I’m Done “Looking Past” Poorly Written Female Characters
My parents both watched True Detective before I did. I’d heard the hype, read the reviews, but I had very little interest in a show where Matthew McConaughey played a leading role. Still, I figured I’d ask the people who’s opinion I trusted the most what they thought. My mother told me that Dad liked it, but she wasn’t crazy. “There’s no good female characters,” she said. But countless people, my father included, told me to give it a try. So I did.
True Detective (at least the first season — the second season is a whole different bag of cats) is a show about complicated people, driven by often conflicting desires to both do the right thing and get ahead in life while making as little waves as possible. Of course, by “complicated people,” I mean, “complicated men.” There are very few female characters — there’s Woody Harrelson’s wife, Woody Harrelson’s mistress, Woody Harrelson’s daughters, and a bunch of naked female murder victims. There’s maybe an argument to be made that Woody Harrelson’s wife (played by a criminally underused Michelle Monaghan) is a complicated character, but it’s a stretch. Her main role is to have revenge sex with Matthew McConaughey, causing the rift between the partners that drives a lot of the “present” narrative. Other than that she does largely nothing, outside of saying the best line in the entire series (which some will fight me on — it’s not time is a flat circle or any other of McConaughey’s faux intellectual garbage). It’s about her daughter drawing pictures of people having sex, in spite of being prepubescent. Woody Harrelson demands to know how his daughter could even know about sex, and his wife says “girls know first. Girls always know first.”
If I had written True Detective, this would have been the thesis of the show. Sure, there’s an argument to be made that True Detective was a largely superfluous show to being with — I mean, how many shows do we really need about women getting murdered in highly sexualized fashions, am I right? But at least if the point was to make the audience realize how different it is for women and girls — how exposed they are to the worst parts of the world, to the grossest fantasies of monsters, how early and how ready they have to be to take care of themselves in a society that views them less as people and more as objects — then maybe I could say True Detective was good.
As it stands, True Detective is, probably, objectively good. It’s well-written. It’s well-acted. It’s stunningly shot. But I can’t say I like it, because it lacked well-written female characters. It objectified women and murdered them, and while it made their deaths seem horrifying, it did nothing to actively challenge the idea that it’s main villain had — that women and their bodies are a means to an end.
I know people disagree with me on this point. True Detective isn’t sexist, they say, it’s just focused on men. Masculinity is a main, driving theme, and violence against women plays a role in this theme. The female characters are reflections of the way the men inside the show view the world. Or, less intelligently, they tell me that it takes place in the 80s! Things were different! And while I get the argument that True Detective was a commentary on masculinity, for me it didn’t go far enough in it’s commentary to be all that groundbreaking. A show where male main characters tackle what it means to be men while discussing the violent deaths of women feels . . . done, to me.
But you’re welcome to disagree with me about True Detective. I’d say most people do. People are welcome to all of their opinions, including disagreeing with me when I saw that a TV show or movie is sexist, or at least indulges in sexist tropes and characterizations. Recently, I had a small disagreement with a friend of mine over the BBC TV show Sherlock, which I stopped watching in season two after I felt it greatly mistreated the character of Irene Adler. My friend disagreed with me on the quality of Sherlock, which he still enjoys. And that’s fine — TV is meant for nothing if not entertainment, and people are entertained by different things.
People are welcome to disagree with me when I say Sherlock’s portrayal of Irene Adler was horrendously sexist, reducing her to nothing but a sappy love interest, a woman blinded by the brilliance of a male protagonist to the extent that it makes her own (previously brilliant) abilities turn to mush and incompetence. People are welcome to disagree with me when I say that much of Game of Throne’s violence against women is superfluous and overdrawn, and that it feels like the show has a tendency to show us the tortures of women in graphic detail while gently skipping past the tortures of men. People are welcome to disagree with me when I say Bryce Dallas Howard’s character in Jurassic World was an archaic trope of “defrosting the ice queen by making her fall in love and want children,” mixed in with some classic 80s sexism of “high-powered career woman can’t see what really matters in life (which is love and babies!).” People are welcome to disagree with me when I say True Detective is hampered, and perhaps even ruined, but its inability to do justice to its female characters.
I personally can’t watch shows or movies like those anymore because I’m tired of watching shows where women are love interests, sex objects, fridged to improve a male storyline, murder victims, or just extras and background characters. And while it’s fine to disagree with me, and to continue watching those shows and movies and enjoying them, I’m getting really sick of people telling me to just ignore the sexism and enjoy the show anyway. Relax people tell me, it’s just a TV show. It’s just a movie. This was especially true with True Detective, where I was told over and over again that in spite of it’s poorly written and barely-there female characters it was a good show. If I could just get past that one problem I had, I’d probably really enjoy it.
It’s not just a TV show or a movie, though. TV and movies influence how we view the real world, whether we like it or not. They reflect the ideas of their creators. The inability to write complicated female characters — characters who are fully realized people, in other words — makes it seem like you don’t understand that women are fully realized people. I can find no other way to interpret this idea. If you can write men who are deep, but you can’t find a way to put that depth into women, then you‘re saying it seems unrealistic to you that women could have that depth. You’re saying you could never understand that a woman has that depth. And I have trouble getting behind a show where it feels like the writer is admitting they just don’t know how to write women, because it feels like getting behind a show where the writer is admitted they just don’t quite see women as people.
For a comparison, let’s look at Sherlock and it’s (far superior, in my view) American counterpart Elementary. From the get go, by turning John Watson into Joan Watson, Elementary makes two important arguments: the first being that there’s no reason one half of the greatest detective team in the world can’t be a woman, and the second being that there’s no reason men and women who work together have to wind up in a romantic entanglement. But even further than that, Elementary has gone out of it’s way to create dynamic female characters. Look at it’s version of Irene Adler — who (spoilers, although old ones) is actually also Sherlock’s greatest enemy, Moriarty. She’s deceptive, conniving, manipulative. Maybe her feelings for Sherlock were real, but she never let them get in the way of her ultimate mission or goal. She isn’t a mindless, empty shell meant for Sherlock to fill. She isn’t killed to give him a better storyline, and then quickly forgotten about later. She isn’t turned into a lovestruck teenager, incapable of thinking for herself or taking initiative, the minute a man is nice to her.
Women don’t have to be good, or pure, or wives, or mothers. Women don’t have to be the moral center of your show, the voice of reason, the buzzkill. My definition of “interesting and complex female character” is any character who is more than the woman of the show. More than the wife or the sister or the mistress. A character who is more than a sentence fragment description. Who has faults and problems and goals — and whose goals are important part of the narrative. Sweet Dee on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia counts for me. So do all the women in Brooklyn-99. AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire has both Donna and Cameron, who break their roles as wives and love interests and become the most compelling characters on the show. There’s Insecure, there’s Fargo, there’s Empire and How to Get Away With Murder. There’s a lot of great female characters on TV.
So which such a wealth — in this era of Peak TV — I don’t need to watch media where women aren’t central roles, are poorly written, are fodder for male revenge and sexual fantasies. I don’t need to look past the sexism of a show like True Detective, because I can find what I want in a TV show elsewhere.
There’s no excuse to not write great female characters anymore. But even if you do consume sexist media (and hey, who doesn’t?), you shouldn’t tell me that I have to. You shouldn’t have to fight me on how True Detective isn’t actually sexist, if only I’d give it another shot. You don’t need to lecture me on the importance of watching movies and TV shows written by men and dominated by male characters. You don’t need to tell me that it’s a great show, if I could get past the lack of female characters.
Let’s make 2017 the year you stop asking women to look past sexism and start asking yourself why it’s so easy for you to look past it.