can have with rural Southern white people. I have been to church with them. I have had one threaten to kill my dog and I feared I’d be done in shortly after that. I’ve thought I was meeting a nice little old grandma who embroidered her church choir robes only to discover the robes in question were those robes — the robes of a hundred and fifty years of domestic terrorism. (The embroidery was as good as promised.) I feared for my ability to leave her house safely. I know people who live in shacks and I know a gal who lives in a shed. Jimmy Martin once threw his arm around my shoulder and introduced me to everyone whose attention he could get as “This motherfucker.” I also worried he might kill me. I have sat on porches and listened to people pick music and drank beer with them. And I know people who have had terrible things happen to them.

I have a theory about why True Detective doesn’t capture these people as I know them.

For those who don’t (know poor Southern white people, that is) it helps if you’ve seen The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, a documentary about a family whose circumstances are so horrifying and so exasperating that you can’t help but watch and wonder if they’d be aided by having someone — to paraphrase Welty — to shoot them every day of their lives.

In many ways, they fit Banks’ three rules of a Southern horror story. They’re very close, they have weird sex with each other’s significant others even though it’s so obviously a bad idea, and they’re often malicious. But it’s hard to feel better than them. The documentary does a good job of showing how a mixture of stubbornness, drugs, pride, and ridiculousness keeps these people stuck. And it’s easy enough, at least for me, to imagine how if those were my circumstances I’d either behave the same way or be one of the people trying to clean up after them.

Who can imagine themselves in True Detective? The poor people in that show are written so that their lives are unimaginable — weird customs, weird things happening to their bodies, weird neglect of their children. It’s easy to look down on them. Cohle and Hart are practically the only people who even care that all these girls are missing.

This maybe bothers me the most, the promotion of this idea that poor Southerners don’t really care about their kids. We still have abysmal infant mortality rates. Our children suffer the ill-effects of America’s crappy diet and tendency to poison our region with coal ash and whatever else is being dumped into our water supply. Poor people here want better than that.

Having the whole nation enjoy stories that are passed off as “realistic” that straight up portray poor people as incomprehensible and neglectful serve as a kind of terrible propaganda that make it easier to ignore the real suffering down here. Or to make that suffering seem like it’s inevitable. I have to hope that’s not true.