True Detective, Mad Men, & Misogyny: The Wrong Conversation

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td-1Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Last night, I finished True Detective. With one frantic, four-episode binge, I caught up to the rest of the world, at last able to socialize publicly without plugging my ears and posit my own theories on whether or not time is a flat circle. But, once I finally joined the conversation, I realized that wasn't in fact what everyone was talking about. Instead, I found one word, over and over again — one I can't seem to escape: misogyny.

The allegations rang eerily similar to those that arose seven years ago when Mad Men premiered to the same voracious admiration that True Detective has seen in the past eight weeks. As the initial wave of discovery ebbed, a growing majority of viewers began the backlash: "Chilling misogyny and sexism runs through every episode...Mad Men glorifies immoral bastards," one reader wrote in response to a positive review. "Is Mad Men Making Sexism More Acceptable?" asked another headline. An older aunt of mine turned off the TV in disgust while watching the pilot episode. "It reminds me too much of that time. The way those men talk to women? I just can't stand it; I'm very sensitive to that stuff. The show is just too misogynistic for me."

I'm with her right up until the last sentence. Yes, the language and attitude are appalling to me. The relentless disrespect for and marginalization of women in the world of Mad Men churns my very gut with rage — just as it's intended to do. Because Mad Men features a lot of misogyny, but is not inherently misogynistic.

This is the root of the problem, and the reason why this specific trend in criticism has grown. So many viewers see a big, bullying male character on screen and assume they are supposed to be on his side. They assume the writer who created him is on his side, and likely a big, bullying male as well. But, we're no longer in an age of classic heroes and clear, moral plot lines — thankfully. With the rise of the antihero and the flawed protagonist, the world of media has cracked wide open and yielded a crop of fresh, compelling stories. Some of those stories aren't so pleasant. We devour shows about terrorism, illness, and the uglier side of history — including those times and places when women have been treated with constant, mindless injustice. But, highlighting that injustice, and the men who perpetrated it, does not endorse that value system.

On the other hand: True Detective. Two months ago, the show premiered with its creepy, slithering setup: a dead, naked woman; an uncomfortable partnership; the sweaty southern sky pressing down on every shot. It had an atmosphere you could bite right into and a story you couldn't let go of. One thing it didn't have a lot of was women, let alone women of even moderate substance. Early on in the season, I found myself mid-meeting when the inevitable "Did You See Last Night's Episode?" discussion came up. While we all scrambled to out-gush each other about how the story just got deeper, richer, and more mind-bending, we were all in agreement about the female problem. "Every woman is either a hooker or a murderer or just constantly annoyed and annoying," said one staffer. You'll get zero argument from me there. On Mad Men, the women are fully fleshed out human beings with intelligence, sexuality, and the capacity to feel something beyond marital rage and occasional, button-popping lust. On True Detective, they're just one thing: a prostitute, a mistress, a victim, or a woman-scorned.

madmenPhoto: Courtesy of AMC.
"It’s true: The show wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test," conceded director Cary Fukunaga in an interview with Vulture yesterday. But, the thing is, neither would a lot of really great stories: The Odyssey, Vertigo, and virtually all of Shakespeare's comedies. And, I'd venture to say those stories portray worlds that are just as unfair to women as the one in True Detective. But, no one looks at Homer and sees a hateful misogynist — because he is also more than just one thing.

The same goes for Mad Men, a show that features some of the most brutal, insidious treatment of women on any television show in history — and some of the richest, most enduring female characters, as well. But, much like Mad Men, True Detective deserves its merit, too. Despite all the one-dimensional nags and lovable, dunderheaded brutes, the show weaves a terrific story. You'd be hard-pressed to find another series so ambitious in its craft, layering clues and red herrings with each silky, seamless pan of the camera. I'd go so far as to say that the show is perhaps the apex of this golden age in TV. It is both indulgent and restrained, and it never insults the viewer's intelligence. That alone is a breakthrough worth noting.

Of course, none of that negates the glaring lack of empowered women. But, it does make us apprehensive about using the M-word. Calling something misogynist cuts a conversation off at its knees. What was once a powerful word has become limiting in the worst way, because from the moment that bomb is dropped, the tenor of discussion shifts inevitably to defensiveness. It's such a big, blanketing statement that no smaller, more specific words will do anymore. This is misogynist. Is not. Is so. And, we work together to dig ourselves deeper into that hole.

When we speak this way we speak from a place of lack — which is fair. As is often so clearly reflected in these period-piece shows, we are coming off a long, enduring history of lacking representation and a voice. But, we have ample reason to hope those days are over. On television in particular, we're in a thrilling state of flux. Though the balance is not yet equal, we are no longer lacking in dynamic female characters on screen: Damages gave us Patty Hewes, one of the most unnerving villains in television history; The Killing's lead was a deeply flawed, powerful woman whose motivation constantly shifted; Claire Danes' Carrie Mathison manages to have a lot of sex and get sincerely hysterical on the job, but no one rolls their eyes at Homeland saying, "What a lazy stereotype. This show is garbage."

Not every piece of art or entertainment will be fair and balanced. But, the honest truth is that I'm okay with that. I can understand that something can be both valuable and flawed. I can be angered by a show and still excited by it. I can walk and chew gum at the same time. So can most women. For that matter, so can most men.

So, why don't we save the conversation around "misogyny" for the situations in which it really matters. It's a weapon that works best when fired once, with dead-on aim. I'm not suggesting we don't name it when we see it — that sneaky undercurrent, humming through the language and tone of so much film and television (and literature and music). It's a problem we aren't nearly finished solving. Ignoring this issue doesn't fix it, but nor does drowning it out with a cacophony of unconsidered complaints, pointing the finger at every sheep, when we should take the time to look closely, aim, and fire at the wolf.

With that in mind, before we next condemn something to the misogynist camp, let's take a look and ask: Is it more than just one thing?