I’ve just finished watching True Detective. I started watching it, twice, but left it both times because of the ways in which violence against women, and women characters, were being portrayed.* In terms of the violence, I could see (I think) that they were trying to offer a disturbing portrayal of the often extreme misogyny-based violence that women suffer. I got that. I could also see that they were, perhaps, offering a critical commentary on a gendered world order which allows that violence to happen. That’s a possibility.
This critique becomes less convincing, though, when we examine the dismissive treatment of the main female characters on the show. Maggie, Marty’s long-suffering wife, whose only agentic act during eight episodes (to sleep with Rust) was, first, explained away as a play to destroy her marriage and, second, reduced to a conversation between Rust and Marty about their friendship. In other words, Maggie’s actions were all about them.
Lisa, Marty’s once affair, was naked for the most part (Marty, on the other hand, was fully clothed) and reduced to a way to explore Marty’s moral compass and, then, some of the stresses on his relationship with Rust. Her last scene in the series – where she literally caused a scene by being a hysterical, screaming woman – was difficult to watch. The agency that she had showed earlier in leaving Marty was removed when she was portrayed as an out-of-control haranguer. Indeed, the violence that Marty had perpetrated on both her and her date was forgotten as it became all about Marty again and his inner struggle.
Two other female characters stand out. First, there is Beth, the young woman with whom Marty has an affair later on. Beth and Marty first met when he and Rust visited a camp that was being used to sell under-age sex to men (a rape camp, in other words). Later on, Marty visits the shop in which Beth now works and they start an affair. Marty (or should I say, the writers) have such little care for the violence that this young woman had endured – testament I’m sure to their view of such violence in general – that she is nothing more but the next naked pawn in Marty’s story. Incidentally, when Marty is later violent towards Maggie when they fight about Beth (and her one infidelity, Rust, see above), it is never mentioned again. It is forgiveable in the story because he was scattered and confused and lost and messy back then and together and “better” now. So that’s OK then. Second, the unnamed half-sister of Errol Childress, who he is abusing, is last seen crouched down and crying when she hears the police sirens. She defended and adored her abuser to the last. Purpose served.
Finally, all of the young children – mostly girls, I gather – who were at the centre of the criminal case throughout the series were secondary in the finale when it became all about Rust and Marty’s futures and their renewed and strengthened friendship. Indeed, with the intensity of the finale, we barely had time to give them a second thought.
So, what does all of this mean? First, it means that women, and violence against women, are nothing more than plot points to drive a story about men forward. Second, the women who are subject to this portrayal are not given any of their own, meaningful agency because to do so would distract from the central story of male struggle and identity. Third, in using the women in the show as drivers for a story about the two men, they are reduced to insignificance (note that as Marty and Rust’s stories are developed, the women in their lives get less and less screen time) and the violence that they endured is nullified because it becomes a secondary, instrumental consideration for the viewer. There is simply too much else going on to give these women and that violence much thought.
The effects of these portrayals should not be underestimated – they make violence against women expected, unimportant, frequent, dramatic (even titillating) and inevitable. This piece in the New Statesman discusses the normalisation of violence against women on TV. The author – Doon Mackichan – remarks:
“I would argue that TV and film are exacerbating this issue with increasingly hardcore elements. Once seen, you can’t unsee it, and like abuse, it’s insidious, attacking women’s confidence and self-esteem. […] Mainstream TV drama centres on plots involving female bodies in varying degrees of manipulation, often like meat on a slab. It then proceeds to reveal how it happened in gruesome, titillating detail. Whether the woman gets retribution is not the argument – it is the main part, often, of the stories that focus on a woman’s torture, pain, fear and suffering and I am SICK, SICK SICK to the death of it.”
She also asks the question at the start of the piece:
“I wondered about starting this off with me entering with a face covered in made-up bruises. I wondered what your reaction might be. Would this be a more entertaining way of opening my talk. Would it grab your attention right from the beginning? Would you be intrigued? Or repulsed? Or would you be indifferent?”
We need to address the ubiquity of violence against women on our televisions and, at the very least, question the way it is being used to create a drama that then ignores its effects on women (or, indeed, reduces them to a driver for a larger, male-dominated story) and is irresponsible about the impact of dramatised violence on attitudes towards women.
Responsible television and story-telling would not use violence as a plot point and would centre any story that does have violence around women’s experience and that violence that they have suffered. Instead, we’re bombarded by portrayals that ask us to accept that this is a woman’s lot, that it allows men to be MEN, and that we, as women, should really be enjoying watching it.
* I returned to it because of the very reasons that I left it – I was sickened by the violence but I had to see what such a popular programme would do with everything that it introduced. In the end, as you can see, I was very, very disappointed.