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‘True Detective’ and Women: Does the Hit HBO Show Have a Problem With Female Characters?

True Detective
HBO/Illustration by ScreenCrush.com

There’s been some talk in recent weeks about the trouble with the female characters on ‘True Detective,’ and that talk hit a boiling point this week following the airing of “Haunted Houses,” in which Marty gets up to his old habits and Maggie retaliates, causing many critics to lash out at the show’s portrayal and treatment of women — but the show isn’t treating its female characters poorly, the men are. And there’s a big difference. 

There’s been criticism aplenty this week revolving around the latest episode, and much of it is missing some key ideas. To recap: Marty backslides into his old habits — like an addict, one hit isn’t enough, and after what should be a harmless and quick drink in a bar, he’s shacking up with a T-Mobile sales lady who just happens to be one of the former underage prostitutes from that trailer park bunny ranch a few episodes back. Marty commends her for the way she’s turned her life around before turning her body around, so to speak, and putting her right back in her place — or at least the place where he believes she belongs. It’s familiar behavior from Marty by now, this alpha dog posturing, this casual and careless shifting of women like prized objects on his mantle.

At home, he’s painted an imaginary picket fence around his house, enclosing his wife and daughters in his ideal image of masculine security and success: a good family, a submissive wife, normal kids. When they start to step outside of the rigid boundaries he’s secured, he snaps. In his mind, it’s okay for Marty to cheat on his wife (except it’s not, and he knows this and combats the guilt, in a tortured battle that sees him struggling to suppress his flaws daily); he’s a man, he is the owner, and the owner does as the owner pleases. When his eldest daughter starts having sex, it’s a reflection of his neglect and absence, of his own shortcomings and extramarital affairs. He’s angry because he sees himself in her, but he doesn’t think she has the right to be a sexual being. Recall his visit to the bunny ranch when the madam chastised him for resenting the prostitutes because they were women he couldn’t own. Now the former prostitute he slipped that cash to comes without a price tag, and he can shuffle her around as he pleases. And let’s not forget Lisa, his girlfriend from the first few episodes: he flew into a violent rage when she tried to date anyone else, even though he himself is a married man.

"This isn’t a horrible portrayal of a woman. This isn’t bad writing. It’s just depressingly human."

All along the way ‘True Detective’ has painted a portrait of two men who each project their own strong set of morals, but that projection, for Marty at least, is merely a mask — it’s the way he wants to be perceived. A good husband, a good father, a good cop; a normal, suburban guy who has his life together, works hard, believes in God and mows his own damn lawn. To the outside world his moral compass is still and straight, but inside it’s reeling and spinning wildly.

What struck me most about “Haunted Houses” was something about Maggie’s story, and it’s a crucial element that’s been missing from the conversation about ‘True Detective’ and gender this week. It’s key to understanding that this isn’t a show that treats or portrays the women poorly — no, that’s what guys like Marty and Rust do, for their own scuzzy reasons. After discovering that her husband has been cheating on her yet again (because, like Rust says, time is a flat circle), Maggie tries to throw herself at a stranger at the bar, but when she can’t get up the nerve for it, she goes over to Rust’s house with a bottle of wine and the pair engage in hasty, intense sex. She hadn’t been “f—ed like that since the girls,” she later tells Marty to throw salt on the wound.

But where a lot of critics are missing the point is that this wasn’t revenge sex — not entirely. This wasn’t just to make her husband angry or even the score. Maggie’s motivations were entirely more complex and heartbreaking, and they seemed rather obvious, but perhaps because we’ve been conditioned to identify with male characters so strongly, it wasn’t as simple to understand as I thought. Maybe we’re so used to bad guys like Walter White and Don Draper that it’s just been easy to dismiss Maggie as another nagging wife, standing in the way of the flawed protagonist. But like White and Draper, Marty isn’t a protagonist — he’s an antagonist. He may be the hero of his own story, but he’s the villain to his wife and family, and just because the show is about Marty and Rust doesn’t mean that we aren’t allowed to empathize or identify with any other characters.

Maggie had sex with Rust out of desperation — after 17 years of marriage to Marty Hart, she didn’t know if she had the strength to kick him out for good, not the father to her daughters, not the man who had been such a constant in her life. It’s hard to let go of something that’s been such a consistent presence for so long, even if it’s hurting you; sometimes especially if it’s hurting you. Maggie isn’t sure she knows how to live her life at this point without Marty in it, and she isn’t sure she has the courage to remove him from it on her own. She has to do something so unforgivable that he’ll have no choice but to leave her. And it’s horrific and painful to watch because Maggie has been painted into this corner by her own husband, a man who views women as little more than objects and possessions, as awards he’s entitled to for a job well done. It’s because of the way Marty treats her that she feels the only way to take agency for herself and her children is through her sexuality — the very sexuality that gave her husband that perfect family he works so hard to to keep in line. This isn’t a horrible portrayal of a woman. This isn’t bad writing — far from it. It’s just depressingly human.

To further prove the point that the show is couched in the POVs of its deeply flawed male characters, when Maggie shows up to the police station for her interview about Rust in present day and is asked to give her perspective on the man, she talks her away around giving them a straight answer — what does her perspective matter in any of this?

Once you understand Maggie’s motivations, the idea that she’s been horribly designed or written becomes absurd. As for women like Lisa or the T-Mobile girl, we’re seeing them from Marty’s point of view, which is, unfortunately, decorative and sleazy. We only ever view them through these compressed and sexually charged windows; they’re there to prove a point about how poorly Marty treats women — it’s not their fault he’s a bad guy.

On the flip side of this we have Rust, whose interview this week with a mother who murdered three infants is chilling, if only thanks to his gut-punch casual line delivery of “If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself.” Rust is a man who is haunted by missing women — his dead daughter and the wife who left him, for instance, or the faces of the dead who stare up at him begging for their murders to be solved. Meanwhile, he has to watch as Marty pisses his own family away, ungrateful for what he has. It makes sense that he would cruelly snap at a woman who murdered three babies. It makes sense that he would allow himself to have sex with his partner’s wife, believing that he can provide better for her than Marty ever could, in more ways than one. Rust sleeping with Maggie was a competitive masculine impulse, but his reaction when she implies she just used him to force her husband to leave her is almost worst than the act itself: where is his sympathy for this woman? Rust has lied for Marty time and again, he sleeps with Marty’s wife when she comes calling, but when she breaks down into tears, vulnerable and admitting weakness, he shoves her out the door, rejecting her for daring to take sexual agency and use him the way he might use another woman for temporary release.

This is a story about bad men and the bad they do to women, and how easy it would be for someone like Marty, or even Rust, to slip just a few shades darker and become the men they hunt. Almost every woman on this show has been a prostitute, a dead woman, or a missing girl (except for precious few, and they don’t count for much). These are women who are willfully ignored, those who have been cast aside, and those who are permanently silenced. And at the root of all of it is the evil that men do.

The suggestion that ‘True Detective’ is misogynist is jarring — it implies that writer Nic Pizzolatto is sexist and that his characters represent his POV. It implies that the show is celebrating and endorsing the way its male characters — particularly Rust and Marty — treat women badly. And aren’t we smarter than that? Aren’t we beyond this idea that any given work of fiction is a representation of the opinions and beliefs of its author?

I don’t know about you guys, but when I watch ‘True Detective,’ I don’t see a show that’s extolling the virtues of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart. I’m watching a show about two deeply flawed detectives whose terrible treatment, ignorance, and willful misunderstanding of women is meant to reflect that they aren’t that much better than the bad guys they’re chasing after. There have been fan and critic theories that Marty or Rust could be the Yellow King, still at large after all these years, and I think we’re meant to ponder these theories because it’s just a narrow, slippery slope between the bad things they do and what that monster in the woods has been up to. It’s no coincidence that women are the victims of both.

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