Gender and class in HBO’s True Detective: Archetypal characters and childhood innocence

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About halfway through the season, a graphic sex scene filled the screen and my husband remarked “for a second I almost forgot this was on HBO.”

In True Detective, there are uncharacteristic periods of time in which the viewer can almost forget that this is a true-to-form take-advantage-of-our-lack-of-censorship HBO show filled with unnecessarily graphic soft-core porn-style sex and many, many naked women.

HBO has a confusing propensity for creating quality shows, which in many ways challenge gender and genre norms, and provide the viewer with complex story-lines and characters, then filling them with a fixation on the female form that often seems to come from the mind of an adolescent boy. This is also true of HBO’s series Game of Thrones, which makes many deviations from the books, some necessary, others seemingly for the sake of retaining male subscribers uninterested by the plot.

Sexuality, crime, class and innocence

Overall, True Detective‘s take on sexuality is disturbing, particularly the graphic footage of Marty having sex with Beth, a girl not much older than his own daughter who he encountered years before, working in a bordello when she was underage. This exchange leads to questions about Marty’s own hypocrisy (he previously beat two 18-year-old boys who were jailed after being caught about to have sex with his daughter, threatening them with statutory rape) and about the nature of childhood, age and sexuality. Unfortunately, these questions aren’t satisfactorily resolved, leaving Marty as a hypocritical creep.

The crimes in the show revolve around the violation of innocence, focusing on horrific sexual violence committed against children who have been ignored by society. It is an intensely classed look at the disappearance of children from ‘the bayou’ which has never been perceived as a pattern or even noticed, in part due to their parents’ lack of power, in part because they are an ignored segment of society, the rural underclass. This ranges from the young girl whose disappearance wasn’t pursued because she was ‘better off’ no longer living with her drug addict mother, to the sex worker, whose murder is seen as less important than the apparent ‘anti-Christian’ significance given to the crime scene.

The focus on innocence and sexuality also extends to Marty’s younger daughter, who re-creates a rape scene with her dolls and draws images of sexual encounters in her notebook. In Episode 3, Marty asks his wife “how does she even know about this stuff?” to which she responds “Girls always know before boys.” “Why is that?” Hart responds. “Because they have to.” This hints at sexual violence, and even its common occurrence within the home (statistically 44% of victims are under the age of 18 and 4 in 10 take place in the victim’s home) but ends up being one of the many apparently significant metaphors which, for me, was never satisfactorily resolved. Yes, we are aware that bad things happen not only in the bayou, but also in nice middle class neighborhoods, but young girls also struggle with the confusing messages about sexuality they receive from parents, teachers, and the media. We are unable to resolve this, just as nearly every other metaphor created in the first half of the season remains without a clear connection. Was the doll rape scene something she witnessed? Does it have anything to do with the case Marty has been working? Perhaps this is just another way of showing Marty’s incompetence as a father and inability to comprehend female sexuality.

Complex characters and gendered archetypes

Despite its short-comings, the show does manage to create three-dimensional characters, though they are clearly molded into the gendered archetypes of the police detective genre (the philandering family man who can’t live with the things he’s seen, his all-suffering but hard edged wife, the genius detective who cannot live in the real world because he’s too busy saving it). Perhaps the best part of True Detective (apart from the really excellent cinematography and soundtrack) is that it creates characters who are recognizable as archetypes, illustrates the real-world repercussions of their choices and dispositions, and attempts to deconstruct the reasons for which they act as they do.

For example, in Episode 6, the archetype of cop’s wife is blatantly referenced, allowing Maggie to show that she has left the archetype behind, although her later appearance to speak with rust seems to suggest otherwise. During her interview with the two detectives now working the case, she says “in a former life, I used to exhaust myself navigating crude men who thought they were clever, so ask your questions or I’m leaving.” “That’s a cop’s wife all right,” the detective responds. “Not anymore,” Maggie says.

The male camaraderie between Marty and Rust is perhaps the strongest part of the show. True Detective doubtlessly neglects its female characters, but in the pursuit of a true-to-form crime show which rotates around the friendship of two partners. It is an excellent depiction of the shortcomings of the restrictions of male friendships, where some sort of intimate relationship is forged out of violence, raised middle fingers, and a shared sense of duty to solve a crime. However, Rust’s emotional outburst at the end of Episode 8 is at best out of character and at worst painfully awkward.

After an entire season of creating characters who fit the mold of hard men incapable of relationships thanks to their own emotional shortcomings, it is hard to believe that such a patently emotional exchange would be possible. Perhaps another raised finger would have been more appropriate than the long shot of the stars. And Maggie’s appearance in the hospital with her daughters is just another attempt to make the viewer feel that all has been resolved, everything will be alright. After a season so invested in realistic, if cynical portrayals of jaded characters, the ending is disappointingly positive.

Read more:

Best of TV: Female Characters

Orange is the New Black and the Bechdel Test

The Red Wedding: Sexual Violence in Game of Thrones

10 TV Shows to Spend all your Time Watching

Machete Kills and other Absurd Action Flicks

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