The verdict is coming in: The second season of HBO’s True Detective, the first round of which was wildly popular last year, is a failure. But the show isn’t just, as critics have pointed out, boring, incoherent, and obtuse. It’s also straight-up stupid, and channels mindless stigma against female sexuality in a way that demonstrates how much dumb, easily refuted right-wing propaganda about abortion still has the ability to pop up in mainstream media like this.
The mention of abortion was such a perfect example of misogyny that it was almost a parody—I actually laughed out loud at how trite the stereotyping was—and tweeted about it before getting saddened by its existence. To summarize the situation: Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) and his wife, Jordan Semyon (Kelly Reilly), want to have a baby but are experiencing infertility. Through much of the season, Jordan keeps pushing Frank to adopt, but he doesn’t want to. And she keeps blaming herself for the infertility. In the fifth episode, she goes on for a couple of minutes about how she had three “operations”—in case you weren’t clear that this is a euphemism for abortion, her talk about how she wasn’t ready for kids makes it clear—in her 20s and she’s sure this is why she can’t conceive, the pathos of which is enough to help move Frank closer toward agreeing to adoption.
Why all this infertility drama is in a show that’s supposed to be modern noir is likely one question you’re asking yourself. (See: Above critics and their point about how this show is a meandering mess. Not that infertility can’t be interesting as a plot on another show, but seems like a rather domestic concern for one ostensibly focused on murder mystery.) In light of that, having Jordan flog herself over her three abortions feels like a trollish maneuver to get the audience to gasp over what a supposedly wild and irresponsible girl she must have been.
In other words, this plot development was infuriating on multiple levels. It was infuriating because it was reaching for cheap shock value instead of earning tension through real stakes. It was infuriating because it pushed a hoary old misogynist stereotype of the “party girl” who pays for her supposed promiscuity by losing her chance to settle down and be a mother when she’s older. It was infuriating because it uses “a lot of abortions” as a way to insinuate a lot of sex.
And it was infuriating because it was just so wrong. Multiple abortions do not cause infertility. Indeed, there’s no mechanism for how that would work, really. That’s why this entire scene felt like it was lifted out of some fundamentalist Christian propaganda. Much like the false beliefs that abortion causes breast cancer or depression, also peddled in religious right-wing circles, this belief that it causes infertility is rooted in a supernatural view of the world. It’s a superstition that you will be punished for violating your God-given responsibility to be chaste and sexually demure by having the universe—or God?—dole out punishment.
It was troubling seeing this myth not in its natural environment, such as a crisis pregnancy center website, and instead on a premium cable drama that holds itself out as serious art. And it made it impossible to ignore any longer that True Detective is a dumb show in no small part because it’s dumb about women. Most seem to exist only as ciphers for the male characters or warnings about the dangers of female sexuality. Ray (Colin Farrell) has an ex-wife who was raped years ago, but her rape is really about him and how he mishandled the aftermath of it. And of course, there’s a subplot about another minor character who is running a webcam girl business, just in case we didn’t get the message that female sexuality is a ruinous force. Even the one well-rounded female character, Rachel McAdams’s Ani, falls into ruin because she has sex with a coworker, which is used to shunt her from her detective role to a crap job in the evidence room. Showrunner Nic Pizzolatto, as Nicole Cliffe pointed out at The Toast, “is really into the idea of gorgeous women waiting patiently for their man to come slip it to them. It is like a sea of women wearing underwear and t-shirts without bras, getting wet and staring longingly out the window.” Now, there’s this nonsense about how multiple abortions (an unsubtle way to imply someone is promiscuous) in your youth ruins you for your “true” calling as a wife and a mother. Female sexuality is treated, over and over, like a dangerous force that needs to be contained.
I liked the first season of this show, but it had the exact same issues. As in this season, women’s lives and deaths were not about them, but about how they impacted men. There was also the same weird titillation/disgust thing going on with female sexuality, with the main male characters winding their way through a world of nubile t-shirt-and-panty-clad party girls who inexplicably wanted to get down with middle-aged boring detectives who are rude to them. But because the actors Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson played their parts with an arch knowingness, and director Cary Fukunaga injected so much oddball humor and weirdness in it, most of the first season felt like a satire of self-serious dudebro angst drama that inevitably objectifies and then demonizes women for their sexuality.
But now it’s clear that Pizzolatto, the writer, is not and was not in on the joke. Pizzolatto isn’t making fun of these retrograde, misogynist views on women and sexuality. He really seems to buy into this stuff. The straightforward introduction of a really silly myth about abortions—that they are for promiscuous women who will inevitably regret them—made that impossible to deny.
The abortion issue continues to play well for the right, even though most Americans are pro-choice. Right-wing myths about abortion are just as silly and far-fetched as right-wing myths about Obama’s birth certificate or secret plots to round up conservatives into FEMA camps. But, as was demonstrated last week when there was a bit of media interest in a Planned Parenthood hoax video, this same kind of nonsense has a little more traction in the mainstream media than those other, equally implausible myths. Luckily, much of that interest did turn to outrage when the video’s claims were thoroughly debunked, but the fact that there wasn’t more initial skepticism, as there are with other right-wing conspiracy theories, demonstrates that abortion myths still have a lot of power.
This plot on True Detective shows us why. There’s a lot of unease out there about female sexuality, so much so that “serious” HBO dramas can mine frankly ridiculous stereotypes about it without most people even noticing how sexist it is. That context makes ridiculous ideas about women—such as the idea that a woman’s sex life can be measured in the number of abortions she has or that having “too many” will somehow ruin you for future marriage and motherhood—gain a traction that other right-wing myths simply cannot generate.
Unfortunately, these myths keep seeping into not just media coverage of the issue, but actual policy. With politicians running around claiming abortion needs to be restricted to prevent “abortion regret” from happening, they are imagining women like Jordan Semyon. The problem is that Jordan is a fictional character. In the real world, over 95 percent of women do not regret their abortions. By perpetuating a right-wing myth, however, True Detective, whether intentionally or not, ends up distorting this basic reality. And telling a dumber, more boring story because of it.