It was during an episode of HBO’s hit series True Detective that it became clear. When the camera panned on two breasts jiggling up and down on Woody Harrelson like a cheerleader on a bouncy castle, a part of me groaned. I get it: he’s troubled. How does watching a DD chest pogoing on my television screen illustrate this?
As I write this feature the internet is adamant that Jessica Chastain is NOT starring in the next season of HBO hit drama True Detective, despite the rumours. Rumours that hadn’t stopped bloggers from picking up on the debate about sexism in TV drama, pinning their hopes on an HBO-rehabilitation of a female lead detective such as Chastain for season two.
You could say that HBO has experienced a “woman problem” in recent years: shows such as True Detective, The Wire and Game of Thrones have all thrown up clunking questions about how television-makers truly see women. Our TV screens continue to make victims, mistresses, corpses, wives and prostitutes of us all and while I’d like to think that TV doesn’t hold much influence over how women are treated in real life, the events of this weekend have shown that young and impressionable men can be violently and fatally misogynistic. TV cannot be blamed but it is definitely part of the landscape.
Going back to True Detective, the fictionalised Louisiana in which the series is set is devoid of any real women of depth. The female characters who do appear are defined by men and moved around like pieces on a chessboard. A woman’s sexuality is used to illustrate a man’s spiritual disenchantment, every female character exists in a supporting role, often semi-naked, to prove some kind of existential point. Even when detective Marty rallies against the exploitation of a teenage prostitute, by episode 6 the same teenage prostitute is texting him images of herself in her underwear. He’s “damaged”, “misunderstood” and “flawed”, this much is clear – but wait, so is she.
Why does his crisis have to be explained at the expense of her, stripped down to her wonderbra? Stick a pair of antlers on a woman’s corpse (episode 1 opens with the discovery of a ritualistic murder where a prostitute’s dead body is posed wearing a crown of deer antlers) and the issue of violence against women and its sexual fetishism also enters the picture. Let’s face it: most detective dramas are fuelled by it, not just True Detective.
Nothing fascinates dramatists and viewers more than a murdered prostitute or a young schoolgirl missing-presumed-dead. Even when a drama series stars a female lead detective, like Sarah Lund in The Killing, young women are a prime crime-target. And then there’s Game of Thrones.
A rape scene that makers insisted wasn’t a rape scene has communicated a dangerously confused message on sexual consent where clarification is crucial. During recent episode ‘Breaker of Chains’ a woman is very clearly raped by her brother in the tomb of her dead son. Faced with criticisms that this scene glamorised sexual violence, episode director Alex Graves replied, “Well, it becomes consensual by the end, because anything for [Cersei and Jaime] ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle.” The idea that a rape is “not completely a rape” is an uncomfortable director’s commentary when the apparently “turned-on” woman continually says “stop it” in the script.
So what’s going on and how can we fix it? It’s interesting to note that with only one exception over the course of four decades, HBO has not aired an original one-hour drama series created by a woman. If that wasn’t enough on its own, under 8% of HBO’s original dramas and mini-series came from women. In the UK, the outlook is just as bleak with a study by Directors UK, which represents 5,000 radio and television broadcasters, finding that no women directors have ever worked on many of our most popular dramas. Only 13% of drama episodes were directed by women in 2011-2012 and no sci-fi or fantasy genre dramas were directed by women between 2011 and 2012, yet women make up 27% of the directing force. Director Beryl Richards, who chaired the study added context by suggesting that women are often questioned as to whether they “have the authority to lead a largely male crew, or the technical knowledge”.
When women do take the helm, recent critical-smash Top of the Lake (co-produced by BBC Two in the UK) shows how sexual violence can be depicted to tell a female story from a woman’s perspective. In a strong female lead, abuse still acts as a bumper either side to direct Detective Robin Griffin’s story (played by Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss). What makes Top of the Lake different to the rest is its unsettling exploration of what it means to survive sexual violence, not just endure it. Robin’s traumatic rape isn’t a titillating tale of a good woman wronged by a bad man to further a male narrative.
To fix things, we need to address gender disparity in TV dramas: both on and off the screen. We need to question why our favourite programmes are caricaturing flimsy female roles and we need to ask why women aren’t writing, producing and directing more of the shows we’re watching. Directors UK are now addressing this imbalance, demanding that 30% of all programmes produced in 2017 be directed by women. In their words: ‘Broadcasters and production companies are willing to work with us to make change happen. Small steps have been taken but there is a great deal of work to be done.’ As for HBO and next season’s True Detective: why stop at one female detective? Let’s double it.
Kat Lister is a Contributing Editor at Feminist Times and a freelance writer living in London and can be found tweeting to an empty room @Madame_George. She has contributed to NME, The Telegraph, Grazia, Time Out, Clash magazine and Frankie magazine.
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