Is ‘True Detective’ Misogynist? Probably Not, But We Won’t Know Until It’s Over

If you’ve ever read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, you may know that its original title in Swedish was Men Who Hate Women. It’s perhaps just as well the title never got reused in English, because really, it would apply perfectly to HBO’s True Detective. This morning, in the wake of the show’s sixth episode, there’s been plenty of debate about the way the show depicts women — particularly via The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum, who wrote about how the show “reeks of [macho nonsense].” Is this true?

The center of Nussbaum’s argument is the way that the show depicts women: “Every live woman [protagonists Rust and Marty] meet is paper-thin. Wives and sluts and daughters — none with any interior life.” This is, in fairness, largely true. The question is whether this is immediately and inherently a bad thing, reflective of the unknowing biases of the show’s creators, or whether it’s happening for a reason.

For a start, it’s important to note that this is a show where no one comes out well — if the women involved come off badly, then it’s probably worth noting that the men are all violent hypocrites (Marty), egotists whose sanity remains in question (Rust), flat-out raving lunatics (Reggie Ledoux), or apparently involved in some hideous statewide conspiracy that centers around abusing children (basically everyone else). Alcoholism is a constant theme. So is sexual abuse.

More importantly, though, the show’s minor male characters are just as much two-dimensional cutouts as the women: the detectives’ angry boss, the slimy Christian overlord, the bikers, the two present-day detectives manning the camera into which Rust and Marty and Maggie speak. Ledoux is quite literally presented as a “monster,” not a person, and all the male characters seem to embody problems with masculinity: the inability to listen, the inability to express emotion, the latent misogyny.

But either way, pretty much everyone beyond the two protagonists (and, to an extent, Maggie) is like a chess piece that gets moved around, and is presented only in light of his or her relationship to the main characters. Nussbaum is right: they have no “internal life.” But why?

It’s because, I submit, that’s how Rust and Marty see things. This show, remember, isn’t a straight narrative — it’s a series of events that happened a long time ago, reconstructed by two (very) unreliable narrators. If characters are depicted in a certain manner, that’s because it’s how our narrators see them. And our narrators are both egotists in their own ways.

Marty is a narcissist who puts everyone around him into neat compartments, seeing them only through the purposes they serve in his life: wife to cook dinner, other girls to fuck (so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize his marriage), daughters to sit on the couch and look pretty, weird partner to solve cases. This, no doubt, is why he’s so utterly stunned and taken aback when Maggie does to him what he’s been doing to her for so long.

There’s also his slut-shaming of his own daughter in last week’s episode — Marty looks at a girl discovering and taking control of her own sexuality, and sees a whore. He calls his wife a whore. He sees whores everywhere, and really, what he’s seeing is women who won’t accept his dominance, who refuse to fit into the compartment he wants them to stay in. (Contrast this to Marty’s reaction to Beth, who reappears in this episode. His general views on women go a long way towards explaining why he was so nonplussed by her madam’s speech in Episode 2, where he was told, “Girls walk this earth all the time screwing for free. So why is it you add business to the mix and boys like you can’t stand that thought? Because suddenly you don’t own it the way you thought you did.”)

For his part, Rust is perhaps a more subtle egotist, but he’s an egotist nonetheless. Look at the way he sneers at Marty in last night’s episode: “Without me, there is no you.” Look at his obsessiveness, the way he thinks he’s smarter than everyone else, the way he’s adopted a weird mirror-Reggie Ledoux philosophy as his own. I suspect that people who are seeing him as this show’s hero — including Nussbaum, who argues, “I’ve come to suspect that the show is dead serious about this dude” — are in for a Walter White-style letdown, although, of course, that remains to be seen.

What’s important is that this story is, as much as anything else, about the male gaze — about how men see women, about how men want to be seen. Some of the layers of exposition here are obvious: the contrast between Marty’s bleating about being a family man and the reality of his marriage, the contrast between the way Marty and Rust relate the story of the “shoot-out” at Ledoux’s cabin and the way in which the events play out on screen.

Others are more subtle. As Marty laments in “The Secret Fate of All Life,” his “true failure was inattention.” There’s an implication there that we shouldn’t fall victim to the same trap — not just in picking up hints about the Yellow King and Blair Witch-style dangling triangles and black stars, but in believing everything we see. This is why I think Nussbaum misses the point where she argues, “The scenes we see are supposed to be what really happened,” because I’m not sure that they are. I think we’re seeing them as Rust and Marty remember them, which is potentially very different from actual fact. Memory is, after all, an imperfect mirror of reality.

As viewers, though, we can see what’s going on. As True Detective‘s creator and sole writer, Nic Pizzolatto, pointed out in this fascinating interview, we’re quite literally the fourth-dimensional beings seeing the flat circle of this narrative from an entirely removed perspective. We can see Marty’s hypocrisy, we can see the way he views women. We can see what’s coming when Rust and Maggie first meet. We can see that Rust, the guy who Marty sees as a genius, may well be batshit crazy. With every passing week, we see more of this story, and the defects of its narrators become clearer. Who’s the true detective? Maybe it’s neither of them.

But just as importantly, we can’t see everything yet. It feels premature to judge this show’s gender politics when there’s so much we don’t know — because for now, all this is speculation. Is Rust really the stuff of macho fantasy, a philosophizin’, crime-solvin’ zen master? Or is he full of shit? Does the Yellow King even exist, or is it all a bunch of nebulous mumbo-jumbo dreamed up to obscure some godawful pedophile ring? And so on.

Above all, the thing to remember is that it’s a mistake to conflate what a show depicts with what it endorses. There’s a difference between a narrative that blithely ignores and/or disempowers women, and one that does it very deliberately because that’s what its story is about. This is a story about men who hate women, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the show can be accused of the same thing. And in any case, we’ve got two more weeks before we can make any final judgement.