The Male Gaze and Criticism

male gaze and true detective

It’s easy to forget sometimes that film/television critics are a homogeneous group (white men predominantly). A group of males that spend a majority of their time discussing their favorite shows and movies, and sometimes debating when consensus isn’t had. These conversations are sometimes polite, sometimes not, but most avoid the realms of abusive behavior. However, when gender dynamics come into play, all bets are off.

A major source of contention among critics at the moment: HBO’s new series True Detective.

While many are hailing the latest detective serial as a dark masterpiece and further proof that television is in a golden age, others aren’t so quick to lay on the praise. In particular, The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum is in the camp that True Detective fails to push past its slick surface to deliver something meaningful. The big reason for that? Flat female characters.

Like many critics, I was initially charmed by the show’s anthology structure (eight episodes and out; next season a fresh story) and its witty chronology, which chops and dices a serial-killer investigation, using two time lines…. On the other hand, you might take a close look at the show’s opening credits, which suggest a simpler tale: one about heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses. The more episodes that go by, the more I’m starting to suspect that those asses tell the real story. … the series, for all its good looks and its movie-star charisma, isn’t just using dorm-room deep talk as a come-on: it has fallen for its own sales pitch.

Fellow critics see it a little differently. The perceived misogyny is less an awkward by-product and instead an intentional act, one that reinforces that the skewed morality utilized by Detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) may be a requisite to live with what they see at work, but that it also suggests that nothing these men say should be taken without a grain of salt. Movie City New’s David Poland could have worded his take as such,  instead he wrote this: “Emily Nussbaum is not a prude or ignorant about True Detective. But she is fixated on one angle, unwilling to see the forest for a few trees.”

There is a point to the argument made that the character flaws of True Detective‘s duo are intentional and meant to be reflective of that misogynistic culture, but also that just because a critic is uncomfortable with something doesn’t necessarily make it sexist. The same claims were made against The Wolf of Wall Street a few months ago for the film’s depiction of the insane excess of Jordan Belfort’s lifestyle at its peak. Directorial intent is often overstated, though the over-the-top antics of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Belfort feel as Martin Scorsese intended it all as a condemnation of the broker.

With that said, it is entirely understandable to see why those claims are made. Alexandra Daddario’s bedroom scenes feel oddly out of place in such a drama. Whether they are mandated by HBO, or just an eye into Martin’s skewed sensibilities is difficult to parse, but there is something to fans calling the scenes scintillating for its own sake. As for The Wolf of Wall Street, well, few women in ‘Wolf’ appeared without a nude scene of one type or another, though it is hard to deny that the character Naomi (Margot Robbie) had agency and certainly stood up for herself by the film’s end.

Both pieces of entertainment share similarities not only when it comes to accusations of sexism, but the ferocity of the fans defending them. Arguments on behalf of True Detective and The Wolf of Wall Street were mostly restricted to saying detractors missed the satire, but the harsh comments popped up as the debate dragged on. Twitter commenters moved past courteous disagreement to labeling her critique “feminist garbage.” It couldn’t just be that Ms. Nussbaum was tired of the more sexual aspects of the program, it must be that she’s posturing in an attempt to put herself above the hype. Similarly with the press screening of ‘Wolf’ I attended, it was obvious that some of the women in the theatre were a little less than pleased with the level of sexism onscreen. Satire or not, it was just too much for some viewers.

Audience interpretation of satire is wide open enough that multiple takes are valid. Considering that, one would assume that both sides of debate could agree to disagree. Sadly, the comments surrounding the TD/TWoWS debate made sure that would not be possible.

The most egregious talk-backers suggested that women giving their take on sexism was out of line, not because they thought Wolf of Wall Street/True Detective wasn’t misogynistic, but because they felt female critics didn’t have the right to be offended. Or worse, that their take was less correct because they were female. The worst example of this occured when Amy Nicholson panned Riddick for The Village Voice. “i took this review serious until i realized it was a girl writing this. pffttt… sorry this isn’t the notebook sweetheart.”

When people read articles/posts like that, it’s no surprise when things like this are said.

A fair point.

The conversation regarding misogyny may have started out as innocent discourse, but it soon devolved into a borderline attack on women as a whole. Women have the right to be sensitive to sexism, but that is absolutely no reason to shut down the conversation to half of the audience. Such a choice would be unforgivable. If we did, we wouldn’t have this thoughtful piece by Slate’s Willa Paskin.

Granted, being told that a show that you enjoy is sexist can provoke some strong reactions—no one likes being told one of their favorite shows or movies is reprehensible to women—but the trick is to do some soul-searching beforehand. Should you choose to defend said show/movie, do so with some thoughtful consideration, not a full-scale attack. Let us take care to make sure that in all of our spirited debates that no points of view are silenced without reason. And let us also remember that a variety of interpretations is what makes film and other art criticism so rich and lively to begin with.

Note: Yes, I’m aware of the inherent irony of a white male writing this post, but thank you for following me along this journey anyway.

  • Anon.

    Films are littered with evil, flawed, or just badly written characters: serial killers, mass murderers, . Everyone who isn’t a child understands the difference between art and reality; between an artist and the characters they create. It’s the “violent films promote violence in real life” argument all over again, except it’s against a new set of idiots this time around. So why do these critics think that misogynist characters somehow represent the writer’s or director’s views, or that they somehow promote misogyny?

    The answer is simple: the self-victimization culture that contemporary feminism promotes and thrives on. Just because you write for The New Yorker doesn’t mean your level of discourse is above that of the average tumblrina, and I’m disappointed that you even bothered writing about the issue. Do they have the “right to be offended”? Of course. Should anyone give a fuck? Of course not. Let them wallow in their self-imposed misery.

    • Carman J. Tse

      go figure this was anonymous comment

  • Kristen Sales

    I long for the day we stop giving credence to Twitter trolls and talkback commenters in articles about serious criticism.

    • Colin Biggs

      I’m right there with you, but it is representative of a larger debate.

  • Alexander Knox

    The issue at hand is, its a two character POV show and those two characters happen to be white males. Sure, HBO or Pizzolatto could have helped their own case maybe by not having so much naked female flesh being shown; but to add in a “stronger” female presence, as some are arguing for, would make it a different show altogether. Would it have worked better? Maybe…but on the other hand, it might have created needless plot threads for what has at this point been a fairly tightly paced story.

  • Christopher Runyon

    It should also be brought up that Michelle Monaghan is doing stellar work and manages to be fully rounded most times. It’s just a shame that such a character was used the way she was in Episode 6, which was what brought up most of the ire it’s gotten, deservedly, but not enough for me to still call it a “bad” or “offensive” show. I wish people were more open-minded about these issues, though, whereas instead these discussions are all being dismissed by a lot of people, most of them themselves being straight white males, so it is still an issue to consider.

  • zeldy345

    The “male gaze” has its roots in phenomenology & psychology. Husserl’s analysis of perception clearly states that any transcendent entity, an entity outside immanent consciousness, can only be seen in mere profiles thus never complete, at once. Therefore, no gaze can wholly objectify an entity. In addition, for Husserl, an individual’s alterity can also never be fully represented. The possibility of any gaze is precisely its failure–unable to saturate exteriority. A “sexist” viewpoint simply does not recognize its own inherent gaps and incompleteness. Nic Pizzolatto, with his continual references to finitude, I would argue, does recognize the key limitations of the gaze. Instead of positing an alternative gaze, we should, instead, illustrate the lack & incompleteness within any gaze, system, theory, etc. Thanks.

  • MJS

    The problem with Nussbaum’s piece is that it assumes that this is an ensemble show and that every character is supposed to be equally developed. It isn’t. Its a show that’s almost entirely about its two central characters and every single other character (regardless of gender) is secondary. One could make a similarly misguided argument that the show is racist because the two African American characters (the detectives doing the interviews in the present day sections) are “flat” in spite of the fact that there were racial epithets uses by one of the characters in episode four. So yeah, I think David Poland comment sounds about right.

    Frankly, it seems to me that “think-piece culture” on the internet has gotten a bit out of hand. Tossed around accusations of racism, sexism, and homophobia get more clicks than pretty much any other form of analysis and seems to get written about pretty much everything. At times it seems like the people writing them don’t seem to actually care about pop culture outside of its capacity to be a platform for whatever battle of the culture wars most suits their fancy, and it gets a little tiring.