Sunday, March 09, 2014

True Detective--It's All About The Man Pain

Look. I get it. Nic Pizzolatto wrote a study of two very different men, thrown together involuntarily, who had to work through their antagonism to solve a mystery. This was really only about the two of them, and the murder case was more or less just the mechanism through which to test their characters against each other.

Knowing that, it's certainly understandable to answer the feminist criticism of the work (so ably articulated by Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker) with the completely true statement that "other than Rust and Marty, none of the other characters is fleshed out. It's not just the women that are two dimensional."

And I can't argue with that. Pretty much every body else in this series is about as cliched and two dimensional as you can imagine. The religious folk are hypocrites or disillusioned. The women are mostly prostitutes, except for Marty's wife and daughters, and even they exist primarily to illuminate Marty's (lack of) character. Steve Gerasci is a coward and a bully of a cop. The murderer is a seedy hick in a hoarder house with an unsavory sex life and an elaborate lair that he decorates in "Shabby Creep." Nobody has much of a life agenda or interior life outside of the two headliners.

Yet, the show is still virulently, rhizomatically, systematically guilty of erasing women except as they accessorize men. Here's the example that encapsulates this.

In episode seven, Rust shows Marty a horrific video tape of what was done to Marie Fontenot, a girl that had gone missing back in 1990, five years before the start of the True Detective narrative. The audience doesn't see what is on the tape, except for a few seconds of men in masks and a young girl in a white dress and crown made out of antlers (I think?) walking blindfolded through some woods. There is a fractional view down her spread legs as the masked men approach. After that, we only see Marty's face as he watches the rest of the film, and his horrified reaction. And he is horrified, turning and smashing his hands on a table as he howls.

Then, early in episode eight (the final), Rust forces Steve Gerasci to watch the tape. Marty walks out of the room, unwilling to see it again. The shot cuts away, to show the boat the men are on in the middle distance as Gerasci screams.

What do these scenes have in common? They have as their focus the pain of the men forced to watch this scene. In both cases, the camera returns to these now traumatized men, as they struggle to make sense of what they have seen and what they are going to do as a result. It is about their emotional distress, their sense of violation. Or, as the internet has dubbed it, their man pain.

Now, I'm not saying they shouldn't be horrified by what they saw. In fact, I am glad they were. But this is where the storytelling sells women's stories short. No one takes even a second to express their sorrow or pity at what happened to Marie Fontenot. Neither Rust, nor Marty, nor Gerasci express even a cursory regret about what Marie went through. There is no heartfelt "Jesus Christ, that poor girl." The story moves immediately to "what are these men going to do about it?" Marty agrees to help Rust chase down the guilty men. Gerasci immediately shifts blame away from himself. It's a macho display of power--Rust stays in the room, doesn't turn his gaze away. Gerasci abases himself, trying to distance himself from the fall out.

No one acknowledges Marie--her suffering, her death, her humanity. She is merely a plot device to propel the actions of the men.

This is the problem with this series, and what fundamentally pisses me off ( and probably Emily Nussbaum as well). It's not that the women are any less thin than most of the men--it's that the women's experiences are given zero empathetic response, while we linger on the man pain.

There is another example--the boy who disappeared in the bayou, and only his pirogue was found. "They said it was gators" his father says when interviewed by Rust. The father reports that the boy's mother thought she could hear him calling from under the water. Where is this mother? Where is her story? Why did Pizzolatto have this be reported by the man, second hand, rather than first hand by the woman herself? Dramatically, it's not the strongest way to tell the story, but once again, it privileges the man's pain--he lost a son and his wife went mad. Which is more important narratively than the woman who lost her son and herself?

So now, in the final chapter of this story, we finally enter "Carcosa," the lair of the "Spaghetti Monster" man. There are wrapped corpses--presumably the bodies of the missing women and children. (Remember, back in the early episodes, when the CO told Rust that there could be no murder charges without a body? Here are those bodies.) But they aren't treated as the remains of human beings who here murdered--often horrifically. They are just set dressing, the creepy props of a scene that builds to the bad guy literally jumping out at Rust from a dark corner.

I'm not really asking for very much--honestly. I'm not asking for the fleshing out of women't characters. Im' not asking for gender equity in the storytelling. I'm not asking that the story be told from the perspective of women instead of Rust and Marty. All I am asking for is for the victims, the prostitutes, the wives and daughters, be treated--just for a second or two--as people who had their own stories, their own hopes and dreams, their own agency and agendas, who lost those lives in the course of this investigation. The small recognition that these women would have liked to live, would have liked to not be tortured and murdered and posed in a sick display. That they had other dreams, other paths, that they were denied, and that loss was sad in its own right--not just because it furthered the plot for some men.

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