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Crime, Mystery and Feminism
By Zack Budryk
Stephen King once said that, to some extent, horror is an inherently reactionary genre; the standard plot is a variation on the idea of some dark, evil external force disrupting the status quo. Just look at H.P. Lovecraft, whose themes of inhuman horror and dark secrets were inextricably linked with his own paranoia that he had non-white ancestry. The same could be said of police or detective fiction; they’re about agents of order discovering and dispatching a social deviate of some kind. That’s why the noir genre shook things up so much; far from tying things up with a neat bow, noir often features themes of institutional corruption, and it’s very rare for simply the discovery or apprehension of the culprit to result in a happy ending.
In terms of the whodunit as institutional critique, 2013’s excellent BBC miniseries Top of the Lake set its sights on a particularly ambitious target—rape culture, and to some extent, Western masculinity in general. The miniseries, set in a secluded New Zealand town, stars Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin, a police detective investigating the disappearance of Tui Mitchum, a pregnant 12-year-old. The series’ real villain isn’t whoever spirited her away, nor is it the father of the child (indeed, we never find out for sure who he is); the villain is the town of Laketop itself, where a known rapist is a regular bar patron with no objections and the other barflies say things like, “No one likes a feminist except a lesbian.” Tui’s father, a local gangster who screams at the all-female commune set up adjacent to his land that they’re “unfuckable,” is part of this system, but so are more restrained examples like the local police chief, who laughs off Robin’s clear disinterest in his flirting. In one scene, Robin literally cordons off the entire town, demanding to DNA test every male resident to determine the father. The metaphor is clear: all of them are complicit, regardless of their factual guilt.
Similarly, despite a central mystery (this time involving a serial killer), the new HBO anthology series True Detective is also very much a story about masculinity. The alpha-male culture of a Louisiana police department makes Det. Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), a brooding intellectual known as “the taxman” because he carries a full ledger rather than a notebook, simultaneously a good fit and a distinct outsider. Cohle, significantly, remains stone-faced and nearly expressionless throughout, his face only shifting slightly for the first time when his PTSD is triggered. He is a clear example of what former NFL quarterback Don McPherson refers to as the “performance” of masculinity. It’s the kind of stoicism that his partner Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) speaks approvingly of, reminiscing, Archie Bunker-style about a time when men didn’t discuss their “personal bullshit,” and yet that internalization is clearly slowly killing Cohle. Cohle, as the AV Club’s Erik Adamsputs it, “uses [his] malfunction as a way of keeping up appearances.”
Crime itself has long been presented as a man’s world, so naturally themes of patriarchy and masculinity have cropped up in film and TV representations thereof. Tony Soprano often bemoaned the disappearance of the “Gary Cooper type” among modern men, worrying his own panic attacks and reliance on therapy made him a failure as a patriarch. In Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, one of the constant signifiers of the white-collar criminal protagonists’ decadence is their objectification of women, and in one scene Leonardo DiCaprio’s title character takes it further by miming sexual domination of a client as he sells him worthless stock by phone. And Walter White, the protagonist of Breaking Bad, regularly insisted, as he slipped further into depravity, that it was all to provide for his family in his role as a husband and father--a justification adopted by the disturbing number of fans who remained his apologists to the series’ end.
But Top of the Lake and True Detective are something newer—the use of the noir/crime genre specifically as a vehicle for a critique of masculinity and the patriarchy. It’s an exciting idea, one that turns on its head the idea of the detective as a stock male American hero archetype, like the cowboy or the astronaut. We talk a lot about the power of feminist themes in fiction to impact young minds, but these distinctly adult shows can start a similar dialogue. Think of the metaphor of the frog who doesn’t realize the water it sits in is being brought to a boil; you may not sit down thinking you’re watching a show about masculinity, patriarchy or the violence inherent therein, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’ll likely be thinking about those themes by the time the episode ends, and riveted all the way there.
#TopOfTheLake #TrueDetective #InstitutionalCritique #Noir #CrimeDrama #Stephen King