U.S. Intellectual History Blog

True Detective and Male Feminism

truedetectiveThe HBO television show True Detective has been famously (and justly) criticized for its first season’s self-infatuation with, as New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum put it, the “macho nonsense” at its heart. Nussbaum targeted both the show’s self-seriousness and its lack of interest in women’s interiority as intertwined core principles, essential to the show’s tone and purpose (and probably to its appeal).

True Detective’s showrunner, Nic Pizzolatto, seems to have taken the criticism to heart. In a Hollywood Reporter profile, he confesses to having asked a female friend—Callie Khouri, the writer of Thelma and Louise—if Nussbaum’s claims had merit, and admits that he began writing the second season with an intention of addressing his detractors. He also claims that he balled up and threw away whatever material came from that plan (“I’m not in the service business,” he bristled), although there is one female protagonist, played by Rachel McAdams, among the quartet of stars in True Detective’s Season Two.

More to the point, Pizzolatto seems to have struck back at his feminist critics directly in the dialogue of the second season’s second episode, which aired last month. In it, the detective, played by a virilely mustachioed Colin Farrell, tries to bond with McAdams’s character, also a detective. He asks her why she carries a number of knives on the job, and she replies, “Could you do this job if everyone you encountered could overpower you? I mean, forget police work. No man could walk around like that without going nuts… The fundamental difference between the sexes is that one of them can kill the other with their bare hands. Any man lays his hands on me, he’s gonna bleed out in under a minute.” Farrell’s character reassures her that he gets it. “Just so you know, I support feminism, mostly by having body image issues.”

It’s a striking exchange. At the most basic level, it suggests that Pizzolatto believes that feminism is rooted in bodily insecurity, a notion captured most pithily in the famous Margaret Atwood quote, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them,” which, as the blog Jezebel noted, was more recently used in the terrific BBC show The Fall. (A more elaborate version of this quote appears in Atwood’s Second Words.) But Pizzolatto writes a quick slippage from fear of bodily harm to a fear of being found unattractive—from bodily integrity to body dysmorphia—which was perhaps not quite what Atwood was going for.

It is worth pointing out that this slippage comes from what the man in the conversation says (McAdams’s character, Antigone Bezzerides, does not reply), and that he is making an attempt to bridge the gender gap by confessing a weakness. The true subject of Farrell’s character’s comment, then, is really male feminism, or what makes a man identify with or support feminism—an interpretation which doesn’t really do much to improve Pizzolatto’s reputation as a man uninterested in women’s interiority.

But, taken for what it is, there is still a great deal of interest in what Pizzolatto has to say about male feminism and about masculinity here. The nature of the body image issues plaguing Farrell’s character (named Ray Velcoro) is not clear: Farrell, of course, is himself a preternaturally attractive man, although in this role he is attired and made up to be rather nondescript and rundown, and the show has introduced ample reasons up to this point why Velcoro more generally suffers from self-loathing. Still, there is not much we can point to in the show that suggests what concretely would have prompted Velcoro’s support of feminism, and so we have to consider the matter more generally.

The idea that “body image issues” would make men more sympathetic to feminism reminded me of a quite provocative post from a couple months back by Adam Kotsko, titled “White Men of the Left, Unite!” Kotsko wrote (and I’ll quote at length, though I recommend reading the whole thing):

Why would a white man, qua white man, affiliate with the left?” I understand immediately why a woman who is conscious of her situation in a patriarchal society would be drawn to the political left. Similarly, it is utterly clear to me why a black person would have left-wing political convictions. The same goes for sexual minorities and, well, everyone in our racist, patriarchal society — except for one group: white men…

I think there are two factors at work here. The first is that such men [white male leftists] are typically going to be those who are uncomfortable with typical modalities of white male privilege and/or those who have been unsuccessful in their attempts to participate in that regime. They may lack the peculiar social graces necessary for glad-handing and back-scratching. They may be very uncomfortable in all-male environments, or have a temperament incompatible with callous disregard for one’s inferiors. Hence another route to feelings of belonging and purpose becomes appealling — particularly one that can take feelings of isolation and marginalization and transform it into a defiant opposition to the status quo. This likely accounts for the extreme defensiveness of many white male leftists when they believe their leftist bona fides are in question, because their sense of belonging and purpose are in question along with their leftist identity. [emphasis added]

When I originally read this post, I felt that I had an intuitive grasp of the second line I italicized above, but not a very clear sense of how one would add more substance or rigor to it. In what does such a “temperament” consist? More importantly, however, both of the lines I italicized seem to me to romanticize white male leftists as guys who essentially made the best out of being betas or made a virtue out of weakness. They lost (probably early on) the game of bros, but rather than toadying up to the jerks who were winning, they threw their lot in with the women and other outcasts.

I fully acknowledge that Kotsko is making very broad generalizations here, and I don’t intend to make more out of them than that, but even as generalizations I feel uncomfortable with this level of backhanded self-congratulation. What is fascinating to me, then, about Velcoro’s comment about supporting feminism is precisely that Velcoro presents himself as (and genuinely seems to be) a man without any personal history of the sort that Kotsko generalizes as the root of identification with oppressed minorities. “Body image issues” are possible even among alpha males, it turns out.

What this means for True Detective or for Pizzolatto remains to be seen, of course—the season is only half over. I sincerely hope, however, that Pizzolatto can take the lead he may have stumbled onto with Velcoro’s comment and actually take that exploration of male feminism further into a development of genuine interest in multiple female characters. I don’t expect True Detective to mature into a feminist show, but maybe it has something it can add to the discussion of gender on television.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This was a wonderful and thoughtful post! Regarding Pizzolatto’s attempts to analyze feminism and women characters, however, I think he’s fallen flat on his face with Bezzerides (despite Rachel McAdams’ excellent acting work). An earlier scene you don’t mention features Bezzerides bonding with Taylor Kitsch’s character, Paul Woodrugh, by slut-shaming an actress who (wrongly? rightly?) accused Woodrugh of accepting a blowjob in exchange for a forgiven speeding ticket. We’re expected to celebrate Bezzerides for being “one of the guys”…eugh. Nothing to see there, really.

    As for Kotsko’s question, and Velcoro’s, about why a white man would want to participate in the Left, I don’t understand why it’s a difficult question. The obvious answer is economic justice. There were a lot of poor white men given jobs in the CCC by FDR, and a lot of poor white men given health insurance and anti-poverty funding by LBJ, and even more poor white men given health insurance by BHO. The fact that social justice issues alienate many white men shouldn’t blind those same white men to how much their pocketbooks benefit from liberal government. Or, basically, what Elizabeth Warren said.

  2. Thanks, Jeremy! And thanks for this great comment. I absolutely agree that Rachel McAdams’s performance raises the character above what Pizzolatto has written; of course, she’s used to working with subpar material by now, I would guess! And I think that you’re absolutely right that Pizzolatto broadly has tried to write the character as trying to be one of the guys–even in the confrontation in the most recent episode where she challenges the double standard for sexual misconduct, her point seemed less to be that the police force was sexist but rather that she was being personally targeted, and that she was vulnerable because she could not be fully “one of the guys.” Again, the way that Gillian Anderson’s character handled a similar situation in The Fall was worlds away.

    On Kotsko, he actually makes a similar point–and I should have acknowledged that. He says, “I don’t mean to deny that white men may also belong to other subaltern groups, such as the working class.” However, that’s not the focus of his post: “Yet the white male leftists I’m thinking of are normally not current members of the working class (even if, like me, they come from a working class background), but have at least some form of cultural capital if not monetary capital.” So it was my fault that I didn’t acknowledge that, for Kotsko, the issue is already classed, more or less. But your larger point certainly stands.

Comments are closed.