The True Women of 'True Detective'

By: Heather Seebach
**Warning: The following contains spoilers about episode 1.6**

I knew right from the infancy of HBO's True Detective that there would be criticism of the series' male-dominated cast and seemingly marginal female characters. Still, the more writer Nic Pizzolatto peels back the layers on what is a fascinating and honest portrayal of violence against women and children (even by our "hero" detective Martin Hart), the angrier the nay-sayers seem to get! Maggie in particular is the centerpiece of that theme (or at least, the only one still breathing) and yet her behavior is constantly mistaken for weakness and submission. Last night's sixth episode "Haunted Houses" seems to have fueled the misogyny debate intensely. Just look at Emily Nussbaum's New Yorker article or tweets like these:

 In "Haunted Houses," Maggie, upon learning of yet another infidelity by her husband Marty, seeks out a revenge fuck. She attempts to pick up a stranger in a bar but ultimately feels it would hurt her husband the most if she had sex with his partner, Rust Cohle. After brief, aggressive sex, Rust realizes her intentions and throws her out. Later, Maggie sits Marty down calmly and tells him not only did she fuck Rust but it was the best she's had it since the kids were born. For you Breaking Bad fans, this is pretty comparable to Skylar's "I.F.T." scene, which created just as much of row. Fans hated Skylar for cheating on her lying, meth-making, criminal husband. Why? Because we love Walter White! He's a really cool guy! Now, what does this tell you about the audience?
Next, Marty calls Maggie a whore and puts his hands on her throat. She backs him off without fear.  It baffles me that so many viewers have interpreted Maggie as "cold and conniving" or seem to think Pizzolatto is actually agreeing with Marty when he calls his wife a whore. Much like with The Wolf of Wall Street, and the Breaking Bad example above, this show is being slammed for misogyny all the while exposing it within its own audience. If you watch what Maggie does and think, "Damn, what a bitch" then you clearly missed the point. Marty is not the sympathetic one here.
Yes, we all love Rust Cohle and we don't like the idea of him being manipulated, but Maggie's treatment of Rust in that scene is nothing compared to what she's endured. Has Maggie always been a perfect human being? No, but neither are Rust and Marty. Female characters do not have to be patron saints or ball-breaking ass-kickers to be considered "strong." Give me honest, real-life women any day. It is especially obvious in the modern-day interview scenes that Maggie is smart and strong, and frankly, she always was, but now she is free of Marty's bullshit. 

Maggie aside, some people have a problem with the show's alleged "machismo" in how its protagonists avenge dead women. Martin Hart is the epitome of every procedural cop drama's hero detective, and yet on True Detective we are seeing the dark truth behind that role. Marty has repeatedly made it clear that he feels women are objects for him to own but convinces himself he is a protector of the "fairer sex". In "Haunted Houses" the way he mercilessly pummels those young boys was far more a selfish need to flex male aggression than it was some act on behalf of his daughter. 

His double standard was stated most bluntly in the trailer park brothel scene between Jan and Marty:

Jan: "Girls walk this Earth all the time screwing for free but why is it you add business to the mix and boys like you cant stand the thought? I'll tell you - it's 'cause suddenly you don't own it the way you thought you did."
Sure enough, that young girl Marty urged to "do something else" at the brothel was the same young gal he fucked in the most recent episode. For all his self-righteousness, Marty is ultimately just another swinging dick. Maggie's first attempt to leave him over the adultery led to him stalking and threatening her. So the next time he did it, she knew her only way out was to fuck Rust because it would hurt Marty so deeply and make her "tainted" to him. Sure enough, that 2002 indiscretion worked and they divorced. How ironic that earlier in the episode, Marty tells Rust, "Getting laid was good for you." 
 So Maggie made her escape, no matter the cost. "Sorry, but thank you," she tells him. Was using Rust fucked up? Yeah, sure, but do I blame her? No. She's a smart, strong woman who did what she had to in order to prevent Marty from further fucking up both her life and her children. Speaking of the children, just look what Marty did to their eldest daughter. From the rapey doll scene to the naked drawings to her modern-day romp with two boys in a car, Audrey has issues, and they are no doubt at least partially attributed to her father's absences and infidelity. This indirect abuse echoes the direct violence against women and children by the fabled Yellow King. If you really want to get poetic, mull over the fact that Marty too is a yellow-haired patriarch....
Maggie aside, there is another woman in this episode - Beth, the former prostitute with whom Marty has sex. Is she strong like Maggie? No, or at least not yet, nor is she a victim. So far, she more or less represents Marty's double standard, as here he is fucking the very young woman he championed himself a protector of back at the redneck bunny ranch. The devil and angel ceramics watching them have sex were not-so-subtly placed. 

There were two other small but fascinating female roles in this episode - childkiller
Charmaine Boudreaux and mentally-damaged girl, Kelly Rita. Rust gets a confession out of Boudreaux for the murder of her own infant - presumably connected to Munchausen syndrome by proxy, the mental condition whereby people hurt their children for attention. In a cold and shocking moment, Rust tells her to kill herself in prison. For a man who lost his child, her crime is unforgivable. I'm not going to pretend that Charmaine is some meaningful female character - she is just another killer, one that is particular repulsive to Rust. Still, actress Azure Parsons is fantastic in the scene. So too is December Ensminger an absolute scene stealer as Kelly Rita, the girl Hart and Cohle saved from Reggie Ledoux. "The man with the scars was the worst...."

Not every female character needs to be a game-changer. Does anyone really watch Glengarry Glen Ross and think, "This would be so much better with some strong female characters"? True Detective (at least for this season) is very much about two men but it is equally about what men do to women. It's no coincidence that all the Yellow King's victims are women or children, and Hart's own domestic abuse/neglect echoes that.

It seems like the more pro-women True Detective gets, the more people mistake it for neglecting or even hating women. I cannot emphasize enough something that should already be obvious: Hart and Cohle are the lead detectives but they are NOT heroes in this story. They are no more heroic than Walter White, Nucky Thompson, and countless other television monsters that some viewers mistake for badasses. In fact, True Detective is far less subtle, especially when it comes to Hart. Very little about that man is redeemable. As for Rust, he's more the objective voice of cold logic. Even his sex with Maggie was raw, animalistic, and without any semblance of love. He is more nihlistic narrator than man for the purposes of this story.
 Hart: "You think a man can love two women at once?" 
Cohle: "I don't think men can love."
 If your concept of feminist theory on television is limited to the Bechdel test, then I can see why True Detective would appear misogynist to you. There is so much constantly happening beneath the surface of this show. Viewers may neglect the women on screen, especially Maggie, but the writer sure as hell does not. To say Maggie is not strong is plain ignorant. She is flawed, troubled, and does not always make the best decisions - much like a true human being - but strength and smarts are not traits she is lacking. And Maggie is just one way this show condemns the alpha male behavior of men like Martin Hart and, to a more extreme degree, the very killer they are pursuing.

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