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.
I love you, film critic community, but sometimes you tend to be well-educated (straight white) men who don’t give a fuck about anybody else.
— Andreas (@astoehr) February 26, 2013
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.