While recently watching the critically acclaimed television show True Detective, I reached a sort of mental breaking point.
If you haven’t seen it, True Detective follows two (true) detectives through different timelines as they traipse through the awful and tragic underbelly of Louisiana on the hunt for a serial killer. It was immediately widely adored for its attention to detail, its hidden meanings, and its intricate and flowery dialogue.
For the majority of the show I was on board (and still am to some degree). However, with each episode I found myself becoming increasingly tired of watching straight white manly men interacting in a manly way on the manly screen, no matter how ornate the manly dialogue. I became tired of seeing female characters come and go as nothing but surface characters in a theoretically deep show.
Although there is speculation that True Detective is actually a criticism of the patriarchy and the men living in that world (and this is possibly the case), this didn’t stop me from feeling progressively empty as the season went on. By the end, irrespective of any critique that was uncovered, the final result was that I had watched yet another acclaimed show where women exist purely as cold wives, crazy bitches, immune to the sexual charm of the male characters, or murder victims.
True Detective in and of itself is not the main problem. The problem is that it’s one in a long line of similar shows. It is just the unlucky straw that broke my back, much like the backs of the women in these shows are broken through housework or murder. I now find it difficult to accept that a television show can be lauded as ‘brilliant’ or ‘masterful’ (unless you literally just mean full of masters) if it doesn’t include some well-developed (and not just their breasts) female characters alongside the generally white male anti-heroes.
I’ve reached a point where I can no longer praise a show that is filled purely with the destruction of women, or the invisibility of women. I don’t want to go digging through clues in a television show for the patriarchal critique, hidden under Woody Harrelson having sex with an 18-year-old or dead women wearing antlers.
I want the creators of television, these (mostly) men running the studios, these (mostly) men producing the shows, to include more women. Of course, one way to do this is have more women in positions to be able to tell their stories. More women like Lena Dunham (Girls), Jenji Kohan (Orange is the New Black), and Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson (Broad City) need to be given the opportunity to create shows where women’s stories and female characters not only exist, but thrive.
Watching these kinds of shows has contributed to my inability to truly enjoy extolled shows where the women only exist to further the male lead’s story. And is it any wonder? How can I go back to shows where women are nothing but scenery, pleasuring Steve Buscemi, after watching a show full of diverse and complex women like the characters explored in Orange is the New Black?
How do we not as a TV-viewing public demand that the shows we watch include multidimensional female characters?
Society is still at the point where ‘appointment TV’, the show everyone in the office (even weird Bob) watches, is almost always a serious drama mainly about men. They are the shows we are inclined to praise, to hold up as the gold standard for television. And they usually are quality shows – well-made, well-written and well-acted. But I need more than that now.
I am not saying that these should stop being created, that shows should stop portraying men, or that all shows need to have a 50/50 split down gender lines in their leads. All I am saying is that personally, I don’t think I can take it anymore. I have loved a lot of these shows in the past, but True Detective was my tipping point (even though I have hopes for the second season).
From now on, I will not be able to agree with you that a show is ‘amazing’ or ‘the best show ever’ if the lead characters are straight white guys, and the women are nothing but beautiful one-dimensional art installations, or abused dead bodies on display. I think men treating women badly on television have had their share of representation, and if the next ‘must see’ show is filled with these same old storylines, I most likely won’t be tuning in. It is unoriginal, it is depressing, it is not good enough, and it is certainly not what I want to watch anymore.
Rebecca Shaw is a Brisbane-based writer and host of the fortnightly comedy podcast Bring a Plate.