Picture a gritty, complex detective show full of intrigue and mystery. The story delves deep into what compels human beings to sink into monstrous depths, as an intricate dance of conspiracies stems from the murder of one middle-aged, slightly overweight hairy man. Can't do it can you? The show wouldn't get past that initial shot of the body. I like to think this isn't down to the marginalisation of fat hairy men in mainstream media, but that these stories have taught us that they can't have poignancy unless the key victim is a delicate, beautiful "innocent" young woman.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this one trope automatically equals trash (I love me some Twin Peaks). It's ubiquity just proposes a potentially hard truth. Has the detective genre been constructed from the beginning to be a fictionally unfriendly space for female characters? HBO forgoing the much encouraged female line-up for True Detective Season 2 typifies the dark mystery genre as being told from a gruff, weathered man-perspective. I'm not suggesting that True Detective as a product is the root of these problems (these problems are themselves decades old), but the very fact that True Detective can sell itself as fresh, edgy and stylish, yet still adhere to these archaic structures, almost makes my point for me.
It's not just the horribly mutilated yet essentially titillating female victims that are the problem in the show. The way Michelle Monoghan's character, Maggie was implemented in True Detective Season 1 was just the worst. For a show with such distinct main characters with such defined world views, the fact their friendship was torn apart by a vengeful scorned wife was just lazy. Not to mention, up until that episode, Maggie was used only as a barometer for Marty's actions, the "wife" part of the "but I have a wife and kids" defence. Worst of all was the fact the show had such prestige, such an aura of perfection, that it seemed blissfully unaware of these blemishes.
But What About Season 2?
I've already mentioned how funny the trailer for True Detective Season 2 is, through the way it sells itself almost entirely on men shoving each other. Aside from the trailer, I can only say that I was firmly part of the camp that got excited when Jessica Chastain was suggested as a main cast member. She was perfect. For one, she's Matthew McConaughey's fake space daughter, plus she has that almost ghostly presence that fits the show. As is the case with the crucially arbitrary nature of diversity in fiction, the group against Chastain said "why?". To which I would say "why not?" To which they would say "why not not?" and so on.
Alas, the casting revealed Rachel McAdams in one of the investigative roles in the show. An interesting choice, yet she has a very small part in the trailer, and definitely doesn't adopt one of the two central roles. Those go Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn, almost mirror images of Rust and Marty (or just Rust and Rust). I was surprised to find that Vince Vaughn isn't actually playing a detective, but a career criminal caught up in the conspiracy. Now I'm not suggesting that McAdams would definitely make a better lead, or than Vaughn's role isn't at least interesting, but is it really so difficult for us to imagine a woman embodying the image of a "True Detective"? Sadly, yes.
The problem lies, as it usually does, in the routes of the genre. We enjoy the traumatised, long suffering detective as a vessel that toys with and masters the horrific unknown. The fictional detective peers, as Rust Cohle so often does, into the rift between life and death, and suffers that burden so we as an audience don't have to. It's that existential baggage that we, unfortunately, can only imagine a man having. Historically, men have mostly been the only ones able to have that baggage, and definitely been the only ones able to express it to a mainstream.
It sounds strange, but the ability to lament your own existence and decry the meaning of humanity is actually a huge privilege. Women in fiction have so often been allotted into the binaries of helpless or hyper functional, we've concluded there's no room in between. "We can't have Rachel McAdams as a central figure in True Detective! Her character is too busy... like... doing stuff!" Said Nic Pizzolatto definitely that one time.
Feminism in mainstream media has for so long been concerned with ideas of empowerment and visibility that it's come to have little presence in a genre all about generally having a crap time. I can't blame them. "We can stare into the void and misquote Nietzsche too!" doesn't look great on paper.The idea of the detective mystery has had to grow and move into the modern age with only the old trappings of femininity at it's disposal. This is why, no matter how spontaneous, new and inventive Nic Pizzolatto likes to think True Detective is, he's still basing it on stuff he finds cool, written by other men, which was based on other stuff they found cool, which was written by yet more men. Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn sit across from each other looking introspective because that's the image we're used to dammit!
I'm not calling Nic Pizzolatto definitely misogynist (unless I am without knowing it, which is of course possible), and I'm not suggesting the detective genre is devoid of solid central female figures. The likes of The Killing, The Fall and Fargo are all detective shows with solid female figures at their cores. True Detective, however, has been treated as the very form of the genre, and has exhibited perfectly the things wrong with it. I only hope we can all understand this, and enjoy True Detective for what it is. A pretty okay show that's really good at looking good.